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March 10, 2012

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Non-native English speakers tackle worldview in writing

ENGLISH literature has seen a number of great or notable non-native speakers of English, such as Nabokov, Conrad and Ayn Rand. Over the years many English-language novels were written by Chinese who moved to the West and described their once-mysterious and veiled nation to their Western readers.

Many of these works have received critical acclaim and were commercially successful.

They include eminent writer and scholar Lin Yutang's detailed and riveting description of life in turbulent China from 1900 to 1938 in "Moment in Peking" (1939) to contemporary award-winning writer Ha Jin's "Memoir" of the much-confused and conflicted fictional soldier Yu Yuan in the Pulitzer finalist "War Trash" (2004).

Chinese American writer Qiu Xiaolong, the author of the popular Shanghai Inspector Chen crime series, has said he's not always pleased with the Chinese translations and editing of his work for mainland readers.

Yet, the number of Chinese non-native writers in English is still quite small considering the rocketing interest in China, first in its economic growth and later in more cultural and literary aspects.

Today, many more Chinese writers (Chinese in the cultural rather than territorial sense, which includes those brought up in a predominantly Chinese environment such as Hong Kong and Singapore) are writing in English or planning to take on the challenge.

In an increasingly globalized world, it is no longer language, as a tool for communication, that creates barriers for these writers; rather, it is often the philosophical systems, world views, nuance and baggage that are embedded in the different languages and cultural environments that await resolution.

Writing obstacles

"The main obstacle (of writing in a different language) is not so much language as it is the ability to master the nuances of the language," Xu Xi, a Chinese Indonesian native writer who grew up in Hong Kong, tells Shanghai Daily. "Language is inextricably tied to culture and the worldview of where the person speaking that language is speaking it. The modern world is much more transnational, and languages and cultures move across borders now in many, many more ways than before."

She gives the example of the popular film "Lost in Translation," attributing its lower popularity among people in Asian "not to language, but to worldview."

Xu is a widely published author in English, notably with her novel "Habit of a Foreign Sky" short-listed for the first Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007.

Her opinion is reflected by the experience of Singaporean playwright Ovidia Yu, whose play "The Woman in a Tree on the Hill" is the only Singaporean one to win an Edinburgh Fringe First. "Our English is not standard English but rather 'Singlish.' Even when I think I am writing English, bits of Malay and Hokkien can slip in without my being aware of it because that is what English in Singapore has evolved into," she explains.

And she also calls "self-consciousness" the biggest obstacle to her effective writing in English. "If I were a native English speaker writing about England, every word I wrote would feel overshadowed by Shakespeare and Milton."

On March 17, they will join a discussion at the 10th Shanghai International Literary Festival on the Asian transnational experience in contemporary fiction. It aims to move beyond stories of immigration to the West or nostalgia for the colonial past, which have remained popular and major subjects for Asian writers writing in English.

Acclaimed Chinese Australian poet and writer Ouyang Yu, whose poetry has been included in the best Australian poetry collections seven times, will hold a session today, sharing his experience and reflections on living across cultures and writing in both languages. Ouyang moved to Australia for further studies in 1991 in his 30s, and has now published 61 books, slightly more than half in English and others in Chinese. He writes poetry in both languages, and prefers to write fiction in English while non-fiction in Chinese.

"I'm amazed how similar Chinese minds are to Western minds when it comes to translation. They tend to think only in terms of loss in translation, too much under the spell of a remark by Robert Frost that goes, 'Poetry is what is lost in translation'," he tells Shanghai Daily.

"It is not, in my opinion. It is also what is gained in translation. English, when translated into Chinese, always gains."

He cites the example of Japanese automobile Mazda, which gains some meaning when translated into Chinese as Ma Zi Da, literally meaning a horse that arrives by itself.

All three writers encourage and offer suggestions to those who plan to write in English. Ouyang and Xu both consider extensive reading in English pivotal. Ouyang also suggests Chinese writers who wish to write in English to "keep his or her Chinese alive without ever losing it and its edge."

? Ouyang Yu: Speaking English, Thinking Chinese and Living Australian
Date: Today, 1pm

? Kingsley Bolton: Asian Englishes (moderated by Ouyang Yu)
Date: Today, 4pm

? Xu Xi: Creative "I"
Date: March 16, 3pm

? Xu Xi, Ovidia Yu: The New Asian Character
Date: March 17, 4pm

? Ovidia Yu: Chinese Mouth, English Words
Date: March 18, 2pm


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