Lost in Translation

Friday June 8th, 2012 by No Comments

Most of the audio interviews I’ve recorded have been conducted in English although I have been keen to suggest to participants to speak in Chinese if they feel more comfortable, or if there is something they feel they can better express in their first language.

It’s fascinating to hear people speak in two languages; the cadence and tones of someone’s voice say so much and are more natural in the mother tongue, revealing different parts of the speaker’s personality. Although my own Mandarin is still at a fairly basic level, I feel like it’s a different part of me who speaks and responds in this language. I’m currently reading ‘Lost in Translation’ by Eva Hoffman, a beautifully written autobiography. Born in Poland, Hoffman emigrated with her family to Canada in 1958 not being able to speak a word of English. She talks honestly of the very real, sometimes emotional difficulties of learning and using a second language:

‘When my friend Penny tells me that she’s envious, or happy, or disappointed, I try laboriously to translate not from English to Polish but from the word back to its source, to the feeling from which it springs. Already, in that moment of strain, spontaneity of response is lost. And anyway, the translation doesn’t work. I don’t know how Penny feels when she talks about envy.’ 

Hoffman also mentions the joys of learning a new language, how the world begins to opens up as you gain new vocabulary:

I’ve become obsessed with words. I gather them, put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down.’

She speaks of how fluency in the new language, and assimilation into the culture and community of the new home, contribute to a loss of innocence, of wholeness that can never be regained, but ultimately, this too can make you stronger:

‘No, there’s no returning to the point of origin, no regaining of childhood unity…When I speak Polish now, it is infiltrated, permeated, and infected by the English in my head. Each language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilises it….Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages – the languages of my family and friendship, and love, and the larger, changing world – though perhaps I tend to be more aware than most of the fractures between them, and of the building blocks. The fissures sometimes cause me pain, but in a way, they’re how I know that I’m alive’. 

I’m finding Hoffman’s book quite affecting; maybe you can never see your own country in the same light once you’ve left it behind, whether for a week or a lifetime. I agree with Hoffman that this can be a positive and powerful thing.

We’ve been thinking of how better to incorporate Chinese into the project, although we are cautious of having a strictly bilingual project, which might be quite divisive. We’d like to have a combination of English, Mandarin Chinese, and local dialects to draw on the richness of language and text that are used by participants on a daily basis. Zhuoer has kindly translated some audio clips which you can listen to in Chinese below.


[audio:http://blog.youziproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/LinnaWei_Chinese.mp3] (Linna Wei during our interview at her home)

‘I think life is quite boring here. Well, it has something to do with how you treat it. If you want your life to be more colourful, you can do it by making your schedule full. For example, when I just arrived I would make myself try something new, like going to church. But then, when winter came and it was getting cold, I didn’t bother to go anywhere. I just stayed at home, surfed the internet or watched American TV series.

When your life is like this, you’d find that there is no difference whether you here in the UK or not. So I feel I didn’t make the most of my time here. My study only lasts for one year, it’s short. If only I spent more time traveling, going out to experience the culture or make friends with local people, my life would be far more meaningful. But, well, sometimes people are just too lazy.’


[audio:http://blog.youziproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/AlexZhangChinese_election_edited.mp3] (Alex Zhang after finding out he’d lost the election)

‘Well, I think, really, sometimes Chinese are just like an old saying goes, one Chinese is like a dragon; a group of Chinese? They are worms. I came to realise more and more how true this is.

In China, well everyone was getting on well with each other. When you are abroad, when you take part in the student activities or elections, you come to feel this. It’s no one’s fault, it’s a cultural thing. If I were you, I guess I would be exactly the same as you guys, doing nothing. I’m not complaining or saying who is wrong. Everyone is like this, the whole group of Chinese students who are studying abroad. Not to mention that there is no such thing like democratic election. You know what I mean.

The result is in. It’s over. I need to move on. I need to cherish my last few months’ time in Sheffield. I should study hard so as to get my degree.

Now I’m going to call my parents back home.’


[audio:http://blog.youziproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Yindanyouziyin_Chinese.mp3] (Yindan speaking about the Youzi Yin poem)

‘As in ancient times, all clothes are hand-made and when the loving mother is sewing the cloth for the traveling son, she also weaves her love and missing thoughts, and her reluctance to say goodbye to his traveling son into her sewing. It is through such details in daily life that the loving mother’s natural attachment to her traveling son is reflected.

In the poem, the travelling son likens to the powerless grass and a mother’s love to the sunshine in springtime. It is through the contrast between trivial grass and wide sky or sunshine that the travelling son’s love for his mother is expressed wholeheartedly.

This poem demonstrates the beauty of human nature; humble, unremarkable, but great. It has resonated with many readers, especially those who are living far away from home. So it is a beloved poem.

Reading this poem makes me think of my parents, eagerly and strongly. Though  they don’t need to sew clothes for me anymore, and we are have far-advanced technologies to enable us to communicate far away, such as video-chatting online, the attachment to my mother, and of my mother to me, has never changed, and never will change.’

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