Douglas Robinson on Bonnie McDougall’s Translation Zones in Modern China

200Douglas Robinson, Chair of English at Lingnan University, has reviewed Translation Zones in Modern China: Authoritarian Command versus Gift Exchange, by star Chinese literary translator Bonnie McDougall, for Modern Chinese Literature & Culture. Here’s an excerpt:

In one sense, the core of the book is McDougall’s recollections of living in Beijing from 1980 to 1983, working full-time as a Chinese-to-English translator for the Foreign Languages Press (FLP) and translating poetry by Bei Dao and other “unofficial writers” on the side. […] This is the strategy that makes for some awkwardness in the book: McDougall is constantly converting her personal experiences into an academic ethnography of an institution, while also frequently reminding us that most of what she is telling us she knows from personal experience. The book is neither frank memoir nor memoir disguised as something more impersonal and academic; it is both at once, and to achieve that effect it travels a shifting line of conjunction between the two.

There are also great advantages to this strategy. One is that, at least part of the time, we are situated in a temporal phenomenology that gives us a sense of the insecurity of real life lived in time–the fact that one never knows, experiencing a given state of affairs, how long that state is going to last, and whether it’s going to get better or worse. When McDougall arrived in Beijing in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had ended just scant years before; the forces that had organized and fueled that dark period were still around, and seemed occasionally to be gathering strength, as in the “anti-spiritual pollution” crusade of 1983 and 1984. At several points McDougall gives us a sense of the fear many felt at the time that the campaign was a resurgence of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping was then just beginning to liberalize the Chinese economy, and the first signs of that opening, whose blossoming we see so clearly today, are visible in this period as well. What we see in the transitional period she describes is not a stark contrast between “China then” and “China now” but significant historical tensions and continuities that help us understand not just the PRC from 1980 to 1983, but something like the last half century of Chinese history.