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A feminist translation approach in twentieth-century China: Bing … – Nature.com

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Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 9, Article number: 283 (2022)
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Among modern Chinese female writers and translators, Bing Xin is considered an elite pioneer and leader of the May Fourth/New Culture Movement. Through a sentimental and feminist writing style, she showcases her own voice and distinctive features. With anti-patriarchal philosophy and creative literary rhetoric, Bing Xin’s translation of literature reflects femininity and globality. Her seminal translated work《园丁集》 (Yuan Ding Ji or Yuan Ding Collected Poems), the Chinese translation of the poetry collection The Gardener by Rabindranath Tagore, is a product of appreciation and appropriation, as well as rewriting and recreation. Using case study as a research methodology and the method of textual analysis and commentary of Bing Xin’s translated sources in comparison with primary sources from Tagore’s work, this project focuses on how Bing Xin applies typical feminist translation strategies in certain excerpts from The Gardener, serving as a reflection of her feminist consciousness as well as a correction of the potentially unintended patriarchal tendencies of Tagore. By commenting on her translation tactics and their effects and implications, this paper traces Bing Xin’s endeavour to fight the subordinated status of women and of the translation. It aims to contribute to both gender studies and critique on translation theory and practice.
The feminist movements that swept across Europe and the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also spread to other parts of the world and made people, especially women, more aware of the patriarchy and the realities of gender inequality. Similar to the Western world at this time, traditional Chinese society subjected women to a patriarchal social system, which limited their activities to family and designated private zones (Shen, 2016). With different origins from Western feminism, modern Chinese feminism was born of military and political crises in the late Qing Dynasty (the 1870s–1890s). In order to save their nation at this critical time, scholars started revolutionary movements. In addition to political reforms, they spoke out for the liberation of women (Hong, 2021). The fact that conscientious and patriotic Chinese thinkers called for social acceptance of women’s education and involvement in the country’s construction constituted an early form of feminism in China. It was also during these early years of Chinese feminism that the New Woman movement emerged in its infancy, beating the drum for insight on equal gender rights, and liberation from constrictive Confucian practices. The wave of feminism later evolved and developed in the May Fourth/New Culture Movement (circa 1916–1923), in which Chinese intellectuals introduced Western feminism to fight against imperialism and unequal social relations (Yu, 2020). Throughout this movement, 冰心 (Bing Xin, 1900–1999) and other elitists such as Lu Xun (1881–1936), Li Dazhao (1889–1927), and Deng Yingchao (1904–1992), became engaged in condemning arranged marriage and advocating independent, self-selected relationships, as well as women’s liberation. All of this could be considered indigenous Chinese “feminism”, a term coined in the West but localised in China, with both educated Chinese men and women (such as those listed above) becoming actively involved. In this period, the term “feminism” was rendered as “女权主义” nüquanzhuyi (women’s rights-ism) in Chinese.
Since the 1980s, translation has been deemed a rewriting activity that involves social as well as linguistic and cultural aspects, and covers disputed questions of ideology, power, and manipulation. Against this backdrop, feminism and translation studies became linked, and feminist translation theory emerged (as exemplified by the Canadian School of Feminist Translation in the 1980s). Many concerns at the centre of feminism have been explored within translation studies, including doubt cast on traditional hierarchies and gendered social roles, subversion of the culture of patriarchal hegemony, and suspicion of principles defining fidelity (Simon, 1996). As feminist translation theory is a theoretical genre that sprung up with the second wave of Western post-WWII women’s movements in the mid-to-late 1960s (Le Bervet, 2019), and as Bing Xin completed her translation of The Gardener in the 1950s, slightly before the birth of feminist translation theory (not introduced to China until the 1980s), Bing Xin could by no means declare that she was a feminist translator. Nevertheless, her translation work demonstrates her feminist ideology and proves compliant with feminist translation theory and practice.
This study focuses on Bing Xin, a member of a relatively marginalised and under-researched group of translators—women. While attempting to fill the existing knowledge gap between translation theory and practice, it undertakes the urgent task of exploring doctrine, language, and translation with respect to translators. The paper will examine the intersection of Bing Xin’s translation work and her identity as a female translator, specifically through her interpretation of Tagore’s modernist poetry, in order to discover how a feminist mindset can contribute to a female translator’s work.
As a form of art, translation must create sentiments, provoke responses, and even, at times, shock the reader. These are the same missions of feminist translation, which should subvert, rewrite, and recreate the source text to construct women who are visible, present, and felt. An early outcome of this interplay between gender and translation in China can be found in the work of Bing Xin. Originally named Xie Wanying, she took “Bing Xin”, meaning “a crystal bright heart as pure and noble as a cube of ice”, as her pen name. Born at the beginning of the twentieth century in China, she was a Master’s student at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and an associate of Virginia Woolf. As a female writer in the male-dominated worlds of poetry and literature, Bing Xin brought a feminist philosophy to the fore in her work. Apart from novels, essays, poems, and children’s literature, she also earned outstanding academic achievements in literary translation. During her 68-year translation career, she translated The Prophet and Sand and Foam by Kahlil Gibran, Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore, and other works from over ten countries. First published in 1913, The Gardener is a collection of prose lyric poetry and free-verse poetry by Tagore. Its themes include love and unity, and “humanity with the universe” (Gilevych, 2009). A Bengali polymath, Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali: রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর, 1861–1941) was a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, composer, philosopher, and humanist who reshaped Bengali literature, music, and Indian art with Contextual Modernism (Sen, 1997; Tagore and Ray, 2007). The Gardener, translated into English by Tagore, was from his own early poetry collections written in Bengali in the 1890s. In Bing Xin’s Mandarin Chinese translation of the book 《园丁集》 Yuan Ding Ji or Yuan Ding Collected Poems (1961), she offers a feminist interpretation of this ode to romantic and maternal love, as well as the positive role played by women in the family and society.
If feminism is a socio-political concept aimed at questioning and disrupting relations that intersect with gender, feminist translation is a socio-political meaning-making praxis that contends with hegemonic power relations in various dimensions of translation. In addition to questioning the subordination of women, feminist translators question the notion that translations are always subordinate to the original work, through broadening their understanding of, and approach to, translation behaviours and processes (Chamberlain, 1988). The feminist viewpoint and ideology with regards to translation involves identifying gender discrimination that lies in translation and revealing the ideological values behind it as a starting point for offering alternatives with the ultimate goal of achieving gender equality. According to Flotow (1991), feminist translation is a particular method applied by feminist writers to translate the focus on and critique of “patriarchal language”—gendered wording that reduces women to certain roles. In addition to the language aspect, feminist translation challenges the view that translators should remain neutral and stay close to the original work; instead, in feminist translation, nothing is inherently wrong with a translator adding new insights or perspectives to a text. This contrasts with and reacts against the longstanding belief that translators and their writing should remain as loyal as possible to the author’s work, and the fact that the author and original text have historically been seen as “male” (positive and active), whereas the translator and their translation have been seen as “female” (passive and obedient) and relegated to a secondary position (Chamberlain, 1988) when compared to the original writer and their writing.
While some scholars believe that feminism was introduced to China in 1995, in tandem with the Fourth International Women’s Conference held in Beijing (Schaffer and Song, 2007), this in fact occurred as early as the nineteenth century. After the end of the Opium War, democratic doctrines and ideas of gender equality began to enter China, and female writers started exploring the female consciousness in their work (Beahan, 1975). These writers included Xue Shaohui (1866~1911), Qiu Jin (1875–1907), Wu Mengban (1883–1902), Lü Bicheng (1883–1943), and He Zhen (1884~1920). All of these female intellectuals were awakened from feudal ethics such as “the three obediences and the four virtues” (which included lack of literary talent) and fought to address prominent social issues concerning women; by doing this, they picked up and carried forward women’s awareness of autonomy, emotion, revolution, and value.
From the late Qing to the May Fourth Movement in the Republican period, women’s role-modelling identity evolved from the idea of 贤媛 xianyuan “a virtuous lady” and 贤妻良母 xianqi liangmu “good wife, wise mother” (in feudal China) to 国母 guomu “mother of a nation” (in the early Republican period), and 女国民 nüguomin “a female citizen” (from the May Fourth Movement onwards) (Bailey, 2012). The May Fourth Movement was a time when China suffered from Japan’s encroachment, causing liberalism, pragmatism, and nationalism to become prevalent among the population, and feudal Confucianism (especially pertaining to restrictions on women) to be fiercely criticised by progressive scholars. In addition, the May Fourth Movement gave rise to new culture and language in China, allowing for wider and more modern discourse. Until this time, written Chinese had been in a classical form, making it only readable to scholars and government officials (similar to the use of Latin in historical documents of governance in Europe). Among advanced youth, Bing Xin found herself alongside universally known figures such as Hu Shi (1891–1962), Mao Dun (1896–1981), and Lao She (1899–1966) who were devoted to making written Chinese accessible to the widest possible range of men and women in China (Henry, 2020). This is demonstrated in her translation of The Gardener into vernacular Chinese, when she expresses herself through the slogan 我手写我口 “my hand writes what my mouth speaks” (Huang and Xian, 1994). As Bing Xin’s use of vernacular language guarantees her sincere and explicit writing as an independent thinker, and safeguards the equal right of men and women to be able to read and understand, it is, in itself, a feminist action.
From a contemporary Western audience’s perspective, Bing Xin and her translation may not match up as an ideal pair of feminist bedfellows; nevertheless, given the above historical, social, and cultural environments of Bin Xin’s time, they do arguably show a Chinese interpretation of feminist translation. Specifically, with regard to Bing Xin’s era of China, feminist translation can be defined as a conscious discursive involvement through which translators seek to contribute to social acknowledgment of women’s presence, status, individuality, values, discourse and empowerment through, for instance, one’s own choice of love and marriage. Her writing and creation indicate that readers and scholars’ understanding of feminist translation ought to be contextualised and grounded on what elements can be recognised as feminist within a certain culture rather than the groupings of a universal feminism.
China’s very first book translated by a woman, which did not emerge until 1900, was the literary work 《八十日环游记》 (French: Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours; English: Around the World in Eighty Days), translated from French into Chinese by Xue Shaohui and published by Shanghai Jingshi Literature Association (Lin and Tsai, 2016). Early Chinese female writers and translators were not rebellious or radical in their feminist actions, nor did they implement major gender reforms in language (Jing, 2009); instead, they adopted a relatively mild attitude and approach to translation, using a female perspective to reshape the female image and better reflect the female consciousness in their work. Such efforts can be considered an embryonic form of Chinese feminist translation. To gradually diminish the detrimental situation whereby the literary (including literary translation) field had been traditionally established for men, women at this time began to play a role in Chinese translation history. In general, the work of female intelligentsia was considered less important than that of men (Chang et al., 1999). This was also fundamentally true for translation.
The work of Tagore that Bing Xin famously translated in the 1950s was first published in 1961. A graduate of Beijing Beiman Girls’ School (a missionary high school exposing elite students to the Bible and Christianity), she held faith in the philosophy of love. Under the influence of both Western literary modes and Chinese literary thought, she created a literary theory based on individuality, sympathy, and social and public moral awareness (Wang, 2009). Bing Xin has particular empathy for women, as demonstrated by this line in her afterword of 《关于女人》 About Women (2006): “If there were no women in the world, the world would have lost at least five-tenths of ‘truth’, six-tenths of ‘goodness’, and seven-tenths of ‘beauty’.” According to Bing Xin’s memoirs (1999), it was through foreign poetry and literature brought in by “iconoclastic intellectual revolutionaries” during the May Fourth Movement, as well as Tagore’s multiple visits to China, that she heard about this revered Indian poet and gained access to his poetry. Admiring the Nobel laureate’s prose-style writing, she creatively adapted his philosophy of love in her translation as a social remedy for China. It can be postulated that the central didactic theme of her writing and translation, the notion of universal love, was socio-politically valuable in saving China from “the century of humiliation” at the time, as well as a pedagogic tool that armed people with progressive ideas and showed humanistic concern for all men, women and children.
To make women seen and heard in the real world, feminist translators have a tendency to manipulate standpoints in texts, which may or may not be related to feminism, with feminist preferences. Two specific tools employed by these translators are supplementing/amplifying and “hijacking”. To supplement or amplify means to add elements in translation to compensate for what is lacking in the original language, such as gender agreement in English, to fill the gap between conventional linguistic norms and feminist purpose. “Hijacking” occurs when the translator changes the text and appropriates it so that the translation itself becomes the original, rather than standing aside offering explanations or compensating for its differences. Occasionally, to shape and enhance the image of women, feminist translation “hijacks” the source text by deliberately “feminising” the target text (Massardier-Kenney, 1997). Such translations are considered to take possession of the original writing, emphasising the feminist message, and even inserting such content where it was not initially present (James, 2011). Bing Xin’s translation of The Gardener can be taken as an example through which her feminist thought can be analysed. Her translating activity works in subtle ways to make women seen and heard in texts (De Lotbinière-Harwood, 1989). In her translation, Bing Xin’s critical awareness of femininity is shown through unique stylistic features, language expression, and other aesthetic effects, taking women as the subjects of experience, thought, aesthetics, action, and speech (Feng, 2004). In contrast to today’s feminist translators, Bing Xin did not take the approach of rebelliously recreating texts. In her Chinese translation, most of the changes she makes to the original writing are slight. Below are examples in which Bing Xin implements these classical feminist approaches in light of her thoughts on women’s gender, value, and love.
Some feminists (e.g., Spender, 1985; Penelope, 1990) argue that English is, in some quite general sense, male. Abundant instances of this, such as the generic pronouns “he” and “man”, and other overt and indirect instances of sexism that display a male bias can be found. The most noticeable character used by Bing Xin in her translation of The Gardener is a personal pronoun: “她” (she, used as the subject of a verb to refer to a woman, girl, or female animal). This character did not appear in writing until the May Fourth Movement (Huang, 2009), before which the author would always use “其女/其妇” (that lady/that married woman) to refer to a lady/woman. That is to say, the female gender traditionally had no personal pronoun specifically for its own use. As “她” frequently appears in her translation, Bing Xin responded positively to the character “她” appearing in print and becoming more exposed to the public. For instance, in poems #13, #18 and #77, Bing Xin translates Tagore’s “she” as “她”, “her/hers” as “她的”, and the subject of a verb to refer to more than one woman as “她们”. This decision is a significant demonstration of a gender equality mindset, at least in terms of personal pronouns within the language system.
The written text develops as its translator plays a significant role in reproducing it. The initial writer (the “author”) and the succeeding writer (the “translator”) make decisions that can impact the life of the text and will be important to a certain extent (Orloff, 2015). When deciding to highlight the image of women and put it in the dominant position, Bing Xin, the translator, intervenes and tampers with the text, actively partaking in meaningful creative manipulation of the source text, rather than silently hiding behind the translation.
Poem #1 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“QUEEN What will you have for your reward? SERVANT To be allowed to hold your little fists like tender lotus buds and slip flower-chains over your wrists…”
“女王 你要什么报酬呢? 仆人 只要您允许我像握着嫩柔的菡萏一般地握住您的小拳, 把花串套上您的纤腕……”
The equivalent of “you” in Chinese would typically be “你” (referring to the person being spoken to). “您” is used when addressing a person who is superior in age or position. Here, Bing Xin renders “you” as “您” (honorific aimed at the person being spoken to) to raise the Queen’s status in her servant’s eyes. The implication here is not necessarily that the servant is attached to the Queen in a subordinate position; however, Bing Xin undoubtedly presents the Queen’s honourable position through her translation. In addition, “tender” is translated as “嫩柔的” (tender and soft) in Chinese, and “wrists” as “纤腕” (slender wrists). Bing Xin’s recasting of the Queen’s image presumably comes from her appreciation of women rather than an objectification of them, as was the tendency of men at this time.
Poem #36 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“He brought his face near my ear. I glanced at him and said, ‘What a shame!’“
“他把脸靠近我的耳边。我瞪他一眼说: ‘不要脸!’”
By turning “What a shame!” into “不要脸!” (literal meaning: you don’t want your face; implied meaning: you are barefaced, having no sense of shame), Bing Xin’s translation makes the lady’s cursing of the man—her lover—much more severe than in Tagore’s original writing. This is likely due to her desire for women to enjoy status as men do. The portrayal of the lady’s interaction with the man implies the awakening of Bing Xin’s gender identity consciousness. She is pleased to see a woman showing pride and self-esteem when communicating with a man, even in pretend anger.
Poem #48 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“I am lost in you, wrapped in the folds of your caresses.
Free me from your spells, and give me back the manhood to offer you my freed heart.”
“我消失在你里面, 包缠在你爱抚的折痕之中。
把我从你的诱惑中放出来吧, 把男子气概交还我, 好让我把得到自由的心贡献给你。”
The above translation indicates Bing Xin’s elimination of the feudal ethics of “silent woman’s behaviour” and “husband guides wife” (Jiang, 2003). These codes set for women required them to be chaste, follow the instructions of men, refrain from flirting and have no bodily contact with any man (including the husband arranged for them) before marriage. Through her interpretation of Tagore, Bing Xin speaks out for freedom of love and body: she translates “caresses” as “爱抚” (to touch with care and love) and amplifies “free me from your spells” with “吧” (modal particle put at the end of a sentence to soften the tone). By adding “吧” to “放出来”, the original line “free me from your spells” becomes “free me from your seduction, please”. Hence, the male’s tone becomes begging, or at least a request to the female in a negotiating tone. Furthermore, Bing Xin translates the verb “offer” as “贡献” to strengthen the man’s eagerness to express his love to his lady. She also translates the term “spell” neither as “magic charm” nor “enchantment”; instead, she chooses “诱惑” (temptation, seduction). Likewise, she interprets “charm” in poem #16 as “魅惑” (charm and seduction). In Bing Xin’s writing, she portrays the ideas of the wonderful feeling of falling in love, a woman having the right to sweep a man off his feet, and both sexes being able to unleash their human nature in love.
Poem #59 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“O woman, you are not merely the handiwork of God, but also of men; these are ever endowing you with beauty from their hearts. Poets are weaving for you a web with threads of golden imagery; painters are giving your form ever new immortality. The sea gives its pearls, the mines their gold, the summer gardens their flowers to deck you, to cover you, to make you more precious. The desire of men’s hearts has shed its glory over your youth. You are one half woman and one half dream.”
“啊, 女人, 你不但是神的, 而且是人的手工艺品, 他们永远从心里用美来打扮你。
诗人用比喻的金线替你织网; 画家们给你的身形以永新的不朽。
海献上珍珠, 矿献上金子, 夏日的花园奉上花朵来装扮你, 覆盖你, 使你更加美妙。
人类心中的愿望, 在你的青春上洒上光荣。
你一半是女人, 一半是梦。”
As opposed to translating “men” as “男人” (males), Bing Xin renders this term as “人” (human beings). From this, it is clear that differences in gender awareness have implications for translation. The descriptions and praise of women by poets and painters mentioned later in this poem in fact come not only from men but also from women. Therefore, “men” should be translated as “humans” rather than “males”, lest the translation become unintentionally sexist. Bing Xin’s translation of the general term “men” clearly includes both men and women, thus advocating the elimination of traditional inequality between men and women in terms of vocabulary. In Bing’s text, she does not choose the equivalent “形状” (form, shape) for “form”; instead, this is rendered as “身形” (body shape), which is most likely an attempt to highlight the physical glory of women in paintings. For this reason, readers can associate the term with a female figure. The verb “gives” is over-interpreted and replaced with “献上” (to present) and “奉上” (to have the honour to send), respectively. This depicts the givers’ respect for and adoration of women. Using the translation methods of over-translating and “hijacking”, Bing Xin’s translation deliberately eliminates the masculinity of the original text. The overall translation of this poem reflects Bing’s feminist orientation.
Poem #77 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“She goes back home with the full pitcher poised on her head, the shining brass pot in her left hand, holding the child with her right—she the tiny servant of her mother, grave with the weight of the household cares.”
“她顶着满瓶的水, 平稳地走回家去, 左手提着发亮的铜壶, 右手拉着那个孩子——她是妈妈的小丫头, 繁重的家务使她变得严肃了。”
“Servant” is a gender-neutral term. “小丫头” (little girl, little maid) is a form of address for girls perceived as adorable or underaged maids. Either way, Bing Xin presumably uses it as a term of adoration and endearment. She stresses the gender indicated by “servant”, making it more explicit, to compliment the contribution made by the girl to her family through physical labour. This creates an image different to that of Tagore’s, revealing Bing Xin’s reversal of the patriarchal idea of women in the submissive, secondary position of “servants”; instead, she suggests that women are lovable and have their own social value. Replacing “the tiny servant” with “the tiny girl”, Bing Xin portrays the girl as a justified living individual in her family rather than an item belonging to it, as well as presenting a woman’s love and care for her child. “小丫头” (little girl), which also demonstrates one of Bing’s philosophies: childlike innocence. Her translation indicates the intimacy and unity of the mother-daughter relationship.
Feminist translation theory pays special attention to examining the effects of gender consciousness and ideology on the translation process. In the instances below, in the absence of Bing Xin’s translation, Tagore’s readers may see his creation either consciously or subconsciously from his—a man’s—perspective, or be unable to tell whether the narrative is male or female. However, with her feminine rhetoric and viewpoint, Bing Xin clearly rebuilds the world portrayed in the original poems from a woman’s perspective. She (the translator) and the “femaleness” of her language work as a pair of active mediators to exchange Tagore (the man’s) writing for a distinctly woman-centred afterlife.
Poem #12 (Tagore & Bing, 2017)
“If you would leave off your play and dive in the water, come, O come to my lake.
Let your blue mentle lie on the shore; the blue water will cover you and hide you.
The waves will stand at tiptoe to kiss your neck and whisper in your ears.”
“如果你想撇下嬉游跳进水里, 来吧, 到我的湖边来吧。
把你蔚蓝的丝布留在岸上, 蔚蓝的湖水将把你覆盖隐藏。
水波将蹑足来吻你的颈项, 在你耳边低语。”
Tagore’s writing does not indicate whether the character is male or female. However, Bing Xin modifies his writing to include narration by a female speaker, twisting the language to create a more expressive communication style. “Come” is translated as “来吧” (to come) instead of “来” (to come). With “吧” added after “来”, the phrase “来吧” creates the effect of a soft tone, polite request, and genuine invitation from the speaker. “Blue” is rendered as “蔚蓝” (azure, a shade of blue), thus adding more nuance and sensitivity, and leaving readers with a lively image of the blue mantle and lake. By giving merit to the narrative voice and pattern, and injecting her individual imagination regarding the hue of the clothes and water in this poem, Bing harmoniously balances the original writing with her own creative liberty.
Poem #13 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“With the gurgling pitchers at their hips, women came from the river.”
“把汩汩发响的水瓶搂在腰上, 女人们从河边走来。”
In the original poem, the author is clearly writing from the perspective of the male gaze. In her translation, Bing Xin’s subjectivity as a translator is evident. She does not serve as a passive conduit; instead, she supplements “with the gurgling pitchers” with the word “搂” (to hug) to describe the way in which the women hold their pitchers, thus showing their care for them. In addition, rather than adhering to the meaning of “hips” in the original text, she replaces it with the character “腰” (waist). In habitual Chinese language, Chinese speakers typically say “to hold something at one’s waist” rather than “at one’s hips”, making “搂在屁股上” (to hold at one’s hips) seem awkward to Chinese readers. For this reason, Bing Xin’s translation of “搂在腰上” is much more natural Chinese than “搂在屁股上”. Furthermore, the verb “came” reads as “走来” (walked) in the translation, which makes the women’s image more assertive than it originally appears. In Bing Xin’s rewriting, the description of women from a male point of view is weakened (Liu, 2009). This exhibits Bing Xin’s feminist position, whereby Tagore’s perspective of gender is subtly changed. The distinction between Tagore’s writing and Bing’s reproduction regarding women can be generalised by stating that the former is patriarchal as it empowers men while sexualising and diminishing women, while the latter is aesthetic and elevates the image of women (Liu, 2019).
Poem #34 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“I have watched all night, and now my eyes are heavy with sleep …
I start up and stretch my hands to touch you. I ask myself, ‘Is it a dream?’ Could I but entangle your feet with my heart and hold them fast to my breast!”
“我看望了一夜, 现在我脸上睡意重重。
我惊起伸出双手去摸触你, 我问自己说: ‘这是一个梦么? ’
但愿我能用我的心系住你的双足, 紧抱在胸前! ”
In this poem, the gender of the narrator is hidden. While the original states “my eyes are heavy with sleep”, Bing Xin’s translation exchanges “eyes” for “face”, depicting an image of morbid beauty. “Start up” is replaced with “get up in shock”. Bing Xin creates a feminist retelling in which the translator is not bound to remain faithful to every detail of the original, but instead rewrites a male-authored classic to reflect a woman’s mental journey.
Poem #41 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“I long to sit silent by you; but I dare not lest my heart come out at my lips.”
“我渴望着就那么默默地坐在你的身旁; 可我怕心儿会跳到唇上所以我不敢。”
Again, Tagore’s writing here does not disclose whether the protagonist is a hero or heroine. However, Bing Xin’s addition of a heroine’s tonality shows her visibility as an active mediator during the translation process. By adding “儿” (which does not have any particular meaning here, functioning only as a rhotacisation of syllable finals) to “心” (the heart), Bing Xin turns the character’s monologue into feminine colloquial speech. Using the term “跳” (to jump), Bing Xin rewrites “come out” as “jump out”. This verb better depicts a heroine’s perturbance when longing to get close to the object of her affection yet not daring to do so. Bing Xin’s consciousness and endeavour to portray the female gender through translation are hereby demonstrated. Gendering the original text in this delicate way may indicate Bing Xin’s intention to make women the narrative subjects of texts (Lingenfelter, 2012).
Poem #46 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“I thought I should mourn for you and set your solitary image in my heart wrought in a golden song.
Should I neglect all this to gaze after one who has turned her back on me?
Then, come, my rainy nights with pattering feet; smile, my golden autumn; come, careless April…
You come, and you, and you also!
I cannot but wipe away my tears and change the tune of my song.”
“我想我将为你忧伤, 还将用金色的诗歌铸成你孤寂的形象, 供养在我的心里。
我可以不管这些, 只凝望着背弃我的那个人么?
那么, 来吧, 我的雨夜的脚步声; 微笑吧, 我的金色的秋天; 来吧, 无虑无忧的四月。
你来吧, 还有你, 也有你!
我只能拭去眼泪, 更改我歌曲的腔调。”
From reading the English poem, readers would typically assume the protagonist to be male. However, Bing Xin’s translation clearly depicts the character’s mind from a female’s perspective, due to its generally feminine tone. The phrase “set… in…” is rendered as “供养” (to worship and feed). The object of the verb term “供养” normally refers to divinities. If a woman “供养” a man in her heart, she highly reveres him. By adding the modal particle “吧” at the end of “来吧”, “微笑吧”, and “你来吧”, Bing Xin turns the imperative sentences “Then, come… You come, and you, and you also!” into suggestions. The tone is hereby softened and rendered more polite. Through this translation, Bing Xin expresses her friendliness and sincere care for the lover in Tagore’s original writing. Bing’s distinctive and caring voice as a feminist and a translator is demonstrated with gentle wording such as “供养”, “吧”, and “拭去”.
Poem #55 (Tagore & Bing, 2017)
“I had forgotten to braid my hair. The languid breeze played with it upon my neck… I had forgotten to braid my hair. The dust of the road was hot and the fields panting. The doves cooed among the dense leaves.”
“我忘记把我的头发束起。困倦的风在我颊上和它嬉戏。我忘记把我的头发束起。路上尘土灼热, 田野在喘息。鸽子在密叶中呼唤。”
Through Bing Xin’s word choice, which embodies liveliness and novelty, her love of nature is reflected throughout her translation of this poem. Both Bing Xin and Tagore place particular emphasis on perceiving and describing the beauty of nature by constructing the character’s connection with their natural environment. For example, “braid” is translated as “束起” (to bind up in a gentle way), instead of the more commonly used “编起” (to weave the slender strips crosswise; this verb emphasises the way in which a person braids hair with clever hands, usually to create the impression of a grand occasion such as a wedding banquet, for which women would dress up and style their hair). The verb “束起” is more focused on emphasising the behaviour of attempting to bind and put one’s hair up to prevent it from coming loose. Hence Bing’s “束起” best fits the context, in which the wind plays with a girl’s hair as it hangs. “Play with” is translated as “嬉戏” (to play with each other and have fun) rather than “玩耍” (to play with each other). A significant difference between “嬉戏” and “玩耍” is that the former can refer to both children and adults playing, while the latter is exclusively used for children. In addition, “嬉戏” implies laughter provoked during play while “玩耍” merely suggests playing together. Even more notable is that in Chinese the verb “嬉戏” can modify adult women but not adult men. “Neck” is rendered as “颊” (cheeks) rather than “脖子” (neck), most likely as Bing Xin imagines the breeze blowing the character’s hair into her face. “Panting” is replaced with “喘息” (to wheeze). In Mandarin Chinese, only human beings and animals can “喘息”. Here, the field is personified to resemble a wheezing creature, which implies Bing Xin’s humanistic care for these divine creations. Similarly, “coo” is translated as “呼唤” (to call out), which endows the doves with personified traits. Her descriptive rhetoric here enables the reader to recall their experience against the one that she creates, transforming the depiction of a girl from a masculine perspective into the narration of a lively young lady.
In her writing and creation, Bing Xin deeply expounds the spirit of the times (gender equality and marriage based on individual choice) and feminist thought embodied in the philosophy of love (Zhang and Jiang, 2016). This is made clear through her translations of the word “love” and its derivations. For example: “love” is translated as “爱情” (romantic love) in poem #56 and “爱恋” (love and deeply attached feeling) in poem #61. “Loving eyes” in poem #26 reads as “爱怜的眼光” (loving eyes in tender affection) in its Chinese translation. “Anxious love” is rendered as “热恋的爱” (mad and passionate love) in poem #52. The “love longings” in poem #30 becomes “爱恋的渴想” (longings and thirst for love), and “爱娇” (loveliness and charm) is used to translate “loveliness” in poem #49. Apart from the term “love”, Bing Xin uses many other ways to address one’s significant other: “情人” for “lover” in poem #32, “我的爱人” and “爱人” for “beloved” in poem #33, and “我爱” for “my love” in poem #34 and #36. It was only from the 1960s onwards that “爱人” became a standard term for one’s husband or wife (Farrer, 2014), this being after this translation by Bing Xin was published. Prior to this, it was intellectuals influenced by the New Culture Movement who preferred this title for “lover”. In stark contrast, the traditional feudal system would expect people to “properly” address their spouse according to their social class and own gender. In other words, terms of address for one’s significant other were gendered, and emperors, government officials and commoners referred to their spouses using rather different terms. Bing Xin’s translation of these addresses wipes out the ideas of social rank and gender identity, as they are gender-neutral and not informed by social status. The translated terms above create the impression of endearment and loving emotions, demonstrating that Bing advocates modernisation in and revolution of language. Her usage of the above neologisms demonstrates her advanced mindset, which seeks to escape from the by-then feudal Confucianism tendencies and embrace the humanism embodied in loving addresses for one’s spouse. When handling a man’s address to the girl he is attracted to, Bing sometimes translates “fair one” as “佳人” (beauty) (poem #37), and “fair woman” (poem #80) as “美妙的女人” (wonderful lady). All of this reflects Bing Xin’s tentative translation style, whereby she pays tribute to romantic relationships, shows concern for the setting in poems, and chooses the most appropriate words. Through these translations, Bing Xin expresses her friendliness and enthusiastic ode to the lover in Tagore’s original writing. It is not merely the gentle and subtle words flexibly applied by Bing Xin that make her a feminist translator, but also her active intervention, with the source text behind it, to explicitly enhance affectionate addresses to one’s lover.
During the indoctrination of moral values over thousands of years in feudal society, both men and women were subjected to marriages arranged by their families. It was not until 1950, several decades after the May Fourth Movement, that the Marriage Law introduced that year outlawed coerced and arranged marriages. Article One of this law codified free choice in monogamy and of one’s partner, and put equal rights between sexes, and the lawful interests of women and children, into effect. As a woman and advanced thinker, Bing Xin fully understood the hardship of lacking freedom to choose one’s own spouse. Through her translation, readers can perceive this strong emotional consciousness regarding the pursuit of love. Amplifying Tagore’s ode to love and his depiction of lovers’ minds, Bing Xin emphasises the emotional consciousness of women and declares their personal dignity as shown in the following cases.
Poem #16 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“It is a game of giving and withholding, revealing and screening again; Some smiles and some little shyness, and some sweet useless struggles.”
“这是一个又予又留、又隐又现的游戏; 有些微笑, 有些娇羞, 也有些甜柔的无用的抵拦。”
While the original is written from a third person perspective, Bing Xin’s translation includes a female narration. Tagore’s “shyness” is rendered as “娇羞” (sweetness and shyness) rather than “害羞” (shyness). While the former is a feminine term seen as a positive and attractive trait, the latter is neutral. Although Bing’s above-used term of “娇羞” can modify a woman but not a man in habitual Chinese language, it almost reads as if she is following a feudal idea when translating, taking account of the fact that, even in current Chinese society, “娇羞” contains a connotation of compliment for women. Bing Xin’s preference for this term over “害羞” should bear forgiveness from feminist critics. Given that she has already incorporated a female narration into a male-authored text, and injected her own creativity during translation as a feminist element that fights against the legitimacy of translators keeping their voice silent and doing the original writer’s bidding, the choice of this word (“娇羞”) alone should not taint her status as a feminist translator. In addition, “struggles” is rendered as “抵拦” (defence; behaviour to stop, to hinder) rather than “抵抗/阻止” (counteraction, resistance). Bing Xin’s translation speaks to the “playing hard to get” game in romantic relationships whereby young couples wish to get close to each other yet show false reluctance and an intention to refuse.
Poem #18 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“The two sisters glance at each other when they come to this spot, and they smile.
There is a laughter in their swift-stepping feet, which makes confusion in somebody’s mind who stands behind the trees whenever they go to fetch water.”
“姐妹俩相互瞥了一眼又微笑了, 当她们来到这地点的时候。
她们飞快的脚步里带着笑声, 使这个每逢她们出来打水的时候站在树后的人儿心魂缭乱了。”
Bing Xin’s use of “使心魂缭乱了” (to confuse and dazzle one’s heart) amplifies “makes confusion in somebody’s mind”. With this translation, she adds to the depiction of the young man’s shyness and nervousness when he meets the two ladies. Creating an image of beauty, it mirrors the lover’s sincere feelings in this poem.
Poem #35 (Tagore and Bing, 2017)
“Lest I should not prize you, you elude me in a thousand ways.”
“只恐我不珍爱你, 你千方百计地闪避我。”
The verb “prize”, meaning to think of someone or something as rather valuable or important, is rendered as “珍爱” (to cherish and love) by Bing Xin. The use of “cherish and love” as opposed to “prize” reflects the feminist approach in Bing’s translation, since a prize is something to be won or held, thus implying ownership, unlike “cherish”, which implies love rooted more in spiritual connection than strong possessiveness. “In a thousand ways” reads as “千方百计” (literal meaning: one thousand means and one hundred tricks; implied meaning: by all means). This translation indicates Bing Xin’s own reasonable interpretation of the subject—the lover’s psychological activity in this poem. Since her mild rewriting appears to possess an extraordinary understanding of the hearts of lovers, Bing Xin’s efforts in this translation highlight and sharpen the theme of love. With “to cherish and love” and “one thousand means and one hundred tricks”, Bing’s translation emphasises the most essential human emotions even more strongly than the original text.
Previous studies (e.g., Wang, 2009; Ji and Liu, 2013) viewing Bing Xin as a writer state that her poetry and literature demonstrate a Chinese version of so-called “liberatory” feminism in twentieth-century China. Liu’s (2019) study analysing Bing’s own poetry collection concludes that, through her feminist and unconventional manner of writing, she alters Tagore’s patriarchal inclination. Taking her as a female translator, and through the above commentary and analysis of the strategies she takes to “rewrite” Tagore’s male and female characters, interpersonal relationships, and love, the present research has demonstrated that Bing Xin’s translation of The Gardener is indeed feminised, and that gender is reconstructed in her interaction with the original text. As a representative of female translators, Bing Xin generally applies a more feminist-style rhetoric in The Gardener (for example, by changing Tagore’s statements into suggestions, paying more empathic attention to women, and writing in a refined manner) when compared to the original writer—whose discourse is that of a male poet—and consciously (or subconsciously) makes modifications in the translation of men’s writings. Although Bing Xin did not herself claim to be a feminist translator (gender and translation studies had not yet interlinked), she did practice a “re-understanding” of the translator’s identity (the text being recast as having “dual authorship”) and of the author-translator relationship (a long-established practice in which the latter completely respects the former). Instead of establishing a typical image of women based on the position of men, Bing Xin constructs a feminist discourse by women themselves, through her occasional over-translation, over-interpretation, and substitution of a man’s perspective with a woman’s, thus functioning as a prophet for the forthcoming feminist translation phenomenon.
As the above textual analysis and commentary of Bing Xin’s translation shows, her translation tactics are comparable to common methods of feminist translation. “Amplifying”, “supplementing”, “intervening”, “tampering”, “hijacking” and “rewriting” frequently occur in her translated text (albeit in a moderate way) to eulogise women and depict their images, characters, minds, and feelings in love more vividly. Despite the fact that female protagonists play largely secondary roles in traditional literary works, Bing Xin highlights the presence of female characters and their experiences of love. Through her writing and translation on humanistic spirit, female aesthetics, and freedom in love, her translation work embarks upon the historic mission of enlightenment. This can be seen as an early attempt to wrestle with the subordinated status of women and of the translation.
The implication of this research is that other scholars will continue to undertake in-depth research on Chinese women translators as a group less explored than their male counterparts in order to link the awakening of feminist consciousness with language and social and historical progression in China. Today, women’s rights and liberation remain a heated topic, possibly even more so than in the past. This is worthy of attention and exploration to achieve humanistic, societal and civilisational development. The findings of this paper have suggested the significance of conversation between gender and feminist linguistics and translation studies, notably in helping translators to critically reflect on their translation strategies, as well as giving thought to how translation has become a weapon for translators longing to alter the status quo for women.
Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.
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The authors’ deepest gratitude goes to the senior lecturer Dr. Şebnem Susam-Saraeva, for her precious feedback on the initial project and suggestions in response to the referee comments. The authors would also like to thank Lauren Harper and Rafiq Ansar for sacrificing their time to kindly help proofread this paper in a most careful and professional way.
Department of Translation Studies, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Britain, UK
Zhinan Ji
Department of English Language and Literature, Suzhou University of Science and Technology, Suzhou, China
Zhinan Ji
Department of Translation and Interpreting, Soochow University, Suzhou, China
Meng Xiangchun
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Correspondence to Meng Xiangchun.
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Ji, Z., Xiangchun, M. A feminist translation approach in twentieth-century China: Bing Xin’s 《园丁集》translation of The Gardener by Tagore. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 283 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01295-1
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