| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write Translating Against Cultural Stereotypes
As creative writers, we have the right to ask our readers to focus on what the “real story” is. Try out this writing exercise from Jenna Tang to practice avoiding cultural stereotypes.
When I first started my career as a Taiwanese writer and translator, whatever work I presented, whether it be chapters of my own novel (based on the Taiwanese landscape), or works from Taiwanese writers I loved translating, I found myself constantly having to explain. As an emerging writer/ translator at the time, I was eager for people to know that Taiwan has its own literary landscape, and that our Mandarin isn’t all the same as China’s language.
The idea of cultural stereotypes demands for me, and so many others, to demonstrate cultural ornaments and explain old traditions—e.g. the reader’s attention is focused so much on questions arising from not understanding the “underlying languages” that are such a big part of our cultures, rather than focusing on the stories that we are trying to share.
As creative writers, we have the right to ask our readers to focus on what the “real story” is. Cultural stereotypes can make creatives feel the need to correct someone, but then how do we find the balance to not overly explain ourselves and tell our stories?
It can be exhausting to discuss topics like this, but not when we feel less alone. In my upcoming translation workshop, “ Translating Against Cultural Stereotypes ,” I’ll bring a community of writers and translators together to focus on these topics and walk away with exercises and a toolkit that help us avoid stigmatization and bring in perspectives that make these stories shine in their true colors.
The following writing/translating exercise is a shorter version of one I plan to do in the translation workshop:
First, give yourself a comfortable writing space. Try to engage yourself with a piece of memory from a place you consider home (and this home doesn’t have to be your childhood home, it can be anywhere that gives you a sense of belonging)—one that is emotional but makes you happy to think about. Or think about someone you love from home. Let that feeling settle with you, your body. Close your eyes and write a short paragraph about what this feeling of “home” means to you.
Second, take a page or two from your notebook and make two lists. Let’s start with the first: What are the cultural stereotypes that people often have about your culture(s)? This list can look like a series of bullet point questions, or just ideas, remarks, and items that you have often heard or read. Don’t hesitate to make a generous list. Give yourself 5-6 minutes for the first list. My list might look like:
1) Why do people focus so much on understanding the local dishes presented in the story, instead of the story itself? Instead of asking where this story goes, it seems like readers want me to explain what these foods look and taste like—more than for the story to “come across” on the page.
2) Taiwan speaks Mandarin as a primary language, but that doesn’t mean there’s one Mandarin for all Mandarin-speakers.
3) It is true that we have a lot of Daoist temples, but they’re just places people go; many people attend churches and others are atheists. Temples aren’t always central to living in Taiwan.
Now, imagine that you are someone who isn’t familiar with the culture you’ve described in your first list and that they are reading a story based on that culture. What are ways that you can help make a story about your culture come across in a way that’s most true for you? Try making a list of ways to un-explain yourself. You might find yourself answering questions or taking actions such as:
1) In light of Khairani Barokka’s essay “ The Case Against Italicizing ‘Foreign’ Words ,” de-italicize words that might be “confusing” to audiences who focus too much on food and cultural embellishments when they aren’t the focus in your story.
2) While translating, sometimes there’s no equivalence in English words. And how do we translate names? Does transliteration work well already? Or do we break it down to present the “idea?”
3) What is the core of this story? Who is central to this story, and in what way does this story connect with you emotionally? What would you want a reader to understand best?
Take another 5-7 minutes to write down the second list. You have all the rights to feel vulnerable while working on this exercise. Remind yourself to think about the good memory or the person that matters most to you. They may or may not be related to the story you write or translate, but it is a good way to keep that warmth and good energy in you. We are never obligated to be cultural ambassadors, but we are here to tell the stories we most want to tell, whether we write them ourselves or we choose to translate them.
The very last exercise we will do, after making two lists, is to write a paragraph for yourself. Why do you write this story in the first place? If you’re translating this story, then why do you translate this story? What are the emotional values for you, and what are the underrepresented concepts/ideas that you think are important to show?
Take another 10 minutes to write, though you can let yourself go as far as you want for any of these exercises. You can also come back to these lists and this paragraph for yourself whenever you ’ d like, and add more writing. You may find them changing over time as you continue writing/translating, and that’s awesome, because growing such lists and writing also means we are also growing.
This series of exercises can surely be done alone, but it would be fun and helpful to also do it with translator/writer friends that you trust. We can make our own lists and discuss with each other, allowing conversations to take place. It is not our job to explain so many background stories and cultural details, but it is worthwhile for us to think about questions and conversations that will make our translations/stories be seen in the way we want them to.
If you enjoyed this prompt, don ’ t miss the opportunity to sign up for Jenna ’ s upcoming workshop ! Class begins in January.