Translating the Multilingual City Book Review

Written by Professor Mike Baynham, University of Leeds

Even at my age, life is full of firsts and this is my first blog post. I want to tell you about a thought-provoking book I have just read. Tong-King (TK) Lee’s Translating the Multilingual City. The multilingual city in question is Singapore and the translation is literary translation. Lee argues compellingly for a consideration of the power dynamics and linguistic ideologies in the linguistic economy in order to understand the micro detail of translation processes. His first illustrative case is translation of what he terms a “literature of loss”, writing in Chinese which thematises cultural crisis and loss of Chinese in Chinese Singaporeans, particularly younger generation, who “struggle to speak their mother tongue with reasonable fluency” (p.13) and prefer to communicate in English. How does the translation of a heterolingual text, which itself embodies the linguistic tensions between English and Chinese in the Singaporean context, deal with the bilingual aspect, which is crucial to the storyline? Lee is not so much interested in the technicalities of translating the bilingual text, more in the questions of identity and language ideology that these throw up. Lee points to a tendency in such translations to homogenize difference. In one of the stories considered, the protagonist, a Chinese man, is poignantly unable to write his own name in Chinese , the graphic slip in what he writes visually indexing his apparent affiliation to the West. It is this last iconic point that gets lost in translation. Considering the case of self translation by the playwright Kuo Pao Kun, Chinese-English, English-Chinese, Lee shows how these self authored translations make play with the ideological asymmetries between the language varieties which compose the text: “the textual tension created through the juxtaposition of English and Chinese in the play can be seen as a linguistic realisation of the ideological tension that confronts the protagonist in his life choice.” (p.60)

Lee’s next focus is on reading texts of cultural othering, here the othering of the non Chinese speaking Chinese. How does the anglophone (i.e. non Chinese speaking) Chinese reader appropriate a translated text whose point is subtly or not to position as other a non Chinese speaking Chinese person? I thinks this points to a larger question of how we read texts which other us. I can think of two strategies, though of course there may be more: first to read them oppositionally, to read against them, secondly to read them with a stance of imaginative inclusion or receptiveness. When I read a racist, sexist or homophobic text for example, my tendency is to read against rather than receptively. However Lee is more interested in the affordances or reading positions offered by the text, as well as the ways these echo or index language ideological positions, less in how actual readers might appropriate these readings, oppositionally or receptively. My sense however is that this would be an interesting line of investigation empirically.

In the final theme of the book, Lee looks at a number of anthologies of Singaporean writing in terms of how translation choices index power relations between languages: there are multilingual anthologies where texts in Chinese, Tamil and Malay are translated into English but not into each other,   others where all contributions are translated into English and an original is not provided. Such anthologies demonstrate the significance of directionality and power relations in translation. English serves as a kind of cultural clearing house at times eliding the “other” language entirely. English is enriched, the other languages vanish. There is one example cited where every language is translated into each other, suggesting a genuine attempt to create a commerce or traffic between the languages of multilingual Singapore without privileging English. If I can paraphrase his conclusion, I think Lee is arguing for these translational choices in working with bilingual texts not as a technical question with a necessary solution, not with right or wrong answers, but more a translational space of play, of différance, within which such questions of identity, linguistic power and ideology can be fruitfully explored.

So what are the implications of this focus on literary translation and language ideology in multilingual Singapore for our Translanguaging project? I think the point that language choices are never neutral but are informed by power relations and language ideologies is important. I think the focus on directionality in translanguaging is also important and is something I hope to write about. I have found the issues raised in this book helpful in clarifying some issues in my own practice as literary translator. In the meantime I look forward to catching up with TK and discussing these and other issues further later this year, possibly over a glass of wine, in another multilingual Chinese city, Hong Kong.


Lee, T-K (2013) Translating the Multilingual City: cross-lingual practices and language ideology. Oxford: Peter Lang.


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