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  • Negative Paradise:Rethinking Anglophone and World Literature as Literary Dubbing
  • Ben Tran (bio)

Robert Olen Butler's story "Mid-Autumn" opens with a striking description of an intimate moment between a Vietnamese mother and her unborn child. The mother is married to an American veteran of the Vietnam War, although she still mourns the wartime death—possibly at the hands of American soldiers—of her former Vietnamese lover. When the story begins, she is still adjusting to life in the thick humidity of southern Louisiana and attempting to learn English. The mother speaks to her child, fathered by the American veteran, in her native tongue of Vietnamese. Butler, however, renders the exchange in English:

We are lucky, you and I, to be Vietnamese so that I can speak to you even before you are born. This is why I use the Vietnamese language. It is our custom for the mother to begin this conversation with the child in the womb, to begin counseling you in matters of the world that you will soon enter. It is not a custom among the Americans, so perhaps you would not even understand English if I spoke it. Nor could I speak in English nearly so well, to tell you some of the things [End Page 153] in my heart. Above all you must listen to my heart. The language is not important.


The mother associates the practice of speaking to one's unborn child with Vietnamese culture: "It is not a custom among the Americans." Her cultural past and linguistic identity preclude her from speaking English to the child. However, the mother quickly distances herself from this cultural essentialism, referring instead to matters of the "heart" that are not specific to language. "The language is not important," she tells her child. This line doubles as a reflexive commentary on Butler's representation of the Vietnamese mother's words in English. The act of translation here aims for cultural authenticity, but it does so with an indifference to language. Butler's use of English universalizes the mother's Vietnamese monologue; it could be delivered in any language. In doing so, the author synchronizes his character's Vietnamese-language thoughts with English, the language of representation.

On the one hand, Butler's seamless use of English portrays the Vietnamese mother sympathetically, showing an immigrant woman navigating her new cultural milieu. But on the other, as he voices-over the Vietnamese mother, Butler controls the idiom of the other. Elif Batuman criticizes Butler for establishing his American literary voice through the victims of United States military imperialism: "White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love" (245). At issue for Batuman is Butler's troubling appropriation of Vietnamese voices: translating his character's "thought-language" from Vietnamese into English (244), while romanticizing cross-cultural empathy without accounting for the racial inequalities and violence endemic to the imperialistic US military presence in Vietnam.

Butler's English dubs over the mother, who readily admits to her limited English skills. As Mark McGurl remarks, "Butler tunes into and 'ventriloquizes' the conversation of a Vietnamese mother with her unborn child, 'translating' it into English" (392). In Butler's fictional world all is translatable. Butler's representation of the Vietnamese mother's thought-language layers English over a non-Anglophone language. The fiction itself becomes actualized as a parallel universe conditioned by the English language. Taking McGurl's cue, I want to draw attention to a pervasive, yet understudied form of translation wherein the author writes and translates simultaneously.1 This is what I term "literary dubbing": a translation in which the language that the reader encounters on the page is not the same language that the character thinks and speaks. In texts shaped by literary dubbing, the language of representation is not the implied language. [End Page 154]

Although literary dubbing occurs in other historical and literary contexts—including, but not limited to, modernist works and anti-colonial national literature—this essay narrows its scope to explore how acts of literary dubbing help generate the English language's normative force.2 While literature...


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