Lost in translation–and also in time!

I renewed contact with an ex-student from SBHS the other day via Facebook/Twitter. Chris Rodley now writes for The Guardian, among other things. Point is, he was part of a cohort that I was teaching when I was working on my book From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt which Nicholas Jose so kindly remembered in his contribution to Telling Stories, which I am still reading. In other words, around twenty years ago! As presumably is the Christmas party – I think it was Christmas – in Riley Street Surry Hills at Nicholas Jose’s place where I would have met Linda Jaivin. That all happened through my then partner M, who had known both Jose and Jaivin in China and subsequently.

All that in turn is to introduce one of the best reads I have had lately!


Whether we’re aware of it or not, we spend much of our time in this globalised world in the act of translation. Language is a big part of it, of course, as anyone who has fumbled with a phrasebook in a foreign country will know, but behind language is something far more challenging to translate: culture. As a traveller, a mistranslation might land you a bowl of who-knows-what when you think you asked for noodles, and mistranslations in international politics can be a few steps from serious trouble. But translation is also a way of entering new and exciting worlds, and forging links that never before existed.

Linda Jaivin has been translating from Chinese for more than thirty years. While her specialty is subtitles, she has also translated song lyrics, poetry and fiction, and interpreted for ABC film crews, Chinese artists and even the English singer Billy Bragg as he gave his take on socialism to some Beijing rockers. In Found in Translation she reveals the work of the translator and considers whether different worldviews can be bridged. She pays special attention to China and the English-speaking West, Australia in particular, but also discusses French, Japanese and even the odd phrase of Maori. This is a free-ranging essay, personal and informed, about translation in its narrowest and broadest senses, and the prism – occasionally prison – of culture.

See also Goodreads, Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review). It is, as a reviewer from The Wheeler Centre noted, “an exhilarating and entertaining essay”. There is a sample in The Monthly —  also one of the best parts!

An example closer to home of how a phrase can mutate in its uses and connotation is that of “asylum seeker.” Although it was Prime Minister Paul Keating who first thought to throw fences up around the immigration detention centres, it was John Howard, with the able assistance of Philip Ruddock as minister for immigration, who erected metaphorical razor wire around the word so that it was contained within notions of illegality and spuriousness. (Ruddock also coined the word “rejectee” for those asylum seekers whose applications failed at the first stage of assessment.) The international convention to which Australia is a signatory states that it is not illegal to seek asylum, however one arrives in a country, and the Press Council has ruled that it is inappropriate for media to refer to asylum seekers as illegal.

Yet Coalition governments, in particular, have injected the word “illegal” so successfully into our political rhetoric that they have drugged significant portions of the Australian population into feeling no pain at this toxic translation of politicking into policy. The present minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, argues that he realises it is not illegal to seek asylum, but is merely referring to boat people’s “mode of entry.” The Opposition spokesperson Richard Marles cautions: “This is an area where language is bullets …’’

Words have the power to change the way people think; they are part of the architecture of perception. If you are speaking French, for example, the process known as tutoiement – by which two people agree to call one another by the informal tu rather than the formalvous – both recognises and enables intimacy.

Translators know this, which is why they must think carefully on how to translate vous into English, or “you” into French. Hypnotists also know the power of words, which is why they advise clients to stop saying, “I am an insomniac,” and instead repeat to themselves, “I sleep eight hours a day and wake up refreshed.” What is said becomes what is real. Politicians know this. Morrison knows this. In its most pernicious form, the principle that words both name and nurture realities enables what George Orwell described as “doublespeak”: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

In 2010, the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese writer and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. At a press conference attended by foreign reporters, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs flatly denied that Liu was a dissident. There were no dissidents in China. Liu Xiaobo was not a dissident; he was a criminal. The artist-provocateur Ai Weiwei blogged the following response:

Foreign Affairs Ma’s statement contains a number of layers of meaning:

– Dissidents are criminals;

– Only criminals have dissenting views;

– The distinction between criminals and non-criminals is whether they have dissenting views;

– If you think China has dissidents, you are a criminal;

– The reason [China] has no dissidents is because they are [in fact already] criminals;

– Does  anyone  have  a  dissenting  view  regarding  my  statement? 

Asylum seekers are illegals. Only illegals would seek asylum … Ai Weiwei translates rather well into Australian.

BTW, way back when Chris Rodley was a boy I also met Liu Xiaobo, who visited Sydney at that time.

Linda Jaivin has a great talent for being quite profound and serious with a deceptively light touch. The current issue of The Monthly has her account of a visit to North Korea, accompanied by this photo which she took.


Inside the museum, we admire a map of the province that is covered in stars to indicate all the places Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il had visited. In an enlarged black-and-white photo, Kim Il-sung speaks into a microphone; underneath the picture is the microphone itself, preserved for posterity in a vitrine. Another vitrine holds a piano accordion that Kim Jong-il once played. We are told how many times the leaders, Great and Dear, visited this province.

Stopped at an intersection in the broad streets, we watch a traffic policeman energetically direct the sparse traffic. Soon we stroll into another plaza, this one dominated by a huge, colourful mosaic triptych of the “Three Generals”: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-suk, wife of the former and mother of the latter. In our photos, the Three Generals are very, very large and Emma and I are very, very small. Later, when they look at the images, our friends in Beijing will remark on the deep, clear blue of Sinuiju’s sky.

And if you visit The Monthly, do not fail to read Tim Winton’s essay on class. Alas, it is locked – but worth a subscription or buying a print version, as I have. It is essential ammunition against the zeitgeist under Abbott and Murdoch. Rusted on Marxists and lefties will probably find it shallow, but those who like me have always regarded the extremes of politics as just too much like cults – and I suspect that has been most Australians! — will be at home with the Winton article – because it is just so plainly bloody true!