After “After Babel”

I usually use Chinese in the dark of the night: texting people on the other side of the planet, writing diary entries in bed, talking to my cat. During the daytime, when I’m writing emails, teaching classes, reading, working, grocery shopping, chatting, I’m always using English—unless there’s a small animal involved. I work at a bookstore, and whenever a customer brings a dog in I inadvertently start speaking to it in Chinese, usually something like hello, you’re so cute, you little thing… One day a tiny white truck, perfectly square like a piece of tofu, pulled up outside the bookstore. As my coworker and I stood by the entrance taking in its cuteness I started snapping pictures while mumbling in Chinese:“How could it be so small!” My coworker said: “羽辰都讲中文了,(这卡车)就是这么可爱。”


Sometimes I also worry, given that English is after all not my native tongue, does my extended use of it limit the depth and scope of my thinking? In 1984, the elimination of the word “freedom” erases the possibility of even so much as imagining the concept, which in turn curbs any possibility of it ever becoming reality. If the English vocabulary at my command is already so limited, what untouchable concepts and realities hide in those words I do not yet grasp? For instance, I came to the US as a graduate student studying art, meaning that I could read Adorno but did not know the names of ordinary vegetables. In high school I had enjoyed reading about medical history, but in English I knew little medical vocabulary. My English is best described as a dialect consisting solely of art history and leftist theory jargon, while sounds expressed outside this dialect truly mean nothing to me. To invent a new life in a new language is not unlike writing fiction: what I cannot write naturally will not be included.


Perhaps, deep inside my heart, I feel that silence is more reliable than words, and confusion more authentic than comprehension. No matter the language, however much I appreciate reading, writing and talking, I am firmly aware of the limitations of “pointing my finger at the moon”. 1A Buddhist koan from Chapter 2 of the Surangama Sutra (楞严经): “This is similar to a person pointing his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, the other person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? Because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.” (如人以手指月示人,彼人因指,当应看月,若复观指,以为月体,此人岂唯亡失月轮,亦亡其指。) English translation from: Link.​ The garrulous me is less me than the quiet me; more than what’s already uttered, what remains unsaid always feels truer and more refreshing. To express one’s inner feelings in language is to first choose between states of contradiction, then arrange entangled chaos into order and rhythm, before finally forcing the most earnest and passionate feelings into forms and phrases that have been circulating for thousands of years—this is already a kind of translation. As for the contradictions and chaos abandoned along the way, the intensities that cannot be translated into words, they stay hidden in the pauses between one syllable and another, ghosts between the lines. Even when two people speak the same language, their understanding of a word can differ drastically due to position, profession, gender and class. Not to mention all the deliberate false displays of emotion, substitutions of one thing for another, pretending to start along one path while secretly taking another, and innuendo—we tend to use our most intimate languages to camouflage ourselves, not to expose.


It’s like how as a solo moviegoer, I’m used to having my emotions packed up by the time the light turns on. I take them away in a hurry so I don’t need to name or define them on the spot. When I occasionally hear people whispering to each other in the audience I tend to flee from it: when the language is razor-clear, I worry it will pierce through the fog that cloaks the flickering image and kill its magic. 从这重意义来说,带着让舌头陌生的语言生活不失为一种至幸,因为人的意识总是同时存在于语言探照范围的亮处和暗处,​人们以意义作为基石进行表达,同时对基石之下深不可测的地层保持敏锐和警觉。舌头没法全然洞悉我的灵魂,而带着这样一具灵魂,就好像囤积着无法被转化成资本的宝藏。它极度的安全、私人,因为它无法被系统识别。

Last March I did a residency at a museum in a remote town, with nothing but mountains and snow outside my window. Because of the pandemic, the residency lasted longer—and felt more isolating—than expected. I started reading thick books, including George Steiner’s After Babel.2Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press, 1998)​ There were so many feelings I wanted to write down immediately, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin. Aside from the turmoil of the world and my penchant for procrastination, this long hesitation was caused by my inability to decide whether to write in Chinese or in English. Each option had its pros and cons: what feels natural about English is the consistency between input and output, whereas what feels natural about Chinese runs deep in my blood and heritage. However, at this point, I can no longer tell which “natural” feels more natural. Both options also already involve translation—not just in the sense of the labor of the translator to whom I will pass the finished piece; to me, all writing and talking and every second of breathing is translation, or an attempt to mend a crack. On February 1, 2020, I returned to New York from Beijing by way of Hong Kong and entered self-quarantine in Brooklyn, where everything was still business as usual. Amid jetlag and grief I chased short-lived articles and reports on Chinese social media, with the radio playing news of Trump’s impeachment day and night. Occasionally I would hear the word “coronavirus” in international news coverage—the word COVID-19 had yet to enter the English lexicon.

从我想要写下这些文字开始已经过去了一年,眼前这个google文档已然成为我私人的巴别塔,存放自身的混乱与歧义。最近我重读了本雅明的《译者的任务》。3本雅明文选《启迪》,Schocken Books出版,1969年。​ 2013年初读时,我无法将其写作的精巧架构细分拆解,所以带着一种恍惚入迷几乎在全文都标注了下划线。​我轻轻地重翻已经略微变脆的书页,发现自己当时留在空白边角的三幅图画,尽管模糊但它们应该从那时起就深深地印刻在了我的脑海中:1. 一个残破花瓶的碎片;2. 一条切线与圆形相交;​3. 满是树木的山脊廓型。这正是我一直在思考的翻译的另一个维度:阅读时,我自然是在用自己的读写力、记忆力和我整个的存在方式对他的书写进行着翻译;而阅读之后,我是否也在将他的书写翻译成我的行动、我的理念和我的未来?

Let me project this metaphor even further, and more elusively: beyond reading, every conversation and encounter—getting to know a stranger, moving into a new environment—is perhaps an act of translation of sorts, a transcoding between systems, a battle of adaptability. The process is certainly filled with loss and disappointment; but if you tire of the attempt to restore or faithfully render the original, a glitch may also bring its own kind of joyful surprise, resistance, or even a productive tool. Now, in February 2021, as I come to the end of this piece, I find myself immersed in the Sinosphere on Clubhouse. In this social media platform of pure audio, the speech act has slipped from the echology of the speaker; like a wandering satellite or racing electron, it is justifying its existence and vitality in every spark of collision with another.

All images courtesy of Chang Yuchen.

Translated from the Chinese by Alvin Li;
translated from the English by Qianfan Gu.

Chang Yuchen is currently based in New York. She works in an interdisciplinary manner – writing as weaving, drawing as translation, teaching as hospitality and commerce as everyday revolution (see Use Value). By constantly entering and exiting each medium, she strolls against the category of things, the labor division among people.

Alvin Li is a writer, a contributing editor for frieze, and Adjunct Curator, Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. He lives and works in Shanghai.

Qianfan Gu is a co-editor of Heichi Magazine.

“language for business” / “事务性的用语”
抄写 George Steiner 《K》、《A Kind of Survivor》

“what I cannot write naturally will not be included” / “我不会写的,自然就不在这小说里”
抄写 George Steiner 《Understanding as Translation》

“kinship orbit and language nest” / “亲缘关系与母语的巢”
抄写 George Steiner 《Understanding as Translation》

“the deliberate false displays of emotion, substitutions of one thing for another, pretending to start along one path while secretly taking another, and innuendo” / “虚与委蛇、移花接木、暗度陈仓、含沙射影”
抄写 George Steiner 《Word Against Object》

“inhabiting inferiority” / “在劣势中自处”
抄写 George Steiner 《Understanding as Translation》

“the light and shade” / “亮处和暗处”
抄写 George Steiner 《Word Against Object》、《The Hermeneutic Motion》

“Benjamin Vase” 他说世界上的语言是花瓶的碎片,纯语言是碎了的花瓶。

“Benjamin Tangent” 他说译文之于原文如同切线之于圆,轻轻碰触后继续自己的路。

“Benjamin Forest” 他说译者漫步在语言森林的边缘。

Published: 2021.04.15