Jul 29, 2014 0
Literal and Non-Literal Translation
n the concluding chapter of Primitive Passions (1995), in a chapter entitled “Film as Ethnography,” Rey Chow asks the question of the relationships between ethnography and the complex matter of visual media representations. She asks this because by and large any serious consideration of the impact and implications of filmic, TV and other media representations have traditionally been excluded or subordinated in the conceptualization and construction of the classical anthropological ethnographic “scene.” The ethnographic scene is a scenario most commonly formulated as being a situation involving an ethnographer and a native subject (or group). The presence and role of all manner of media are not normally immediately considered in this scenario. Yet the contemporary world is, and has been for well over a century, saturated with media—and moreover with a range of mediated images that often claim to testify to some kind of insight into other cultures, in a quasi-anthropological way. There are also types of media text that seem to constitute, precipitate or otherwise relate to one or another kind of cross-cultural encounter, and so on. (I have written about this in Bowman 2010.) The documentary film is perhaps the exemplary contemporary form of media genre that has closest affinities with anthropology; just as the wide variety of texts that seem to represent “other cultures,” however falsely or fictitiously—such as action films, set in “exotic” locations—can be numbered among the media which may precipitate various forms of cross-cultural encounter. Both have, to a significant extent, superseded earlier media forms, such as the newspaper report and genres of travel writing, which had been popular for hundreds of years, and that had provided “information” and ideas about different cultures and societies.
Of course, the film or TV documentary remains controversial in many ways, even though it is based on a kind of naïve ethnographic claim: the documentary seeks merely to document. But the problem is that what it documents is always a construction, in that what is shown will inevitably be a product of representational biases, based on editorial decisions, involving all sorts of exclusions, subordinations, selections, emphases and exaggerations. However, this observation allows us to turn things around and to perceive with more clarity that, in some ways, the problems of the documentary film as ethnographic text amplify the problems inherent to ethnography per se. For even the “pure” ethnographic situation will be driven by the perceiving eye and writing hand of the ethnographer, whose studies, reports, essays and monographs are themselves ultimately textual constructs. We will return to this matter below, as Chow does in her later paper “China as Democracy” (forthcoming), which in many respects builds on and advances some of the arguments of “Film as Ethnography.” But, we will start from the earlier essay, because in “Film as Ethnography,” the first matter that Chow isolates is what she calls the problematic relation between representation of “self” and of the “foreign,” all efforts in terms of which often arouse harsh responses from many quarters
Chow follows a strand of criticism of anthropology by arguing that some of the problems of inequality and Western bias in “cross-cultural exchange” were in a sense caused by Western anthropology. She evokes the problematic scenario of the Western anthropologist going abroad to study natives (1995: 176). As she puts it, from the outset, the very presence of the anthropologist entering into another culture plays its part in the destruction of what may well formerly have been an “isolated,” “authentic” or “uncontaminated” native culture. Just as William Wordsworth waxed lyrical about the wild beauty of the natural environment in the English Lake District, before he subsequently went on to bewail the emergence of a tourist industry and the crowds of tourists who were going there to see the landscape precisely because his accounts of it drew them there, so anthropology is in some sense implicated in the eradication of native tribes “untouched” by Westerners.
But this is only one aspect of the problem—and one that is in itself already a problematic product (or symptom) of a nostalgia or fantasy based on ideas about, say, the “noble savage” or a “pure and primitive native.” The more significant and palpable problem can be described like this. After the anthropological encounter, after the study has been written up and published, it becomes that case that anyone who seeks to study or learn about the culture in question—including enquirers who may themselves be part of the native group in question—must now turn to the books and essays produced by the Western ethnographers. This has a double implication: first, it moves the source of authority to Western books and institutions; second, it requires the enquirer, from any culture or tradition, to adopt the Western protocols and reading practices involved in the construction of the “original knowledge.” As Chow puts it, following earlier critics, in this sense, anthropology and ethnology remain a “one way street” (177).
Using a related set of terms—terms that are extremely important to her—Chow reformulates this kind of encounter as a version of “cultural translation,” and argues that all of this is irreducibly related to power (177). This is first because, in one sense, anthropology gives unequal access to unequal information. Moreover, “weaker” countries are more likely to have no choice in the representational matter and processes and to have to submit to “forcible transformation in the translation process” (178). On Chow’s reading, this is the first key ingredient of what she terms “the anthropological deadlock:” the domination of representation by the Western ethnographer or anthropologist. The second key ingredient is the noticing of this representational bias and the refusal or rejection of it on the part of the “others,” “themselves,” so to speak—that is, the rejection of Western anthropology and other sorts of Western representations by “nativist” scholars—i.e., academics and other representatives of the “native” culture in question (178).
Chow refers to the rejection of all foreign (Western) representations of native cultures as “nativism.” It is an “-ism” because it is a familiar process with predictable features. According to Chow, the process often becomes one in which “native” critics and opponents of “Western” anthropology go on to make various kinds of claim about the impossibility of non-natives being able to understand or being able to represent the native culture at all. In some versions of nativism, the argument becomes one in which the native culture is held to be entirely ungraspable in Western terms at all. In other versions, the argument is that only native representatives of the native culture can claim to be able to represent that culture at all. Whilst having sympathy for their emergence, Chow suggests that in these and other such responses to the anthropological deadlock, what we see time and again are refusals of translation. The nativist positions are led by a desire to hold onto some kind of tradition unmolested by Western incursions (178). But the problem is that in doing so, nativist scholarship often draws exclusionary lines around a fantasized “pure” object, that little if anything or anyone can ever manage to live up to. For instance, in Chinese studies, Chow regularly perceives the ways in which any modern Chinese cultural productions are disparaged by nativist critics for being “too Westernized,” and suchlike. In short, what is valued is a backward looking cultural elitism, based on a fantasized essentialism, whose consequences include attempts to hierarchize, police and exclude certain subjects. This is so even though fields like Chinese studies are often elaborated in languages other than Chinese—yet, suggests Chow, to remain consistent with their own demands (and to avoid their “performative contradiction”), shouldn’t such orientations be carried out solely in classical Chinese?
Instead of going down these lines, Chow moves somewhat transversally and proposes a link between ethnography and translation. This link that can be clarified and engaged more fully by focusing on the theme of visuality, and thinking about all different kinds of filmic representation, not only documentary. Chow proposes this even though, unlike the laypeople of the general public, who might easily regard a documentary as being more or less “anthropological,” anthropologists themselves define anthropology in terms of method and theory (rather than representation). This means that they will not be inclined to define a text as anthropological just because of its subject matter. However, non-anthropologists are not quite so clear on the matter. And this may not simply be because of any lack of “discipline” or “academic rigor.” Rather, once one starts to look at the borders and boundaries between a supposedly anthropological and a supposedly non-anthropological text otherwise (perhaps using the insights of Derrida and deconstruction, for instance), the ostensibly clear distinctions between the anthropological and the non-anthropological become less and less clear. When one considers any representation as a (textual) representation, it becomes difficult to adjudicate decisively on what might be regarded as ethnographic and what not (179). This is compounded by the fact that ethnography itself is constitutively based in the subjective—the subjective encounter, the relations between subjects (179). This, therefore, is a paradox of ethnographic anthropology, inasmuch as one of the claims of ethnography is its ability to construct a more generalizable knowledge from a subjective (and disciplinary) interpretation of an intersubjective encounter.
Chow reiterates with approval the argument that is sometimes advanced that because ethnographic texts are irreducibly subjective, therefore the question of whose subjectivity should be foregrounded. She proposes that we should look at the subjective origins of the work of those who were previously ethnologized but who now ethnologize themselves in different ways and using different media. How do they show themselves? This is a variant of the question of “how do they see themselves?” and this is crucially important, argues Chow, because it is related to—indeed, it demonstrates—the huge importance not only of looking but also of being looked at. Which is why Chow connects the problems of ethnography with Laura Mulvey’s feminist arguments about the political and ethical effects of the structures, conventions and structuration of vision and looking. As Chow puts it: “the state of being looked at not only is built into the way non-Western cultures are viewed by Western ones; more significantly it is part of the active manner in which such cultures represent—ethnographize—themselves” (180). In other words, this is a matter of the force that the way you have been looked at exerts on the way you look at, represent, or even “construct” yourself (180). So, following Mulvey and using her famous (and famously awkward) term, Chow asserts that “being-looked-at-ness, rather than the act of looking, constitutes the primary event in cross-cultural representation” (180).
Having added so many different issues into the mix, it may become difficult to follow Chow’s overarching arguments or fundamental contentions. But here, Chow is developing two soon to be intertwined positions. The first is an argument that many different forms of representation (from ethnographic to documentary to filmic and fictional) are different kinds of “translation,” from one register to another, following different kinds of protocols, contingencies and biases. The second is that these all feed into the ways in which groups are “seen” (in every sense of the word: from “shown” to “thought of”); and that—claims of anthropological specificity notwithstanding—all types of representation have effects on perceptions and apperceptions (self-perceptions). All texts are constructs, and all representations are texts (180-1). Thus, she affirms, there is always something anthropological/ethnographic, even in fiction; and equally therefore always something fictive in ethnographic texts:
In studying contemporary Chinese films as ethnography and autoethnography, I am thus advocating nothing less than a radical deprofessionalization of anthropology and ethnography as “intellectual disciplines.” Once these disciplines are deprofessionalized—their boundaries between “us” and “them” destabilized; their claims to documentary objectivity deconstructed—how do we begin to reconceive the massive cultural information that has for so long been collected under their rubric? It is at this juncture that I think our discussion about ethnography must be supplemented by a theory of translation. (181)
Drawing on Thomas Elsaesser’s analyses of the ways in which various European filmmakers of the 1970s appeared to have constructed intimately detailed studies of aspects of everyday life that were otherwise simply doomed to oblivion—collections, clutter, mess, and the bric-a-brac of everyday lives—Chow points out that in many ways film can be regarded as a vast “transcription service” (180-1). Similarly, Chinese film of the 1980s can be regarded as a vast transcription service focused on women, the poor, children, and other related themes common to filmmakers at the time (182).
So, there are three senses of translation in play. First, translation as transcription; second, translation as transformation from one medium to another; and third, the problem of translation across and between cultures (182). Readers may wonder where the more standard sense of translation as linguistic translation has gone in Chow’s thinking here—or why she waits for so long and introduces so many other “non-literal” meanings of “translation” before introducing it. It is introduced half way through “Film as Ethnography,” and primarily in the context and in terms of matters related to culture (in her words, in terms of its links with issues of “tradition” and “betrayal”) (182). This is because Chow clearly wishes to transform (or translate) conventional constructed and biased understandings of what translation is and does.
Translation has always been thought of as linguistic translation, Chow reminds us, even though there are so many other kinds of crossings over and transformations in the world. Moreover, the linguistic understanding of translation itself has always been heavily biased, along lines that Chow ultimately comes to represent as essentialist. This is because, even though in most approaches to linguistics, there are two primary elements at play in the any text—a signifier (in the text) and a signified (what it is meant to mean to a reader)—privilege has always gone to the signified—or to what the signifier is meant to mean. So, what is translated is overwhelmingly the interpretation—not the simple materiality of the signifier—the mark on the page—but rather what is deemed to be the proper or correct meaning of those marks (182-3). This relation to the act or practice of translation sets up a hierarchy or a game of hide and seek in which the translation easily becomes regarded as inferior to “the original,” because the translation is different, or “loses” (proper) meanings, or acquires new (improper) meanings, or does not convey the same, or the original or the correct meanings. So the translation is all too often regarded as a crossing over, a crossing out, and a “betrayal” of the original.
Chow critiques all of these value judgments (the proper, the correct, the original), and proposes that whether the translated text in question be literary or filmic—say, a translation of an ancient Chinese text, or the “translation” that is contemporary Chinese film (as we shall see in a moment)—the translation is frequently belittled by purists, nativists and other sorts of critics, because it is regarded as a “superficial” construction, which misses the “essence” of the “original.” As Chow puts it in relation to her discussion of film:
Given these deeply entrenched assumptions about translation, it is hardly surprising that the rendering of “China” into film, even at a time when the literary bases of Chinese society are increasingly being transformed by the new media culture, is bedeviled by suspicion and replete with accusations of betrayal. While these suspicions and accusations may express themselves in myriad forms, they are always implicitly inscribed within the ideology of fidelity. For instance…is not the distrust of “surfaces”—the criticism of Zhang Yimou’s lack of depth—a way of saying that surfaces are “traitors” to the historical depth that is “traditional China”? And yet the word tradition itself, linked in its roots to translation and betrayal, has to do with handing over. Tradition itself is nothing if it is not a transmission. How is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation? (183)
Again, Chow’s is a double-pronged approach, which intertwines a couple of critiques. The first is that translation is a problem of “tradition,” and a matter of “handing over” (183). The second is that the terms we use to think about translation are already organized by a notion of origin as being primary and superior and translation as being secondary and inferior (183)—even though, both theoretically and practically, this should not be assumed to be the case. She continues:
Precisely because translation is an activity that immediately problematizes the ontological hierarchy of languages—”which is primary and which is secondary?”—it is also the place where the oldest prejudices about origins and derivations come into play most forcefully. For instance, what does it mean to make a translation sound “natural”? Must the translation sound more like the “original,” which is not the language into which it is translated—meaning that it is by resemblance to the “original” that it becomes “natural”? Or, must it sound more like the language into which it is translated, in which case sounding “natural” would mean forgetting the “origin”? When we say, derogatorily, “This reads like a translation,” what we mean is that even though we understand what the “original” meaning might be, we cannot but notice its translatedness—and yet is that not precisely what a translation is supposed to be—translated rather than “original”? As in all bifurcated processes of signification, translation is a process in which the notion of the “original,” the relationship between the “original” and its “derivations,” and the demand for what is “natural” must be thoroughly reexamined. (184)
To illustrate some of these points, Chow turns again to the criticisms of Zhang Yimou’s films. She notes that the criticisms of his films seem to boil down to the idea that his films are unfaithful to an essence, “China,” an essence that is presumed to exist somewhere, but that is equally never fully present. The criticisms always strongly imply that, because the film medium is “superficial,” therefore it will always both fail and distort “China,” and will never be able to get to—communicate or represent—its depth.
Of course, as all of the points made up to now have already anticipated, Chow could neither be satisfied with such a take on “film,” nor on “representation,” nor on “China,” nor indeed on any other presumed or putative entity (or essence). “China” is always and already only ever a discursive and textual construct—an idea, an argument, a set of associations, and so on. Even to the extent that it is a thing, specifically a nation state, this is at once also a textual matter (nations are written into existence by—and as—documents, as Chow has pointed out), and moreover something that is in no way divorced from the attending discursive textual constructs of ideology—the many different kinds of visual, sonic and narrative of celebration of the Chinese nation.
Accordingly, then, all texts are in some sense “translations,” in that they are constructions which incorporate material and interpretations of other materials and interpretations. At the very least, all texts are constructions, which have been put together, in one place or context. So translation ought equally to be approached in terms of processes of putting together, and reworking, in another. This is why Chow recalls Walter Benjamin’s argument in his essay “The Task of the Translator” (Chow 1995: 185), in which Benjamin argues that the task of the translator is to attend to the constructedness of the text and to reassemble it brick by brick, so to speak, or word by word (185). The original is already a construction. Therefore the translation must also be a construction—indeed a construction which demonstrates the constructedness of every text.
Nevertheless, this does not solve the conundrum of how to translate word for word. Even if we don’t worry about what signified meaning our translations are constructing, the question remains one of which signifiers to use to translate which signifiers? For Benjamin, the task of the translator is therefore that of communicating the missing thing, the supplement to literality (186). This is to be located in what Benjamin calls the text’s mode of signification. For Benjamin, what both original and translation should share is an exchange organized by a mode of signification. Translation is therefore regarded by Benjamin as a “liberation,” both of the original and of the translation. This is because texts are now regarded as fragments of a larger “language” or mode of signification (188). What Benjamin takes this to mean is encapsulated in a passage that he quotes from Pannwitz, in which Pannwitz argues that the problem with translation is that translators always translate the original into the destination language without modifying the destination language in reverence for the original language. However, a good translation, Pannwitz suggests, should alter the destination language, too (189). Translation should be the transformation both of the text and of the context.
Chow actually regards this as an anti-ethnocentric theory of translation. For it implies an approach that doesn’t demand that the other be reduced to the same, but rather that the familiar language and culture reach out and be affected by the foreign.
That being said, Chow remains concerned to emphasize that we should not get (re)immersed in “logocentric” or language-centered understandings of translation. As she observes, the traditional academic focus on the written leaves unasked the question of translation from, for instance, literary to visual realms, registers and media, or literary to sonic, or aural to visual, and so on; as well as translation-transformations that may or may not be bound up in the legacy of Westernization. Moreover, she adds, those theorists of poststructuralism, for example, who produce ever-more dense and complicated readings of texts, and who have been inclined in the past to regard such work as “resistance” to cultural domination, and so on, should remember that the production of “dense readings” only makes sense in the context of institutions of close reading within the university (191).
Evoking approaches to cultural translation which advocate “transactional reading,” Chow asks (rhetorically), must the emphasis always fall on “reading” and not simply on the idea of cultural translations as “transactional”? (191) She asks this because all manner of encounter and many different kinds of textual production or dissemination bespeak transactions across languages, mediums, and cultural forms, “transactions” that do not involve any close reading at all (192). Hence her questions: can we think translation that does not “valorize” or fetishize the idea—or investment in the idea—of an original? And can we think translation in terms that do not involve the idea of an “interpretation” towards depth? (192) In order to be able to do this, Chow proposes, we need to move from a focus on interlingual questions to focusing on intersemiotic practices (193).
Chow’s move from a focus on language to a focus on non-linguistic cross-cultural encounter also signals the point at which she takes her distances from deconstruction. Specifically, she argues, deconstruction’s “negative momentum”—its critical relation to language and texts—is incapable of thinking the specificity of the media into which the transformed text (e.g., literature) is translated (e.g., film) (193). Moreover, she notes, all too many people in translation studies and in poststructuralism still favor the original rather than the translation—something which is surely bizarre, especially in a field called translation studies. But, she asks: should we decide to champion the original because it was there first (even if it is a “necessary failure,” in the sense argued by deconstructionists), or should we work with the translated text? Because of ingrained cultural and academic biases, she points out, many academics still choose the former. But the choice in this regard is one that Chow contends will have profound significances and consequences—for our own orientations and values. As she puts it, “the choice of either path constitutes a major political decision” (193).
A similar decision that must be made, and that has similar ethical and political implications, is whether to focus attention on “high” cultural objects, texts and practices, or whether to focus on “mass” and “low” cultural objects, texts and practices (193). Chow gives numerous reasons why attention should be given to mass culture, including the ways in which mass culture registers, reworks and replays issues of the asymmetry of power relations between Eastern and Western cultures (193). Moreover, in a media saturated world, to proceed in any academic or intellectual endeavor in such a way as to try to block or blot out the profound, intense and relentless day-to-day crossovers and transactions between cultures—to ignore them or to try to pretend they aren’t happening—is to remain obdurately blinkered and closed off to the extent to which global media transactions have transformed the world—for instance, in terms of a “weakening” of Western traditions and Western “metaphysics” (195), or, that is, the hold both of Western philosophical and epistemological views and of their “laws.”
In other words, the vast traffic in global popular cultural encounters (for example, the transnationalism of film) means that, even if what the world has seen over the past centuries can be described as “Westernization,” it is still the case that cultures, east and west, north and south, are more and more “coeval”—arising and developing together. So, although we may think of primitive cultures as having been eradicated and as having vanished because of Westernization, it is less hyperbolic to say that they have been “translated” (196). Obviously, some cultures have been more translated than others, and in ways determined by unequal directions of power. But this has not occurred without some reciprocal modifications. Chow adds to this the important point that our contemporary ideas about “lost” ancient and primitive cultures and peoples should be regarded as ideas that have arisen in modernity and postmodernity. In other words, they are modern ideas. The idea of the primitive and ancient that we mourn the loss of is in fact a contemporary idea, or a contemporary “affect.” Chow calls such affects “primitive passions.” She borrows the Nietzschean terms used by Gianni Vattimo to describe what he calls the “fabling” of the contemporary world, in order to assert that those other cultures have not gone; they have just changed and are still “authentic” even if translated. Moreover, she adds, even within the cultures that Westernizers “primitivize” and fetishize—by imagining them as being, for example, closer to nature, or “timeless”—even such cultures themselves often trade in primitivist fantasies about parts of their own demographics (the poor, the rural, etc.) (196).
Rather than falling into primitivism or nativism, Chow seeks to attend to the implications of the fact that different media interact in different ways across national and international contexts (197). This means that not one mode of signification is dominant in the contemporary world, at the same time as—even if “technologization” might be regarded as “Westernization”—these self-same media have weakened Western “foundations” as much as having spread them. This is why Chow turns to Vattimo, who has argued that, accordingly, there has been a widespread weakening of experience as such. This has arisen by way of and thanks to the complexity of media, their multifarious interactions, and the cacophonic media saturation of everyday life. But ultimately, the turn here is to Nietzsche’s prophetic argument that, more and more clearly it can be seen that there are no incontestable facts and only interpretations. According to Vattimo, this means that the world has more and more become a “fable” (198)—a story, a version among versions, something demanding interpretation rather than commanding experience.
Now, at such a point, many thinkers would take the turn most famously made by Jean Baudrillard—away from “the world” and into ideas and arguments about the primacy of simulacra and simulation. But Chow does not follow this hyperbolic line. To be a fable is not to be simply false simulation, she acknowledges; arguing that, for instance, contemporary Chinese films in this context ought to be understood as fables (198). This does not mean false or simply disconnected fiction. Rather,
Contemporary Chinese films are cultural “translations” in…multiple senses of the term. By consciously exoticizing China and revealing China’s “dirty secrets” to the outside world, contemporary Chinese directors are translators of the violence with which the Chinese culture is “originally” put together. (202)
That is, rather than regarding films as pure fantasy—or entirely excluded from the realms of ethnography or documentary—Chow suggests that certain Chinese films clearly show some of the ways in which Chinese culture is put together “in its cruelty” (198). Of course, this can be quite antagonistic or alienating for some viewers, and of course no representation will ever be free from the need for interpretation or contestation, but Chow argues that this shows the extent to which Chinese audiences can become not only inheritors of but also foreigners to their own tradition in the act of transmission (199). Indeed, Chow acknowledges, perhaps transmitting something or translating something so that it can me represented/communicated to a wider audience (translated), involves a kind of sacrifice (199). Kafka sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, she notes; arguing that perhaps it is the case that what is transmissible is what is accessible, and that this exacts a heavy toll. Accessibility is what enables transmission and translation between cultures (200), and this involves a cost. Thus, she writes, of Chinese film:
In the dazzling colors of their screen, the primitive that is woman, who at once unveils the corrupt Chinese tradition and parodies the orientalism of the West, stands as the naïve symbol, the brilliant arcade, through which “China” travels across cultures to unfamiliar audiences. Meanwhile, the “original” that is film, the canonically Western medium, becomes destabilized and permanently infected with the unforgettable “ethnic” (and foreign) images imprinted on it by the Chinese translators. (202)
And this leads to her conclusion:
Like Benjamin’s collector, the Chinese filmmakers’ relation to “China” is that of the heirs to a great collection of treasures, the most distinguished trait of which, writes Benjamin, “will always be its transmissibility.” If translation is a form of betrayal, then the translators pay their debt by bringing fame to the ethnic culture, a fame that is evident in recent years from the major awards won by Chinese films at international film festivals in Manila, Tokyo, Nantes, Locarno, London, Honolulu, Montreal, Berlin, Venice, and Cannes. Another name for fame is afterlife. It is in translation’s faithlessness that “China” survives and thrives. A faithlessness that gives the beloved life—is that not. . . faithfulness itself? (202)
Chow returns obliquely to this complex question some twelve years after the publication of “Film as Ethnography,” in a paper called “China as Democracy: Some Basic Questions (Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni and Jia Zhangke)” (forthcoming). In this work she considers directly the problems and pitfalls not of the “artistic” or “fictional” representation of the cinematic feature film, but rather of the “realistic” documentary itself. A fictional representation may offend for being incorrect or untrue, but surely not a documentary, right? Wrong. The stakes and problematics of representation are if anything amplified and intensified in the representation that seeks to be “objective” or “factual.” This much we might anticipate. But in “China as Documentary,” Chow as ever seeks to push our thinking further on this matter and related issues.
The first thing Chow notes is an ingrained but often unremarked difference between the ways that different constituencies of academics view images. She breaks it down into the difference between the ways that those she calls “natives” or “native informants” view images of their own culture and the ways that foreign observers view those same images. The first difference, she proposes, is the matter of deference: “foreign” (Western) academics are keen to defer to the opinions and interpretations of “natives.” This is clearly the outcome of a certain historical process—the increasing sensitivity of Western academics to the possibility that they may not have authority or access to the truth, that their readings may be “biased” or “Western,” and that those immersed in the “deep textures” of a cultural context may have more claims to authority on matters pertaining to their own cultures than Western “foreign observers.”
Perhaps the moment of the emergence of this self-reflexivity might be dated to the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism, a book that firmly put on the agenda the idea that Western culture and scholarship had perpetrated and perpetuated a systematic representational distortion of “other” cultures. Anthropological and other cross-cultural scholarship has since been obliged to engage with the gauntlet thrown down by Said’s study. Indeed, Chow’s own remarks in this context are actually expressed in Said’s terms: just as “foreign observers” are now keen to defer to the interpretations of “natives,” so “natives” are keen to avoid being “orientalised.”
To Chow’s mind, the gap between these positions is where she would locate the future of visual research “in an age of hypermediality.” Of course this is not a prediction of the predetermined or predestined future of the field(s) of visual analysis. Rather it is the space she feels to be most in need of further analysis and interrogation. Indeed, Chow’s statement here is reminiscent of the opening of her 1998 essay “The Dream of a Butterfly,” wherein she points out that, since Said’s Orientalism, we have become increasingly adept at noticing the ways in which this or that text is “orientalist” or racist. But surely, therefore, shouldn’t that now become the starting point of our analyses, and the observation from which we begin, rather than the conclusion to which we are still driving? This is because it is easy now to see orientalism. But it is difficult to engage with the fraught and complex matter of viewing positions and cultural relations that the incidence of biases, prejudices, simplifications, conflations, and so on attests to. As Chow puts it, the complexity of the relationship between natives and foreign observers is very old and of great complexity, and that complexity is increased by the complexity of the entanglement of the relationship. As she asserts both in “The Dream of a Butterfly” and “China as Documentary,” East and West are both distinct and entangled, both in relationships and not in relationships. East is not simply East and West is not simply West: the twain do meet, and very often. Yet, in another sense, East is East and West is West and never the twain fully—or simply—meet. Or, as Chow puts it both in “The Dream of a Butterfly” and in “China as Documentary,” perhaps the situation is akin to that described by Lacan of sexual relationships: that there is no sexual relationship. But, of course, there are sexual relationships. Perhaps, therefore, natives and foreign observers are thrown together and collaborate as if there were a relationship, when perhaps the nature of any possible relationship has never been and has yet to be established. In Derridean parlance, one might say that the relationship is permanently deferred. But in the Lacanian terms to which Chow frequently returns, the problem is couched as one of two different sets of fantasies (or phantasies) held by different parties, which never simply “meet.” The phantasy about the other which, for example, sustains a sexual attraction or indeed a sexual relationship is always strictly speaking an onanistic phantasy and a projection. The other is as much “invented” and “projected” by the one as it is “performed” or “embodied” by the other.
Using this Lacanian insight as a point of reference, Chow has more than once constructed the “problem” or the “situation” of the East-West (ir)relation as a fantasy or phantasmatic relationship structuring relationships and encounters between China and the West. To Chow it is typical or exemplary of the long history of the relations between “the West” and “the Rest.”
In this context, Chow argues that the gap between the visions and interpretations of “native informants” and “foreign observers” is amplified in the documentary form, despite its claims to factuality. And this raises the question, how are we to talk cross-culturally about seemingly straightforward images when often even the simplest of images become the most contentious. To illustrate this, Chow looks at a contentious documentary, made about China at a time when China was closed to the West, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 film Chung Guo/Cina/China. However, for the sake of this essay, I would prefer to follow the implications and injunctions of Chow’s orientation in order to explore, examine and assess a different filmic text in terms of Chow’s arguments about cultural translation.
The film I have selected is one of Bruce Lee’s early 1970s kung fu blockbusters. I have selected it deliberately—because Bruce Lee has always been construed as a figure who existed at various crossroads—a kind of chiasmatic figure, into which much was condensed, and displaced. His films, even though in a sense always being relatively juvenile action flicks, have also been regarded as spanning the borders and bridging the gaps between “trivial” popular culture and “politicized” cultural movements (Brown 1997; Morris 2001; Prashad 2001; Kato 2007). That is to say, although on the one hand, they are all little more than fantastic choreographies of aestheticized masculinist violence, on the other, they worked to produce politicized identifications and modes of subjectivization that supplemented many popular-cultural-political movements: his striking(ly) nonwhite face and unquestionable physical supremacy in the face of often white, always colonialist and imperialist bad-guys became a symbol of and for multiple ethnic, diasporic, civil rights, anti-racist and postcolonial cultural movements across the globe (Prashad 2001; Kato 2007). Both within and “around” his films—that is, both in terms of their internal textual features and in terms of the “effects” of his texts on certain viewing constituencies—it is possible to trace a movement from ethnonationalism to a postnational, decolonizing, multicultural imaginary (Hunt 2003). This is why his films have been considered in terms of the interfaces and interplays of popular culture, postcolonial, postmodern and multiculturalist issues that they have been deemed to “reflect,” engage, dramatize, explore or develop (Abbas 1997; Hunt 2003; Teo 2008). Lee has been credited with transforming intra- and inter-ethnic identification, cultural capital and cultural fantasies in global popular culture, and in particular as having been central to revising the discursive constitutions and hierarchies of Eastern and Western models of masculinity (Thomas 1994; Chan 2000; Miller 2000; Hunt 2003; Preston 2007; Bowman 2010).
In the wake of such well-known and well-worn approaches to Lee, I would propose to take these types of arguments as read, and prefer to approach Bruce Lee somewhat differently—maybe peculiarly, perhaps even queerly. Specifically, I would like to propose that Bruce Lee’s celluloid cinematic interventions—no matter how fantastic and fabulous—ought to be approached as texts and contexts of cultural translation (Chow 1995). However, to say this, Chow’s rather twisted or indeed “queer” notion of translation needs to be emphasized. For, as we have seen, to speak of cultural translation is not to simply refer to translation in a linguistic or hermeneutic sense. It is rather to be understood as something less “literal” (or logocentric); as what Rey Chow calls “an activity, a transportation between two ‘media,’ two kinds of already-mediated data” (Chow 1995: 193). Furthermore, cultural translation would also be understood as a range of processes which mean that, for academics, “the ‘translation’ is often what we must work with because, for one reason or another, the “original” as such is unavailable—lost, cryptic, already heavily mediated, already heavily translated” (193).
This is not a particularly unusual situation, as we have mentioned. It is, rather, says Chow, everyday: translated, mediated, commodified, technologized exchanges between cultures happen every day. This is also the situation we are in when encountering film, especially films that are dubbed or subtitled, of course, as in the case of Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong produced films. Such films are translated, dubbed and subtitled. But, this is not the start or end of translation. For the notion of “cultural translation” demands that we extend our attention beyond the scripts and into the matter of the very medium of film itself, the relations between films, between film and other media, and so on. This is important to emphasize because, despite its everydayness, despite its reality, and despite the arguable primacy of the situation of cultural translation between “translations” with no (access to any) original, this situation of cultural translation is not often accorded the status it could be said to deserve. It is rather more likely to be disparaged by scholars, insofar as it occurs predominantly in the so-called “realms” of popular culture and does not conform to a model of translation organized by the binary of “primary/original” and “derived/copy” (Chow 1995: 182).
As Chow emphasizes, “the problems of cross-cultural exchange—especially in regard to the commodified, technologized image—in the postcolonial, postmodern age” (182) demand an approach that moves beyond many traditional approaches. For instance, she points out, as well as the “literal” matters of translation that arise within film, “there are at least two [other] types of translation at work in cinema” (182). The first involves translation understood “as inscription:” any film is a kind of writing into existence of something which was not there as such or in anything like that way before its constitution in film. The second type of translation associated with film, proposes Chow, involves understanding translation “as transformation of tradition and change between media” (182). In this second sense, film is translation insofar as a putative entity (she suggests, “a generation, a nation, [or] a culture”) are “translated or permuted into the medium of film.” So, film as such can be regarded as a kind of epochal translation, in the sense that cultures “oriented around the written text” were and continue to be “in the process of transition and of being translated into one dominated by the image” (182). As such:
the translation between cultures is never West translating East or East translating West in terms of verbal languages alone but rather a process that encompasses an entire range of activities, including the change from tradition to modernity, from literature to visuality, from elite scholastic culture to mass culture, from the native to the foreign and back, and so forth. (192)
It is here that Bruce Lee should be placed. However, given the complexity of this “place”—this relation or these relations—it seems likely that any translation or indeed any knowledge we hope might be attained cannot henceforth be understood as simple unity-to-unity transport. This is not least because the relations and connections between Bruce Lee and—well—anything else, will now come to seem always shifting, immanent, virtual, open-ended, ongoing and uncertain. This is so much so that the very notions of completeness, totality, or completion are what become unclear or incomplete in the wake of “cultural translation.” In other words, this realization of the complexity of cultural relations, articulations and encounters jeopardizes traditional, established notions of translation and knowledge-establishment. Yet, it does not “reject” them or “retreat” from them. Rather, it transforms them.1
To elucidate this transformation, Chow retraces Foucault’s analyses and argument in The Order of Things (1970) in order to argue that both translation and knowledge per se must henceforth be understood as “a matter of tracking the broken lines, shapes, and patterns that may have become occluded, gone underground, or taken flight” (Chow 2006: 81).2 Referring to Foucault’s genealogical work on the history of knowledge epistemes in The Order of Things, Chow notes his contention that “the premodern ways of knowledge production, with their key mechanism of cumulative (and inexhaustible) inclusion, came to an end in modern times.” The consequence of this has been that “the spatial logic of the grid” has given way “to an archaeological network wherein the once assumed clear continuities (and unities) among differentiated knowledge items are displaced onto fissures, mutations, and subterranean genealogies, the totality of which can never again be mapped out in taxonomic certitude and coherence” (81). As such, any “comparison” must henceforth become “an act that, because it is inseparable from history, would have to remain speculative rather than conclusive, and ready to subject itself periodically to revamped semiotic relations.” This is so because “the violent yoking together of disparate things has become inevitable in modern and postmodern times.” As such, even an act of “comparison would also be an unfinalizable event because its meanings have to be repeatedly negotiated.” This situation arises “not merely on the basis of the constantly increasing quantity of materials involved but more importantly on the basis of the partialities, anachronisms, and disappearances that have been inscribed over time on such materials” seemingly positivistic existences” (81).
I have covered this to some degree in previous works, but now is the time to apply it to our own analyses. Now is the time also to relate this to a perhaps unexpected problematic: that of the queer. To call this “queer” may seem to be stretching—or twisting, contorting—things a bit—or indeed, violently yoking unrelated things together. Clearly, such a notion of translation can only be said to be queer when “queer” is understood in an etymological or associative sense, rather than a sexual one. Nevertheless, it strikes me that the most important impulse of queer studies was its initial and initializing ethico-political investment in stretching, twisting and contorting—with the aim of transforming—contingent, biased and partial societal and cultural norms.3 This is an element of queering that deserves to be reiterated, perhaps over and above queer studies’ always-possibly socially “conservative” investment in sexuality as such (Chambers and O’Rourke 2009). This is so if queering has an interest in transforming a terrain or a context rather than just establishing a local, individual enclave for new norms to be laid down. I believe that it does, which is one of the reasons that it seems worthwhile to draw a relation between cultural translation and queering, given their shared investments in “crossing over,” change, twisting, turning and warping. Given the undisputed and ongoing importance of Bruce Lee within or across the circuits of global popular culture, crossing from East to West and back again, as well as from film to fantasy to physicality, and other such shifting circuits, it seems worthwhile to consider the status of “crossing over” in (and around) Bruce Lee films.
To bring such a complicated theoretical apparatus to bear on Bruce Lee films may seem excessive. This will be especially so because, as Kwai Cheung Lo argues, most dubbed and subtitled martial arts films from Hong Kong, China or Japan have traditionally been approached not with cultural theories to hand but rather with buckets of popcorn and crates of beer, as they have overwhelmingly been treated as a source of cheap laughs for Westerners (Lo 2005: 48-54). Indeed, as Leon Hunt has noted, what is “loved” in the “Asiaphilia” of kung fu film fans is mainly “mindlessness”—the mindless violence of martial arts. Like Lo, Hunt suggests that therefore even the Asiaphilia of Westerners interested in Eastern martial arts “subtly” amounts to yet another kind of orientalist “encounter marked by conquest and appropriation” (Hunt 2003: 12).
Lo’s argument has an extra dimension, however, in that as well as focusing on the reception of these filmic texts in different linguistic and cultural contexts, he also draws attention to the realm of production. Yet even this, in Lo’s terms, is far from theoretically complex: in Hong Kong film, he writes, “the process of subtitling often draws attention to itself, if only because of its tendency toward incompetence” (Lo 2005: 48). Nevertheless, he suggests, “as a specific form of making sense of things in cross-cultural and cross-linguistic encounters, subtitling reveals realities of cultural domination and subordination and serves as a site of ideological dissemination and its subversion” (46).4 For Lo, then, despite a base level of material “simplicity” here, complex issues of translation do arise, and not simply with the Western reception of Eastern texts, but actually at the site of production itself, no matter how slapdash. As he sees it: “Unlike film industries that put a great deal of care into subtitles, Hong Kong cinema is famous for its slipshod English subtitling. The subtitlers of Hong Kong films, who are typically not well educated, are paid poorly and must translate an entire film in two or three days” (53).
At the point of reception or consumption, Lo claims, the “English subtitles in Hong Kong film often appear excessive and intrusive to the Western viewer.” Drawing on a broad range of Žižeko-Lacanian cultural theory, Lo suggests that the subtitles are “stains” and that: “Just as stains on the screen affect the visual experience, subtitles undermine the primacy and immediacy of the voice and alienate the aural from the visual” (49). In this way, by using one of Žižek’s favorite double-entendres—the crypto-smutty, connotatively “dirty” word “stain” (a word which, for Žižek, often signals the presence or workings of “the real” itself)—and by combining it with a broadly Derridean observation about the interruption of the self-presence of auto-affection in the frustration of cinematic identification caused by non-synchronized image-and-voice and image-and-written-word, Lo crafts an argument that is all about excess.
The subtitles are excess. Their meaning is excess: an excess of sameness for bilingual viewers, and an excess of alterity for monolingual viewers. For the bilingual, who both hear and read the words, they produce both excessive emphases and certain discordances of meaning, because of their spatial and temporal discordances and syncopations with the soundtrack. But, Lo claims, “To a presumptuous Western audience, the poor English subtitles make Hong Kong films more ‘Chinese’ by underscoring the linguistic difference” (51). Thus, for bilingual viewerships (such as many Hong Kong Chinese, who have historically been able to speak both English and Cantonese), the subtitles introduce an excess that simultaneously introduces alterity through their fracturing and alienating effects. For monolingual “foreign” viewerships, Lo argues, the subtitles also produce an “extra” dimension: a very particular, form of pleasure and enjoyment. This extra is not extra to a primary or proper. It is rather an excess generated from a lack. It is an excess—pleasure, amusement, finding the subtitles “funny.” And Lo’s primary contention is that, in this sense, the subtitles actually preclude the possibility of a proper “weight” or “gravity” for the films; that they are a supplement that preclude the establishment of a proper status, a proper meaning, a properly “non-excessive” non-”lite”/trite status.
Thus, the subtitles are a visual excess, Lo contends.5 For monolingual or eurolingual viewers, the visual excess is the mark (or stain) which signifies a semantic lack. This might be a mark of viewers’ own inability and lack of linguistic and cultural knowledge rather than any necessary semantic deficiency in the text itself; but the point is, argues Lo, “the words onscreen always consciously remind viewers of the other’s existence” (48). In either case, this very lack generates an excess. As Lo puts it, “The fractured subtitles may puzzle the viewers who need them, and yet they also give rise to a peculiar kind of pleasure” (54). That is, “The articulation of the loss of proper meaning offers a pleasure of its own to those who treasure alternative aesthetics and practice a radical connoisseurship that views mass culture’s vulgarity as the equal of avant-garde high art” (54). Lo calls this the pleasure of “being adrift:” “Drifting pleasure occurs when definite meaning can no longer be grasped. Bad English subtitles may kindle a kind of pleasure that was never meant to be there” (54), he proposes; going on to insist that:
A subtitled Hong Kong film received in the West produces a residual irrationality that fascinates its hardcore fans. Apparently, a dubbed Hong Kong film would not offer the same sort of additional fun. The distorted meaning of the English subtitles is not to be overlooked. On the contrary, the distortion is written into the very essence of Hong Kong films and is one of the major appeals for Western fans. It is an unexpected boon that increases the viewer’s already considerable enjoyment. (56)
Thus, he argues against the suggestions of commentators like Ascheid who have proposed that subtitled film fundamentally “contains a number of reflexive elements which hold a much larger potential to break cinematic identification, the suspension of disbelief and a continuous experience of unruptured pleasure” (Ascheid, quoted in Lo 2005: 56).6 Against such arguments, Lo proposes that “In the case of subtitled Hong Kong films, these arguments are no longer valid.” This is because, with these martial arts films, the “disruption of cinematic identification and the perception of difference might generate extra enjoyment but never a loss of pleasure.” For, in martial arts films, suggests Lo, “rupture does not necessarily give rise to ‘intellectual evaluation and analysis’; rather, it lends to a film’s fetishistic appeal” (56).
So, the subtitles are constructed with “incompetence” by the undereducated and underpaid subtitlers. They are destined to be an unnecessary supplement for Chinese speakers and an excessive supplement for those who can also read Chinese. For Westerners, these supplements are destined to work to turn the movies into a joke. Indeed, apart from the thrills to be gained from watching the physical action of the martial choreography, the subtitles are destined to become the fetish which defines the nature of Western viewers’ interest in Hong Kong films.7
Fun, off-center, camp, incompetent, uneducated, excessive, physical, intrusive: the way Lo constructs and represents Hong Kong cinema “in general” is not particularly far removed from the way that the Hollywood camera constructs the bumbling, bothersome Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (See Morris 2001). Of course, Lo is putatively dealing with the “reception” and “interpretation” of Hong Kong films by Western viewers. Thus, according to Lo, it is the Western viewers, in their ignorance, who construct the dubbed Hong Kong films as low-brow, “down-market amusements.” But the likelihood or generality of such a reception is overdetermined by the conspiring factors of under-educated subtitlers who are, moreover, overworked and underpaid by an industry in a hurry to shift its product. Thus, even if the Hong Kong films are sophisticated, complex texts, this dimension is going to be forever foreclosed to the monolingual or eurolingual Western viewer. What is lost in the double translation from living speech to incompetent writing is logos. What remains is the nonsense of the body and gibberish, unintelligible baby-talk. As such, the only people could possibly be interested in such a spectacle, are, of course, stupid people.
Lo does not say this explicitly. But everything in his argument suggests the operation of a very familiar logic: the denigration of popular culture; the conviction that it is stupid. In his own words, the badly subtitled film entails “the loss of proper meaning [which] offers a pleasure of its own to those who treasure alternative aesthetics and practice a radical connoisseurship that views mass culture’s vulgarity as the equal of avant-garde high art” (Lo 2005: 54). Thus, to Lo, “mass culture” is characterized by “vulgarity” and is not the equal of “avant-garde high art.” Popular culture is stupid.
Lo’s attendant argument, that the clunky subtitles are not really an “obstacle” to the smooth global circulation of commodities, but rather the condition of possibility for the success of the martial arts films, is similar. As he claims: “globalization is facilitated by the “hindrance” or the “symbolic resistance” inherent in the clumsy English subtitles—which represent a certain cultural specificity or designate certain ethnic characteristics of the port city” (54). Thus, Lo imagines the appeal of such films to be entirely fetishistic and ultimately racist. For, in Lo’s conceptualization, what Western audiences want is a foreignness to laugh at. As such, it is the films’ very palpable foreignness which helps them to succeed. Indeed, he concludes, “the subtitles as good and pleasing otherness are actually founded on the exclusion of the political dimension usually immanent in the encounter of the cultural other” (58). This is a core dimension of Lo’s argument: “Hong Kong cinema is basically perceived as a ‘good other’ to the American viewer insofar as it is analogous to the old Hollywood” (57). Thus, for Lo, the matter of subtitles in Hong Kong film ultimately amounts to a process of depoliticization. Yet is this in fact the case?
The Queerness of Cultural Translation
The 1972 international blockbuster Fist of Fury (also known as J?ng W? Mén [???] in Chinese and The Chinese Connection in America) begins with a burial. The founder of the J?ng W? martial arts school in the Shanghai International Settlement (1854-1943)—the much-mythologized historical figure, Huo Yuanjia—has died (1910). Before the very first scene, a narrator tells us that the events surrounding Master Huo’s death have always been shrouded in mystery, and that the film we are about to watch offers “one possible version” (“the most popular version”) of what may have happened. What happens—or what could have happened, according to this fable—is that Huo’s favorite pupil, Chen Zhen, played by Bruce Lee, returns to the J?ng W? School and refuses to accept that his master died of natural causes.
At the official funeral the next day, an entourage from a Japanese Bushido School arrives, late. They bear a gift, as was traditional. But the gift turns out to be an insult and a provocation: a framed inscription of the words “Sick Man of Asia” (????/d?ng yà bìng f?). Upon delivering this, the Japanese throw down a challenge, via their intermediary, the creepy, effeminate and decidedly queer translator called Wu (or, sometimes, Hu): if any Chinese martial artist can beat them, the Japanese martial artists will “eat these words.”
So begins what has become regarded as a martial arts classic. The film is organised by Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen’s ultimately suicidal quest for revenge against what turns out to have been not merely a Japanese martial arts challenge (Lee of course picks up the gauntlet thrown down by the Japanese—besting the entire Japanese school single-handedly the next day, in a fight scene that made martial arts choreographic history and is still clearly referenced in myriad fight scenes of all action genres to this day) but also a murderous piece of treachery: Lee subsequently discovers that his master was poisoned by two imposters who had been posing as Chinese cooks, but who were really Japanese spies. Again, their intermediary, their contact, the communicator of the orders, was the translator, Mr. Wu. Thus, what begins with a crass and irreverent ethnonationalist slur at a Chinese master’s funeral turns out to be part of a concerted plot to destroy the entire Chinese institution. As Fist of Fury makes clear, the assassination and the plot to destroy J?ng W? arose precisely because the Japanese were deeply concerned that the Chinese were far from being “sick men,” were actually too healthy, and could become too strong and pose too much of a potential challenge to Japanese power, if left to their own devices. However, as the film also makes clear, in this colonial situation, the odds have been stacked against the Chinese from the outset—no matter what they decide to do, they will not be left alone or allowed to prosper.
The translator is the first point of contact between the two cultures. The first face-to-face conscious contact follows the earlier behind-the-back, underhand and unequal contact of spying and assassination. To the Chinese, Wu is consistently belligerent, disrespectful and abusive. To the Japanese he is an obsequious crawler. On first face-to-face contact, at the funeral, Wu taunts the mourners, telling them that they are weak, pathetic and no better than cowardly dogs—simply because they are Chinese. A senior Chinese student (played by James Tien Chun) is evidently confused: he approaches Wu and demands an answer to one question. In the dubbed English version the question is: “Look here! Now, just what is the point of this?” And the answer is given: “Just that the Chinese are a race of weaklings, no comparison to us Japanese.” So, here, Wu is Japanese. However, in the English subtitled version, the question and answer are somewhat different. Here, the Chinese student says: “One question, are you Chinese?” To this, the answer is: “Yes, but even though we are of the same kind, our paths in life are vastly different.” So here, Wu is Chinese.
This disjunction between the subtitled version and the dubbed version may seem only to raise some fairly mundane questions of translation: namely, which version is correct, which version is faithful to the original? If by “original,” we mean the Cantonese audio track, then, in this instance at least, it is the subtitles which follow it most closely.8 But, as my act of distinguishing the audio tracks from the visual material implies, it seems valid to suggest, precisely because it is possible to separate out these various elements, that it is the very notion of the original here that should be engaged. For, the film was “shot postsynch,” with the soundtrack added to the film only after the entire film was shot (Lo 2005: 50). As such, the visual and the aural are already technically divergent, distinct textual combinations, even in the putative “original.” So, if we wish to refer to it, the question must be: which original?
It is of more than anecdotal interest to note at this point that the actor who plays the translator here—Paul Wei Ping-Ao—provided the voice over not only for the Cantonese audio but also for the English audio. This means that the actor who plays the translator is also actually an active part of the translation of the text. It also means that the translated version of this film is also another/different “original” version; a secondary, supplementary original, playing the part of a translation. It equally means that, given the overlapping production and translation processes involved in the technical construction of not “this film” but rather “these films,” the quest to establish and separate the original from the copy or the original from the translation becomes vertiginous.
Certain binaries are blurred because of this fractured bilinguality. These are the very binaries which fundamentally structure and hierarchize many approaches to translation: fidelity/infidelity, primary/secondary, original/copy, authentic/construction, etc.9 Here, the fractured bilinguality is itself symptomatic of what we might call (following Benjamin) a Chinese “intention” in a text produced in British Hong Kong about Japanese coloniality. This is a multiply-colonized text about a colonial situation produced in a different colonial context. In it, the supposedly stable binaries of text and translation are substantially unsettled. Indeed, this is so much so, I think, that what we are able to see here is what Rey Chow calls a “materialist though elusive fact about translation;” namely, to use Walter Benjamin’s proposition, that “translation is primarily a process of putting together.” As Chow explains, for Benjamin, translation is a process which “demonstrates that the “original,” too, is something that has been put together”—and she, following Benjamin, adds: “in its violence” (Chow 1995: 185). What part does “violence” play, here?
There are several obvious forms of violence in the putting together of both the English and the Cantonese versions. Obviously there is the well-worn theme of the ethnonationalist violence of the film’s primary drama: Bruce Lee’s fantastic, phantasmatic, suicidal, symbolic victory (even in death) over the Japanese oppressors. But there is also the more subtle “violence” or “forcing” involved in constraining the English dubbing to synching with the lip movements of a different-language dialogue. This is “violent” in its semiotic consequences. For instance, as we have already seen, it violently simplifies the complexity of the translator, Mr. Wu. In the dubbed version, he becomes simply Japanese and therefore simply other. And this signals or exemplifies a further dimension. The dubbed version seems consistently to drastically simplify the situation of the film. That is, it dislodges the visibility of the themes of the politics of coloniality that are central to the subtitled (and presumably also to the Cantonese) versions, and empties out the socio-political complexity of the film, transforming it into a rather childish tale of bullies and bullying: in the dubbed version, the Japanese simply bully the innocent and consistently confused Chinese, simply because they are bullies. More complex issues are often elided. This is nowhere more clear than in the difference between the question “n? shì Zh?ng guó rén ma?” (“are you Chinese?”) and the alternative question, “just what is the point of this?”
However, although “are you Chinese?” is literally faithful to the Cantonese, and although “what is the point of this?” is not, and is more simplistic, I do not want to discount, discard or disparage this literally inadequate translation. This is not least because the question “just what is the point of this?” is surely one of the most challenging and important questions to which academics really ought to respond. It is also because the unfaithful translation is the one which perhaps most enables the film to be transmissible—that is, to make sense elsewhere, in the non-Chinese contexts of the film’s own transnational diasporic dissemination. This is to recall Benjamin’s proposal that a work’s “transmissibility” actually arises “in opposition to its ‘truth’” (Chow 1995: 199). This contention arises in Benjamin’s discussion of Kafka, in which he asserts that: “Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition” in which the “consistency of truth…has been lost.” Thus, suggests Benjamin, Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility” (Benjamin quoted in Chow 1995: 199). Picking up on this, Chow adds Vattimo’s Nietzschean proposal that this “sickness” is constitutive of transmissibility and is what enables and drives the “turning and twisting of tradition away from its metaphysical foundations, a movement that makes way for the hybrid cultures of contemporary society” (195).10
This issue of transmissibility might be taken to suggest one of two things: either, “just what is the point of this?” is the more primary or more “universal” question, because it is more transmissible; or this translation/transformation loses the essential stakes of the local specificity of the ethnonationalist question “Are you Chinese?”
Rather than adjudicating on the question of transmissibility and (or versus) truth in “direct” terms, it strikes me as more responsible to expose each of these questions to each other. Thus, in the face of the question “Are you Chinese?” we might ask: “Just what is the point of this?” and vice versa. In doing so, we ought to be able to perceive a certain ethnonationalist “violence” lurking in the construction of the former question. For instance, “Are you Chinese?” is regularly leveled—accusingly—at translated or globally successful “Chinese” films (as Chow often discusses). It is often asked aggressively, pejoratively, dismissively—as if simultaneously demanding fidelity and essence, and suggesting treachery.
The accusative question leveled at Hu the translator strongly implies that if Hu/Wu is Chinese, then he, in being a translator, is a traitor. Translator, traitor: “Traduttore, traditore,” runs the Italian expression, as Rey Chow reminds us. But in Fist of Fury there is more. The translator is a pervertor: a pervertor of tradition, first of all. And also: a very queer character. The film draws a relation between the translator and queerness. It makes the translator queer. Because he crosses over.
In Fist of Fury the translator adopts Western sartorial norms and works for the powerful Japanese presence that exerts such a considerable force in the international settlement in Shanghai. He enables communication between the Chinese and the Japanese institutions, and also sabotages one institution’s development at a particularly fraught moment—the funeral, the moment of transition/translation/passing over from one generation to the next, from the stability of the founding master’s presence and protection to the uncertain leadership of his multiple senior students. The translator in fact precipitated this unnatural crisis in the first place—installing spies and transmitting assassination orders. The translator is a pervertor. So, it is unsurprising that he has been constructed as certainly “queer” and probably gay.
In this largely erotically-neutered film, Mr. Hu’s sexuality is unclear. All that is clear is that he is creepy and effeminate. But if we are in any doubt about his sexuality, this same character, played by the same actor, was to return in Lee’s next film, Way of the Dragon (1972). Way of the Dragon is a film that Lee himself directed and in which he plays Tang Lung, a mainland/New Territories Hong Kong martial artist who flies to Rome to help his friend’s niece when her restaurant business is threatened by a veritably multicultural, interracial “mafia” gang. The Chinese title of Way of the Dragon (M?ng Lóng Guò Ji?ng / ????) is rendered literally as something like “the fierce dragon crosses the river,” which refers to travel and migration, and hence to the diasporic Chinese crossing over to Europe.
In both Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, the same actor plays virtually the same character. However, in the European location of Way of the Dragon, we have crossed over from “traditional” China to “modern” Europe. So the translator becomes blatantly gay: wearing flamboyant clothing and behaving flirtatiously with Lee’s character, Tang Lung (Chan 2000). In the later film, the translator is “queerness unleashed.” But the point to be emphasized here is that the same reiterated rendering of the translator as creepy and queer is central to both films—in much the same way that Judas is central to the story of Jesus. If it weren’t for him, none of this would be possible, but as a contact zone or agency of communication and movement, he is responsible for warping and perverting things. In both films, the translator enters at a moment or situation of crossing over, and signals the break, the end of stability, the severance from paternal protection, from tradition. “And yet,” notes Chow, “the word tradition itself, linked in its roots to translation and betrayal, has to do with handing over. Tradition itself is nothing if it is not a transmission. How is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation?” (1995: 183)
Chow’s championing of such translation notwithstanding, the answer to her rhetorical question (“how is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation?”) as (if) it is given by both films is not that “tradition ought to be transmitted through translation,” but rather that “tradition ought to be transmitted through monolingualism and monoculturalism.” The problem—and it is presented as a problem in the films—is that culture does not stay “mono.” Its authorities want it to be; its institutions try to make it stay so; but it cannot. Even the most pure repetition is never pure, but is rather impure—a reiteration which differs and alters, introducing alterity, however slightly: re-itera, as Derrida alerted us. Basically, that is, one does not “need” an insidious translator to pervert things. The unstoppable flow of transnational popular cultural products, commodities and practices, mass media sounds and images, and filmic texts does the job of the pervertor quite well enough. And surely far more cross-cultural encounters, exchanges and transactions are enacted by way of mass commodities than by way of dry hermeneutic or linguistic translation.
Given this plague of contact zones, Chow argues: “cultural translation can no longer be thought of simply in linguistic terms, as the translation between Western and Eastern verbal languages alone” (196-7). Rather, she proposes, “cultural translation needs to be rethought as the co-temporal exchange and contention between different social groups deploying different sign systems that may not be synthesizable to one particular model of language or representation” (197). As such:
Considerations of the translation of or between cultures…have to move beyond verbal and literary languages to include events of the media such as radio, film, television, video, pop music, and so forth, without writing such events off as mere examples of mass indoctrination. Conversely, the media, as the loci of cultural translation, can now be seen as what helps to weaken the (literary, philosophical, and epistemological) foundations of Western domination and what makes the encounter between cultures a fluid and open-ended experience. (197)
Once again, it strikes me as important to reiterate at this point that although the encounters of cultural translation may be fluid and open-ended, the treatment of such encounters by academics and cultural commentators is far from fluid and open-ended. On the contrary, such treatment seems rigid; overdetermined, even. Translatory encounters of or between cultures are, in fact, regularly treated by academics and cultural commentators in a manner akin to the way the translator is treated in these films: ridiculed, reviled, rejected and killed—but too late. Such films, whether putatively lowbrow like these or supposedly highbrow like those of Zhang Yimou or Ang Lee are often regarded with disdain: as not “real,” not “true” or not “faithful” translations of that fantastic phantasmatic essentialized entity known as “China.”11 Such texts are regularly written off as trivial and trivializing, commodified, orientalist, unfaithful, secondary, derived, warped, warping, and so on. But as the works of thinkers like Chow have proposed, such responses to migrant texts like these might be (essentialized as) essentialist. Nevertheless, asks Chow: “can we theorize translation between cultures without somehow valorizing some ‘original’?” Moreover, “can we theorize translation between cultures in a manner that does not implicitly turn translation into an interpretation toward depth, toward ‘profound meaning’?” (192)12 Her answer urges us to rethink translation by way of mass commodities, whose “transmissibility” arguably arises “in opposition to … ‘truth’” (Chow 1995: 199) in the context of a “sickness of tradition.” Recall that this “sickness” is actually constitutive of transmissibility, suggests Chow (Chow 1995: 195).
To this I would add: this sickness is queer. In constructing the translator as a traitor and “therefore” as queer, both of these films cling to tradition—a tradition that seems universal and seems to need no translating. If we ask of this tradition, “Are you Chinese?” the answer must be: yes, but no; yes and no.13 And if we ask “Just what is the point of this?” one answer must be that it points to a queer relation—but a clear relation—between translation and queering. About which much could be said. The point I want to emphasize here is that the primary field of “translation between cultures,” through their twisting, turning, concatenation, warping and “queering” is, of course, that supposed “realm” (which could perhaps be rather better understood as the condition) called mass or popular culture.
As we have seen, Chow’s contention is that “There are multiple reasons why a consideration of mass culture is crucial to cultural translation.” To her mind, “the predominant one” is to examine “that asymmetry of power relations between the ‘first’ and the ‘third’ worlds.” However, she continues immediately, “Critiquing the great disparity between Europe and the rest of the world means not simply a deconstruction of Europe as origin or simply a restitution of the origin that is Europe’s others but a thorough dismantling of both the notion of origin and the notion of alterity as we know them today” (193-4). In Bruce Lee films, of course—in a manner akin to the arguments of the critics who regard popular filmic representations as betrayals of “China”—the “origin” is avowedly not Europe, but “China”—the spectral, haunting, “absent presence,” the evocation (or illusion-allusion) of “China.”
From this perspective, there are two alterities: the “simple” alterity of the enemy, and the “double” alterity of the translator. In Fist of Fury, alterity seems unequivocal: an enemy (the colonizers—Japan in particular). When the Hong Kong films cross over to Europe, for Way of the Dragon, however, origin and alterity become more complicated.
In Lee’s first martial arts film, The Big Boss (1971), he plays a migrant Chinese worker in Thailand—a country boy cum migrant proletarian whose enemy is a foreign capitalist/criminal. In Fist of Fury, when hiding from the authorities, Chen Zhen’s peers emphasize that even though they can’t find him he surely cannot be far away because he is a country boy who does not know Shanghai. In Way of the Dragon, in Italy, Lee’s character rejoices in the fact that he comes not from urban Hong Kong Island but from the rural mainland New Territories. Dragged grudgingly on a tour of the sites of Rome, he is evidently rather under-whelmed. In the sole scene of Fist of Fury that was filmed outdoors, at the entrance to a segregated public park, Lee’s character evidently only wants to go into the park because, being Chinese, he is not allowed—because China has been provincialized: a turban-wearing, English-speaking Indian official at the gate directs Lee’s attention to a sign which says “No Chinese and Dogs Allowed.”
In other words, all of the injustices in Lee’s Hong Kong films are organized along ethnonationalist and class lines, and the notion of the origin in these films is the idea of mainland China. This idea in itself provincializes the various locations of each of the films. All of the places that are “not China” are just vaguely “somewhere else,” and that elsewhere is “bad” (or at least not very good) because, wherever it is, it is “not China”—not the free, proud, strong, independent “imagined community” China “to come.”
Of course, in sharing this tendency, these films construct a Chinese identity that is also based on actively celebrating or enjoying being what Chow calls “the West’s ‘primitive others’” (1995: 194).14 To this extent these films may easily seem, in Chow’s words, to be “equally caught up in the generalized atmosphere of unequal power distribution and [to be] actively (re)producing within themselves the structures of domination and hierarchy that are as typical of non-European cultural histories as they are of European imperialism” (194). Yet, at the same time, they are also and nevertheless (to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s term) actively involved in “provincializing Europe,” albeit without any reciprocal (self-reflexive) problematization of “China” (see Chow 1995: 195).
However, it strikes me that such a problematization was palpably embryonic and growing in many of Lee’s other works: in his TV roles, personal writings and interviews, Lee increasingly gestured to a postnationalist, liberal multiculturalist ideology; and it was perhaps “in the post” at the time of his death in the form of his declared intentions for his unfinished film Game of Death. But even in his “early” film, Way of the Dragon, even though it is certainly caught up in a degree of masochistic enjoyment of Chinese victimhood, the film arguably enacts what Chow’s proposed approach to film (“as ethnography”) could construe as a significant discursive move. So it is with a brief—summary—consideration of this embryonic impulse that I would like to conclude this essay.
The very first scenes of Way of the Dragon place Lee in the arrivals area of an airport in Rome. Lee is surrounded by white westerners and is being stared at, implacably, unremittingly, and inscrutably by a middle-aged white woman. This lengthy, awkward and tense scene goes nowhere. The woman is eventually dragged away by a man who comes to meet her. It is followed immediately by an excruciatingly long scene in which Lee’s character goes in search of food, around the airport. First he approaches a child and asks (in Chinese) “food?,” “eat?” and then, pointing to his mouth, “eggs?” whereupon the camera changes to the child’s point of view, showing a huge towering man looming over the child, pointing at his own mouth and making horrendous gurgling sounds. The child screams, and Lee’s Tang Lung hurries away. He soon stumbles across a restaurant, which he enters. Unable to make sense of the (supposedly) Italian menu, he points confidently to more than half a dozen dishes—all of which turn out to be different kinds of Campbell’s soup. So Lee is presented with a ludicrous dinner of multiple bowls of soup, which he brazenly pretends he knew he had ordered.
These slow, clumsy and somewhat bizarre scenes could easily strike viewers, especially white Western viewers, as a peculiar way to begin a martial arts film—a film, it should be noted, that very soon opens out into extreme violence, murder, mortal treachery, and even a gladiatorial fight to the death in the Roman Coliseum. Beginning such a film with these rather tortuous efforts at comedy seems to be a peculiar directorial decision.
However, there is something significant in the way that these opening scenes dramatize ethnic experience. The film shows us an ethnic “viewed object,” of course. But it does so from a crucial point of view; one in which “‘viewed object’ is now looking at ‘viewing subject’ looking” (Chow 1995: 180-1). Thus, over 20 years before Chow proposed precisely such a twisting (or queering) of specular relations away from a simple subject-object dieresis as the way to escape the deadlock of Western anthropology, “simple” popular cultural artifacts like this film were already actively engaged in this deconstruction, in which Europe is not the viewing subject and Europe is not “the gaze,” and in which—as Way of the Dragon seems to be at pains to make plain—Europe is just some place in an increasingly fluid globality.
Europe never becomes origin or destination in the film. In fact Italy itself never really becomes much more than an airport lounge—a zone of indeterminacy, a contact zone; just some place or other, between origin-A and destination-B, C, D, or X, Y, Z. Lee leaves Hong Kong to help a diasporic working community. He flies to Europe. The Europeans cannot defeat him. Frustrated, they arrange to fly in “America’s best.” America’s best takes the form of “Colt,” a martial artist played by Chuck Norris. Colt flies in. His arrival is filmed from a low angle. He walks down from a jet plane, and towards the camera. A drum beat marks his every powerful step. As he approaches, what is more and more foregrounded is his crotch. When he reaches the camera, it is his crotch that comes to fill the entire screen and close the scene. And so it continues: as has been much remarked, Colt is all crotch; Lee is all lithe, striated torso. Their pre-fight warm-ups are more like foreplay; their fighting is more like love-making (Chan 2000; Hunt 2003). But the film plays the standard semiotics of powerful masculinity; in other words, treading a fine line between emphasizing heteronormativity and crossing over into outright homoeroticism. Hating the queer element is important in order to assert that this text itself is not of or for the queer; whilst all the time exemplifying the polymorphously perverse recombination, intermingling and reconstitution of cultures, provincializing and queering Europe.