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  • From Wuxia to Xena:Translation and the Body Spectacle of Zoë Bell
  • Lauren Steimer (bio)

This essay addresses the manner in which genre affects labor, changing a nation's televisual and cinematic reservoir of technique. In particular, this piece considers how the spectacles commonly associated with the action genre in general and the wuxia genre more specifically have been consumed and repurposed by fanboy1 media producers. This series of actions caused the historical practices associated with one film industry's "national cinema effect" (that of Hong Kong)2 to become congealed in the body/person of performers trained in another national media context (New Zealand). Generic translation across national frameworks affects the laboring bodies of media producers, and in the case of action genres, it has distinct and identifiable effects on stunt doubles. The adoption of Hong Kong wuxia (武俠) aesthetics in contemporary action films has forced shifts in shooting style, shoot duration, costuming, set design, editing and rig3 construction, all of which alter the stunt performers' embodied experiences of work. The prolonged association of these cinematic and televisual techniques and body spectacles with individual performers contributes to the star image of stunting stars. This is decidedly the case for Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell. Bell's star image is greatly informed by a series of body spectacles made possible by her training in tae kwon do, gymnastics, and early spectacular embodiments evident in her Kiwi-style wire-fu work on the set of the television series Xena: Warrior Princess [End Page 359] (Renaissance Pictures and Universal Television, 15 September 1995–18 June 2001).

There is very little work in film and media studies on many of the topics considered in this essay: stunt actors, genre, and labor. These three elements coalesce in the transnational production context of Xena: Warrior Princess, a show funded by U.S. production companies, scripted by American screenwriters, acted/directed by U.S. and New Zealand talent, and distributed internationally as a first-run syndicated program.4 The production context of Xena: Warrior Princess is worthy of further examination as a site of what Peter Newmark has termed "communicative translation," a model of translation theory concerned more with the symmetry of reception contexts between translated texts than with semiotic mimicry. Peter Newmark's translation theory distinguishes between semantic and communicative translation, explaining that "communicative translation attempts to produce on its readers an effect as close as possible to that obtained on the readers of the original," as opposed to semantic translation, which "attempts to render, as closely as the semantic and syntactic structure of the second language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original."5 For Newmark, semantic translation holds to the authorial intent of the source text while allowing for slight variability in cultural adaptation. In contrast, communicative translation is concerned with the needs of the reader, less with preserving the language of the source and more with relaying the context or reader effect of the source.6 I contend that this theory of translation can be extended to film and television viewers as "readers" in that such spectators may also act as media producers, re-creating previously viewed material in an attempt to regenerate the effects of the original (awe, shock, "jerk reactions,"7 etc.) on a new group of spectators.

Xena provides an interesting case study for communicative translation in that the spectatorial effects elicited by the bodily spectacles of Hong Kong wuxia films were reconstituted three times in acts of communicative translation: in the use of Hong Kong action-sequence mix tapes as a template to sell the series; in the remediation of film to television and the shift in production context from Hong Kong to New Zealand; and in the congealing of corporeal practices and cinematic/televisual techniques in the body spectacle of stunting star8 Zoë Bell. In this essay, I analyze the communicative translation of Hong Kong wuxia body spectacles into analogous sequences in Xena, where superhuman bodies fly, flip, or move through the air in flames. What I am calling body spectacle is a unique form of visual display common to a set of film and television genres (i.e., the musical, the martial arts film...


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pp. 359-390
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