Translation and Non-Translation in Post-Colonial Literature: Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet

Adrienne T. Chisolm '93, English 34 (1991)

Many post-colonial authors include more than one language in their texts. As writers they appear to be extremely aware of translation and its implications, probably because their upbringing in newly independent cross-cultures has provided such unique linguistic experiences. They write -- mostly -- in English to be understood, although many of them possess backgrounds in cultures and languages much more diverse (Nigerians, for example, speak hundreds of different languages and dialects). The authors know that to speak exclusively to their native Nigeria, Pakistan, or China, for instance, would be to lose large portions of an audience they would like to reach. But native languages are undeniably a part of their identities, too; ever-conscious of translation ("I, too, am a translated man. I have been borne across " (Rushdie, Shame, 24)), the authors emphasize the mélanges that characterize the countries about which they write by including non-English words in their stories.

The inclusion of another language in an English text necessarily means the exclusion of the English in certain instances; the function of this technique extends beyond a mere illustration of the interaction between two distinct cultures, for often when a native word is used by a post-colonial author it is left untranslated and unexplained. The use of the native language in this case implies that the English equivalent is somehow unacceptable or insufficient. Whereas Mo's immigrant character Lily, "[i]n a great improvising tradition, worthy of the host country . . . stuck to the original [ingredients of a recipe] where she could and where this was not possible . . . included something she considered similar (i.e. carrot for rhinoceros horn)" (Mo, 8), the authors refuse to substitute where substitution might feel inappropriate; there is something to be gained by this refusal.

Although Mo even translates into English the words Lily and her husband, Chen, use to address each other ("Chen sighed. 'Do this for me at least, Man Kee's mother.' 'Yes, Husband?'" (Mo, 108)), some things he names only with a Chinese word. When Mo writes that "Chen found nothing amusing about the man's mishap, faan gwai or not" (Mo, 84), and that "Lily Chen was reputedly the next thing to a gwai lo girl herself" (Mo, 62), he leaves it to the reader to figure out that both of these terms must mean something like Westerner, or western-looking. Yum sing (125-6) is likely some type of toast, lai see (126-7) must be lucky money, and gung hai faat choi (127) probably means thank you, but for the English-speaking reader reading this predominantly English book, these are merely guesses. Only the audience that possesses Mo's bilingual knowledge of the names for these things can know for sure. In Aké , Soyinka tends to translate a native word just once in a footnote, and then to use it as commonly-known language throughout the rest of his story. In In Custody , Desai intersperses Urdu or Hindi words (which of these is it?) into the English text without explanation. Tazias, sadhu, akhadas, lafangas, tika, janum, accha, shishya, etc., name objects and concepts that for some reason Desai deems unnecessary or impossible to translate.

The reason for this refusal to name things by the English equivalent is sometimes clear. Food (parathas), clothing (kurtas), plants (boum-boum) and instruments (tanpura) unique to the native land and culture simply may not have accurate English names. But often, even if some words are translatable, the English equivalent falls short of conveying completely the same sentiments. For as definitely as the author and his or her fellow citizens have grown up bilingual to whatever extent was necessary, and can name things using either English or the native language of their pre-colonial nation, most readers of the post-imperial world cannot. The authors are not alone in their awareness of this phenomenon, it seems; fictional post-colonial characters, too, seem conscious of the technique and eager to control it to their advantage. While Mo (affectionately) mocks the Chens for their misunderstandings and errors with the English language, the characters' thoughts and words repeatedly reflect their conviction that English is an inadequate means of communication and that their native Chinese is far superior.

What terrible callousness! What a society! Which room might the old person(s) have lain in (dead and shamefully alone), pondered Lily, thinking in Cantonese in which, conveniently for such musing, there was no distinction between plural and singular (Mo, 90).

Sometimes the situation brings about alienation, as when Lily cannot express herself the way she wishes she could:

She lacked not the vocabulary but the inflection which might request or admonish without causing offence. Her voice, so expressive and alive in her native Cantonese, became shrill, peremptory, and strangely lifeless in its level pitching when she spoke English. She would have sounded hostile and nervous; a cross between a petulant child and a nagging old shrew, neither of which descriptions adequately fitted the mature and outward-going young woman that was Lily Chen (Mo, 135).

But recognition of the confusing and frustrating nature of life as an immigrant inevitably turns into an assessment of the English language's substandard worth; such a judgment is Lily's coping mechanism. In the end, it is English that fails: "With smiles, nods, gestures, Grandpa expressed his gratitude -- far more eloquently than in Mui's [English] translation" (Mo, 245-6).

Mo's Sour Sweet United Kingdom Overview