The migration of a literary technique : stream-of-consciousness in China, translated and transposed

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FIT Third Asian Translators' Forum : Translation in the New Millennium : Inter-Continental Perspectives on Translation = 第3屆國際譯聯亞洲翻譯家論壇 : 千禧年翻譯硏討 : 翻譯的洲際透視

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Lingnan University


Stream-of-consciousness, as a narrative mode, has for some time been thought of as untranslatable -- it does not migrate. Yet recent years have seen a spade of early twentieth-century novels, by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf among others, translated into a variety of non-Western languages. Ulysses, for instance, finally managed to reach a Chinese audience in the early 1990s, though it is doubtful that the two versions would attract readers outside of as small elitist, scholarly circle. On the other hand, for some time writers in China, as elsewhere, have tried a slightly different form of translation: they consciously used stream-of-consciousness in their own novels. The technique seems to have migrated better through transposition than through direct translation. Strange as it may seem, transposition seems to have been the preferred mode of dealing with this modernist literary method in Taiwan, whereas in Mainland China translation seems to have succeeded better.

The situation involves, in fact, factors other than linguistic ones. The storm of controversy surrounding the emergence of stream-of-consciousness novels (most notably, those of Wang Meng) in the Mainland in the early eighties shows the strength of ideological attitudes in influencing the kind of literature to be written. This contrasts sharply with the approbation with which the first stream-of-consciousness experiments were greeted in Taiwan in the 1970, in particular Wang Wenxing's Family Catastrophe. But events in the nineties show that the Mainland writers have moved very fast in appropriating the narrative technique for their own use, and aided by two marvelous translations by Jin Di and Xiao Qian/Wen Jieruo they have already tried to put the technique to new uses undreamed of by the "Taiwaners."

The story the migration of the stream-of-consciousness to China indeed took many awkward turns, and the combined use of translation and transposition must be taken into account in order that a coherent account be given. To make the scenario more complicated and exciting, translation scholars have recently mapped out the migration of this same technique to places as distant as Japan and Finland, narrating the difficulties it encountered in seeking entry into these countries. In China, much attention has been paid to the way free indirect speech landed in the country in the thirties and forties, and one school of thinking has it that this narrative method can be deployed more successfully in Chinese than in English. Bearing in mind that free indirect speech is "non-transparent" (according to critic Lydia Liu) whereas stream-of-consciousness is not, the question whether the latter can be more powerfully used in Chinese than in Western languages is worth pondering. Thus in my paper I will discuss in turn: (1) the migration of the stream-of-consciousness technique to Mainland China and Taiwan; (2) the alternative avenues of migration -- translation and transposition; (3) the question of how successfully the technique can be used in a new linguistic and cultural context (Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, and so on). Perhaps an interesting new recent development is that Chinese stream-of-consciousness novels are starting to be translated back into Western language like English, as seen in the case of Wang Wenxing's novels. How well do they migrate?



Recommended Citation

Chan, T.-h. L. (2001, December). The migration of a literary technique: Stream-of-consciousness in China, translated and transposed. Paper presented at the FIT Third Asian Translators' Forum: Translation in the New Millennium: Inter-Continental Perspectives on Translation, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

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