QUARTERLY ESSAY 52 Found in Translation



Rowan Callick

If you are a member of any of Australia’s elites, you might be forgiven for wondering why Linda Jaivin needs to write, or Black Inc. to publish, an essay subtitled “In praise of a plural world.” Surely that goes without saying? Who doesn’t want to be able to eat paella and sushi as well as pies and snags?

Australians often congratulate ourselves on our form of multiculturalism. But it doesn’t always reach even first base. After writing a piece in January lamenting the absence of Asia from the books-or-films-of-the-year lists for 2013, or from the claimed holiday reading piles of Australian leaders – who seem to remain fixated on the ubiquitously marketed products of the Old World, of London or New York – I received a sobering message on my office answerphone. The reader – who sounded educated, with a polysyllabic vocabulary – branded me a member of the “traitor class,” describing Asians and especially Chinese as “the lowest forms of humanity.”

So, point made. The case presented by Jaivin does still need to be argued. And not only to people like my anonymous caller. Most of Australia’s elite is lost even before translation. Ours remains, really, a pretty narrow world – surprisingly so, given the extent of the excitement and the opportunities that await us not so far away. Those of us who engage with the countries and cultures of our region beyond tourism – doing business, writing, whatever – are such a slender squad that we tend to know each other, as if we’re all collectors of a particular type of stamp or spotters of a specially intriguing train.

Hence the enjoyment with which I read Jaivin’s essay. It’s not exactly systematic but, hey, who cares when her anecdotes are so good?

I was especially drawn to her story about musician Billy Bragg, who like me grew up in deeply unfashionable Essex, east of London. He exhibited, in Beijing back in 1989, the monumental lack of empathy to parade his “socialist” credentials to a bunch of bohemian young Chinese. No wonder that after a brief silence, Chinese politeness overcame embarrassment to produce the most appropriate response: “So … what kind of amp do you use …?”

When I was at school, I used to write to embassies in London asking them to send any free information about their countries. The more exotic to me, the better. The arrival of the post was a frequent cause of excitement. Wow, so this is what a Bulgarian communal farm looks like, or a Mexican fiesta. The first time I set foot in Asia was stepping off the ferry across the Bosphorus from European Istanbul. What a thrill.

Mike Smith, the ANZ chief executive driving the bank’s thrust into Asia, described to me his arrival at Hong Kong’s former airport, Kai Tak, where you could once look into apartments from the plane as you approached to land. When he emerged from the airport, he said, he looked around at the lights, he smelt the Cantonese smells, and he thought: “This … is it.”

That’s the first step towards translation, your “This is it” moment. Without it, you’re just obliging your employer, taking a brief break from the “real world” back home or responding to a white paper.

The next step is to start to learn about the new place’s history and culture, and its language; they’re all wrapped up together. You may not become fluent in, say, Mandarin or Bahasa Indonesia, but if you’re going to spend time there or with people from there, you need to put in some effort.

My first real go, after French and the very helpful classical languages – Latin and Ancient Greek – at school, was with Tok Pisin, the Papua New Guinea lingua franca. This is a real language, with its own grammar and core Melanesian vocabulary, not a bastardisation of English, and I learnt then that however sophisticated and multilingual people are, their home language, the language of the heart, is what they – we – tend to use when emotions are to the fore, from grief to humour to anger to love.

I also learnt from surveying people’s faces – whether blank, puzzled or wounded – that sarcasm, especially, is a tool that is both useless and ugly when used in conversation with people in their second language. It came as second nature, a favourite humorous device demonstrating knowingness as I grew up in England. But in the bin it had to go. I had to change, to lose a little of myself, if I weren’t to be lost altogether in translation.

Heroes of mine step off most pages of Jaivin’s essay, headed by Simon Leys and including the likes of Liu Xiaobo and Ingmar Bergman. And Murakami. Even though, while in Japan recently, I was told by an interpreter that her own appetite for the iconic baby-boomer writer was diminished when she heard him argue bull-headedly about a piece of translation of his own, into Japanese. He insisted that when a writer uses the second person in English, this always means they are addressing a specific person or persons. My acquaintance rightly pointed out that formulations as in recipes (“then you add a pinch of paprika”) are often impersonal.

When you make the effort to translate, to understand, you might be temporarily confused. For instance, the Chinese characters for “hand” and “paper” are about the same as the relevant Japanese kanji characters, but they are pronounced quite differently, and in combination mean “envelope” in Japanese but “toilet paper” in Chinese.

But you are unlikely to be lost. When you take a step towards others, they will usually reciprocate.

If you don’t even ask, misunderstandings multiply or deepen. I once worked with a Japanese designer whose uncle came on a visit to Melbourne, his first overseas trip. How did Uncle enjoy himself? we asked on our colleague’s return from seeing his uncle off. All went extremely well, except that Uncle expressed sadness for all the young women forced to work as prostitutes in the city. He had spent the last few days pondering about those he saw hanging around outside office towers, and come to the only conclusion that made sense to him. His nephew had to explain, eventually, that smoking is banned in Australian office blocks …

I was taken to dinner a few years ago, when I was living in Beijing, by my Australian translator friends Jane Pan and Martin Merz, with a bunch of translators who get together regularly to swap notes about the biz. Naturally, everyone was curious about who had been commissioned to do what, for how big a fee. It was a tumultuous session, more like the Biblical Tower of Babel referred to by Jaivin than to an academic library. But like others who, in however modest a way, seek to understand and explain people to each other, they seemed to have found something in translation: the core human value of empathy.


Rowan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor of the Australian. His book Party Time: Who Runs China and How was published in 2013. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 53, That Sinking Feeling.


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