Writing Beyond the Wall: Translation, Cross-cultural Exchange, and Chen Ran's 'A Private Life'

Kay Schaffer, Xianlin Song


The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented rise in the global flow of knowledge, nowhere more apparent in the exchange of ideas between China and modern western democracies. Our interest concerns one aspect of this global flow— the translation of Chinese women’s autobiographical writing into English. Taking Chen Ran’s A Private Life (English edition, 2004) as a point of departure, the paper explores issues of translingual practice and cross-cultural exchange. It considers what escapes or is lost in translation as well as the additive potential of the host text. It is sometimes the case that the translation can deliberately make certain ambiguities visible—whether from pragmatic, market-driven motivations or from more complex political, historical and cultural considerations. These negotiations of meaning that occur in the translation process can reverberate on the critical reception of texts in both the ‘guest’ and ‘host’ languages (Liu 1995), with open-ended, incomplete and indeterminate effects.
The paper examines the effects of the omission of a brief parenthetical section of three paragraphs from one chapter of the Chinese edition of A Private Life. Yet, even that small emendation changes the original text as a cultural object and alters potential modes of its reception. In this case, the translation results in a loss of ambiguity, irony, philosophic and rhetorical sophistication while also offering additive potentials that enhance the generation of new meanings in the translingual exchange, here with reference Tiananmen and contemporary feminism in China. The translation process provides new channels for readers, writers and theorists to dialogue and communicate across gaps of difference, despite inhibiting factors like the imposition of local restraints, the universalising pressures of western modernity, and asymmetrical relations of power between guest and host language contexts.


translation; narrative; Chinese authors; gender; Tiananmen Square Massacre; Chen Ran

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v3i2.155