Koel Chu ruminates on masturbation, making a living as a translator, and writing without writing.
Editorial intro for Afterlives, a series exploring the politics of translation—featuring translations of texts from and beyond AAA’s Collections, interviews with translators, and more.
As much as I wish to romanticise the work of a translator, I found myself sitting in front of my laptop googling the two Chinese terms for masturbation on Christmas day. I made myself a morning coffee, with (online) dictionaries ready, and beats from Lofi Girl blasting in the background, just to convince myself that being a translator could be less uncool. But nearly half an hour had passed reading about the multitude of ways to masturbate, and the etymologies of both Chinese terms for masturbation, before I could decide on which translation to use. All that for one word.
At the time, I was translating the subtitles of a documentary about erotic cartoonist Robert Crumb, during which I constantly bombarded everyone around me with questions like whether there’s a difference between asses and butts, and which translation of the word “cherry” sounds more erotic. It was quite an experience, partly because I ended up dedicating the entire Christmas break to translate those 50,000 words (Japanese translator Sam Bett once said translating is the slowest form of reading; for me, that’s a really nice way of putting the devouring and subsequent churning out of texts in your target language—it certainly feels slow, but come what may, there’s always a deadline that arrives unreasonably too soon). The project was also memorable since I had never needed to use—let alone define—virtually the entire body of 1970s American sex slang. It’s why I have a love-hate relationship with translation. It takes up a lot of time, for something that most people see as merely a service that any machine or AI-powered tool can offer. But how else would a person like me, from Hong Kong and living in the year 2023, find themselves in such close proximity to 1970s American sex culture?
As a multilingual Hong Konger, often times I feel inundated, both by languages and the burden to translate, as though my very existence is defined by what I speak and write, that by oscillating between languages, my corporeal being is nothing but political activism. I’m sure that on a certain level it is, and I do admire translators who see their translations as anti-oppressive acts of resistance and reclamation. But if I’m being completely honest, the immediate reason that pushes me to translate is never these urgencies. The incentive is always to make a living; I would be lying if I said otherwise, because there aren’t many ways for writers to make ends meet. But finances aside, sometimes I find pleasure in translating because it establishes a space to feel both invisible and seen in my own languages. No matter how bizarre the search history on my browser is (e.g., “cornmeal,” “play footsie,” “B. O.,” among others that I’d rather not make public here), I always have the excuse of doing it for the sake of “research.” I have this introverted tendency of wanting to go about unnoticed, to write behind a veil—think Homer Simpson disappearing into the bushes.
Translating is like writing without writing: writing something that I know I would not be capable of writing, yet writing what only I—in this time and space—can write, because my interpretation will always be different from yours. My favourite part about translation, though, is how the task is doomed to fail. No matter how closely you work on your translation with the author, there will always be nuances you cannot capture with another language. Nothing is truly translatable; it is only a matter of how close your translation can get to the core of the text, which can be a phantasm of meanings anyway. Translation is but an attempt to see how different realities can (and more often, cannot) be manifested in the languages you speak. Sometimes I’ve been certain I understood a text, but it was not until I began redefining it with my own words that I realised I actually did not. There is pleasure in trying to elucidate or unravel a text, much like solving puzzles or playing Sudoku, in the sense that the original text already bears all the answers—you just have to ask the right questions.
The emphasis is on “you”—the translator, with agency, as a producer of meanings. Here, I don’t mean that translation is a selfless act of charity. I am suggesting that we translate not just for the sake of others, an imagined audience, but for ourselves. This is not to say that it is disgraceful to be at the service of an author or likely readers. Rather, in a time when translation is seen more often as a “side-gig” or “something extra” (I’m thinking about the times organisations reach out for translation “service” because they have some extra budget to “make their work available to more audiences”), it is more important to think about how translators sustain themselves. For instance, while you can get paid for doing translation, it is more often voluntary, as is usually the case for literary translators. Not only may you not be remunerated for the work you’ve done, you usually have to submit samples and proposals, or even go the extra mile of translating an entire text before being considered for publication. That’s why I translate things I genuinely have zero interest in (such as corporate newsletters, subtitles for promotional videos), in order to make it financially possible to translate the work I love—the work I long to be part of.
Some of the featured works in Afterlives will be texts on Hong Kong history I’ve come across, again and again, as course materials back in university or in citations from academics and writers whose work I admire—texts that remain untranslated, despite long-standing demands to make them bilingually available for research. Others are texts I encountered serendipitously in the library during breaks from prolonged afternoon slumps—texts whose sentences have been engraved in my head, with new interpretations springing up each time I revisit them.
But as I mentioned earlier, this series is as much about the texts themselves, as it is about the politics of translation. By politics, I don’t mean translating on exigency grounds. Language is inevitably political, and it is impossible to disentangle language from its imperial and neo-colonial histories. While it is important not to assume fungibility between translation and action, or to see translation as a remedy to the world’s problems, I do think there are stakes behind every word choice, every decision to translate, every refusal to translate, every decision to “stay true” to or deliberately depart from a source text. For instance, why do I opt for literal translation here, and transliteration there? Am I informed enough to understand the work’s nuances and translate with care? How will my translations impact the people who belong to the communities and cultures depicted in the work? These are only some of the questions for me to consider as a translator, and you as a reader. Through Afterlives, I invite you to challenge my choices and interrogate the power dynamics at play in my reconstructions. In this way translation becomes one of many ways for a text to live on, extending its influence beyond its initial form of publication, and beginning its discursive afterlife—rather than sitting untouched on our library shelves. My hope is that you will hold these texts as dearly as I do.
It may seem a little forceful; after all, works that will appear in this series never asked to be translated. In that respect, in the most clichéd metaphor, isn’t this what unrequited love is like? It doesn’t matter what the translator gets out of it, just as in most one-sided love affairs, one has no doubt that their passion is unreciprocated. But when I read something I identify with deeply, it pains me that I will never be able to write like the author or experience the world as they did. I believe it is exactly this desire to insert oneself into the work they admire that drives many writers to translate something, as Barthes puts it, “that’s beautiful, but that I lack, that I require.”