Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity

Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity

Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity

Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity

Synopsis

Starting with Salman Rushdie's assertion that even though something is always lost in translation, something can always be gained, Martha Cutter examines the trope of translation in twenty English-language novels and autobiographies by contemporary ethnic American writers. She argues that these works advocate a politics of language diversity--a literary and social agenda that validates the multiplicity of ethnic cultures and tongues in the United States.

Cutter studies works by Asian American, Native American, African American, and Mexican American authors. She argues that translation between cultures, languages, and dialects creates a new language that, in its diversity, constitutes the true heritage of the United States. Through the metaphor of translation, Cutter demonstrates, writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, and Richard Rodriguez establish a place within American society for the many languages spoken by multiethnic and multicultural individuals.

Cutter concludes with an analysis of contemporary debates over language policy, such as English-only legislation, the recognition of Ebonics, and the growing acceptance of bilingualism. The focus on translation by so many multiethnic writers, she contends, offers hope in our postmodern culture for a new condition in which creatively fused languages renovate the communications of the dominant society and create new kinds of identity for multicultural individuals.

Excerpt

“It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can always be gained,” remarks Indian writer Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands (17). The topic of cultural translation has been extensively assessed in postcolonial writing and criticism, yet few scholars have acknowledged that a wide variety of contemporary ethnic American writers from diverse time periods deploy questions of literary and cultural translation in their works. Although most of their texts are written in English and the ethnic language is most often transcribed into English words, ethnic American writers maintain a constant preoccupation with questions of cultural translation: Who can be a translator? What can be translated? When a second- or third-generation child no longer speaks the parent's ethnic tongue, what gets “lost” in translation? And what might be “found” in translation? Finally, as Gustavo Pérez Firmat phrases it in a clever linguistic wordplay, how might “translation [take us] to a place where cultures divide to conga” (Life 21–22) — where they mesh, mingle, and re-create themselves in a border zone or even border dance of linguistic and cultural free fall?

Through analysis of twenty works of fiction and autobiography written by contemporary ethnic writers, this book examines the simultaneous loss and gain of translation. I demonstrate that there is a trope of cultural and linguistic translation specific to this body of writing and distinguishable from the treatment of this topic in Anglo-American literature; this trope involves transcoding ethnic-

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