12 April 2009

Amy Tan 2

Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong's critique of Amy Tan revolves around the novelist's mistake in translating the term tang jie. Wong cites a passage from The Kitchen God's Wife: “We called each other tang jie, ‘sugar sister,’ the friendly way to refer to a girl cousin.”

“The phrase ‘sugar sister,’" writes Wong, "is an egregious mistranslation based on Amy Tan’s confusing two Chinese homophones, while the accompanying explanation of how the two young women come to address each other by that term betrays a profound ignorance of the Chinese kinship system. What is most remarkable about this passage is its very existence: that Amy Tan has seen fit to include and elaborate on such a ‘gratuitous’ detail – gratuitous in the sense of not functioning to advance the plot or deepen the characterization – on something of which she has little knowledge. Furthermore, this putative clarification issues from the mouth of Winnie, a native Chinese-speaker born and raised in China for whom it should be impossible to make such mistakes.”

This "mistake" is typical of second-language speakers where the second language has become the mother tongue. Filipinos writing in English, for example, that now think in English rather than in their original language (and, therefore, no longer translate into but actually create in English), make similar "mistakes." I put the word mistakes in quotes because not everybody agrees with Wong, but I agree with her. I think that Amy Tan actually does a disservice to the Chinese-American community by turning it, in the eyes of the non-Chinese but American reader, into a non-threatening, easily-assimilatable American-Chinese one. (A similar debate happened earlier in the Philippines before Chinese-Filipino writers agreed to drop the label "Filipino-Chinese.")

On the theoretical level, it is not correct to simply say that, in a literary text, the original language influences the second language; we also have to say that the second language influences the original language. (Influence may be a more polite way to say mistake.)

1 comment:

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