“There’s a certain brokenness in my writing,” the writer Xiaolu Guo reflected in an interview with the Weatherhead East Asia Institute. Guo has been translating herself ever since her first English-language novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was published in 2007. After completing seven novels in Chinese, she explained, writing one in English for the first time caused her to undergo “a sudden loss of identity as a Chinese language writer” and a loss of experience through self-translation. Out of this linguistic and existential loss, Guo would go on to write four more novels, a short story collection, and a memoir—all in English. For Guo, telling stories in English is an ongoing project of “trying to create a hybrid voice” that captures a life lived across China, Europe, and the United States.
In Guo’s latest novel, A Lover’s Discourse, translation and self-translation are the central concerns of her protagonist, a Chinese film student studying abroad at King’s College in London. Reeling from the recent deaths of both her parents, Guo’s unnamed narrator arrives in the United Kingdom at the end of 2015, six months ahead of the Brexit vote. Along with the charged yet indecipherable language of “Brexit buses,” “vote leave,” and “Referendum,” she is hit with baffling quirks of English phrasing, like being asked for her “family history” at a doctor’s appointment. (The narrator is not, she learns, expected to declare whether she is from a peasant or Communist Party family, but to indicate the diseases she is likely to inherit.) While still getting her geographical and linguistic bearings, she meets her (also unnamed) lover, an Australian of German descent, to whom she is able to admit, “Every day I hear some new English words. I hear them but I don’t register them. As if I was half deaf.”
The narrator faces an unending series of these confounding moments, in which meaning eludes her because the words are shrouded by context, history, or accent. She is surprised by strange double meanings in words like “felt,” and struggles to tease out the metaphor of “cabin fever” or metabolize a portmanteau like “Brexhausted.” But beyond the arbitrary vocabulary of idioms, some things are simply untranslatable. English words without Chinese equivalents cannot cross smoothly from speaker to listener, and instead float somewhere apart from them both. The narrator struggles to pin down the precise Chinese translations of “claustrophobia,” “bungalow,” or the fernweh her lover feels—a German term for neither homesickness nor wanderlust, but “distance pain, an ache or lust for a place where you want to belong.”
In Guo’s telling, we belong either to a world someone else speaks into being, or we are locked out of it. Often, it’s the imprecision of English that distresses the narrator, such as when her lover invites her over to his “house,” which turns out to be a dreary flat. So often translation sets up expectations that go unmet or are upended entirely, resulting in deep frustration. “I didn’t come from this alphabet,” she laments. “I came from ideograms.”