Translation Zones in Modern China:
Authoritarian Command versus Gift Exchange

By Bonnie S. McDougall

Reviewed by Douglas Robinson
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2012)

Book cover for Translation Zones in Modern China

Bonnie S. McDougall.
Translation Zones in Modern China:
Authoritarian Command versus Gift Exchange.
Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2011. pp. 192.
ISBN-10: 1604977469 (Cloth);
ISBN-13: 978-1604977462 (Paper)

Bonnie McDougall has set out to give us a participant ethnography of “translation zones in modern China” that is also part memoir–or, perhaps, a memoir of living and translating in China in the early 1980s that is also part academic ethnography, with a little translation/sociocultural theory mixed in. The resulting mix is sometimes a bit awkward, but always interesting.

In one sense, the core of the book is McDougall’s recollections of living in Beijing from 1980 to 1983, working full-time as a Chinese-to-English translator for the Foreign Languages Press (FLP) and translating poetry by Bei Dao and other “unofficial writers” on the side. We learn that she lived there with her husband and at least one small child; because her rhetorical strategy is to present her own experience as a more or less typical example of a larger collective experience, however, we don’t get detailed descriptions of her family life, or even of her professional life. This is the strategy that makes for some awkwardness in the book: McDougall is constantly converting her personal experiences into an academic ethnography of an institution, while also frequently reminding us that most of what she is telling us she knows from personal experience. The book is neither frank memoir nor memoir disguised as something more impersonal and academic; it is both at once, and to achieve that effect it travels a shifting line of conjunction between the two.

There are also great advantages to this strategy. One is that, at least part of the time, we are situated in a temporal phenomenology that gives us a sense of the insecurity of real life lived in time–the fact that one never knows, experiencing a given state of affairs, how long that state is going to last, and whether it’s going to get better or worse. When McDougall arrived in Beijing in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had ended just scant years before; the forces that had organized and fueled that dark period were still around, and seemed occasionally to be gathering strength, as in the “anti-spiritual pollution” crusade of 1983 and 1984. At several points McDougall gives us a sense of the fear many felt at the time that the campaign was a resurgence of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping was then just beginning to liberalize the Chinese economy, and the first signs of that opening, whose blossoming we see so clearly today, are visible in this period as well. What we see in the transitional period she describes is not a stark contrast between “China then” and “China now” but significant historical tensions and continuities that help us understand not just the PRC from 1980 to 1983, but something like the last half century of Chinese history.

In another sense, however, the core of the book is something quite different: a theoretical corrective to the type of translation scholarship that is (a) Europe-centered, (b) target-culture-centered, and (c) text-centered. By contrast, McDougall wants to retheorize translation in terms of (a) China, (b) an authoritarian governmental agency in the source culture that wants to control every aspect of translation without the slightest interest in or knowledge of possible target readers, and generally (c) the sociology of translation. Certainly her title suggests this sort of theoretical intervention: [Translation Zonesin [Modern China]: [Authoritarian Commandversus [Gift Exchange]. The only one of those four noun phrases that is not steeped in theory is “modern China”; Mary Louise Pratt’s theory of contact zones obviously informs the main title and the book as a whole; and each of the book’s three parts also has its own special theoretical orientation:

Part I (the FLP, the “authoritarian command”): the theory of institutional power and control
Part II (informal one-on-one collaboration between Western female translators and Chinese male “unofficial writers”): gift-exchange theory
Part III (power differentials): postcolonial theory

The net effect of the sequence of these orientations is to situate the book in the so-called “sociological turn” in translation studies, as a memoir-becoming-ethnography that has important and useful things to say not just about this particular history of translation but about how we think about such histories in general.

Yet McDougall’s relationship with translation theory is diffident at best. She tells us that she came to it late, and has never felt entirely at home in it; and there is arguably a sense in which the theoretical underpinnings of her book constitute a kind of post hoc scaffolding. The way she develops her specific theoretical models also remains a bit problematic. For example, she writes about the “gift exchange” in Chapter 5:

Alternatively, a foreigner would contact the literary avant garde, show an interest in his work, and offer to translate it. In the language of gift exchange, the translatee offered the translator a gift of his poem. The translator reciprocated by retuning the gift with added value: her translation of his poem. (p. 97)

McDougall’s co-text there suggests that what she means by “the literary avant garde” is “a member of the literary avant garde,” and what she means by “retuning” is “returning”; but mentally making those two quick edits to the passage still leaves us with two problems.

One is that, as I understand the phrase in English, “to return the gift” means to give the original gift back without adding value, as when the gift is inappropriate or otherwise unwanted. The translatee buttonholes the translator on the train, hands her a piece of paper with a Chinese poem scribbled on it, tries to make a gift of it; the translator glances over it, decides she’s not interested, and hands it back. What McDougall seems to mean instead is something like what she also calls reciprocity: the translatee gives the translator a gift, and the translator reciprocates by giving a gift in return. Given that McDougall speaks of the reciprocity of returning gifts throughout–e.g., “gift exchange embodies a sequence (i.e., the return of a gift), with the emphasis on the return” (89)–it may be that Australian English uses “returning the gift” in just this (to me quite strange) way, to mean reciprocal gift-giving; but I can’t help but think that giving the translatee a translation in return for the original cannot possibly mean the same thing as returning the gift. The translation is a new gift; it is not the original gift, returned with value added. McDougall’s definite article in “retu[r]ning the gift” seems to me to imply idealized semantic equivalence: the translation for her is the Chinese original, translated.

The other problem is that, in one of her signal contributions to the sociological turn in translation studies, McDougall tells us explicitly that the “return gift” that the translator gives the translatee in her model isnot just the translation:

In return, the translatees expected the translators to respond accordingly. The expected return gift included not only translation of the poems but also entry into the translators’ private lives and their social and economic contacts–again, encounters normally forbidden in China at the time. In concrete terms, it might include access to the types of goods and services that only foreigners had ready access to: that is, goods that were normally obtainable only outside of China, such as Chinese or English translations of the Bible, the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, imported cigarettes and spirits, and electrical appliances from Hong Kong. If the initial response from the translatee was favorable, the translatee might then continue to expect from the translator an extended upward spiral of generous gift-giving. (pp. 97-98)

Given that McDougall does spell all this out, the fact that she refers in passing to “the return gift” as the translation itself is of course not really a problem; it can perhaps more accurately be taken as a quick anticipatory shorthand for the longer clarification to come.

However, more is at stake here than just a potentially misleading rhetorical strategy. In her Introduction (pp. 18-21), McDougall offers a trenchant corrective to the vague semantic-becoming-political understanding of reciprocity that she finds in translation studies: postcolonial translation scholars, she says, tend to idealize reciprocity as a meaning-exchange between a source culture and a target culture, as a kind of implicit utopian decolonizing politics. She doesn’t make this connection overtly, but reciprocity as a utopian meaning-exchange does sound a lot like traditional models of equivalence, simply refracted through the politicizing lens of global power differentials. Another connection that she doesn’t draw overtly, with George Steiner’s notion of restitution in the “Hermeneutic Motion” chapter of After Babel–that utopian redress of the violations incurred in invading the source culture and appropriating its texts in order to haul them home like the spoils of war–likewise seems very close to:

– the kind of semantic-becoming-political thinking that McDougall critiques in Lydia H. Liu’s The Problem of Translation in Global Circulation,
– the thematizations of translational equivalence in terms of capture and captivity first introduced into Western thinking about translation by Jerome,
– McDougall’s own suggestion that the translator should be understood as returning the gift first given her by the translatee.

I very much like McDougall’s effort to move past reciprocity-as-equivalence, into a sociological realm of gift-exchange in which it doesn’t matter all that much what is actually written on the papers involved; but clearly she hasn’t quite found a principled way to break free of quasi-semantic approaches to translation as equivalence.

The language problems that I corrected in the passage from page 97 above–“the literary avant garde” as referring to a single person, “retuning the gift” as “returning the gift” as “giving a new gift in return”–are not entirely uncommon in the book. The later passage I quoted, where “gift exchange embodies a sequence (i.e., the return of a gift), with the emphasis on the return” (p. 89), should probably have been “gift exchange embodies a sequence (i.e., the return of a gift, with the emphasis on the return).” A few pages later she writes that “Many of the new arrivals were budding Sinologists . . . because to be knowledgeable enough to translate from Chinese into a foreign language usually implies they have undertaken intensive language study in one of a handful of top universities” (p. 93). Ironically, this is the kind of tense-management problem that is extremely common in my Chinese students’ English writing. Since “they” refers to the new arrivals in the past tense, either the final subordinate clause should be in the past perfect (“usually implied that they had undertaken”), or, if McDougall wanted to shift to the generalizing present tense, she should have swapped the specific personalized “they” for the impersonal “one” (“usually implies that one has undertaken”). The book is published by Cambria Press in Amherst, New York, in a series entitled “Culture, Literature, and Religion in Greater China”; their copyeditor seems to have slipped up here, and elsewhere.

McDougall’s prose is generally spare, utilitarian, journalistic, and in that mode mostly quite effective; but journalistic remarks like “The bureau’s ignorance of and contempt for its readership was legendary” (p. 44) leave me impatient for more academic precision. (Legendary among what group? The translators at the FLP? The Chinese intelligentsia?) I quite like human-interest journalism, and indeed thoroughly enjoy most of the human-interest stories McDougall tells of living and working in 1980s China; I’ve often thought that more translators should tell their life stories, to give us the kind of thick description of a translator’s life that an anthropologist might value. But her segues back and forth between her academic prose and her memoir-style journalistic prose are often problematic.

For example, in Chapter 4 she gives us a series of sections devoted to “Text Selection,” “Editorial Intervention,” “Setting the Schedule,” “Drafting and Polishing,” and “House Rules,” all written in a highly academic collective third person–no explicit memoirs. She then begins a new section entitled “Expert Advice”: “After a month or so of working on someone else’s first draft and comparing it with the Chinese transcript, I was given original transcripts to work from. This was a much slower process because my ability to read Chinese was still limited” (p. 79). This is a massive and rather disorienting leap from distanced third-person description to a radically decontextualized “month or so” in which suddenly the author herself reappears. By that second sentence, as we begin to adjust to the new context and style, we hazard a guess that she might be referring to one of her early months at the FLP; but it seems unreasonable, especially in academic prose, to make readers guess at the time frame. Certainly it’s livelier prose than a more carefully contextualized presentation might have been, but as an academic reader I’d be willing to sacrifice some small modicum of liveliness for precision.

Still, I would not want the book’s several minor flaws to detract from the signal contribution it makes to our understanding of the sociology of translation in a specific Chinese institution at a specific moment in history and, more broadly, of the varieties of translational experiences that are historically possible. While reading McDougall’s book and writing this review, I had numerous occasions to mention the book in conversation, and several of my interlocutors took an immediate interest and jotted down the book’s title. It’s a timely book, and should be read widely.

Douglas Robinson
Lingnan University