A Translation Project

I admire translators. Fan translators, in particular, who are often well-respected in Internet spaces involving content from another country. They relay information quickly for English-speaking fans so everyone can take part in the joy. But having read countless “translator’s notes”, I’ve constantly started thinking about how often meaning and nuance might get lost in translation, and how huge misunderstandings can spring from a mistranslation. I wanted to try translating text myself to experience how difficult it could be.

The first task was finding a text to translate. Translation differs across mediums, but I chose to translate an excerpt from a novel. Novel translation differs from other types of translation, such as interpreting dialogue, which I understand to be more literal. For novel translations, factors such as preserving the author’s style and intent must be taken into account.

The book I translated from is《废墟曾经辉煌》 (Fei Xu Ceng Jing Hui Huang) by female fiction writer Zhang Ling (张翎). It’s a book of lighthearted travel anecdotes, and the section I attempted translating was 成都散记 (Chengdu San Ji), a three part collection of prose about the city of Chengdu. 

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Investigating Narrative Levels in the Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

For a semester project here in the language lab, I chose to investigate narrative levels and how they interact and change in stories. To do this, I attempted to replicate a project published in The Journal of Cultural Analytics, a journal focusing on the intersection of data and human action. The project aimed to understand how narrative levels work, as well as how uniformly standard definitions of them could be identified by different scholars in different places. The project lays out three main types of narrative that deviate from the main speaker, narrator, or story:

Uninterrupted narrative: this is just a narrative by itself. It has the same speaker, the same time period, and the same point of view. 

Embedded narrative: A story within the original narrative. The original narrative will always signal a reason for an embedded narrative. These typically take place in dialogue, when a character is prompted to tell a story.

Interruptive narrative: a structural separate narrative in the midst of the original narrative. It is usually signaled by some sort of stopping point in the original narrative, such as a chapter end or a section break, and often changes narrator or time period. Unlike the embedded narrative, there is nothing within the original narrative that prompts an interruptive narrative. 

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The Bell Jar, as Read by Voyant

Voyant is a web-based text analysis tool that summarizes and visualizes multiple trends and patterns in a text entered by users. I passed the entire corpus of the 1961 novel, The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath into Voyant tosee what would happen. The results were telling of both the strength and limits off educational technology tools built on the potential of machine learning.

Wordcloud view of the most frequently occurring words in The Bell Jar

While Voyant provides many visualizations of its results, the majority of its tools seems to build on the analysis of the most frequently occurring words in the text. As I explored Voyant’s analysis of The Bell Jar, it occurred to me that using word frequency as the sole analytical foundation of reading text is a particularly narrow interpretive lens. Moreover, it does not come near to capturing the scope, depth, or arc of the book. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how much more the results could actually reflect about a work’s central themes, characters, and motifs and its capacity to serve as a helpful supplement to the reader and user’s more nuanced and personal interpretation.

Line graph of relative frequencies of most frequent words from the beginning to end of The Bell Jar: Pink = “thought,” Purple = “buddy,” Light Blue = “doctor,” Green = “like,” Dark Blue = “said”

The figure above maps the frequencies of the most common words in the text across the entire novel. I was especially struck by the appearance of characters that were particularly meaningful to the main character, Esther. Moreover, the fluctuating frequencies of the characters’ mentions are particularly insightful indicators of how and when these characters were meaningful in Esther’s perception and narrative. For example, the light blue trend traces the consistent mention of “doctor,” and corresponds to Esther’s constant wrestling with her mental health and various treatments. The spike in the “doctor” mentions represents Esther finally finding some safety and sense of recovery in the psychiatric institution in the last moments of the book. The fluctuations in the mention of “Buddy,” her former love interest, are also particularly interesting in allowing me, as the user and reader, to identify, and further reflect on, moments when he haunted her thoughts or self-perception and moments when his irrelevance may have indicated something else about her sense of healing or growth. The word frequency of “thought” also guided me towards thinking about how the majority of the novel is narrated through self-introspection and the way in which that served as a mode of storytelling.

In a way, the limitations of the word frequency trends and relationships visualized by Voyant also facilitate and emphasize the software’s potential for enabling the analytical process of its users. Given diverse visualizations of a limited word-frequency analysis, I was compelled to use the visualizations to think more creatively about the content before me and trace these ideas through specific points in the text.

Feminism in China: “Cell Block Tango” Reinterpreted

cw: violence, abuse, misogyny

“天朝渣男图鉴” or “The Scumbags of China” is a parodic rendition of “Cell Block Tango” posted on Weibo in November, 2018.

There is a good chance that you’ve heard of the infamous “Cell Block Tango” song from the 1975 musical Chicago. In the scene, six women in jail recount the vengeful murders they committed, describing their mistreatment at the hands of their former partners. Loosely translated as “The Scumbags of China,” “天朝渣男图鉴” is a parodic rendition of “Cell Block Tango” by Tú Yǒuqín (徒有琴), a student at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In the video Tú Yǒuqín plays six different women from six different cities in China, Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong, and Shandong. For each character, she slips into different dialects and recounts their acts of revenge against their abusive and misogynistic partners. While one woman recalls stumbling upon her husband’s notebook detailing his sexual exploits, another recalls being beaten by her husband.

“Cell Block Tango” from the 1975 musical Chicago

Posted on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, in November 2018, the video roused conversation and debate about women’s rights and sexual and domestic abuse in China, contributing to a movement that has been gaining momentum in the past few years. The video was blocked and removed from the site not long after it was posted, speaking to how censorship has worked to silence and minimize the visibility of feminism in China. Nevertheless, the cultural and political impact of the music video cannot be undervalued.

I have been thinking about the significance of language, translation, and reinterpretation to the cultural and political impact of the music video. Representing six different regions of China, the six different dialects Tú Yǒuqín uses include Dongbei, Shanghai, Chonqing, Changsha, Shandong, and Cantonese. In re-appropriating an English song from an American musical, Tú Yǒuqín highlights the global phenomena of misogyny and barriers confronted by women everywhere. At the same time, her translation and reinterpretation of the song in multiple Chinese dialects serves to illuminate the distinctive lived experiences, oppression, and positioning of Chinese women in different regions of China. In this way, the “Chinese Cell Block Tango” is a testament and glimpse into the manifold languages of resistance and feminism across the world.

Full transcription and English translation for the song can be found here: https://supchina.com/2018/11/05/watch-tu-youqin-cell-block-tango-chinese-style/

Modern Russian Writers

We’re all familiar with, or at least have heard of, the classic novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but modern writers are sometimes left out when studying Russian. Here is a short introductory guide to some contemporary works you may want to check out!

Vera Polozkova is a Moscow-based poet, who often puts her poems to music. She started writing by posting poems on her blog, and was later discovered and published by the writer Alexander Zhitinsky. Her poems cover many facets of daily life, and are often characterized as nontraditional and without a particular form. She believes that performance is a crucial part of poetry, and you can find many of her videos on YouTube. Her collection of poems “Nepoemanie” is also available in Russian on Amazon.

Dividing her time between Moscow and Israel, Lyudmila Ulitskaya writes novels mostly pertaining to religious tolerance and inclusion. As an ethnically Jewish woman who is religiously Christian, her writing deals with these struggles and others during the Soviet Union. Her books, including her newest titled The Green Tent, can be purchased on Amazon. She is also a well-known activist, most recently appearing as a speaker in an anti-war protest in Moscow.

With her relatives including Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, Tatyana Tolstaya was born into a family of writers. Her works mostly take place during, towards the end of, or as speculation after the Soviet Union, and her writing style is thought to be characteristic of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Several of her novels are available at the Reed library, including her most famous, The Slynx, a dystopian novel about a forgotten post-Soviet Moscow.

Media Recommendation: “Sommers Weltliteratur to go”

“Sommers Weltliteratur to go” (Sommer’s World Literature to go) is a German YouTube channel made by Michael Somme, and originally presented by Reclam (those little yellow books every German student knows and loves). Each episode summarises a literary work, from the German classics like Faust and Parzival to modern literature like Der Hobbit and Harry Potter.

The fun twist is that Sommer presents these works in vignette form, using Playmobil figures…

The episodes are fairly short, normally between 6 and 12 minutes, and are a great way to brush up on your knowledge of German literature (and other classics), while also practicing your listening skills.

The language in the episodes isn’t too complicated, but it is sometimes spoken a little fast. I’d recommend starting with some books you’re already familiar with. Start with something like Der Herr der Ringe (The Lord of the Rings) or Der große Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) before moving on to Goethe, Brecht, and Kafka!



Algarabía is a Mexico City-based magazine with a distinct quirky and ironic style. They publish pieces on science, language, history, art, and, according to their website, “little explored aspects of cotidianity.” Examples of their articles (which can be found on their website) include “Position Changes in Erotic Art”, “People don’t know how to drink coffee”, and “The Science on Cursing”.  Better suited for advanced Spanish learners, articles in this magazine are characterized by  playful yet accessible prose. Their series on etymologies is particularly good; sometimes poignant, often hilarious, always informative.

French graphic novels in the Reed College Library

Graphic novels are a huge form of popular media in France. Most French public libraries dedicate a large section to the bande dessinée alongside more typical forms of literature. French graphic novels have a flavor that is somehow both romantic and sordid, and a pace that runs much slower than a comparable American comic strip (the French are less concerned whether the story has a hero, follows an arc, or moves towards any resolution). They are typically very funny. Lucky for us, the Reed College library has several shelves of French bandes dessinées! For this blog, I read and reviewed four of them.

Most of the stories I read for this blog are in the realm of the fantastic, and I  recommend going through slowly to absorb both images and the text. Sit down with a notebook and a dictionary, and plenty of time to take in both art and storytelling. These books are accessible to intermediate or advanced readers.

Finally, these graphic novels are a great source of new vocabulary since they include plenty of colloquialisms. A set of flashcards on Quizlet is linked below with my favorite words and phrases from the bandes dessinées I read.


Les petits ruisseaux, Pascal Rabaté. 2006.
Call no. PN6747.R33 P48 2006

This story follows an old man named Emile who no longer finds much meaning in his old age. One day while out fishing, his best friend tells Emile to stop pitying himself and take full advantage of life while he can. Emile’s quiet life of solitude ends abruptly when he starts to take this advice. Do we assume that life and lust belong to the young? The tricks up his sleeve are predictable, but Emile’s character is compelling and it’s funny to see his sleazy side let loose. This bande dessinée won the Grand Prix de la Critique in 2007 from L’Association des Critiques et journalistes de Bande Dessinée (ACBD). It was made into a film in 2010.



Ici Même, Jean-Claude Forest et Jacques Tardi. 1979.
Call no. PN6747.F687 I35 2006

This is a strange fairy tale about a man who lives atop the walls surrounding a neighborhood. He is not allowed to descend or set foot on the land below. Arthur Même, as the man is called, walks a fine line between dignity and mania, satire and hyperbole, as he gatekeeps for the wealthy socialites beneath the walls. A boatman comes once a day to deliver mail, cheese and wine. These are Arthur’s only interactions. The plot is full of tropes (spies, an ancient inheritance, war between the families, and a love affair) but intriguing nonetheless for its oddity. The novel is in black and white.



Le Dérisoire, Olivier Supiot et Eric Omond. 2002.
Call no. PN6747.S85 D4 2002

Le Dérisoire is a mix between Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland. It features a solitary captain on a derelict ship in the ocean, going nowhere, in despair about his situation and his inability to fix it. His crew are all skeletons, having died some time ago, yet somehow remaining on board the ship. It seems that nothing ever leaves the ship and the ship itself never leaves. The furnace at the heart of the ship has gone out, leaving only cold empty steel, but still it floats. And which of the characters are living? Into this drifting tapestry comes a phantom woman, Constance, who brings color and life onto the ship. Is she real? Is the ship? Is anyone? The graphic novel has a dreamy watercolor-like style and is beautiful enough that it doesn’t matter that the plot doesn’t make sense.



5 est le numéro parfait: 1994-2002, Igort, translated from Italian by Lidia Licari. 2002.
Call no. PN6767.I36 A6314 2002

This graphic novel was originally a three-part series that was later collected into one large volume. It follows a family in Naples embroiled in classic 50s-era mob drama. Think The Godfather–there’s shootouts in the woods, religious symbology, intimate family scenes, rivalries and backstabbing. The book moves quickly, lots of people get shot, and there is only one woman, the damsel in distress. This is a true Italian action comic, with a minimalist art style in grayscale and simple block colors. The author, who writes under the name Igort, has been at the center of the Italian comic scene for decades and published many other graphic novels. 5 est le numéro parfait is his most famous.


Copyright: All images taken from www.bedetheque.com/

“Les petits ruisseaux,” Pascal Rabaté. Futuropolis. 2006. https://www.bdgest.com/chronique-1530-BD-Petits-ruisseaux-Les-petits-ruisseaux.html?_ga=2.50200686.916534693.1512955637-12593617.1508988380

“Ici Même,” Jean-Claude Forest et Jacques Tardi. Casterman. 1979. https://www.bedetheque.com/serie-1684-BD-Ici-Meme.html

“Le Dérisoire” Olivier Supiot. Glénat. 2002. https://www.bedetheque.com/serie-6173-BD-Derisoire.html

“5 est le numéro parfait,” Igort. Casterman. 2002. https://www.bedetheque.com/serie-5200-BD-5-est-le-numero-parfait.html

恨海 ‘The Sea of Regret’

This novel was written by Wú Jiǎnrén in 1906. In ten chapters, the reader follows the story of two couples and their families as they head to Shanghai to escape the turmoil during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. This would be recommended for intermediate to advanced learners, but the translated version also provides insight into the discussion around family, marriage, and the status of women at the time.