Institute of English and American Studies
Seminar: Globalized Literatures, World Languages and Translation
Term: Winter 2012/2013
Translation in Alison Wong’s novel As the Earth Turns Silver
As the Earth Turns Silver is the first novel by the poet and fiction writer Alison Wong and was published by Penguin in New Zealand in 2009. The plot is set in Wellington, New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century and reconstructs the cultural climate there at the time given. In explanation, New Zealand had become a country of immigrants: the British Empire had annexed the country in 1840, the Māori consequently lost their sovereignty and were forced back further by the huge number of British settlers; besides, gold discoveries triggered the first wave of immigration from China in 1865. Thus, a racial hierarchy had established, with the British considering themselves superior to the others and an active Anti-Chinese League had built up. Wong’s novel now is both a love story and tragedy as well as a representation of Chinese settlement in the country. On the one hand, there is Katherine McKechnie as one of the protagonists of the novel, whose husband Donald drowns in a drunken accident, and her two children, Edie and Robbie. On the other hand, there are Chung Yung and his elder brother Shun, who have fled from Kwangtung, China, in 1905, leaving wife and children behind, and now run a greengrocer’s shop in Wellington. Their stories intermingle since Katherine usually buys her fruit and vegetables in their shop. Gradually she befriends the younger of the two brothers, Yung, and, after her husband’s death, their friendships eventually deepens into a secret love affair – secret because the interracial relationship would be regarded as a scandal in both communities. Disastrously, Katherine’s son Robbie has taken on his father’s and Lionel Terry’s racist views so that, knowing of his mother’s and Yung’s affair, he finally kills the Chinese in his shop and, later on, commits suicide in the garden of their house. Even though Wong herself is of Chinese descent, she points out that the story is not her family’s story nor a real representation of history, but a mere work of fiction. All in all, Wong has produced a thought-provoking work about choices we make, the courage to stay true to oneself and, last but not least, racism/xenophobia and its absurdity and consequences.
It can obviously be said that the novel is a culturally extensive novel, containing primarily the British and the Chinese culture in New Zealand. A clash of cultures is therefore inevitable and, when cultures meet – especially ones as different as the British and the Chinese – translation is always necessary. Thus, it is by no means surprising that translation plays an important role in As the Earth Turns Silver, even though it is mostly not explicitly treated. Nevertheless, we actually encounter “real” interpreters and translators, who become necessary for the interaction between both cultures – at court, but also in social life. Apart from some direct form of translation, there is also an indirect translation of cultures. Misunderstandings keep coming up particularly between Yung and Katherine because they both stay with their cultural understanding of the world, sometimes not being able to follow the other’s thinking and arguing. This problem is also mentioned by Ferré, who says that translators “struggle to bring together different cultures, striding over the barriers of those prejudices and misunderstandings which are the result of diverse ways of thinking and of cultural mores. They wrestle between two swinging aces, which have, since the beginning of mankind, caused wars to break out and civilizations to fail to understand each other: the utterance and the interpretations of meaning; the verbal sign (or form) and the essence (or spirit) of the world (41). Finally, there is a lot of translation within the narrator’s voice, employing many Chinese terms and sometime rewriting them in literally translated English – more about this later. However, since the novel is meant to present parts of a non-Western culture to Westerners, that is to say, in English, it can be considered under the rubric of translation (Dingwaney 4).
 For example, see page 33:
Duck had lengthy discussions with the interpreter.
‘We need an interpreter for the interpreter,’ the Prosecutor said.
If the interpreter was to be believed, the Chinaman saw a man ...
 For example, see page 127: translating names
She watched him write his Christian name [...]. ‘ Chung, ’ he was saying, and she was lost, somewhere after the symbol for China, the centre of all things, and three strokes of a heart beating. ‘Faithful,’ he was saying, ‘loyal,’ and she thought about faith, about loyalty and what might be true. ‘ Yung,’ he was saying, ‘courageous,’ and she thought about courage, about what she had always been afraid to do, what she’d always been afraid to be.
 For example, see page 155:
[...] and sometimes even simple communication was fraught with misunderstanding.
Once in the early days when he delivered her vegetables, she’d offered him a cup of tea and he, being polite, declined, as is the custom. But she had taken him at his word and did not offer again, and then again. In hindsight he realised this was not rudeness, or even a lack of generosity. It was the foreigner’s way.