- Traitors and Translators:Reframing Trinh T. Minh-ha's Surname Viet Given Name Nam
This essay examines Trinh T. Minh-ha's 1989 film Surname Viet Given Name Nam through the thematic of treason and translation. Looking at the acts of treason and translation undergirding Trinh's film, I demonstrate how these axes of analyses intersect with the very terms that structure the film—that is, gender and nation. For feminists, such junctures have been critical in order to interrogate representations of women in history and language. Among other feminist theorists, Norma Alarcón has insightfully investigated the ways in which the primordial figure of the traitor in Chicana/o culture is both a woman and a translator; since she serves as a mediating body between the colonizer and colonized, La Malinche's betrayal is not only cultural and sexual but also linguistic.1 Being both a traitor and translator is a dynamic, I argue, that plays out in Trinh T. Minh-ha's work, as well, whereby the female translator (Trinh herself) is a traitor to the documentary form and ethnographic mode of inquiry. Expounding upon the idea of feminine betrayal, Surname Viet also exposes the ways in which translation and treason are tied to the female body within a nationalist context. Situated in the frames of the film, Trinh betrays the notion of feminine authenticity by rendering inaudible the women's heavily accented speeches and by providing subtitles that elucidate little about the women's speeches. Although subtitles are a translational [End Page 195] operation that typically try to effect a "cultural affinity" between West and East, Self and Other,2 Trinh problematizes the idea that translations and subtitles as "visualized speech"3 and refuses the idea that translation guarantees access to the female Other.
Whereas other critics have looked at Trinh's Surname Viet as a theoretical exercise for the auteur,4 I mean to reorient a critical gaze back onto the speech and bodies of the women in the film and contextualize how these women are engaged in the performance of memory within and outside the film. Going against a critical body of work that elide the women's acts of storytelling in Trinh's film in favor of auteurist analysis, I read the creative enactments that occurred in the preproduction phase and profilmic space of Surname Viet. I focus on the collaborative acts that constitute the film's spine: the interviews in Vietnamese that were collected and translated by Mai Thu Vân into French, which were then translated into English by Trinh T. Minh-ha and reinterpreted by Vietnamese American women in the film. These translations upon translations reference a colonial and imperial legacy. Translation theorist Niranjana Tejeswari writes on the importance of studying translation in Western colonial discourse: "Translation brings into being the overarching concepts of reality and representation."5 Indeed, such concepts are the dual processes that Surname Viet aims to deconstruct, as the film attempts to mediate between multiple linguistic registers and multiple texts. As a result of these manifold acts of translation, the film alludes to there being neither an original text that bears originary meaning for the film nor an originary bearer—a woman who is unproblematically given voice—to whom meaning can be affixed. In relation to film as translation, Rey Chow argues in a different context that Trinh's film shows "a process of 'literalness' that displays the way the original itself was put together, that is, in its violence."6 In the second half of the film especially are those moments when Trinh demonstrates the fragmented means by which the translations of Vietnamese woman have been composed.7
Examining this latter portion of the film, the essay also concentrates on the women's agentive practices of storytelling, a subject that is overlooked in the critical scholarship on the film. Such practices of storytelling involve what Trinh calls "headless and bottomless" ways of telling stories, which expose the "inscription and de-scription of a non-unitary female subject of color through her engagement and disengagement with master discourses."8 Following Trinh's formulation, I contend that the semblance of stories narrated by the immigrant...