Translation / by Academy Monthly

Typically, translation means changing words from one language to another in order to help someone understand something. In Kingston’s case, she translates herself according to the readers she predicts will not understand aspects of her identity - American readers and her Chinese family. She believes that Americans will not understand her Chinese identity and that her Chinese family will not understand her American identity. 


Kingston translates herself well to me. Her explanation of her mixed identity as a Chinese-American resonates with me, particularly in Maxine’s story about her mother cutting part of her tongue. Maxine wishes that her mother either hadn’t cut her tongue at all or that she would have cut it all away. She does not appreciate her mother’s intentions to allow her to “speak languages that are completely different from one another” and, ultimately, have more than one identity (164). Instead, Maxine wishes that she could have a tongue that allows her to speak only Chinese or both Chinese and English fully, signifying either a solid Chinese or a solid American identity. If her tongue were not cut at all, she feels that she would not be able to speak any English. If her tongue were cut fully, she feels that she could easily speak both Chinese and English. But with the tongue that she has, she has a “terrible time talking”, revealing her struggle to express herself (164). I understand Kingston’s feeling of wanting to have one identity, rather than a complex mixture of the two. I used to wish that I was fully Korean or fully white. I felt more white than I did Korean since I was the odd one out in Korean school, and since I was typically surrounded by white people. As a child, I remember thinking that if my skin were paler, I would be fully white. Therefore, I would try to make my skin as light as possible by staying out of the sun and by asking my parents for extra sunblock when we went to the beach. Clearly, I was silly and did not understand my identity or race, but looking back at how extreme my desire was to be “wholly” one thing, I understand how Maxine feels torn between two worlds. My past desire to not be half white is similar to Maxine’s desire to have a tongue that is not half cut; both of us craved the simplicity in conforming to one side of our identity. 


Kingston describes the troubles she once faced in writing herself into the world by explaining the expectation for Maxine to follow Chinese tradition and remain silent. Brave Orchid constantly complains that her children act “impolite” and “untraditional” like barbarians, implying that these barbarian characteristics are American since they are “untraditional” to the Chinese (121). Since Maxine’s mother always calls Americans barbarians, Maxine feels the need to hide the aspect of her identity that is American, that is “barbaric,” making it difficult for her to translate her true self to her traditional mother. But it is not just her mother who wants Maxine to be traditionally Chinese, Moon Orchid also expects silence from Maxine. She does not like the way that Brave Orchid’s daughters look at her; she asks Brave Orchid why she does not teach her “girls to be demure” (133). Brave Orchid counters, “They are demure. They’re so demure, they barely talk” (133). Brave Orchid prides herself on her daughters’ silence; she values how they do not talk like Americans. Yet, Moon Orchid sees the “American” in the daughters’ eyes. Moon Orchid sees America as the “wilderness” that raises the girls to be “animals” (133). Even though they do not speak, Moon Orchid identifies the “animal”, or American, in the stare of Brave Orchid’s daughters. Moon Orchid knows that the girls appease their mother by hiding the “animal” inside of them with their silence.


Maxine imagines that her family hears Ts’ai Yen’s songs at the theater because she hopes that her family can hear her “song” as a Chinese-American woman. She does not want to stay silent as an obedient Chinese girl; she wants to sing as a Chinese-American woman. When barbarians capture Ts’ai Yen, she sings about her family in Chinese, but “the barbarians understood” her “sadness and anger” (209). Words are not universally understood, but emotions are. Although Ts’ai Yen sings songs meant for a barbarian reed pipe and “from the savage lands”, the Chinese translate a song so that it can be played on “their own instruments” (209). The Chinese embrace Ts’ai Yen, even her barbarian side. Kingston feels that her multifaceted identity, including her American “barbarian” side, should be recognized and accepted like Ts’ai Yen’s by her Chinese family, and she hopes that her American readers can understand her “song” as well. 

Work Cited:
Kingston, Maxine Hong. Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New
York, Random House US, 2010.