September 09, 2005

Book Review: The Dyer's Daughter

The Dyer's Daughter: Selected Stories of Xiao Hong (染布匠的女兒)
By: Xiao Hong (蕭紅)
Translator: Howard Goldblatt
ISBN: 962996014

The Dyer's Daughter is the eighth and newest entry in the “Bilingual Series on Modern Chinese Literature” published by The Chinese University Press. The series publishes attractive additions of modern Chinese classics, with top-quality translations opposite the Chinese original text. The Dyer's Daughter was translated by Howard Goldblatt, who received a translation of the year award from the American Literary Translators Association in 1999, as the book jacket states. (According to the association website, the award was in 2000, and Goldblatt worked with co-translator Sylvia Lin on the translation of Taiwanese writer Chu T'ien-Wen's “Notes of a Desolate Man.”) So, I expected that the experience of reading this book would be as much about examining the craft of literary translation as about reading the works of Xiao Hong.

The first thing to figure out was the best order for reading the Chinese and English texts. The layout of the book suggests reading a page of English followed by a much shorter page of Chinese. I did not opt for that approach, but in any case, one cannot help but scan back and forth between the texts. The result is that reading the book takes considerably longer than reading either monolingual text.

Reading the text twice gives ample opportunity to observe one’s reaction to seeing the same narration in two languages. What I found, to my surprise, is that I appreciate a well-written English sentence much more than its Chinese counterpart. The problem is not limited understanding; the problem is that although Chinese words have tones that the English words do not, for me, they lack a musical quality that I guess comes only by hearing and reading millions of words. To extend the metaphor, understanding a word is like recognizing pitch and volume of a musical note. A history of hearing a word used allows one to recognize its timbre. So, until you have heard words and phrases many times, reading a text is like experiencing a tinny MIDI reproduction, rather than a high-fidelity recording.

You are probably thinking, if reading Chinese as a foreign language is like listening to a reproduction, then what is reading the translation like? In a quality translation, you can distinguish the tone quality, but it is as if a violin is playing the part of a Chinese erhu. Or as if a soprano is singing a verse of Chinese opera meant to be sung in falsetto. It’s just not the same thing; it has been culturally transformed.
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The six short stories in The Dyer’s Daughter appear to be in chronological order. Unfortunately, dates are not included with each story, so I am not sure. Regardless of date, the order of the short stories undoubtedly shows development in narration and tone. The first story, “Wang Asao” is “a tale of almost unrelieved sadness, in which the fundamental cause of death and misery is poverty, while the issue of class (landlord/tenant, rich/poor) underlies the personal tragedies” as Goldblatt states in the introduction. In the following stories, poverty and class remain dominant themes, but the range of emotions expands, and the concerns of the character become more personal.
The third story, “Hands” (手), is the story from which the collection draws it name. The protagonist is a cloth dyer’s daughter who struggles to make it through school. Unlike the first story, which exposes the cruelty of feudalistic society, the situation in “Hands” is one that is easy to imagine in the present. While the character’s dyed hands are a powerful visual symbol of class, elementary school children have always been able to practice class discrimination by noticing much subtler signs of class. As I read the story, I could not help but think about an elementary school classmate who was tormented for class reasons, similar to the girl in “Hands.” Her clothes were cheap, her mother drove a junky car, and people complained that she stank. When her mother came to school to try to settle things out, the mother’s manners just gave kids more fuel for their insults. (In a pitiful attempt to counter their insults, she had a limousine pick her up from school on her birthday.)

In the fourth story in the book, “The Family Outsider” (家族意以外的人), the abuse continues. This time, there are two objects: You Erbo, a man who does not have the blood line to be a true member of the family, and Huazi, the narrator, who is a daughter of the family. The effects of being an outsider are shown physically and mentally. One passage uses a lone tree as a metaphor for an outsider. “By the time winter arrived, the elm tree had shed its leaves; as it stood there alone, every gust of wind from the west struck it with full force.” This image of You Erbo is foreshadowed earlier in the story: “You Erbo was standing under the eaves still half naked, that wet garment of his hanging on a line and flapping in the wind.”The last story is a satire. It is the story of a teacher who attempts to flee the war with the Japanese while carrying a heap of belongings, including fifty catties of old newspapers. Like the other stories, the story seems designed to raise consciousness about the maladies of the society, but the style is humorous and modern. “Although before the War of Resistance he had been almost violently anti-Chinese, after the outbreak of war he’d softened his attitude a bit.” The difference in style from “Wang Asao” is even more remarkable when you realize that Xiao Hong (1911-1942) had only nine productive years of writing.


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