Translating Wen Zhen 文珍 and the Language of Sexism

2023-05-29 ☼ translatingChinablog

Nothing but the Now is a collection of short stories by 文珍 Wen Zhen, originally published as《柒》(Seven) in 2017.1 Many of these stories focus on female protagonists whose personal and professional agency is constrained by men — husbands, colleagues, bosses — who seek to limit their identity to reductive gendered roles. One of the challenges I encountered when translating the book into English was finding a suitable register for the sexist language her characters frequently have to endure. One typical example is the word meinü (美女). Literally beautiful woman”, meinü carries quite different connotations according to context: a descriptive term,2 it can also be a form of address that is sometimes friendly (from one woman to another) but more often demeaning (a catcall from a man in the street). In terms of usage, the closest equivalent in British English might be something like darling”.3

Shepherd” is a story that centres around the relationship between a postgraduate student named Xu Bing and Sun Ping, a hotshot young professor who lectures to packed auditoriums and publishes pop-cultural bestsellers. Initially sceptical of Sun Ping’s credibility, Xu Bing eventually becomes obsessed with proving herself to him on an intellectual level. The dynamics of their relationship are complex, but all the characters around them automatically flatten it out into a simple sexual affair. How could it be otherwise, when — we learn early on in the story — Xu Bing can be so conveniently reduced and dismissed with the label of meinü? Arriving late to one of Sun Ping’s lectures, she takes a seat in the front row that was meant to be reserved for someone else. When that someone else arrives, they retreat to the back of the auditorium instead of contesting their claim:


Snickering from all around. Easy enough to guess why: That’s what a pretty face’ll get you. Good-looking girls have all the luck, they can do whatever they want. She stared straight ahead, acting as if she couldn’t hear the whispers.

Where the original repeats the word meinü”, I translated it in two different different ways: a pretty face” and good-looking girls”. But the repetition in the original communicates an extra degree of scorn by emphasising the idea that meinü is a category, and membership precludes the possession of nuanced individual personality.

Sexist language in English tends to slide towards a crude sexual register. The derogatory terms used to describe women are typically blunt monosyllables, with Germanic origins. In Wen Zhen’s stories, insults often go in the other direction, drawing on euphemistic, poetic formality to patronise and belittle. A good example of this is huakui (花魁) which literally translates to Flower Queen”. It can be used to describe a beautiful woman, the dictionary tells us, but is also an archaic term for a prostitute. Wen Zhen’s story Crimson Clouds Hidden in the Dark” (暗红色的云藏在黑暗里) describes how Zeng Jin, an oil painting student, struggles against individual and institutional sexism at the Academy of Fine Arts. Any success she earns can be discredited with insinuations about the favour of her professor (with whom, it is implied — again — she probably has some kind of sexual relationship). At a group dinner, the men start commenting on the other female students who are studying with Professor Liu. One of them turns to Zeng Jin and tells her she will always be the professor’s number one huakui, no matter how many other meinü there might be in his class: 美女再多,像曾师妹这样的也是稳坐头牌花魁交椅。师妹,你说是不是?” The original register could perhaps be approximated by drawing on words with French etymologies, but terms like harlot” and courtesan” are hard to work into natural-sounding dialogue; this isn’t the kind of language that men use to talk about women in English. After I tried and failed to find an equivalent that conveyed the same blend of innuendo, pretension and condescension, I ended up simplifying the phrasing to You’ll always be his special girl, no matter how stiff the competition gets” and attempted to distribute the other qualities of the original elsewhere in the dialogue, hoping that the context would be enough for the reader to imagine the smug sneer that surely accompanies the remark.

  1. I selected it as one of the best books published in Chinese that year.↩︎

  2. There are men in Chinese literary circles who see nothing wrong with talking about meinü fiction” as a genre of literature.↩︎

  3. A paradox of translation: any form of geographically distinctive diction creates a jarring incongruity (why should Wen Zhen’s characters sound like they come from London when they actually live in Beijing?) but a more generic, universal version of English lacks the necessary precision.↩︎