Why Translations? Don’t We ‘Already Have Chinese Stories in English’?

Expert on Chinese children’s literature and Princeton University librarian Minjie Chen answered one of the perennial questions about translation.

As someone who looks both at Chinese literature (in translation) and American literature that portrays Chinese experience, how do you respond to the perennial question: Why translate when “we already have Chinese stories in English”?

A New Year's Reunion
A New Year’s Reunion

Minjie Chen: I have not thought of this question before, but have once encountered a view that is different but equally limiting. I took a graduate course on the literary criticism of children’s literature. One of the weekly topics was “multiculturalism,” and I was disappointed to learn that “multicultural children’s literature” for this course meant American children’s literature that portrayed the culture and experience of non-white people, and we were not going to cover translated works. The underlying message was perhaps that domestic “multicultural children’s literature” and imported titles were fundamentally different creatures and did not fall into the same category. I completely agree that the two bodies of literature should not be conflated and are not interchangeable. (Years later, when I had the opportunity to teach a course called “Multicultural Literature and Resources for Youth,” I set aside time to discuss books translated from non-English-speaking countries.)

Chinese literature in translation and American literature that portrays Chinese experience are created by writers and artists from distinct social, political, and cultural contexts. There may be overlaps in subject matter, such as in the case of traditional Chinese folktales adapted into picture books, or Chinese stories composed by white “China Hands” (Pearl Buck is the most prominent name in this tradition), or memoirs of the Chinese diaspora about lives in China. Even books with the same topic by Chinese and American writers, however, differ in focal points, perspectives, and values in ways both big and small. We can no more equate the experience of growing up in China with that of an American-born Chinese than ignore the difference between literature from the two countries.

Here is a small example of how a translated title exposes young American readers to a wider world and disrupts what may be taken for granted in among US and UK Anglophone readers. A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong and Zhu Cheng-Liang (Candlewick, 2011), translated from Chinese, features what is easily the most popular topic of all American picture books about Chinese culture — Chinese New Year. Characters in the story wear thick sweaters, winter jackets, and even scarves and hats at home as they do outdoors. This is because residential buildings (and most public facilities, including schools, for that matter) in the south part of China have no central heating systems. To be able to stay warm in light and comfy pajamas in winter, as is commonly portrayed in American picture books, would have been a luxury for most of the children in southern China.

No! That's Wrong!
No! That’s Wrong!

Another example shows what refreshing and diverse artistic styles we are introducing to young readers through “world kids’ literature.” No! That’s Wrong! by Ji Zhaohua and Xu Cui (Kane/Miller, 2008) is technically not a title translated from China, but part of a new phenomenon of international publishing. Its Beijing-born author and illustrator had the English edition published with Kane/Miller first, won glowing reviews overseas, and the Chinese editions were released in Taiwan and mainland China thereafter.

The book features a rabbit who finds a piece of underwear — a Victoria’s Secret-type with lace fringe — in the forest and tries to decide what it is. It is a funny story that gives toddler readers a sense of satisfaction from knowing more than the characters, validates their defiance against authorities’ opinions, and sends message about independent thinking. Though set in a world of talking animals, the illustrations present an idyllic Chinese context. The opening double spread portrays a whitewashed, black-roofed house in a water town, where laundry is line-dried outdoors, as it is everywhere in China (hence the runaway underwear accident). The impressionist watercolor landscape pays tribute to Chinese ink-wash painting but offers a warmer and brighter palette than the traditional monochrome art.

I am aware of the danger of overstretching the simile between food consumption and book reading, but I will hazard one comparison here. As we know, general Tso’s chicken and fortunate cookies were invented in America and are consumed as ethnic Chinese food in the US. They are tasty bites and valid cuisine in their own rights, but wouldn’t you also want to expand your palate to experience a wider variety of what the most skilled and imaginative chefs in China are capable of cooking?

An early exposure to world children’s literature will have a lifelong influence on a young mind, nourishing it with a rich variety of narrative styles and artistic flavors, cultivating a healthy curiosity in what is unfamiliar and “foreign,” and opening it to many “norms” in many societies.

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