Academic journal article MELUS

"It Translated Well": The Promise and the Perils of Translation in Maxine Hong Kingston's the Woman Warrior

Academic journal article MELUS

"It Translated Well": The Promise and the Perils of Translation in Maxine Hong Kingston's the Woman Warrior

Article excerpt

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976) is Maxine Hong Kingston's story of growing up in America as a daughter of Chinese immigrants. The story is told in five short narratives in which the narrator rewrites her mother's "talk-stories," claiming a place in a maternal descent line and in Chinese folklores and legends. The attempt "to tell ancient stories [in] a new American way" (Pfaff 26) links Kingston's project with translation. Several critics have drawn attention to this trope in ethnic writing and in The Woman Warrior in particular, focusing on linguistic puns, instances of successful and failed translation, and accusations of betrayal; these critics employ the insights of translation theory, from Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" to recent postmodern interventions by Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (see Klucznik; Liu; Lee; and Cutter, Lost and Found).

Translation can, indeed, be conceptualized in many ways in The Woman Warrior. This essay draws on translation theory, but the intention is to explore translation in a cultural rather than strictly linguistic sense, examining its function in narratives of growing up between or "on the border of" cultures. Ethnic American texts often revise forms such as the bildungsroman and deploy the trope of translation in order to explore antagonisms and possibilities of reconciliation between "dominant" and "marginal" cultures and languages. The prefix trans- suggests the act of traversing, and translation is sometimes taken to mean a simple movement of meaning from the "original" language or the source text to the translating or target language. There is a long debate as to whether translation is mutually enriching or ends up muting the voice of the original in order to assimilate it to the demands of the target language. The bildungsroman, in turn, is implicated in questions of movement and assimilation: it is a genre that posits a linear and progressive movement (from innocence to maturity or from a lower to a higher stage), which has been criticized for ultimately operating within a narrative economy of exchange, "compromise" being its "most celebrated theme" (Moretti 9). Its projected resolution is social integration that takes place through substitution of adult "normality" for youthful "individuality," in Franco Moretti's words (16), thus maintaining the status quo.

Novels of development by ethnic American writers often interrogate and expand the trajectory and destination of the bildungsroman through their dialogic subtleties and instances of productive ambivalence. Lisa Lowe suggests that "even these novels that can be said to conform more closely to the formal criteria of the bildungsroman express a contradiction between the demand for a univocal developmental narrative" and the historical specificities of the stories they tell, and that this discrepancy "generates formal deviations whose significances are misread if simply assimilated as modernist or postmodernist aesthetic modes" (100). The trope of translation is crucial to this project of generic redefinition. Like memory and language, translation is a place "both of sameness and otherness, dwelling and travelling" (Minh-ha 10). Translation allows a form of mobility that is bound by debt to the "original," and that at the same time is enriched by coming into contact with another idiom or culture; therefore it can open the way for new configurations and constructions of American identity that make room for creative fusion that does not destroy difference.

As in the traditional bildungsroman that strives to reconcile self and society so that the protagonist can construct a coherent self and achieve wholeness, in The Woman Warrior Kingston wishes to bridge the gap between two cultures and two generations. Her protagonist faces a challenging task: "Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America" (13). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.