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Borrowed Tongues: Life Writing, Migration, and Translation by Eva C. Karpinski (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 28, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 324-328 | 10.1353/abs.2013.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Eva Karpinski’s Borrowed Tongues: Life Writing, Migration, and Translation is a transcultural and transnational journey into the human (migrant) condition. Eva Karpinski’s analysis of key autobiographical/autoethnographic texts is immersed in multiple translations. The author deploys a theoretical framework of translation studies to examine how diasporic women author’s life writing of their migrant communities exemplifies modes of self-representation that not only articulate but also reinforce power hierarchies. Shaped by specific translocal, transcultural, sociopolitical, and gendered expressions of identity, such narrative performativities illustrate the markers of difference and the parameters of agency. Karpinski expertly synthesizes postcolonial, poststructuralist, and feminist approaches to examining American and Canadian autoethnographic/autobiographical texts to explore the intersectionalities of culture, ethnicity, gender, “race” in understanding diasporic subjectivities, representation, and otherness.

The introduction examines theories of migration, autobiography, and translation in the author’s construction of a theoretical framework to examine a selection of migration life writing texts. These texts are situated in four sections: the first focuses on “literacy narratives” through the works of Mary Antin and Laura Goodman Salverson; the second examines “immigrant crypto(auto)graphy” through the works of Akemi Kikumura and Apolonja Maria Kojder; the third, on “experimental self-translations,” looks at the works of Eva Hoffman and Smaro Kamboureli; and the fourth examines “translations as allegorical metafiction” through the texts of Marlene Nourbese Philip and Jamaica Kincaid.

Only recently have autobiographies been theoretically linked to translation studies, and this book offers an important glimpse into how subjectivity and power in migrant contexts is very much a product of such an interlinking. More interesting, the book itself is connected to translation insofar as the process is indeed correlated to those migratory practices that are employed by migrants in their life narratives and by the respective authors as they transfer meaning from one signifying context to another. Both migrants and authors, it seems, are living and writing in “borrowed tongues” which forms the core of this study. Karpinski notes the frequent presence of autobiographic narratives in English by both American and Canadian immigrant women who are “living, communicating and working in a language that is not one’s mother tongue or mother’s tongue” (2). The metaphor of “borrowing” here is an accurate depiction of a language “on loan” for migrants, which is also a language of “oppression” and colonial domination for other social subjects often displaced and dependent because the borrowing is often linked to the economics of cultural imperialism given the material consequences that these relations of power involve. But life writing in a borrowed mode of articulation often invokes images of patriarchy for those women writing under male-dominated discourses—as well as under other circumstances of oppression, including divergence from normative heterosexuality or other hegemonic constructions of religiosity, ethnicity, and/or citizenship that render classed and gendered racializations as dominant ideologies of representation. Nevertheless, focusing on the multiple layers of power, hierarchy, oppression, and dominance in the diasporic, postcolonial, gendered, classed, and ethnicized subject can become a vehicle of feminist rewriting and a remaking of the subject as a performativity of liberation and resistance. Hence, the author has organized all the chapters around a few pertinent questions:

1.   What mutualities and affinities exist between life writing and translation?

2.   How is life writing staged and performed as a project of translation in particular texts?

3.   What is the relationship between languages and the identities they are capable of constructing and articulating?

4.   How does the writer’s choice of translation strategies correspond to her understanding of social and symbolic power invested in languages at a particular historical moment?

5.   What can the underlying philosophical and ethical paradigms of translation located in each text reveal about the writer’s conceptions of subjectivity, alterity, and genre?

6.   How do the translator’s choices correlate with her politics and ideology? (3)

The author responds to these questions by rendering translations as acts of different subject positions, but also, more importantly, makes us aware of evidence of “non-translation” in the form of silenced discourses and omissions through the texts. Thus, we become acutely aware of the “limits of translatability,” that which memory, trauma, and recollection may not render as “translatable...



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