Edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang
Reviewed by Virginia L. Conn
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2023)
An anthology, like any material product, is a cultural object that moves through the world. It does not exist independently of context—on either the creative or receiving end—and thus means different things to different people. The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories is a collection with a deliberately ambiguous context: written, translated, and edited by what the cover labels a “visionary team of female and non-binary creators,” the stories contained within may mean very different things to Sinophone and/or Anglophone readers, not least of which is what role gender plays in the stories and how we are intended to receive them as a result.
A collection of seventeen pieces of science fiction and five nonfiction essays, The Way Spring Arrives (TWSA) is edited by the inimitable Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang and was released in early 2022 by Tor. The anthology as a whole treats gender as a mechanism for creating and transmitting cultural values and, as a result, gender itself as an act of speculative worldbuilding that often leaves the specifics of how it functions unexamined. In fact, rather than a collection of methods and practices for dismantling extant approaches to gender, TWSA is better understood as a collection at the nexus of three issues that are both co-constitutive and co-confounding: gender, translation, and speculation. What does it mean to write a text as/for/about the non-male other, and how do we recognize this otherness? What happens when non-maleness encompasses a range of experiences, embodiments, and perspectives that are not necessarily shared, nor are commensurable or recognizable across cultures? How do we speculate about the way such identities and the societies that produce them might change in the future when we’re not necessarily in agreement about what they stand for now?
These questions shape the entire anthology, yet the form and purpose of the collection itself may initially appear opaque to its English-speaking audience. For a text that is billed as having been written, translated, and edited entirely by a female and nonbinary group of authors and scholars, it does not initially appear to be “about” gender in any direct sense. It does not read like a manifesto; few of the stories reference gender at all; and most of the texts focus on or are told through the perspective of male characters. For all that, however, the “untranslatability” of gender is omnipresent throughout this collection, with the end result that the cultural positionality of what it means to work with and through gender suffuses every entry in the text. In one of the essays that appears near the midpoint of the collection, for example, Emily Xueni Jin introduces the term “equivalence cluster” to refer to the idea that perfect fidelity does not exist in translation and, rather, that various related concepts are instead united under a semantic umbrella (230). Using the example of Disney’s live-action Mulan, Jin explores whether a quietness that is particularly feminine is possible in translation, concluding that, in the absence of a direct lexical equivalence, additional cultural context is necessary for understanding gender in translation (231-233). In her essay, Jin joins a venerable group of feminist scholars exploring the tension between universalism and localism by translating in and through gender. What does it mean to be a “woman” when the concept of what a woman is, itself, unfixed? How do readers in one language and cultural group, who may themselves hold complex, shifting views of gender, recognize the cultural boundedness of that “same” group when its characteristics must be translated?
Jin proposes that, writing in the science fiction genre allows the literary characteristics shared between different texts to provide at least some of the context necessary for forming equivalent umbrella categories about gender. Yet many of the tropes through which Western readers recognize and contextualize science fiction ostensibly about women are simply absent here. Readers of TWSA may therefore initially find themselves stymied—or even frustrated—by the lack of direct engagement with gender from a text whose marketing relies so heavily on the issue of gender. This disconnect between expectations of immediately legible categories for science fiction by/for/about women reflects many of the translational issues taken up directly by the authors and scholars, who are quick to note that, while many of the texts may be about women, they are not about gender as a category in and of itself. By refusing to commit to one definition of what it means to be a woman, the authors and translators also avoid committing to any essentializing characteristics or the kinds of situational counterfactuals that alternative narratives to the present often imply. Instead, as Jing Tsu points out in her essay “The Future of Gender in Chinese Science Fiction,” by eschewing “universal gestures” (91) for a more thoughtful, nuanced level of attention to the way individual experiences are mediated by one’s positionality, the authors ask their readers to take part in imagining new subject formations.
By playing off globally popular franchises, for example, Anna Wu’s 吴霜 Douglass Adams-esque “The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe: Tai-Chi Mashed Taro” (translated by Carmen Yiling Yan), uses a Western audience’s perceived familiarity with an existing setting or story to introduce new spinoff tales. Other texts gesture to the iterative nature of folkloric literature, such as Shen Dacheng’s 沈大成 “Blackbird” (translated by Cara Healey), which draws on the blackbird as a symbol of death. Similarly, many of the texts in TWSA—such as Gu Shi’s 顾适 “To Procure Jade” (translated by Yilin Wang), Shen Yingying’s 沈璎璎 “Dragonslaying” (translated by Emily Xueni Jin), Chen Qian’s 陈茜 “New Year Painting, Ink and Color on Rice Paper, Zhaoqiao Village” (translated by Emily Xueni Jin), and Chu Xidao’s 楚惜刀 “The Portrait” (translated by Gigi Chang)—all draw on mythological or historical scenarios and, in the process of re-writing and re-translating, create something new for Anglophone and Sinophone readers alike. Still other pieces investigate social organization and individual relationships through the lens of algorithmic development, like Wang Nuonuo’s 王诺诺 “The Mountain and the Secret of their Names” (translated by Rebecca F. Kuang) and Zhao Haihong’s 赵海虹 “Baby, I Love You” (translated by Elizabeth Hanlon). Nian Yu’s 念语 “A Brief History of Beinakan Disasters as Told in a Sinitic Language” (translated by Ru-Ping Chen) is a sweeping interstellar tale of convergently-evolved hydrophilic species and how their quest for survival impacts humans. None of these foreground gender as a unifying discursive concept for indicating either futurity or alterity.
Feminist science fiction anthologies in an Anglophone context, such as Daughters of Earth, Sisters of the Revolution, and the Women of Wonder series, have historically been hyper-focused on refuting and reimagining bioessentialist, gendered assumptions about the role of women in science. Of course, being written by or about women does not make a text feminist—a claim this anthology does not make, although several of the authors and translators are clearly writing from a feminist perspective. This anthology’s lack of direct pushback against sexism does not indicate a lack of focus on gender, however; rather, it reflects the ways that signifiers of “gender” are not necessarily commensurate across cultures. The fact that the texts in TWSA do not assert that “women hold up half the sky” (a phrase blessedly absent from the anthology as a whole), however, means that they are less legible as being “about” women in the Western, Anglophone context to which they have been translated.
The absence of a shared reference point for concepts of gender, science, or even the future makes the authorial and editorial focus on translation all the more important. Yilin Wang’s essay “Translation as Retelling,” for example, discusses the Chinese literary tradition of retellings, “where stories are reinvented again and again by each new storyteller” (167), drawing a connection between the shifting semantic connotations of translation choices between Chinese and English. Wang notes that the process of translation can obscure, illuminate, or, most important, change the meaning of the story altogether, rendering the role of the translator on par with the author for creative worldbuilding. In one of the few entries to address gender head on, Jing Tsu notes the historical tradition of male Chinese writers adopting a female voice in order to call for social change or take on the mantle of a class of oppressed people (92). By focusing on the rapidly shifting demographics of contemporary authors, however, Xueting Christine Ni, in the anthology’s penultimate essay, argues that the rise in popularity of internet novels in the contemporary era is being driven by a new set of concerns that differ profoundly from earlier publishing norms, especially in terms of who is speaking for whom (337-357).
Although the context has changed in the Chinese literary world, the social situatedness of gender and how to describe its outlines has not. Literary and linguistics scholars such as Sherry Simon, Luise von Flotow, and Eleonora Federici have written extensively on theories of gender in translation, and an increasing number of scholars have written in an Anglophone context on gender in Chinese-English translation, including work by Rey Chow, Nicola Spakowski, Coraline Jortay, and Ping Zhu. For example, much as Emily Xueni Jin asks whether or not we can translate a specifically gendered “quietness” (225-234), contemporary scholars of both gender and translation are divided over whether even the term “gender” itself should be translated as shehui xingbie 社会性别 to foreground the concept’s social construction or to use the Chinese term xingbie 性别, which might be considered a more “faithful” translation. This debate is not taken up directly in TWSA, but its implications are present throughout—in the absence of any kind of commitment to or even acknowledgement of a gender binary, what kind of gendered world are we capable of imagining?
Given the importance of translation for worldmaking, some translations are clearer for an English-speaking audience than others. In Count E’s E伯爵 “The Tale of Wude’s Heavenly Tribulation,” for example, Mel “etvolare” Lee translates “Changming rounded out his courtesy name, and thus some called him Longcrow” (24), without explaining a courtesy name or why “Changming” would result in this appellation. It is clear that the translators and editors have, as a whole, stressed voice, tone, and readability over extradiegetic exposition. Many of these translational choices, in fact, are commented on in the technical essays as having been explicitly chosen or the result of multiple competing demands between clarity and fidelity. For example, in “What Does the Fox Say,” which directly follows “The Tale of Wude’s Heavenly Tribulations” with its fox spirit narrator, Xia Jia 夏笳 also uses the image of a fox to playfully explore how meaning can compound and fall apart in machine translation. By juxtaposing the stories with technical essays often written by the translators themselves, TWSA foregrounds the process by which some translations are chosen and for what purpose. This means that, even when the translations occasionally require greater cultural knowledge than its readers might already possess, the reason for such translational choices is clear. At a purely personal level, I also found that the texts became more interesting, both in terms of composition and content, as the anthology went on, with the most interesting and readable entries appearing after the mid-point.
As a practice in gendered worldbuilding, the translational project of TWSA is remarkably subtle. A world in which approaches to gender offer speculative alternatives to the present relies on a collaborative engagement between author and translator, one in which rhetorical strategies for alterity are co-constitutively shaped. Neither a manifesto, nor a how-to, nor a polemic, TWSA offers a vision of the past, present, and future in which “womanhood”—no matter which competing discursive definition one uses—is such an integrated part of human existence that its existence barely needs to be addressed at all.
Virginia L. Conn
Stevens Institute of Technology
 For example, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, ed. Justine Larbalestier (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006), is a collection of feminist scholarship aimed at critically intervening in the historical literary assessment of science fiction as a “boys’ club” from its earliest development. Sisters of the Revolution, eds. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (Binghamton, NY: PM Press, 2015) also utilizes a feminist lens to analyze women’s science fiction. The Women of Wonder collections, ed. Pamela Sargent (New York: Vintage Books, 1975, 1976, and 1978), are seen as key texts in the consciousness-raising feminist movement that was sweeping the science fiction literary world during the seventies.
 For representative works on theories of gender in translation, see Sherry Simon’s germinal Gender in Translation (New York: Routledge, 1996); Luise von Flotow, Translation and Gender: Translating in the “Era of Feminism” (New York: Routledge, 1997); and Translating Women: Different Voices and New Horizons, eds. Luise von Flotow and Farzaneh Farahzad (New York: Routledge, 2017), and Translating Gender, ed. Eleonora Federici (Bern: Peter Lang, 2011). For examples of scholarship that works through gender in Chinese-English translation, see Nicola Spakowski, “’Gender’ Trouble: Feminism in China under the Impact of Western Theory and the Spatialization of Identity,” positions: east asia cultures critique 19, no. 1 (2011), 31–54; Coraline Jortay, Pronominal Politics: (Un)Gendering Narrative and Framing Ambiguity in Chinese Literature, 1917-1937 (PhD Diss., Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2020), Chow’s Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading between West and East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), and Zhu’s Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).