The problematics and performance of self-translation: The case of Xiaolu Guo

Doloughan, Fiona (2019). The problematics and performance of self-translation: The case of Xiaolu Guo. In: Bennett, Karen and Queiroz de Barros, Rita eds. Hybrid Englishes and the challenge of and for translation: Identity, mobility and language change. Routledge Advances in Translation and Interpreting, 1. New York: Routledge, pp. 21–36.



As a documentary film-maker, poet and novelist, Chinese-born writer Xiaolu Guo, now a British citizen, is familiar with ‘movement’ across modes and media, as well as across languages and cultures. Indeed, as I have shown elsewhere (Doloughan, 2016; and 2017), Guo’s work can be characterized as focussing on the dynamics of translation in multiple senses. In her latest work, Once Upon A Time in the East (2017), subtitled ‘A Story of Growing Up’, Guo relates the narrative of her past over a 40-year period up to the birth of her daughter and the death of her mother. Described as having “a fabular quality”, Guo's memoir “sounds like the plot of a novel”, according to one reviewer (Feigel, 2017); another entitles his review “Cinderella in China”, alluding to its fairy-tale-like quality and colourful plot and characterising it as an “occasionally self-indulgent, occasionally unconvincing […] tale of survival” which nevertheless “lingers […] night after night” (Rose, 2017).
This chapter will focus on Guo’s ‘translation’ of a life in the light of her earlier fictions, particularly A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), with a view to exploring its performative and intertextual elements. Against the backdrop of an understanding of “the productive tension between figurative and literal in translation” (Godard, 2000: 331) and taking account of Guo’s narrative design and “biliterate performance” (Lee, 2012: 245), I shall seek to relate her memoir not to “representational reproduction” (Godard, 2000: 337) but to a process of creative transposition and a translational performance of self. What Feigel (2017) calls “autobiography as Bildungs-roman or indeed as Kunstlerroman (sic)”is a work of autofiction self-consciously framed by references to successful female writers – there’s a dedication to Marguerite Duras and a quotation from Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation – who are themselves the product of ‘translated’ lives and a struggle to achieve artistic success. What I hope to show is that Guo’s oeuvre, including her narrative account of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in Once Upon a Time in the East, is realized through a series of translations, both literal and figurative, and that it enacts a performative textual dynamics which has the effect of drawing attention to the translational as a transformative mode of story-telling.

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