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Translators' notes

The purpose of dismantling the notion of inferiority is not to supplant it with a true status as equal or superior, but to acknowledge its proliferations and condition, as with all speech, as tactical. If pidgin arises out of incomprehension and imposition, can it signal not only a process of acclimatization, but also one of subversion? The artist Steve Ouditt, a ‘post-independence American/English-educated Christian Indian Trinidadian West Indian male artist’ (Tawadros, 1998: unpaginated), speaks of ‘creole insite’; perhaps we can also speak of ‘pidgin insite’. Ouditt’s condensation of ‘insight’ and ‘site’ alerts us to the historical and geographical specificity and boundedness of creole experience, insight and site made intimate and inextricable, yet also unstable. ‘Creole’ shifts the classificatory practice of naming onto similarly unsteady territory with uneasily determined borders, intimating not only nation and ethnicity but also language and generation, an attempt to resist the summary inclusion and erasure of such differences as ‘Amerindian Caribbean’ or ‘Indo Caribbean’ under a privileged, normalizing, allembracing term, ‘Afro-Caribbean’ – ‘the blanket term for any ‘Caribbean’ in England’ (Ouditt, in Tawadros, 1998: 8).

If ‘creole insite’ may come with processes of ‘recreolization’, not the assimilation and elaboration of the pidgin of a previous generation into a native tongue (Pinker, 1994: 33) but a purposefully acquired learnt language, mobilized with English in code-switching practices that reinvent and inscribe the specificities and ambiguities of social, cultural and linguistic spaces claimed by certain young ‘Black British’ subjects, then perhaps ‘pidgin insite’ may speak of the ‘repidginization’ tactically deployed or performed by certain ‘British Chinese’: insights into and sitings of the ambiguous, uneven, inevitable and infinite collisions and transmutations perpetuating along ‘the lateral axes of diaspora’. Signalling some of the prosaic, makeshift strategies and experiences of mutual acculturation generated by colonialisms and migrations in the shift from the national to the international to the global; indicative of the experiences, practices and processes of not-quite-same-not-quite- otherness that disregard and dismantle ‘appropriate’ frameworks; [31] cautioning against the habitual flattening of historical, geographical, cultural and generational differences in such dominant, competitive, sweeping linguistic and ethno-national categories as ‘English’ and ‘Chinese’. [32] Can we speak of ‘pidgin English cultures’? What, then, of ‘pidgin Chinese cultures’? Pidgin cultures and pidgin aesthetics?


Native speakers may not know this, but English is a scabrous mouthful . . . I always hear myself displacing the two languages, conflating them – maybe conflagrating them – for there’s so much rubbing and friction, a fire always threatens to blow up between the tongues. Friction, affliction. (Lee, 1995: 217–8)

A screen goes dark – a broken transmission, a lapse into silence and the unspoken, unwritten. Barthes’ evocation of language recalls the body and flesh, the muscle and cord that g/rasps, rasps and speaks, locating its irrefutable materiality beside its impalpability. Embodied, embedded as possibility, it is intimate, curious, sexually charged and sensuous, activating a frisson, a tension, a ‘rub’. There is a sense of language as a fraught and sexualized territory, inflections of ethnicity adding a hint of miscegenation to the notion of ‘corruption’, though this is underplayed. Words are glimpsed and glanced, tender and awkward touches ventured like the determined yet slightly embarrassed fumblings of a new lover. ‘Do you translate by eye or by ear?’ asks Trinh, elsewhere (1992: 80). By eye, by ear, by touch. In the recurring motif of ‘Chinese Whispers’, a ‘scene of translations’, lips repeatedly approach the ear of another . . .

. . . frequencies, fibrillations, somatic vibrations and shivers, acoustic perturbation, hand–face movements, flapping arms–wrists, lip suction, mouth-pump action, darting eyes, frowns, voice tone, tremor, pitch . . . (Maharaj, 2000: 40)

This is ‘the space of orality’ (p. 40), a space which coincides here with pidgin, the not-one, not-other, the none and several in motion. Silences accumulate, culminating in an anti-climatic, bemused and bemusing utterance, the ‘final’ translation revealing something strange, confused and unresolved. Words are dropped, displaced and invented, compensating for the misheard and unknown, conjuring a peculiar sense out of nonsense, and nonsense out of sense, as language is given ‘legs’ in the pursuit of play, its meanings spiralling out of the circle. Who dares to hazard a word and be (mis)heard – admit to a not-knowing, not-quite placing? Pleasure in the corruption, the subversion and invention; pleasure in mistranslation.


1. This article is developed from an exhibition review and conference paper (2002a, 2002b). The title refers to ‘The Translator’s Notes’, an exhibition curated by Irene Amore for Café Gallery Projects, London (26 March–20 April 2003), which took as a point of departure an essay by José Ortega y Gasset (2000[1937]: 49–63). Commissioned to make a new video/audio work, my Notes On Return (2003) referenced in turn a bilingual text by the poet Bei Dao (1994: 72–3). These doublings intimate the non-originary ‘where from’ and ‘how’ of my speaking, intimate and distanced, ‘outside in, inside out’ in relation to the disciplinary, discursive, cultural and conceptual frames across which many of us ‘shuttle’ (Trinh, 1991: 65–78); in this instance literally – my image and voice appear both in the work and documentation of PIDGIN.
2. The erroneous transcription is mine; Tan’s own transcription reads, ‘Language is a skill that legs to toys.’ The ‘original’ (translated) quotation (Barthes, 1990[1977]: 73), appears in the exhibition catalogue (Willmoth, 2002: unpaginated).
3. Erika Tan’s PIDGIN: interrupted transmission, a Film and Video Umbrella commission, toured from Norwich Gallery (28 November–20 December 2001) to Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth (9 March–20 April 2002).
4. ‘Contact zone’ is a phrase used by Mary Louise Pratt to characterize the space of encounter between China and the West, which Arif Dirlik elaborates as a ‘zone of domination’ as well as ‘mediation’; cited by Yeh, (2000: 251–80). Contact languages are ‘so called because they come about through contact between two or more existing languages’ (Sebba, 1997: 2).
5. A ‘“corruption” or “distortion” of English’, ‘a “jargon” of some sort’, (Sebba, 1997: 1) or ‘a medium sized bird with a stocky body and short legs . . . often trained for racing and carrying messages’ (Thompson, 1998: 667). 6. ‘Pidgin’ and ‘pigeon’ share the same IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) pronunciation (Thompson, 1998).
7. One speaker is from Athens and another is from the south, so the sounds of two different Greek languages are spoken between the two (unpublished correspondence with the artist). Sebba (1997) offers a broad definition of creole as ‘pidgins which have become native languages for their speakers’ (p. 16).
8. As in ‘stool-pigeon’ – originally a decoy of a pigeon fixed to a stool – it can signify ‘somebody who is easily swindled or deceived’ (Thompson, 1998: 898).
9. Welsh describes pidgin as a lingua franca, which Sebba (1997) notes is derived from ‘Lingua Franca’, ‘a Medieval trading pidgin used in the Mediterranean – an important marine trading zone where traders’ native languages included many very different languages such as Portuguese, Greek, Arabic and Turkish’; also ‘a language of wider communication . . . native only to some’, for example Swahili, and internationally, English (pp. 16–17).
10. Hall (1966) cited in Sebba (1997: 66–7). Sebba argues that because pidgin is ‘no-one’s native language, “all speakers are equal” – there are no native speakers with a “superior” knowledge of the language. Pidgins may therefore be seen as socially neutral, even though they may also have a low status’ (pp. 16–17).
11. Welsh (1997) offers the following examples of words that have passed into ‘common usage’: ‘“shroff ”, originally assayer and money changer, “chop”, seal or permit, and “godown”, warehouse, “amah”, nurse, are Portuguese; “hong”, factory or firm, “taipan”, “junk” and “chow” are Chinese’ (p. 46).
12. ‘Beijing Clamps Down on Chinglish’, 14 August 2001, BBC NEWS, URL (consulted October 2003):
13. ‘According to McArthur (1993), “Standard English” as a term was first used during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, when having “standard” parts became important for mass-production’ (Sebba, 1997: 6).
14. Cited in Sebba (1997: 7). Sebba summarizes the spread of standard languages as having

a functional role in nation and empire building during the era when large nation-states like Spain and France were being established in Europe and creating empires abroad through trade and colonisation; . . . reinforced and consolidated by the advent of printed books. . . and, later, by industrialisation and the introduction of mass media.

15. Established for diplomatic, official and media uses, introduced in 1959 and adopted by the PRC in 1979.
16. When one ‘other’ attempts to speak in relation to another ‘other’, those who subscribe to the ‘insider/outsider’ paradigm are liable to get confused or affronted; Vietnamese-born-academic-theorist-filmmaker-hybrid Trinh T. Minhha, based in the States via Paris and Senegal, neither ‘authentic Chinese’ nor an ‘authoritative Chinese scholar’, has been challenged over her work ‘on China’. Trinh’s response (which is also a response to assumptions that her films should be in and about Vietnam) is simply, ‘Why Vietnam?’ (Trinh, 1999: 219).
17. As Abe (1999) notes, its names have varied from Fenxi Shijie de Shu (A Book that Analyses the World), to Tian Shu (A Book from the Sky or Nonsense Writing), to Xishu Jian or Xishu Jian: Shijimo Yuan (variously translated as An Analysed Reflection of the World, A Mirror that Analyses the World, and Analytical Mirrors of the World: The Final Volumes of the Century or Fin de Siècle Volumes). Wu Hung adds Heavenly Book to the litany (pp. 30–4).
18. Tsang claims this is recorded in a family ancestral book from his home village of Liantang in Guangdong province (Lau, 1997: 8–10).
19. Lau invited artist Lee Ka-Sing to respond to Tsang’s work for the exhibition, Cultural Chop Shui 1, Fringe Gallery, Hong Kong (4–18 October 1995). Lau later curated The Street Calligraphy of Tsang Tsou Choi for the AGFA Gallery, Goethe Institute, Hong Kong (24 April–17 May 1997) and Hong Kong Arts Centre (24 April–6 May 1997).
20. Oscar Ho, Stories Around Town (1991–), ink on paper. Ho featured in Exhibition 6.30, Hanart TZ Gallery, curated by Chang Tsong Zung (20–30 June 1997), as did Kith Tsang and Warren Leung.
21. Antonio Mak, Bible from Happy Valley (1992), bronze and lead. 22. Kith Tsang Tak-Ping, Hello! Hong Kong series, 1996–7, mixed media installations.

CPE is strongly influenced by Cantonese in phonology and syntax . . . there is a lack of consonant clusters in Cantonese syllable structure, so when there is a consonant cluster, each consonant is represented by a character – but in Cantonese each character is a syllable i.e. it has a vowel inserted after the consonant. For example ‘small’ if represented phonologically is written in 3 characters i.e.: simala or change = cheenchee, count = conta. . . . (Shi, 1993: 459, cited in Willmoth, 2002).

24. Warren Leung Chi-Wo, Dream of a Path (1996), site-specific engravings; Vis(i)ta (1996–7), wood, zinc plate, mirror, iron, liquid light.
25. Tan for example, born in Singapore and based in Britain, was trained in Britain and Beijing. Her identity card states Hokkien as a mother tongue yet she speaks English and what she refers to as her own pidgin Mandarin Chinese, a result of mixed parentage and schooling.
26. See for instance Lesley Sanderson’s drawings, He Took Fabulous Trips (1990), Can’t See the Wood for the Trees (1992), and the later mixed media installation project with Neil Conroy, Here We Are (2005); Yeu-Lai Mo’s video, Service, Licking, Kissing(1997); Mayling To’s soft sculptures, A Cute Puncture (1998) and Repertoire Dog (1999), and videos Living (2001) and Being (2001).
27. For an introduction to nüshu, see McLaren (1998: unpaginated).
28. The notion was suggested to me upon hearing the jet-lagged delivery of a conference paper (Ford, 2002).
29. Interestingly, ‘pigeon’ can signify ‘a person easily swindled’ (Thompson, 1998: 668).

It is assumed that translation means a movement from the ‘original’ to the language of ‘translation’ but not vice versa: it is assumed that the value of translation is derived solely from the ‘original,’ which is the authenticator of itself and of its subsequent versions. Of the ‘translation,’ a tyrannical demand is made: the translation must perform its task of conveying the ‘original’ without leaving its own traces; the ‘originality of the translation’ must lie ‘in self-effacement, a vanishing act’. (Chow, 1995: 184)

31. Ouditt avoids the term diaspora; perhaps, as a noun it suggests too coherent an entity. Even when qualified by Ang as a ‘loose paradigm’, a perspective ‘motivated . . . by notions of dispersal, mobility and disappearance’ which ‘[work] against its consolidation as a paradigm proper’, in which ‘the seeds of its own deconstruction’ are contained, grammatical convention competes against conceptual will. As with creole, pidgin may be said to name a practice or practices, processes and experiences in which no ‘settling’ is possible for, as Ouditt puts it, ‘To settle is to flatten . . .’
32. Echoing Ouditt, how does ‘British Chinese’ even begin to locate, for example, the linguistic and experiential differences of first, second, third generations from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Caribbean or South Africa, in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales?


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susan pui san lok is an artist and writer based in London, working with installation, video, sound and text. She has exhibited internationally, including at Hong Kong Arts Centre, Shanghai Duolun MoMA, Beijing 798 Space, Gallery 4A, Australia and the Hayward Gallery, London. Recent projects include solo shows in 2006 at the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester and Beaconsfield (London) and two artists’ books: NEWS (SPSL, 2005) and Golden (Notes) (SPSL, 2007). She is currently Research Associate in Visual Culture at Middlesex University.

Address: Department of Visual Culture and Media, School of Arts and Education, Middlesex University, Cat Hill, Barnet, Herts EN4 8HT, UK. [[email protected]]

susan pui san lok
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