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Xi Xi’s “The Body’s Language”

November 15, 2011

Xi Xi (西西) is a celebrated Hong Kong author, with four of her books translated into English, and numerous stories and essays translated in journals and anthologies.  (Xi Xi is a pseudonym, her original name is Zhang Yan 張彥.)


One of her most celebrated works is her 1992 Mourning for the Breast (哀悼乳房), which is a series of autobiographical essays about her experience with breast cancer and its treatment.  This book was well-reviewed and somewhat surprisingly became the loose inspiration for

the Johnnie To Hong Kong movie 2 Become 1.

I do not know of a complete English translation of Mourning for the Breast, but various essays from it have appeared in several anthologies and journal articles.  Esther Cheung in the journal Studies on Asia translates a key chapter, “The Body’s Language.”  In this essay, Xi Xi develops an extended analogy between translation and our relationship to our body; but in doing so, she also gives hints as to her own theory of translation. 

I recommend reading the entire essay, but here are some excerpts (I have substantially revised the translation):

After receiving a decade or more of education, we become creatures who value the mind first.  And, after leaving school, we often pursue intellectual nourishment — reading books, watching movies, buying art books and musical recordings.   These activities are all are food for the mind. But our teachers fail to teach us what kinds of food we should buy for our stomach. No one tells us whether we should or should not drink milk, whether we should or should not eat less salt and sugar. We regard our intellectual and spiritual concerns as magnificent and dignified, while matters of the body become mean and lowly. Going to a museum to view paintings is an dignified habit, and when an art exhibition includes a David or a Venus, we consider them to be beautiful.  However, this kind of beauty seems separated from the body and can exist independently from it. The beauty becomes spiritual —purely spiritual. We regard going to the food market as a chore, something that illiterates and children can do. We have a body, but we feel more and more alienated from it….

My body makes more and more noise, as though it foments a revolution inside itself and is protesting loudly. Is it calling for a strike?  Is it requesting  a leave?   Is it fighting for special allowances? I do not know what it really wants. I have never had a good conversation with my body in the past, and now I can only listen to its utterances. The question is — what is it talking about? Are my white blood cells in decline? Is my body suffering for a shortage of certain vitamins or minerals? Interpersonal communications is already difficult, but communications ourselves and our bodies is even more difficult. The body has so many parts and each part petitions with its complaints. There is not even a single language of the body: the bone speaks the bone’s language; the muscle speaks the muscle’s language; the nerve speaks the nerve’s language. We recapitulate the Tower of Babel and have trouble communicating.

Since my tumor first appeared, my body has made many warning signals, but even my doctor cannot fully understand them, and I am completely at a loss at interpreting them. I am illiterate in the language of my own body. At school, we  learn languages foreign languages, lest we be illiterate in all other tongues. We often further study foreign languages even after  our formal education, so we can communicate with the broader world, so we can understand other people.  It is true: understanding other people helps us understand ourselves. But, other than doctors, who can understand the language of the body?

I love literature, and while I can read English works in the original, I rely on Chinese translations of novels from Italy, Germany, and other countries.  But how much of the spirit in the original versions can we comprehend from the translations? Does the translation Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past show the proper tenses? Can we tell from the translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Captain Pantoja and the Special Services whether the characters speak colloquial or formal language on the streets and lanes?

Open the Chinese translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and you will read the translator’s preface: “Having compared the work’s English translation with its Japanese one, I found that there were many problems in the translations; in particular in the English translation where mistranslations and under-translations were rather common.” In recent years, the chorus of complaints about translations have grown:  mistranslations, misinterpretations, under-translations, adaptations. There are not only unconscious misunderstandings, but also deliberate simplifications, and even rewritings. It seems that to understand an original work thoroughly, we need comparatively read multiple translations, in the hope that different translators will elucidate different aspects of the work; or we simply need to learn the original language of the work. 

Please do not assume that I am ever looking for the most perfect possible translation. I am not. There is no single predefined, immutable “absolute spirit” in any book. Translations are interpretations. We can find multiple interpretation in a single text. Each interpreter can claim: “I am Madam Bovary,” and we will not pause to worry that there are too many Madam Bovarys. For the body’s language, we understand biologists and doctors to be the professional translators, and so their translations appear to be more scientific and objective. However the human experience, with its wide diversity of experiences and practices generates different interpretations and readings.  Misreading, re-translation, these have become second nature to us.  I can posit that it is impossible to have an exclusive, absolute version of translation, now and in the future….

The body can speak. Its language includes not only sounds, but images as well. Its written languages are signs on our bodies that we can discover through electrocardiograms, ultrasonic imaging, X-ray fluoroscopy. The body is fluent and articulate in its own language. We are fortunate when we have doctors who can understand this language….

The subject of language has fascinated most of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, and understanding its mysteries has become critical to philosophy’s scientific turn. We are born both with a mouth and two ears – it is not enough for us to express ourselves (on and on), we must also listen sensitively. We should not allow our mouth to swell too much with words while our ears are shrink day after day.

And our Earth, it is a much greater body, I believe. It too is sending many language signs, is it not? If we human beings refuse to listen to it, sooner or later we will lose this ultimate body on which we depend for life.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 15, 2011 10:37 pm

    “Can I say that it is impossible to have an exclusive, absolute version of translation, no matter whether it is now or in the future?”

    I particularly like this question. We don’t interpret our bodies perfectly, and doctors often can’t either. So many tests are approximations, some tests are close to absolute, but many aren’t. We need to listen to the different interpretations, the various measures and hints. And we need to collaborate with the technicians and doctors in listening to our bodies.

    It’s a good comparison with reading a translation. We depend on the specialist who knows the language, but we ultimately we interpret for ourselves, and give the text meaning as we read. I don’t intend this is an anti-scientific way at all, but simply feel that we need to recognize how much health and meaning are an individual as well as interpersonal experience.

  2. November 18, 2011 1:01 pm

    Xi Xi has the great advantage that she is able to say subtle things without ambiguity or difficulty; I liked this idea of hers as well.

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