Yesterday I began reading Jean Kwok’s novel “Girl in Translation”. At first, I found it hard to understand. There were words I didn’t recognize, and the way she writes… with a kind of Chinese “accent”. I don’t know quite how to put this. “Accent” isn’t the right word for it. It’s more like I’m peeking into one, for me, different and unknown world. A “Chinese-New York” world!
It didn’t take long for me to grasp it, though. And there are still occasional words and expressions unknown to me, but mostly I understand.
I understand the meaning of them, and what images the story itself shows me. Jean Kwok uses her language with such a finesse it kind of takes the breath out of me in awe.
When reading this afternoon I made some notes. Maybe I could learn something?
For instance: “He cocked his head to one side to see me…”
I understood very well what this meant. But I’ve never seen the word used in that way before. What would I have chosen? Tilt? Bend? To you English-speaking people I guess the word cocked isn’t particularly odd at all. To me it was fun, and somehow it suited that very young man. An old man – and not Chinese – might have bent his head sideways instead. Or?
The next: “Playing hooky”.
Never heard of this expression before. Understood what it meant. Think it sounds fun.
Next: “… .. ..? I voiced my real fear.”
So wonderfully shown! Instead of just writing “I said.”
Or: “”Really?” I warmed to him.”
Beautiful!!! What a way to use the word “warm”. I could really see the girls relief and gratefulness.
I still don’t know what a “Boogie” is when it’s not referring to Boogie-Woogie or dancing. I understood though, it was a not-so-kind nick-name for the teacher.
The author writes “roaches” instead of cockroaches, and a hand or a foot can “tingle with needles”. Loved that one. We have something similar in Swedish, but here the needles don’t tingle, they stick – and therefore seem to be more painful…
It took me a while to figure out what “cooties” are, but finally, I think I had it. Lice, I presume!
Oh! I wish I could write like that…
Then, less than a second after I thought that, it hit me. I can! But not in English! In Swedish, I can “show, not tell”. In Swedish, I can play with words and make things alive, whether it is about cocking one’s head or warming up to somebody. Or if the ground is cold under someones bare feet.
Today I’ve seriously been asking myself why I chose to write my novel in English. Well, I have a couple of answers to that, but wouldn’t it be wiser to re-write/translate it to Swedish and keep on writing the story on my own ground? So to speak! Why make it more difficult than necessary?
That, would take some time of course, but on the whole – and for one thing – I would keep on writing way faster. And I wouldn’t need anyone to check if my English is accurate.
Just the thing to maintain British English and not mix in American English! Or vice versa.
That’s something to think about, isn’t it?
By the way! Read the book! Read “Girl in Translation”. I bet you won’t regret it.
“New York Times bestseller “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok is a powerful story about a Chinese immigrant family in Brooklyn.
Kimberley Chang and her mother move from Hong Kong to New York. A new life awaits them – making a new home in a new country. But all they can afford is a verminous, broken-windowed Brooklyn apartment. The only heating is an unreliable oven. They are deep in debt. And neither one speaks one word of English.
Yet there is hope. Eleven-year-old Kim goes to school. And though cut off by an alien language and culture and forced by poverty to work nights in a sweatshop – she finds the classroom challenges liberating. In books and learning she’ll be saved. But can Kim successfully turn to lost girl from Hong Kong into a happy American woman? And should she?
Jean Kwok’s powerful and moving tale of hardship and triumph, of heartbreak and love, speaks of all that gets lost in translation.
‘A sensitively handled rites-of-passage account…has the unmistakable ring of authenticity’ Metro’
A truly amazing story that’ll leave you full of admiration and affection for the characters’ Easy Living’
A classic and moving immigration story’ Red
Jean Kwok emigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child; her first novel Girl in Translation is based loosely on her own experience as a Chinese immigrant in America. With Girl in Translation Jean Kwok has won the American Library Association Alex Award, an Orange New Writers title and international critical acclaim.”