Translating trauma and violence is not just about deciphering pain but also about recreating an emotional language that helps us to understand each other better.
Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise
Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise
It is already complex to translate our own grief, let alone translate grief that is shared by others in many forms. What does it look like when we carry our grief while witnessing or reading agony descending on others? How do private narratives bond with the universal language? What does translating collective grief look like?
Before I came to America, my cousin passed away prematurely after years of lasting health issues. Traditional funerals in my Taiwanese family are conducted in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Hakka. Sanskrit is the language of power, of transition, and is deemed to be the language of our ceremony, while Chinese and Hakka are languages of home and heritage that bond the living family members with the deceased. Among all the languages spoken at the occasion, it was the unspoken emotional language that truly defined our relationship to my cousin and brought memories in reminiscence of this loved one.
I remember wearing a long black robe at the funeral. Next to a winding incense forest, my cousin’s mother inserted a cigarette. She said that was what he used to enjoy. The smoke of the cigarette intertwined with the curvy white smoke drifting out from the incense, pricking my nose and welling many eyes with tears.
During the service, my family was told to follow the funeral director and recite the Sanskrit scripture with phonetic translation in Chinese. Without understanding the contents, we were able to read without letting out any emotions in public, believing the language was spoken as a process of bringing someone we love to a better place. An unknown language has the ability to erase the border between life and death. Through distance and unfamiliarity with the language, my family was able to process our grief.
When Mandarin Chinese or Hakka was spoken at the funeral, these languages brought all of us closer. We said what we wanted to say in our languages—even in silence—to bid farewell and to give our emotional language a place to reside, to have its identity. I watched my cousin’s mother whimper when they carried the coffin out toward cremation. Following the tradition, the marching began after my cousin’s mother raised a black cane above the coffin and tapped three times on the cover. It was her last gesture as his mother. The moment she raised the cane, I saw days of tears swollen together and piled on her eyelids, her near inability to raise the cane, her lips tightening together, refusing to release her language, and her crestfallen gaze that met mine. That gaze, my observation of her pain, was our shared language.
For years, English has been my language of shelter. When I was young, I wrote my journals in a mix of French, Spanish, and English, documenting the weddings and funerals happening at home. Being born in a family where we revealed our emotions only very occasionally gave me the urge to build multiple language barriers. The fact that my handwriting was easy to read and that most of the people still understood English gave me the idea of building layers into my narratives.
I documented what I saw on the news: the memorial of the 921 earthquake in 1999 that left our apartment with a huge deep crack; the many floods from powerful typhoons that sunk our cities into a town of water; the political threat of China that brought the members of my family to start each of our own immigration plans; the 2014 Taipei metro attack that put almost all Taiwan citizens into deep fear and panic. Taiwan is such an isolated island in the global society, so it was through writing multilingually that I was able to identify emotions in my surroundings and deep within myself. Through multilingualism, I found a way to properly process and remember the meaning of collective grief and build a space for myself as a writer and translator.
What does translating collective grief look like?
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, I started translating Taiwnaese author Wu Ming-Yi’s short story “The Descent.” The story primarily focuses on the relationship between a father and daughter, who were closely connected with their memories but separated due to the onslaught of the pandemic. In response to the collective grief that took place globally, Wu Ming-Yi weaves together the metaphor of captured monk crabs with the quiet bonding and fading memories of a family that was torn apart by the virus with such elegance. Translating this story showed me one way beauty and elegance can have a place in a story of suffering and trauma.
When translating violence and trauma, what are the ways to take care of ourselves while engaging with deep, turbulent emotions?
Before I started translating, I tried engaging myself not just with the author’s work, but also with the author’s intention. I asked myself, How do they want to give life to their work? By seeking out this understanding, I was able to translate and address the topic in a more objective way. And when I translate work with content that is triggering to me, I keep a list of things to do that allow me to temporarily detach from the work so that I can come back with a better mental state. When I was translating Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise, I allowed myself a long walk toward Gantry Park in Queens to watch the full skyline of Manhattan, accompanied by light music in a language I don’t speak; I watched the sun and shadows playing in the park before closing my eyes to bring the best memories back through voice, smell, and sights. I might wear the perfume I wore during my road trip in Germany, listen to recordings of the waves back in Rio de Janeiro at New Year’s Eve, and watch the sun descending down the horizon right in front of me, reminding myself to enjoy that very present moment.
Why should we translate literature about violence and trauma? How do we render these emotions as a translator? I view the experience as an opportunity to engage with the unfamiliar that is bonded by emotions and translation. Being a translator is like being trusted with long-withheld secrets, and through my words in another language, I am able to transfer these memories and emotions so they can be shared by invested readers who seek to understand stories that need to be told from everywhere in the world.
Sometimes, I imagine trauma and violence as a forest of our own. There is darkness and fear upon approaching the place at certain moments, but deep inside, there is magic and strength that burst with elegance that comes from within us. During my childhood, I was taught to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English. And to this day, the story stays with me as a reminder that there is always beauty in the darkness, and sometimes it is through the existence of darkness that we find power and strength to seek perpetual solace.
For me, literature that contains trauma is a treasure each author hides in their forests: They flourish with their own elegance and magic. And it is through reading about the history and culture, and deciphering the beauty in a diversity of literary forms, that I am able to build a solid bond through the emotions we have mutually weathered. The fact that we, as writers, translators, and readers, have the power to feel and live with these emotions, through perseverance and hope, gives me the courage to continue exploring the world through translation.
Jenna Tang is a literary translator based in New York. She translates from Chinese, French and Spanish. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her translations and essays are published in Restless Books, Latin American Literature Today, AAWW, McSweeney's, Catapult and elsewhere. Her interviews are at World Literature Today and Words Without Borders. She is a selected translator for the 2021 ALTA Emerging Translators Mentorship with a focus on Taiwanese prose.