Living Between Languages: Navigating the Terrain of Cultural Untranslatability in Singapore
By Yuen Sin
Skype conversations with my mother have always been difficult.
What I find troubling about the experience is not just the expanse of miles that separates us, or the eight-hour difference in time zones between Singapore and England. It is also not about the gnaw of homesickness that emerges from recognising the familiar ambience of sultry island humidity transmitted through the vastly unsatisfying medium of pixelated screens.
Rather, it is the grating awareness of the impossibility of fully articulating my thoughts and experiences in Mandarin – the only language that my Chinese-educated mother and I have in common, and the only language capable of achieving some modicum of understanding and empathy between us, holding our personal history together in a melding of vocabulary and syntax.
During our crackly video calls, I hastily butcher up forgotten phrases and tentatively offer up idioms arranged in the wrong order in my eagerness to convey a certain cultural observation, or an academic theory that I think she might find intriguing.
She interjects before I can further destroy her much-loved language, and I feel myself retreating further into that liminal space that exists between languages, histories and cultures.
"I translate his books and live between his language and mine," the protagonist in a story in Susan Sontag's I, Etcetera writes.
That declaration assumes the possession of passion, vision and competence by the translator, an ability to move swiftly between two languages and cultures that might be both close and far apart at the same time.
But for an under-qualified individual like me, the process of translation and shifting between languages is nowhere nearly as fluid as that. What it instead elicits is the uncomfortable sense of cultural dissonance – "a sense of discord, disharmony, confusion or conflict experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment," as Winifred L. Macdonald wrote in her dissertation, "English Speaking Migrant Children in Educational and Cultural Transition" (Curtin University of Technology, 1998).
The very act of calling up another language from the depths of your memory, unravelling its unique systems and structures in your mind, and dredging it up from your throat before articulating it in a culturally-specific context then becomes an intensely visceral experience – both jarring and problematic at the same time.
The personal is the political.
In multilingual Singapore, where the "functionality of communication is paramount" – as Quah Sy Ren wrote in his essay "Performing Multilingualism in Singapore" in the book, Between Tongues: Translation And/of/in Performance in Asia (2006), edited by Jennifer Lindsay – the political often manifests itself within the everyday textures of languages that are embedded in our environment.
I attended a run-of-the-mill neighbourhood primary school in Yishun that was about a 10 minutes' walk from my HDB flat. I buried my head in books by Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson, and only scanned the Mandarin storybooks my mother picked out for me at the community library for the pictures. But as heartland kids, we conversed freely and easily in Mandarin at school, callously and unconsciously shunting out others who did not belong to the dominant Chinese ethnic group. The situation got so bad that an exasperated form teacher threatened to impose a fine on any student who did not speak English in classes outside of Mother Tongue lessons.
I moved on to a relatively prestigious convent girls' school in the north of Singapore after that. On the first day of school, a primary school friend and I met up to attend orientation activities together. As if we had entered into an unspoken agreement, we ditched our usual practice of speaking Mandarin the moment we entered the school campus. Having been successful at the game of meritocracy in the first stage of Singapore's education system, we also implicitly grasped the fact that the social milieu of the autonomous secondary institution that we were attending would somewhat differ from that of the neighbourhood primary school that we had graduated from.
Switching tracks was but a vital part of the acclimatisation process in a new environment where the functional English language has become the dominant medium of communication. Integration into mainstream English-speaking society, the people around us silently reminded with their mere presence, was an essential stage of the upward trajectory along the social ladder that we were striving towards.
Huh, so cheena ah. Most students in my secondary school shunned Mandarin lessons with a vengeance (the more adamant you are, the higher your level of defiant-cool), and had to be coaxed and prodded to jiang hua yu (speak Mandarin) whenever the painfully-named "Huayu Cool" campaign rolled around on an annual basis. We were privileged to belong to the majority group of Chinese Singaporeans, and could breezily claim ignorance of others' cultures and traditions – and even disavow elements of our own – without feeling threatened, stigmatised or alienated in any way. But hidden cleavages exist even within this dominant Chinese Singaporean group, and they are often not so consistently articulated.
To be able to make the conscious decision to speak – or not to speak – in the "mother tongue" is an exercise of power. When people shrug off their inability to competently speak or write Mandarin, or laughingly brag about how they barely passed their Mandarin examinations in school, they are also often implicitly acknowledging their superior position vis a vis other marginalised individuals who can only speak a "vernacular" language and struggle with English, a functional, neutralised language that is necessary for survival within the country's economic system.
Historical dynamics have been instrumental in shaping the status of languages today. Quah Sy Ren notes of the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun's play, Mama Looking for her Cat, which discusses the state of multilingualism in Singapore:
These changes then lead to alienation on the part of the protagonist, who is "forcibly excluded from the mainstream English-speaking society" due to the fact that she is only able to speak certain languages or dialects.
I admit that these patterns of language use and their impact on economic or pragmatic success cannot be easily generalised. While some among the older Chinese-educated classes today can only rely on their knowledge of Mandarin and are handicapped by their lack of proficiency in English in professional environments, many have also managed to successfully carve out their own niches in various fields. Yet, the fact remains that uneven power dynamics and attitudes towards the inferior position of the "mother tongue" compared to the superior position of functional English continue to exist in Singaporean society.
I myself am guilty of that. A central idea of Mama Looking for Her Cat, Quah also observes, is "the way the barrier of language across a generation (between a mother and her children) produces a phenomenon of communicative dysfunction." I cringe at my own memories of how I have exploited this communicative barrier between my mother and me to express anger and impatience at her in the throes of my adolescence. There had been multiple instances in which I had angrily lashed out with the condescending "Aiya, you wouldn't understand this la, it's in English!" at my mother in a show of defiance against her parental authority, validating that with an assertion of my own superiority. Yet, never once has she faulted me for my lapses in Mandarin usage, her native tongue. Why the exercise of this double standard on my part, the display of a condescending attitude that blames her for her inability to "keep up with the times" like the rest of my peers' parents from English-speaking households when I myself cannot lay claim to being fully bilingual?
As excluded as she may feel in certain social situations or everyday contexts because of her halting grasp of English, my mother faults nobody for the changes that have been wrought upon the status of the Mandarin language in Singapore since independence. Rather, they are inevitable effects of sweeping transitions in a volatile historical period, and necessary for the construction of the national identity that we now possess, however frail and artificial it might appear to be at times. The bilingual Mandarin-English writer Xiaolu Guo, discussing the disadvantaged position of non-English works in Anglo-American literary circles, calls language a "dubious, dangerous passport", according to Alison Flood's Guardian article, "Writers Attack 'Overrated' Anglo-American Literature at Jaipur Festival" (20 Jan 2014). With certain languages, we are able to gain privileged access to places, people and positions, and exclude others from entering these domains. But lately, I've also been thinking that this dangerous power that it wields can also be countered with the recognition that power is also a construct. Quah, in Between Tongues, illustrates such a possibility:
My mother and I ultimately have more in common that I would like to admit.
Try as I might to renounce my mother tongue at moments of frustration, there is a certain inescapability that I associate with Mandarin, a clawing sensation that draws me back to the familiar contours of its poetic logic and efficient syntax time and again.
It was my parents who first opened my eyes to the world of the theatre and the expanse of imaginative possibilities that it offered. My most vivid childhood memories involved me dumbly following in their wake to venues like the Victoria Theatre or the DBS Arts Centre to watch plays and musicals performed in Mandarin, staring in awe as the curtains drew apart and storylines and characters sprang to life, heart soaring as I experienced the full depth of emotions that the music and dialogue evoked.
My parents met in their youth, when they were but teenagers involved in a Chinese dramatic troupe called the Children's Playhouse founded by Chen Mao De. The troupe ceased to exist by the late 1970s, but many of its alumni have gone on to become arts practitioners, broadcast media professionals or Chinese language educators, including Hua Liang, part of the acclaimed comedy duo, Hua Liang and Zhao Jing, in the 1980s on Singapore Broadcasting Corporation's Channel 8. During her time with the troupe, my mother also participated in a Chinese Language Theatre camp co-organised by the Practice Performing Arts School, where she was mentored by Kuo Pao Kun.
In 2011, I attended an alumni dinner event with them, where various members regaled tales from their past with nostalgia-tinged idealism in Mandarin, and delivered impressively polished speeches, crosstalks and other types of performances. I felt at once humbled and out-of-place in my ignorance and lack of connection to the conditions that have shaped their past and their passions, an enthusiasm that is linked to the erudite Mandarin-speaking community in the 1960s and 70s, containing elements of cultural untranslatability such as "culture-specific concepts that resist smooth translation, gradations in the expressive meaning of words, modulations in the tenor of discourse or units which are semantically complex" – as K.K. Seet wrote in "Cultural Untranslatibility as Dramatic Strategy: A Speculative Look at the Different Language Versions of Kuo Pao Kun's Plays" in the book, Beyond the Footlights: New Play Scripts in Singapore Theatre (1992), edited by Thiru Kandiah – that I would never be able to replicate in any form of English prose no matter how hard I tried.
Kuo Pao Kun continues to come to mind when I think about the passions and traits that I have inherited from my mother, however close or far apart we may appear to at times. In the same way as Kuo managed to "introduce the cultural depths of the Chinese-speaking, which so many [English-educated] have little understanding" – as Kwok Kian Woon wrote in a Sunday Times article, "Remembering the Man at the Margins" (15 Sep 1992) – the window through which I managed to capture a glimpse of my parents' past lives continues to leave a searing imprint.
I relished reading and writing in English, but ended up as an active member of Chinese drama clubs all throughout my schooling years. I now remember those years with fondness; the sensation of depth and familiarity that speaking and performing in Mandarin provided was somehow irreplaceable, untranslatable. I used to reject the copies of Chinese literary essays and short stories that my mother pushed into my hands, denouncing the prose as too dense and cumbersome to read. But I now find myself unconsciously thumbing through my parents' old photo albums of productions or trawling through historical archives, trying to recover the heady idealism of their past, burying myself into the recesses of history, stories that I have missed out on.
It is true that much is still lost in the process of translation, in the slippage of meanings when one language is unceremoniously converted into another.
The situations in which I had to alternate between Mandarin and English even in the cultural realms of theatre and literature still strike me as disconcerting due to the curious sensation of dissonance that it produced. I was also doubly conscious about switching between languages in front of my peers by first assessing what kind of social context determined their choice of medium for communication, once I gleaned that even such a snap judgment would involve an unconscious exercise of privilege and power.
Maybe it is indeed impossible to attain full understanding, or preserve a complete essence of meaning through the act of translation. But as I write this, knowing that I will be again grasping at straws to relay the meaning of this essay to my mother later on, it seems to me that even the process of trying to overcome the liminal spaces between languages can be a productive and valuable one unto itself. As Kuo himself once proclaimed, as documented in "Between Two Worlds: A Conversation with Kuo Pao Kun" in 9 Lives: 10 years of Singapore Theatre (1987-1997), published by The Necessary Stage in 1997:
QLRS Vol. 14 No. 2 Apr 2015