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Scholarly Pursuits

Translation as Performance Art

James St. André ‘translates’ the translators for us

Prof. James St. André: ‘If we think of the translation as a makeover, it’s opening up possibilities. The translator has an enormous amount of power and responsibility.’

People perform in many ways, most obviously on stage but also in the ways they present themselves. ‘Passing’ as a different race, dressing as a drag queen, playing to stereotypes, or subverting them – they’re all part of the act.

We also perform in language. Our writing is intended for an audience, and consciously or not we may take on different guises to ensure our message gets across.

Translators, too, perform, although they’re expected to do so behind the scenes. Translation as a performance is the best metaphor for what they do, in the eyes of James St. André, a professor of translation at CUHK.

St. André hopes that viewing translators as performers will earn them the attention and respect they deserve for their work. It’s taken more than a decade of thinking and writing about metaphors in translation studies to arrive at this most-apt of descriptions.

‘Translation is seen as walking in someone else’s footsteps, a slave who doesn’t own the fruits of his labour, who is passively painting a portrait,’ St. André says. ‘They’re all kind of derivative, metaphors that think of translation as a secondary, non-essential, non-interesting task somebody has to do.’

St. André, an associate professor in CUHK’s Department of Translation, hopes his new way of describing translation will help change how people think about translation, and even how translators think about themselves.

A single word choice can change the meaning of a piece of literature, alter the intent of a legal document, or spell disaster in a peace treaty. A translator can also give average text a makeover, improving the original. That’s a concept that often makes St. André’s students feel uncomfortable at first, but that they learn to explore.

‘If we think of the translation as a makeover, it’s opening up possibilities,’ he explains. ‘The translator has an enormous amount of power and responsibility.’

It has not always gone down well for St. André to suggest that a particular translator is pretending to be a different race, gender or identity. His application of queer theory to the study of translation has also been controversial. So, too, is the idea that translators can perform in ‘blackface,’ pretending to be a stereotypical form of a race other than their own.

‘If you say the translator is cross-dressing, people object. If you say they’re doing blackface, people get uncomfortable,’ the professor admits. He’s had academics approach him after his speech at a conference, asking if he can’t tone it down a little.

His latest piece of research, the monograph Translating China as Cross-Identity Performance, elaborates on the theme of the translator inhabiting various roles traditionally seen on the stage, or studied in psychology. By examining case studies of translations from Chinese into English from the 18th century through the first half of the 20th century, he outlines the theory.

One of the best examples of a performing translator comes in the form of Gu Hongming, who from 1898 through 1915 translated classics such as the Analects of Confucius for the Western world. His translation style played to the existing concept of ‘Chineseness’ in the West, to appeal to European and American preconceptions.

Despite being born in Malaysia and educated in Britain, Gu went through some kind of epiphany that encouraged him to become hyper-Chinese. He moved from Malaysia to mainland China, grew out a Manchurian pigtail, learned classical Chinese, and became a functionary in a regional government.

In his translation, he played the role of Chinese traditional sage, even claiming Confucius as an ancient ancestor.

‘He was the first Chinese speaker to translate anything of any social or historical import into English, these early translations of canonical texts,’ St. André outlines. ‘In his translations, he wants to show the British that he is Chinese. The choices he makes for vocabulary and sentence structure are all geared to project this image to the British, while suggesting the Chinese have something to offer.’

Professor St. André hopes his new way of describing translation will help change how people think about translation, and even how translators think about themselves

As World War I developed, he was particularly scathing about Western culture, suggesting Chinese society had developed in a superior way. As a result, he became particularly popular in troubled Germany, despite translating the Chinese works into English. But in his later years, he remained tied to the China of old, defending the Empress Dowager and the Qing Dynasty to the last, as it grew outmoded and died.

The later translator Lin Yutang mocked the supreme conservatism of his predecessor Gu. In fact, he wrote a reactionary Gu into a minor role in Lin’s novel Moment in Peking, written in English and translated by someone else into Chinese.

Lin, who specialized in translations of the classic works of Daoism for the Western world, also played his own role. He chose to ‘pose’ as a Daoist mystic in collections such as The Wisdom of Laotse, emphasizing an otherworldly yet comedic persona that fit with the interwar Western perception of Chinese wisdom.

Lin ‘characterizes Daoism as having a humorous or wry view of the world,’ St. André says. ‘It’s no accident Gu shows up as a creaky Confucian sage.’

His works The Wisdom of Laotse and The Wisdom of China and India were incredibly popular. However, when he wrote On the Wisdom of America, he was pilloried for not understanding America at all – it seems his persona as a sage did not extend beyond the exotic East.

Lin was also playing an important role in politics. Encouraged by publisher Henry Luce and novelist Pearl Buck, he was touring the nation on speaking engagements, looking to raise money for the Kuomintang nationalist government to fight against Japan.

This activism raised support for China prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. ‘His translations had subtle, explicit and great real-world impact,’ St. André says.

Western translators have also adopted roles in their translation of Chinese. Sir John Francis Davis, who went on to become governor of Hong Kong, started working life in Asia as the writer at the East India Company’s factory in what’s now Guangzhou. The young man impressed the British with his knowledge of Chinese, which since they understood none of it they could hardly contest.

Davis played ‘blackface’ at times by deliberately translating Chinese into poor English. ‘His bad English becomes a representation to the British public, that this is how the Chinese think, those ridiculous people, so we have to go hit them over the head with guns and get them to listen to reason,’ St. André jokes. ‘A particular strategy or persona can be used for political ends.’

By Alex Frew McMillan

This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in May 2019.

James St. André professors Department of Translation Translation Faculty of Arts John Francis Davis Gu Hongming Lin Yutang