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Carles Prado Fonts, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona

Lust, Caution
Identities after Translation
„Lust, Caution“
Identitäten nach der Übersetzung

vorgestellt von Aleida Assmann


Today is December 15, 2007. It’s Friday. Here is a Catalan citizen living in Barcelona. It’s been a long week and she decides to go to the movies. She browses the newspaper for this week’s premieres. She has always been a fan of “Asian cinema” and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution naturally gets her attention. The movie has just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival, which is always a plus. It opens today and is now playing at 7 theaters.

Catalonia (and Spain in general) is a place where most foreign movies circulate in a dubbed version. In this particular case, the Catalan citizen, as an enthusiast of versions in which you can hear the sound of the foreign language, can count herself lucky: Lust, Caution is shown in a dubbed version in 4 theaters (Bosque, Heron City, Comedia and Gran Sarria), but also in a subtitled version in 3 theaters (Boliche, Renoir Floridablanca and Renoir Les Corts). Yet, whereas she has a choice on the format into which the movie has been translated, as it is often the case she cannot choose the language into which the translation has been done: all the 7 copies are dubbed or subtitled into Spanish language. There is no Catalan language version of this movie.

Later, she opens the movie section of the newspaper. She wants to check on the critics’ reviews of the film, just to see what the movie is about, what can she expect from it, what should be her mood’s predisposition. What she mainly finds is a detailed account of the controversies surrounding the censorship of some parts of the movie in the PRC, mostly related to scenes with explicit sexual content. Reviews talk about a “Chinese” movie and the “Chinese” government. There are no references to aspects such as the literary origin of the film, for instance, or to the many Chinese, Sinophone or international aspects of a production conceived to travel globally.

The local consumption of Ang Lee’s movie by this Catalan citizen, who speaks and works in Catalan language and who knows almost nothing about Chinese or Sinophone culture, shows several shifts and constraints embedded in the process of translation of a global product. This paper explores how, in this process of global circulation of (cultural) capital, translation as a technology of recognition (Shih 2004) fixes and reinforces (identity) discourses that were already dominant and at work in the local contexts of reception. Taking the circulation of Lust, Caution in Catalonia as an example, I will explore this problematic in two directions: intersemiotic and interlinguistic.

Intersemiotic translation: identities, imperatives, afterlives

Following the famous distinction between intralinguistic, interlinguistic and intersemiotic types of translation (Jakobson), we could argue that Ang Lee’s film, which has its origins in Zhang Ailing’s [1] homonymous short story written in the 1950s, fits as a combination of the three categories in interrelation. James Schamus and Wang Hui-ling first transformed Zhang’s literary piece in Chinese into a screenplay in English (intralinguistic and interlinguistic translation). Then, the new text became Ang Lee’s visual work (intersemiotic translation). This process of multiple translation culminated by a cross-cultural circulation and consumption raises several points about the politics and predicaments of modern Chinese and Sinophone products (films and literary works), in nowadays global context.

Lust, Caution is the story of Wang Jiazhi, a young woman who takes part in a plot to assassinate Mr. Yi, a politician who works for the Japanese occupational government in 1940s Shanghai. Wang is supposed to seduce Mr. Yi and lead him to an appropriate setting where the killing can be materialized by her friends. But after more than two years (divided in two periods) of “acting the plot” (a plot which is interestingly acted by Jiazhi who is a young student-actress fascinated by Hollywood movies) in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and just when the plan is about to be completed, Jiazhi lets Mr. Yi know about the scheme. After escaping alive from the selected trap (a jewelry), Mr. Yi, who may have been suspicious all this time but, powerfully attracted by Jiazhi’s beauty, has kept the relationship with her, at the end he decides to execute all the people involved in the plot—something that mercilessly includes Jiazhi.

Why did she do it? Why did Jiazhi confess right when the plan was about to be completed? Zhang Ailing’s literary piece is precisely a story about this paradox. In just a few pages (the short-story is only 57 pages in translation) Zhang Ailing weaves the conditions that build Jiazhi’s reaction: she has progressively fallen in love with her target, she has been seduced by the power of position and luxury (the scene of the confession, set in a jewelry where he is offering her a diamond ring, being the climax) and, above all, she exemplifies the complexity of human psychology—Jiazhi is an alienated young woman to whom the demands of patriotism and national salvation (the actual motivation of the plot) do not matter enough. And, as it is often the case with Zhang’s pieces, politics (the nation, war, patriotism and so on) will never be more relevant than the daily concerns of the human psyche—the “subtler aesthetics of the commonplace”, as Julia Lovell has put it at the translator’s foreword (Chang: xiii).

Subtlety is crucial here, as it sets the tone of the story and, to a certain extent, becomes the essence of the whole piece: historical references remain minimal and at the background, emotions are played in a restrained tempo, climatic moments are understated. The key moment of the confession is enunciated with a simple: “Run, she said softly” (Chang: 46). The cruel conclusion of the story is also elusive: “By ten o’clock that evening they’d all been shot. She must have hated him at the end. But real men have to be ruthless. She wouldn’t have loved him if he’d been the sentimental type” (53). Zhang Ailing’s is a story about psychological doubt and complexity—not about history and the nation. As Julia Lovell has noted, “skeptical disavowal of all transcendent values—patriotism, love, trust—more broadly expresses Chang’s fascinatingly ambivalent view of human psychology” (Chang: xix).

Ang Lee’s intersemiotic translation, however, turns the short story into a long piece in which many details are enlarged, historical hints are expanded and—most significantly in a context of global consumption—scenes with explicit sexual content are included. This raises several implications and interesting points, such as the following:

  1. Ang Lee’s film had to be edited in Mainland China in order to pass official censorship. This produced two versions of the same movie: the overseas version, that runs 156 minutes, and the mainland version, that runs 143 minutes. Apparently, it was Ang Lee himself who personally made the cuts. Scenes of sexual content aside (the film explicitly shows three sexual encounters between the two main characters, which were absent in the literary version), the main concern for the censors was probably the depiction of the relationship between a member of the Chinese Communist resistance and a Japanese collaborationist. The cuts, then, were particularly applied to scenes in which the moral distinction was unclear. Yet, as it is always the case in China, the unedited version turned out to be actually widely available in pirated copies. In the Catalan reception of the movie, we find that neither the diversity of censors’ concerns nor the real effectiveness of such censorship was mentioned: Lust, Caution was, basically, a movie censored in China due to its sexual scenes.
  2. Ang Lee’s movie holds a polycentric nature of identity before, during and after the process of intersemiotic translation. The movie was based on a short story written by a Chinese writer who fled to Hong Kong and then to the US, and who was extremely popular first in Taiwan in the 1980s and then in China a decade or so later. The production came from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the US. It was directed by a Taiwanese filmmaker who lives in the US. The leading roles were an unknown Chinese actress (Tang Wei) and a popular Hong Kong actor (Tony Liang). It was consumed globally. Despite the uneasiness that, from an academic perspective, we might have in limiting this multiplicity to a single identity, the fact is that Lust, Caution was generally received by the Catalan press and audiences with a distinct one: a Chinese movie by a Chinese director.
  3. Ang Lee’s movie could probably be taken as an example of the flexibility that Shu-mei Shih (2007) has attached to the Sinophone. Defined as “a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness, where a historical process of heterogenizing and localizing of continental Chinese culture has been taking place for several centuries” (4), the Sinophone, Shih argues, contains a potential of flexibility due to its nature to interpellate differently different audiences in different contexts, both in Asia and in the West. Yet, as we can observe from the circulation of Lust, Caution in Catalonia, a process that, from the point of view of the production, is characterized by heterogenization, at the same time, is counteracted by homogenization when examined from the reception side: not only cultural, but also linguistic (as we will explore in the next section); always political. The fact is that, despite this tension between the centrifugal and the centripetal, the consumer of the global product—the Catalan citizen we have just met above—is unaffected by it.
  4. The intersemiotic transference from a written piece to a visual product is also influenced by what we could call the imperatives** of the visual. Zhang Ailing’s story is the tale of an instant, the depiction of a moment. Reduced to its essence, the literary version is the explanation of just one single sentence (“Run, she said softly” [46]), which is the crucial moment when the scheme to assassinate Mr. Yi collapses—something that inevitably implies the collapse of ideology, patriotism and resistance. The literary story orbits around psychology, and Jiazhi’s subjectivity is explored by an omniscient narrator. History is kept at the background, always present but almost invisible. The film, on the other hand, expands the action enormously and, in the new semiotic context, the imperatives of visuality imply a historization of the narrative—an addition that makes it certainly more suitable for Western audiences. The focus is not exclusively on Jiazhi’s mind and subjectivity, but also on the historical conditions that force her to act in that way. Zhang’s attempt to create “plausibly complex, conflicted individuals” (Chang: xiv) is becomes, after the intersemiotic translation, a stress also on ideology and history. Some comparisons exemplify this contrast: (a) in the literary version, the flashback that describes the initial contact between Jiazhi and Mr. Yi in Hong Kong is only 7 pages long (of the 57 pages total in translation), whereas in the movie flashbacks are longer: almost 2 hours of the film (of the 2.5 hours total) are scenes that in the short story are either briefly mentioned, or barely explained, or inexistent at all; (b) the scene at the jewelry, where the crucial sentence is pronounced, is 17 pages in the literary version (almost one third of the story), whereas in the film deserves much less attention in terms of footage; (c) the short story opens with the depiction of a mahjong table and Jiazhi’s bosom, [2] whereas the film starts with an outdoors view of the Mr. Yi’s family compound full of soldiers and policemen guarding the house. This kind of amplification and filling with historical data (and explicit sexual content) provides the film the ideal characteristics to gain interest when watched cross-culturally by a Western audience. It is plausible here to argue, then, that the paradigm of Area Studies, within which realism and history are major concerns for works that want to be recognized, still monopolizes cross-cultural interpretation (Prado-Fonts 2008).
  5. The intersemiotic translation of Lust, Caution and its later global circulation and reception also exemplify the correspondence between the body and controversies in contemporary Chinese (and Sinophone) culture that has been suggested elsewhere (Prado-Fonts 2005). The film’s (controversial) emphasis on the female body as well as Ang Lee as the embodiment/victim of political censorship show… There is a gendered gaze in the international circulation and reception of the movie that acts as a technology of recognition. In this sense, issues of agency and self-orientalism (Dirlik) and to-be-looked-at-ness quickly come to mind (Mulvey). Rey Chow takes this issue to the identity level: “The attempt to anchor one’s identity definitively in what Mulvey called to-be-looked-at-ness (on the screen as well as off) is (…) a newly fetishistic practice in an exponentially expanding and accelerating virtual field of global visibility” (10-11). When the gaze of cross-cultural translations is gendered and when identity becomes an attempt to be looked at (in order to be consumed), aspects such as body, visuality and globality become a necessity for works (products) that are in a peripheral position.
  6. From a literary perspective, Walter Benjamin’s notion of translation comes to mind in order to assess the impact of these shifts and imperatives on literary works from Chinese or Sinophone origin. According to Benjamin, it is translation what gives an afterlife to a works, something that overturns the traditional hierarchy between original and translation. To a certain extent, the example of Lust, Caution certifies Benjamin’s argument: it has actually been thanks to Ang Lee’s film that Zhang’s short story has been translated into English and, therefore, the (intersemiotic) translation has given an afterlife to the literary version. But, at the same time, as we have seen, this afterlife necessarily implied many shifts and constraints: formally and thematically, in the production and in the reception. The (successful) afterlife of Zhang Ailing’s short story under the form of Ang Lee’s film version makes us wonder whether is it the case that Chinese literary works going global must surrender to the imperatives of intersemiotic translation in order to become recognized. In other words: given the force of the global-visual, is interlinguistic translation still viable for literary works? If a Chinese literary piece must become a Sinophone visual work (produced or reframed transnationally; consumed globally) in order to gain an international recognition, perhaps, then, the consideration of the Sinophone as a subverter of the dominant Chinese position must also be reconsidered.

Interlinguistic translation: at the borders of co-figuration

Besides the aspects derived from the intersemiotic translation of Lust, Caution , there is also a related interlinguistic dimension that should be considered in any full examination of this instance of global translation and reception of a Sinophone (“Chinese”) work in Catalonia. Ang Lee’s movie was released in Catalonia in December 2007 under two forms: a subtitled and dubbed version, both translated into Spanish, with no version in Catalan language. [3] This is a common situation for foreign movies in Catalonia and a condition of consumption that, viewed from the reception side of the cross-cultural interchange, has implications over the identities at work in the translation process and reinforced by it.

Cinema distribution in Catalonia is almost monopolized by US major film studios. In spite of the co-official status of both Spanish and Catalan languages, distribution and exhibition of movies is highly unequal between the two. A few facts and observations may act as examples: [4]

  • Lust, Caution was one of the 466 movies that were released in Catalonia in 2007. 89% of these films were foreign movies dubbed and/or subtitled only into Spanish. The rest (11%) includes original Spanish and Catalan movies, as well as foreign movies dubbed and/or subtitled into Catalan.
  • Of the very few films that get dubbed or subtitled in Catalan, most of them are animation or teen movies.
  • There were 854.906 showings in Catalonia in 2007. 89.18% were in Spanish (either original or dubbed), whereas 3% were in Catalan language (original or dubbed).
  • In the few occasions when a movie is dubbed or subtitled in Catalan, there are also fewer copies in circulation (less than 10% of the Spanish copies for the same movie) and they are usually assigned to minor theaters. In practice this means that only 1 or 2 copies of a movie dubbed or subtitled in Catalan language tend to be shown in the city of Barcelona, where simultaneously there are already about 7 or 8 copies of Spanish versions of the same movie. Outside Barcelona, almost no Catalan copies circulate in the rest of Catalonia, where the almost 100% of the copies are dubbed into Spanish. [5]
  • It is usually the case that translations into Catalan (either dubbed or subtitled) are not paid by the majors, but are subsidized by the Catalan Autonomic government: the industry does not want to pay more for a product that is already understandable in Spanish for all the population of Catalonia. [6]
  • Cinema in Catalan language has no commercial advertising.
  • In spite of its much less expensive cost compared to dubbing, there are almost no subtitling copies with Catalan translation. The usual commercial explanations from the industry emphasize the minor interest in subtitling, even less so in subtitling in a “minor” language. This dichotomy of oral language over written script has created diversity of opinions: while it has been suggested that it acts as an eraser of the linguistic specificities of the foreign cultural product (its “voice”), this practice has also been defended by professional actors who argue that dubbing is nothing but a re-acting of the film—a new translation that can contribute artistically in its new form.

In the case of Lust, Caution in Catalonia, whereas the multiple identities, specificities and complexities of the “original” get erased under the label of a “Chinese” movie, the translation only into a Spanish-language version similarly predetermines which languages and cultures are “legitimate” to act has hosts to the foreign guest. After translation, then, dominant discourses and identities get reinforced, while “minorities” are compelled to remain at the border as passive spectators. This particular context, which takes us back to the “local” reality of the “local” Catalan citizen who is an amateur “Asian cinema” and who is about to go to the movies on a Friday evening, should make us reflect on observations such as the following:

Chinese cinema since the 1980s—a cinema that is often characterized by multinational corporate production and distribution, multinational cast and crew collaboration, international award competition activity, and multicultural, multiethnic reception, as well as being accompanied by a steady stream of English-language publication, written (not infrequently by those who do not speak or read Chinese or consult Chinese-language sources) for an English- reading market—is an inherent part of contemporary global problematic of becoming visible. (Chow: 12-13)

It might be true that the global problematic of becoming visible (and consumable) alluded by Chow and the we have examined in the previous section has English-language markets as its major target. And it is certainly true that this major target influences later redistribution or retranslation to other languages and cultures—as it has been the case with Lust, Caution . But we should bear in mind that there is a multiplicity of contexts of reception for Chinese cinema in the global arena, within which there are other hierarchies and power relations at work. In these “local” contexts such as the Catalan one, the restrictions and limitations characteristic of the regime of translation as co-figuration are not only applicable at the intersemiotic level, but also interlinguistically. At the end, dominant languages, identities and discourses—besides English—get reinforced.

This paper has examined a particular instance showing the regime of co-figuration that governs (global) translation and that implies a restriction on both sides of the communicative act: for the multiple realities getting translated, it means erasing their complexities and becoming essentialized under several imperatives; for the local contexts of their reception, it means selecting the interlocutor that will host the reception, an act after which his dominance will be reasserted. The paper has also argued that, in the case of literary works, intersemiotic translation tends to favor global recognition (and consumption) as it is in complicity with dominant discourses of visuality. This has been the case of Zhang Ailing’s short story turned into Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution . Finally, considering the translation of Lee’s film in Catalonia, this paper has clarified that the interaction between the global and the local is not a dialectical tension between two elements (“Chinese” and “English”, for instance), but that the particularities of the local contexts make the reception much more problematic. And it is perhaps necessary to remind, as a last remark, that this problematic reaches the meta-level of discussion: the paper was initially conceived in Catalan language; it has later been translated into English by the author himself.

Works cited

  • Benjamin, Walter (1999) “The Task of the Translator”. In Illuminations . Harry Zohn, trans. London: Pimlico, 70-82.
  • Chang, Eileen [Zhang Ailing] (2007) Lust, Caution . Julia Lovell, trans. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Chow, Rey (2007) Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility . New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Dirlik, Arif (1996) “Chinese History and the Question of Orientalism”. In History and Theory , vol. 35, no. 4: 96-118.
  • Jakobson, Roman (1971) “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”. In Selected Writings , vol. 2. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 260-266.
  • Lee, Ang (2007) Lust, Caution .
  • Mulvey, Laura (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Screen , vol. 16, no. 3: 6-18
  • Prado-Fonts, Carles (2005) Embodying Translation in Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature (1908-1934 and 1979-1999): A Methodological Use of the Conception of Translation as a Site . Ph.D. dissertation. Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona.
  • — (2008) “Against a Besieged Literature: Fictions, Obsessions and Globalisations of Chinese Literature”. In Digithum , vol. 10: 37-45.
  • Shih, Shu-mei (2004) “Global Literature and the Technologies of Recognition”. PMLA , vol. 119, no. 1: 1-29.
  • — (2007) Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific . Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press.
[1]I will use the pinyin transliteration of the author’s name (Zhang Ailing), although some references use other forms such as Eileen Chang. The specific transliteration of these references has been kept in direct quotations.
[2]“Though it was still daylight, the hot lamp was shining full-beam over the mahjong table. Diamond rings flashed under its glare as their wearers clacked and reshuffled their tiles. The tablecloth, tied down over the table legs, stretched out into a sleek plain of blinding white. The harsh artificial light silhouetted to full advantage the generous curve of Chia-chih’s bosom (…)” (Chang: 3).
[3]Catalan is a Romance language that has about 7 million speakers, although there are 5 more million people for whom it is a second language. It has official (or co-official) status in Andorra, as well as in Catalonia and other autonomies of Spain such as Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Aragon. It is also spoken in the region of Rousillon (Southern France) and in the small area of Alghero in Sardinia (Italy).
[4]Some of the facts and figures are taken from: Galera, Albert. “La llei del cinema de Catalunya: realitat o ficció?” Cinema Català ., March 5, 2009. Last time checked: September 2009.
[5]Interestingly, in spite of these limitations, the ratio spectator per showing is higher in movies shown in Catalan language: the ratio is 30.95 spectators per showing for Catalan, whereas for Spanish is 28.17. The interpretation of this is controversial as it could indicate a high demand for Catalan language cinema or just a smaller but concentrated (in just a few theaters) demand.
[6]The same situation applies for DVD releases.