Mary Besemeres & Maureen Perkins
Curtin University of Technology
If, as L. P. Hartley famously claimed, the past is another country, it is highly likely that they speak another language there. All memory is translation. Such an assertion is, perhaps, not very striking in a postmodern climate, in which the constitutive power of language is widely accepted. What we have in mind here is made more urgent, however, by the exigencies of cross-cultural experience, out of which more and more people are beginning to speak.
Whatever we experienced as children was filtered through the narrower vocabulary of a child, and when we try to express those experiences with the linguistic power available to us as adults, we clarify what was then unclear and fix what was then fluid. To write autobiography across languages involves two processes of translation, first of memory and second of culture. Such translation is increasingly practised, as the global population is reconfigured following twentieth-century transnational migrations. Not only are more people than ever before living in countries where their native language is not society's first language, but they are also reconceptualising identities in an unprecedented flow of self-reflexive writing.
If a single book can be said to have launched the new genre of what has been termed 'language memoir', it is Polish-born author Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, published in 1989. Hoffman, who emigrated to Canada at thirteen, coined the term 'self-translation' for the experience of being forced to translate between two conceptual and emotional worlds, associated with one's native and learnt languages. The theme of 'self-translation' across languages, cultures or ethnicities is central to our issue, and, at one level or another, is present in all of the contributions here. Also in 1989, the runaway success in France was the autobiography of French-Vietnamese writer Kim Lefèvre, Métisse Blanche. In a France preoccupied by discussions about what constituted French identity, and the claims that those born in ex-colonies might have on the nation, this memoir of a child born to a Vietnamese woman and a French soldier, and brought up in a Vietnamese orphanage, captured the reader's imagination. Yet Lefèvre referred to her book as a novel, not as autobiography, and described her Vietnam life as so far away that when her memory turned to it, she at times doubted its reality.
Eva Hoffman's and Kim Lefèvre's memoirs typify the issues presented in this edition of Mots Pluriels. To what extent is all autobiography translation, from that other country that is the past? And what special issues are thrown up for an individual living, thinking, and writing in a language that is not the 'first' language and for an audience that is not of that first language's culture?
Our first article, by , springs from the experience of migration. Ye refers to the 'tremendous differences' between the two cultures and two lives which she experiences as a migrant to Australia from Shanghai. Much of this cultural difference is expressed linguistically. She writes, 'Everyday, I travel to and fro between English, Mandarin Chinese, and Shanghainese, my mother tongue.' Yet even silence is significant, and she and her mother, visiting Australia, share a bond that is beyond words, feeling and thinking 'Chinese'. Although there are times of sadness in her new 'in-betweenness', there is also much richness. She conveys movingly the ways in which forms of emotional expression in Chinese and Australian-English, and sometimes the struggle to choose between them, shape her very self, both in private and in public. Yet the struggle has its victories, and her narrative ends on an undeniably bold and promising note of 'self-discovery and self-building'.
Writing about an earlier historical wave of migration to Australia, recounts with humour and insight what it was like to live as a teenager between two very different cultural worlds: Anglo-Australia in the 1970s and her family's transported Ukrainian world, with its strong ties to a struggle for national independence. She evokes some memorable clashes of these poles of her 'dual existence', mortifying, bewildering or guilt-inducing at the time, yet full of ironic meaning in retrospect. Her essay, reprinted here with new illustrations, speaks eloquently for the need to go beyond the surface in intercultural dialogue in countries such as Australia.
, whose article could equally well be placed within either of our rubrics ('personal narratives' or 'critical perspectives'), interweaves autobiography with scholarly reflection, reconceptualising the experience of postwar displaced people like her Ukrainian father, in Australia and elsewhere. Ending with an excerpt from her father's own narrative translated from Ukrainian, her article brings out the sadness that continues amidst 'normal' life for those who once lost everything, and affirms the central importance of story-telling to contemporary society, for refugees and 'host' populations alike. 'Storytelling is a way of forcing attention on the bodily experience of suffering, that is obscured by historical narrative's smooth stylising gestures. And that is perhaps why so many post Second World War immigrants, and war survivors everywhere, tell their stories over and over again.' 's evocative note on the meanings of being 'franco-tunisienne' or 'tuniso-française' reads like a haiku in prose. In the space of a page, she suggests the relativity of her cultures, the tug-of-war of geographical and emotional allegiances, and the inadequacy of standard gauges of identity such as passports for capturing the complexity and instability of cross-cultural experience. 'Mon histoire commence tous les matins de mon monde: ... l'appel du muezzin qui m'émeut, le tohu-bohu des klaxons qui me révoltent... Puis, le sentiment soudain qu'il aurait été doux que ma porte s'ouvre plutôt sur les quais parisiens...' (My story begins each morning of my world: ... the muezzin's cry, which moves me; the honking of car-horns, which repel me.... Then, the sudden feeling that it would have been nice had my door opened instead onto the familiar quays of Paris...)
An important example of the genre of language memoir is French Lessons (1994) by American author , a narrative of 'falling in love with' the French language. Here, she offers a fascinating autobiographical reflection on the technical processes of self-translation between literary languages and cultures in her account of the experience of working with the French translator of French Lessons. She also discusses a number of striking controversies over translation legal, ethical, and political in renditions of works by Brontë, Nabokov and Céline, among others. Of 'Mr X', her translator, she writes: 'If I wanted to give an affectionate account of [his] mistake, I'd put it this way: I had created a character who wanted more than anything to be French. But instead of representing her desires, my translator was "solving" the character's problem, trying to fulfill her desires.'
The 'everyday psychology of translating' to which Alice Kaplan refers was also familiar to and , who tell the story of a feminist group (East Meets West) that started to meet in Beijing after the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. One aim of the group was 'the creation of a common language and conceptual framework between Chinese women and women internationally'. The members set about translating feminist articles from English-language journals and publishing them in the Chinese women's media. Other translation projects followed, some from Chinese to English, and the women learned more and more about translation as not being solely about words but also about linguistic cultures. Although the stories being translated were not their own, Jolly and Ge tell how the experience of translation proved powerful in shaping their own destinies, the lives of others in the group and of those who read their work.
Another intimate portrait of the process of translation is presented by , who worked with the Malian elder, historian and marabout Almamy Maliki Yattara to produce an 'autobiography' of Almamy written by Salvaing. The work is at the intersection of biography and autobiography insofar as the first person narrative was written by Bernard Salvaing, primarily because French was not Almamy's first language. Salvaing and Almamy's reasons for translating a Malian oral narrative into written French, and both men's attitudes toward 'their' book, reflect different skills, different forms of knowledge and different scholarly traditions. But above and beyond all the elements separating them, each author aspires to provide the other with access to a different world, and works towards establishing a relationship which allows for meaningful dialogue with another culture.
Born in Benin, , who reflects here on her 'translated' life, arrived in France in 1968. Adjahi belongs to the first generation of women who left Benin to pursue study overseas. Traditionally Beninese women have represented a powerful force in their country, but only since independence have some begun to be educated in the Western way. In France, Adjahi strove to reconcile the communal character of her own culture with French individualism and the unfamiliar concept of the nuclear family. Spurred on rather than deterred by these difficulties, she worked hard at her 'French' studies, gaining a PhD in geography. However it was orality and traditional tales that provided her with a way to share the story of her life in an inter-cultural context. It was also the oral tradition that facilitated her engagement with both her own and French society at large. 'Listening and telling' become a way to 'bring together the culture of origin and the host culture.'
Another life that has involved migration as a means to advance education is that of . Born in Côte d'Ivoire, she moved to Burkina Faso, her family's country of origin, in order to study at the local university. She then migrated to Canada to complete her PhD. The short article here shows her personal journey through inter-culturality and the marked difference between her own and others' perception of her identity. She stresses her attachment to Burkina in the face of strong pressure to identify with Côte d'Ivoire while she was growing up. However, when she arrived in Burkina, she was considered an 'Ivorian woman' by virtue of her accent and upbringing. The somewhat pejorative tag of « diaspo » followed her when she moved to Canada. Rather than claiming to belong to a narrow patch of land, she says, 'I work at feeling at home wherever I find myself.'
From an artistic, literary and personal point of view, Canadian author argues that her writing is not 'a translation of herself': it is 'herself'. She contests a separation between writing life and living it, seeing the two as equally experiential. Her article challenges the understanding of autobiography as translation, with which we began; and highlights the strangeness of an endeavour in which, to paraphrase E.M. Forster, one writes in order to learn what one thinks. She affirms, 'Dans l'écriture comme dans toutes les autres aventures humaines, je crois que le commencement n'est toujours que l'après-coup.' (In writing as in all other human ventures, I believe one always begins in midstream.)
and concentrate on the visibility of one kind of cross-cultural experience, that is, the experience of those of 'mixed race'. Linguistic translation is not the central feature of their story. The authors use the Hawaiian concept of 'hapa' to express 'halfness'. Both are 'half Indian', and in embodying East and West they set out in their work and their reflections to 'evade the dangers of being split into binary categories'. Their performance work, their dance, has in the past been used to translate an essential and stereotypical 'India' to audiences, but they aim to make their art form relevant to transnational realities, to resist pressures to represent an entire culture, and to express the 'border semiotics' of looking towards at least two cultures at the same time that is their special inheritance.
The second part of 'Translated Lives' begins with three writers who consider the role of beur literature, the work of the descendants of North African migrants to France and other European countries. This migrant experience has been influential in creating much discussion about cross-cultural and cross-linguistic identities. The literature produced has changed over the years, from the 1980s to the present day, and the articles we carry here reflect those developments.
analyses the autobiography of the journalist and writer Mélina Gazsi, with particular reference to her relations with her Algerian father, who she believes abandoned her in childhood along with her French mother. Haunted by his pervasive absence from her life, the child Gazsi is drawn to what she can learn from her own reflection: 'Tout ce que je sais de lui, c'est le miroir qui me l'a appris. C'est un négatif, la partie manquante de ce que je connais trop bien. Et chaque jour en me brossant les cheveux, je m'arrête sur la ligne du nez. Fine et légèrement busquée. J'ai un profil arabe. Cela ne saute aux yeux de personne, pour moi c'est une obsession.' (All that I know of him, I have learnt from the mirror. It is a negative, the missing part of what I know only too well. And every day, as I brush my hair, I stop at the line of my nose. Slim and slightly hooked. I have an Arab profile. It wouldn't strike anyone else; for me it's an obsession.)
In the 1980s Beur literature was an attempt to express the clash of cultures experienced by the sons and daughters of Maghrebian immigrants. The autobiographies of Tadjer and Kenzi analysed by bear witness to the fractured and divided self of second generation immigrants in search of their identity. Writing provides the authors and their narrators with a way to challenge both French xenophobia and stereotyping, and the rigid religious and cultural values personified by their parents. In between these two competing extremes, solitary authors in search of belonging attempt to find their own way in a mainly unsympathetic environment.
Twenty years on, a new generation of writers with Maghreb ancestry is keen to distance itself from the tag of 'beur' identity. argues that the value of the translation of one's experience into literature is not a function of the origin of the writer but rather of his or her literary skills, capacity to go beyond the idiosyncrasies of his or her own experience, and ability to reach the universal. For the authors of this later generation, 'the interiority and exteriority of each person' is separated by a huge gap; in claiming their freedom to be themselves and to express who they are in whatever way they see fit, they refuse to add to the stereotypical images, themes, attitudes and symbolical representations (social, cultural political or institutional) reflected by society. They refuse to be located 'in the shadow of themselves', and demand the right to exist as artists, free of the labels outlining their intercultural origins.
In his searching essay on anthropology and autobiography, appearing here for the first time in English, analyses several 'intercultural horizons' of the autobiographical genre. In particular, he notes the cultural conflicts it throws up in post-colonial African life writing, for example between loyalty to one's clan and the invitation to individual self-expression, in the memoirs of Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ; and between traditional taboos on broaching topics such as sexuality, and the freedom to flout these, in the autobiography of Senegalese author.Ken Bugul: 'The autobiographical genre ... seems to be inhabited by ... a shifting of the boundaries between the private and the public, between the unsaid and the inexpressible .... The emergence of autobiography in Africa shows that such shifts, which are characteristic of Western autobiography, have there given rise to reactions of rejection and resistance, and have generated hybrid forms, straddling the western model and the narratives of life inscribed in African oral traditions.'
article follows well from Lüsebrink's. In engaging with autobiographical writing and investigating the concept of self, El-Alaoui argues thatcontemporary Moroccan authors such as Chraïbi, Laâbi or Khatibi challenge traditional perceptions of personal and Moroccan identity. Writing in French becomes a kind of meta- language, constraining and foreign, yet powerful, as it allows the investigation of new relationships between the individual and society. A language that breaks the hold of patriarchy, religious or colonial domination, moves beyond traditional discourse and leads to some kind of self-recognition.
Angèle Bassolé's long autobiographical poem 'Burkina Blues', analysed by , reflects the violence and absurdity of contemporary life on the continent of Africa. However, and more importantly, 'Burkina Blues' is also a means to rescue the narrator and her fellow Africans from despair by putting their plight under the full glare of poetic language. If reality does not provide a coherent way of understanding life individual and collective memory, dream and poetry function to grant freedom from the jaws of absurdity. To be free means to be able to recreate one's self outside negative influences. 'Burkina Blues' in particular, and poetry at large, provide such a means, a mirror that allows the narrator to define her relationship to others and to go beyond past and current injustices in order to understand better the promise of the future.
's article explores a significant phenomenon in contemporary life writing by Europeans afflicted with Aids, or witnessing to those suffering from it: the turn to non-Western spiritual traditions in response to the widespread denial of death in modern Western culture. Her article focusses on two French memoirs, L'histoire de Ketty (1993) and Le Baiser papillon (1999), each of which approaches the death of the narrator's loved one in distinctive and haunting ways. In her original and subtle discussion, Jaccomard traces these writers' engagement with Hindu, Arab and other understandings of death, and their disaffection from, or ambivalence about, their own religious traditions (Christian and Judaic).
offers an insight into the role played by elements of traditional Madagascan culture in the inner lives of characters in the autobiographical novels of Madagascan-born French author Michèle Rakotoson. Interestingly, she suggests that Malagasy has a deeper emotional resonance for Rakotoson's characters, which comes to the fore in moments of crisis. She raises the question of the extent to which this might bespeak the cross-cultural experience and outlook of the writer: 'For the author, then, there arises the necessity of translating into the language of writing a psychology that was first experienced in Malagasy.'
's article on 'Cultural Identity and Self-Definition' looks at the work of three influential writers: Gloria Anzaldua, Coco Fusco, and Ruth Behar. All have been enormously influential in cross-cultural and feminist scholarship. Here Hincapie links them together because of their use of writing as a challenge to diverse forms of exclusion. Hincapie sees their translation as being not only about language but also about colour: Using Anzaldua's famous 'borderlands' terminology, she writes, 'All three have translated themselves between a language spoken at home and one spoken outside the home, between one spoken by their generation and one spoken by their parents' and grandparents' generation.'
In his thought-provoking essay, compares three cross-cultural memoirs Alice Kaplan's, Eva Hoffman's and Hungarian-born Australian Andrew Riemer's in terms of their portrayal of gains and losses involved in cultural translation, particularly as it transpires through language learning. He suggests that Kaplan turned to French in part to escape the confines of her American sense of self; and considers the implications of an approach to teaching French and other foreign languages that emphasises the fluidity of both culture and identity: 'There is no neatly packaged, homogeneous, unified thing called ... Frenchness ... which is given, as though a birthright, to native speakers, and denied to the immigrant except insofar as s/he might strive to emulate it. Culture ... is ... a process of continual discovery.'
examines the role of language in My Odyssey, the autobiography of the Nigerian nationalist leader, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Oha describes the way in which Azikiwe stresses his multilingual abilities as a means of crossing ethnic divisions, and as 'a model of the "new" and progressive Nigeria'. However, linguistic and cultural pluralism was not only important in Azikiwe's struggle to build a strong, independent Nigeria, but also in the formation of his personal identity, lived between several cultures. His Oxford accent when speaking English, for example, was ridiculed when he was in America and cost him his job, but later his skill in English contributed to his reputation for wisdom: 'Zik e kwuo ncha', Zik has uttered marvelous things. His success in transcending his own linguistic setbacks becomes 'a rhetorical process whereby the self that traverses cultural boundaries speaks on behalf of his (colonized) African population.' Oha skilfully parallels the linguistic travels of the leader with the linguistic challenges facing the emerging nation.
One of the conventions of autobiographical writing is a truthful rendition of self by the narrator, at least in principle. However, according to , Guadeloupian author Maryse Condé's Moi, Tituba shows the limited usefulness of this dictum by subverting the genre and creating a fictitious autobiography. At the margin of history, Tituba shows the contradictions and difficulties inherent in representing the lives of victims of the vagaries of history, and of an inimical discursive hegemony. From the venture of a «Nomade inconvenante», she argues that one has to be « errante, multiple, au-delà et au-dedans », thus assuming an ironic distance vis-à-vis her own position at the intersection of two cultures with which she is not fully reconciled.
In Morocco, as in many other places where traditionally people have not been considered free agents independent of their socio-political context, the idea of autobiographical writing has been suspect, often perceived as challenging local culture and traditional wisdom. Writing in French has made autobiographical writing even more difficult to handle, not only for the readers, but also for the authors themselves who have to wrestle with a language and an approach to self that is completely foreign to traditional values. In this context, argues, Moroccan autobiography is often a genre that hides behind the labels 'novel' or 'récit', and authors are still wary of surrendering to Western taste and ethnographic voyeurism. Yet the increasing number of people writing about themselves suggests that rather than selling out Moroccan values to the West, autobiographical writing is a contemporary expression of authors' preoccupation with, and quest for, a new sense of self.
Language carries knowledge and its importance is all the greater in African countries such as Cameroon where French and English were adopted as a means to communicate institutional wisdom to students in schools. In this context finds that the names found in school-books are significant as they are indications of society's attempts to accommodate or alternatively, to suppress cultural and linguistic differences. Particular cultural biases are, of course, not conducive to the integration of students whose heritage, 'onomastic' and other, has been forgotten. Names are an integral part of people's identity and to deprive someone of his or her name is to deprive them of a part of their own heritage: 'The kinds of names to which the young Cameroonian learner is exposed every day, even more than the contents or educational approach of his or her textbooks, throws up a discrepancy or even a serious disruption between declared intentions and the reality.'
deals with interculturality and identity in urban France. She argues that acknowledgement of interculturality by both the individual and society can lead to a valorisation of plurality and a better integration of immigrants. Such acknowledgement could take the shape of a variety of cultural and artistic performances that would increase immigrants' self-esteem and foster dialogue between cultures: 'Never essentialist, identity refers to a dynamic configuration (...). It is the result of a series of negotiations between what one is, what one would like to be, and what one's social environment rejects as values and representations different from its own.'
, the first of our three interviewees, comes from Africa and lives in France. During the course of her work with la Société d'Études Féminines Africaines she interviewed many African women living in the Lyons region. Women of African origin who arrive in France have to find a way to reconcile their values and aspirations with the expectations and demands of French society, and Céline Kula-Kim believes that literacy in French is a prerequisite to full participation in French society. This does not, however, necessarily entail an abandonment of all previous cultural values and beliefs. She emphasises the attachment to oral narratives that many African migrants retain, telling her, '[L]es mots manquent en Français pour exprimer ce que je veux dire ou ce que je vais dire va perdre son charme si je le disais en Français' (French lacks the words to express what I want to say, or what I am going to say will lose its charm in French).
Our second interviewee is , a Vietnamese-French author. She was interviewed in 2001 by Nathalie Nguyen. The main purpose of the interview, according to Nguyen, was to ask Lefèvre for her views on autobiographical writing and the notion of identity as well as on her own experience of migration and resettlement. In her answers, Lefevre claims a distinction between truth and reality in her autobiography: 'Tout est vrai, mais tout ne s'est pas déroulé exactement de cette façon' (It's all true, but it didn't all happen exactly like that). In fact, Nguyen feels that the book has fulfilled a kind of scriptotherapy for its author. In the end, when asked if she feels a sense of loss in the conflict between a Vietnamese and a French identity, Lefèvre replies that she feels none, that the two sides of her personality are now reconciled. "Aujourd'hui, je suis les deux, les deux de façon importante, et je le sais moi, et je n'ai pas besoin que quelqu'un me l'attribue" (Today, I'm both, both in important ways, and I know myself, and don't need anyone to categorise me.)
Our third interviewee is Malian author . She has lived in France and Uzbekistan, and now lives in Bamako, Mali. Her experience shows that living side by side with the 'Other' is not sufficient to generate mutual understanding and a meaningful relationship. Stereotyped attitudes are difficult to break especially when cultural, linguistic or ideological barriers constrain human relationships. In problematising the true or fictional nature of her next 'novel', she repeats the theme with which our editorial began: the problematic nature of fiction in autobiography: 'The word "I" imposed itself on me when I began to write this text: it is the sum of stories either experienced, or so often heard that they ended up seeming true.'
Two of the major themes that underwrite this edition of Mots Pluriels are suggested by our title of 'translated lives': To what extent does crossing languages and cultures entail a form of self-translation? And what role does translation of memory, experience, one's past identity and ties to a community play in autobiographical, and more broadly, life writing? These concerns, which fuse in the case of cross-cultural autobiography, are captured in another way by the concept of métissage, as used here, for example, by Kim Lefèvre. We have steered away, however, from the notion of cultural hybridity, in part because it does not sufficiently convey the element of agency in the lives of people who both move, and are caught, between languages, ethnicities, and cultures an element evoked in all the contributions here.
The challenges of translation feature in all the essays collected in this issue, yet they are drawn, from a great range of geographical, cultural and linguistic locations, including the Maghreb region of North Africa, Nigeria, India, Canada, China, the Ukraine, France, Vietnam, the United States, Australia, South America and Uzbekhistan. The perspectives the authors articulate on questions of personal and cultural translation are no less diverse. While the articles are divided by theme and approach into the two sections of 'personal narratives' and 'critical perspectives on cross-cultural writing', each is informed by both personal and critical modes. All reflect in more or less immediate ways on individual cross-cultural experience. Veronica Zhengdao Ye speaks for many other authors, too, when she writes: 'My own new reality, which lies somewhere between my two worlds, and also between my past, present, and future, has been built on new and varied meanings and forms, and enriched by my experiences in both worlds.'
 L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, London, 1953.
Mary Besemeres is an ARC postdoctoral fellow at Curtin University. She is the author of Translating One's Self: Language and Selfhood in Cross-Cultural Autobiography (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002). She received her doctorate in English literature from the Australian National University, and has taught contemporary autobiography, Russian and Australian literatures. Her research interests include cross-cultural autobiography, bilingualism and selfhood, immigrant experience, the cross-cultural family, and emotion and culture. Her current project investigates life writing by migrants to Australia and Europe. Her most recent publication is "The Family in Exile, Between Languages: Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation, Lisa Appignanesi's Losing the Dead, Anca Vlasopolos's No Return Address", in Auto/Biography Studies (forthcoming).
Maureen Perkins taught at the Australian National University, Canberra, and prior to her current position at Curtin University held an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Western Australia. Her background is in cultural history. She is currently researching a project on race in modern Australia that uses anthropological and sociological as well as historical perspectives. Her special areas of interest are: magic, childhood and children's literature, race, and mixed race identity. Her publications include: Visions of the Future: Almanacs, Time, and Cultural Change 1775-1870 (Oxford, 1996) The Reform of Time: Magic and Modernity (Pluto Press, London, 2001). 'The Trial of Joseph Powell, Fortune-teller', Journal of Victorian Culture (Spring, 2001), pp. 27-45. Third space and cross-cultural identities, Mots pluriels, No.7 July 1998 (Guest editor) 'Australian Mixed Race', in the European Journal of Cultural Studies (forthcoming).