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Lost (And Found) In Translation: Three Authors Find Their Place Through Literature

Roxanne Ready
Flickr Creative Commons

Growing up, author Andrew Lam struggled to make sense of his Vietnamese identity at home and his American identity at school.  

“Writing and reading was a way to begin to understand how I could marry this night and day dichotomy,” Lam says. “It’s possible to use the written language to express one’s self and make two polar worlds bridge and connect.”

Growing up “in between cultures,” South Korean author Krys Lee and Mauritian author Ananda Devi also say that literature and language have been a bridge linking their multicultural and multilingual backgrounds.

“It opens up your ideas, your thoughts, your way of looking at the world and at the same time makes identity and language a core component of who you are,” Devi says.

Credit Laura Hernandez / World Literature Today
World Literature Today
Ananda Devi, Krys Lee, and Andrew Lam at the University of Oklahoma's 2013 Neustadt Festival Banquet

Lee says that literature is not just a path to discover cultural and racial identity. Rather, she says that literature is valuable tool for any person searching for identity and place. 

“The title of my book, Drifting House, was very much a place where we all inhabit. Not just people of different cultures,” says Lee, “but people who don’t feel as if they belong to their society, or as if their family is somehow theirs and not theirs. I think we all have the experience of some kind of estrangement.”

In this sense, Lee, Lam, and Devi say that literary work from around the world provides a way for people to experience the culture and lessons of another place.   Implied cultural meaning, however, can be lost in translation. 

“[Literature] is very hard to translate unless you have lived in both places because the cultural references will be missed,” Lee says.

Although translated work may fail to convey certain meaning, “it’s the next best thing to reading it in the original language,” Devi says. “The way to go into a place, or to the heart of a place is through literature.”


KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies, with a goal of bringing internationally-focused conversations to an Oklahoma audience. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Andrew Lam, Krys Less, Ananda Devi, welcome to World Views.


GRILLOT: So Andrew let me start with you. Your background is Vietnamese. You're Vietnamese-American. And you've written essays about Vietnamese identity in the United States. Tell us about how one can really reflect their culture and identity through the written word. 

LAM: It's from reading. I grew up confused, mostly because I spoke English better than Vietnamese. Yet when I go home it is a refugee Vietnamese language culture. And when I'm in school it is an American culture. In my household my name is Yung. In school my name is Andrew. I go as if from one country to another within the same day. And I had always found that really strange, yet my Andrew persona seems to be the only one that survives in English, in the daytime. And writing and reading was a way to begin to understand how I can marry this night and day kind of dichotomy. And I found that it was language, from reading other people's experiences that you can begin to bridge what you didn't think was bridgeable. I had a hard time explaining just talking to my friends at school what I was like at home, or [explaining] my culture back in Vietnam. But when you started writing and reading other text that had that similar experience, you begin to realize it's possible to use the written language to express one's self and somehow make the two polar worlds bridge and connect.

GRILLOT: Andrew that's very interesting. Krys, you are of South Korean descent. How does what Andrew is talking about in terms of his confusion in living these two different lives at one time and how literature helped him kind of bridge that gap, does that resonate with you at all in your experience?

LEE: Certainly. The story is very familiar as is the way I experience my childhood in America as well.  Growing up in a very conservative, Christian, Korean family where my mother didn't speak any English at all. But I was one of a returning group of people who has gone back to their homeland. And I live in South Korea now and have spent more than half my life out of America to this point. And I found that returning comes with, creates a different kind of story in the sense that the confusion is really no longer there because both of them - both these countries and both these worlds- are mine and yet they aren't. You end up somewhere in between the two. But I kind of embrace that in between. I think even the title of my book. Drifting House, which was the title, was very much a place where we all inhabit. Not just people of different cultures, but people who don't feel as if they belong to their society, or somehow feel as if their family is somehow theirs and not theirs. I think we all have the experience of some kind of estrangement. Culture and race is one way to look at it, but there's so many other ways that we experience this phenomenon. So I think of myself as a kind of drifting house, and home is wherever you happen to be at that moment and you make it yours. 

GRILLOT: Very interesting. And Ananda, I would like to bring you in on this discussion. Although you're from Mauritius, right? But you write in two different languages - French and English. You've won many awards. You've written fiction, but you also engage in socio-anthropological studies. What you're hearing here from Krys and Andrew, how does this reflect what you experience and in what you've studied in terms of the sociological, anthropological issues of identity and culture and how it transcends borders and is expressed in literature? But also as someone who is growing up and coming from a multicultural background and working in different languages - all three of you working in different languages. What do you have to say about that?

DEVI:  Well I absolutely agree that coming from this multicultural background at the same times as it opens up your ideas, your thoughts, your way of looking at the world and at the same time makes identity and language a core component of who you are and a core questioning because all your life you're constantly questioning yourself about where your place is, if you have a place in society. For example, today I find it very difficult to say what my mother tongue is because the language that my mother used to speak to me from birth onwards is a South Indian language. My great-grandparents emigrated from India to Mauritius, but as I was growing up in a multi-lingual society I went to school in a completely Westernized education. French and English were the two languages that I learned. So from the age of five onwards I was only speaking French at home, so my parents started speaking French to me as well, sort of for integration purposes. But then I lost a little. So in a way I have creole, which is the lingua franca of Mauritius, but it's part of the story. I have French. I cannot say it's my mother tongue, but it's the tongue of my heart because it's the language in which I write. I write very, very little in English. It's mostly fifteen books I've written now in French. And I have this aunt where Togo is and my mother has since passed away so in a way there will always be that void of where it is. So writing, in a way, fills it, because you're constantly questioning yourself but also peopling yourself with others. You're filling that void and I felt that finally literature has become my mother tongue. But at the same time I have always felt that literature, books have two components. One is the form, language style. And one is the substance. And what I write about is very much fed by my anthropological, socio-anthropological studies. Coming from Mauritius, which is in the Indian Ocean and east of Africa, Madagascar. So I was growing up at the time of independence, the fight for independence. So all this history, this very torn apart history of the ancient history of slavery, of indentureship, plus the fight for independence and colonialism do feed into my work. So the two of them come together through those two components. 

GRILLOT: It's fascinating to hear what all of you are saying about, as Ananda was talking about, a 'void' or as Krys was talking about an 'in between.' Living kind of between cultures or being comfortable with that in-between world.. These multiple identities that all of you have developed as being multicultural and working in different languages and living in different places. But I'd like to relate that to this notion of literature and translation. Those of us who largely read one language, as many US citizens do, that we derive a tremendous benefit from being able to read the works that you're referring to in translation. The works that were produced first in Vietnamese or Korean or French. And then presented to us in translation and vice versa. Those that were written by American authors or those English speaking authors that are then translated into other languages. Is there something that can get lost in that translation? In terms of these identities that you're talking about and the social and cultural messages that are really important and come across in native languages. Is it difficult to translate those and fully comprehend them? Or is there just so far that we can go but at least we get that far? 

LEE:  Well, I'm translating a book right now for Houghton Mifflin and I've translated a lot of poetry as well. And when I see the world of translators around me in Korea, I think what does have more risk of getting lost - in some ways you're going to lose something inevitably - but it's less often the sociological context or the world of the novel or the poem than it is the voice of the novel or the poem. And that has a lot to do with [asking] is the translator a person who understands the sensibility of the language? Both languages - Korean and English, or Farsi and in English? And that seems to be more important in some ways. There are some things that, you know, if it seems that the world is less accessible or harder for a reader outside of that culture to contextualize, I think within the world at least it's usually implied and occasionally they're going to be using footnotes. But it's often actually the voice, particularly some books that are very difficult to translate with regional accents or a history that is almost inaccessible in some ways because it assumes greater knowledge. Those works are often not translated or often have a very difficult time being translated. And that's the real pity. The attempts aren't made because it's so difficult. 

GRILLOT: Does that sound like something you would identify with, Andrew? How do you translate that feeling of confusion and finding where you belong?

LAM:  It's very hard to translate unless you have lived in both places, because the cultural references will be missed. On the other hand, I've read and watched movies that are dubbed. Having understood both languages I get really frustrated when the translation is so bad that you feel like it's completely misunderstood. But there's a side story to all this. Very few books actually get translated. There are a ton of beautiful, wonderful materials that don't get read in the United States simply because they are deemed not commercial or not sellable enough. The real pity is we think we are reading the world, but we are reading very little of the world. That's the sad part. Being cosmopolitan, being someone who multilingual, i feel so enriched and blessed to be able to read in other languages in which I can immerse [myself] in the full aspect of that culture. And I think there are really things that are lost in translation.

GRILLOT: That's what's the bottom line. What's really critical is being able to immerse yourself fully into that other culture and another language, like you've been able to do Ananda. 

DEVI:  Yes, and I must say that translators who've translated my work or who I've worked with are usually people who are passionate about their work. So they will try everything to bring together both this content and the voice. And they do fantastic work because they really put themselves into it. Poetry is the most difficult thing to translate. Very often poets translate poets. But even those who translate novels are very, very passionate about it. So it is a pity that there's not more work in translation being published in the states. It's the next best thing from reading it in the original language. Even if something is lost, you're gaining much more. Unfortunately in America it's, as Andrew was saying, there's very, very little work in translation that's published and read, whereas in Europe it's the opposite. There's a very, very large corpus of work in translation. So I think fiction brings a worldview that is, at the same time it's a built and an imaginary worldview, but there's a core of truth of it that you can't get when you use iTunes five-minute news items everyday on the news. The way to go into a place, to the heart of a place is through literature.

GRILLOT: All of you have inspired me so much. I’m ready to go pick up a book now that we're done. Ananda, Krys, and Andrew, thank you so much for joining us on World Views.

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