You may have never known how much Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Milan Kundera had in common - until an Ang Lee movie changed one name for the other.
In "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman", a story set in Taiwan, Lee's home province, local bookworms are nibbling at the novels of Kundera. But when the script reached James Schamus, Lee's New York-based writer-producer, Kundera morphed into Dostoyevsky.
It's not because the two novelists shared thematic or stylistic traits, but because the Russian writer occupies a place in the minds of American readers similar to that of the Czech-French in all parts of the Chinese reading public. An allusion to Kundera - or being caught reading his book, possibly in a fashionably decorated caf - gives one a certain cachet, an implication that you are cool and belong to the hip crowd.
This is what I call a cross-cultural conversion.
A dictionary may help you translate words and names, but no tools - old-tech or hi-tech - can help you interpret the finer nuances of culture such as this one. All it takes is tons of knowledge and hands-on experience.
That is why Ang Lee's biography, recently published in the mainland after being reprinted 13 times in Taiwan, stands out so prominently. The book, which contains the above episode, brims with acute observations and sagely insight.
Even if you haven't seen any of Lee's movies - or if you don't like them - you'll find his words full of revelations. He is simply a marvel of cross-cultural jaywalking. He observes rules when he sees fit, but more often he creates new rules by opening up worlds we didn't even know existed.
A culture is like a universe all its own - a person can live in only one culture at any given time. But with the rapid pace of globalization, we need people who can hop between two universes and find parallels so that people from both sides can penetrate the glass partition of differences and communicate in meaningful ways.
"Meaningful" communication suggests more than the surface meanings of words being uttered. I remember a speech President Clinton gave during one of his trips to China. It sounded great in English, but once rendered verbatim into Chinese, it was basically a jumble of gibberish.
A translator for diplomatic occasions does not have the leeway to change Kundera into Dostoyevsky. And I'm not implying formal speeches given by Chinese leaders are easily accessible to a Western ear either.
When we speak or act, we invariably take a position that conforms to our own culture. It takes an expert like Ang Lee, who straddles both cultures and knows the strengths of each, to communicate in a meaningful way. When you read the English subtitles of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", for example, you're actually not reading a word-for-word translation of the original Chinese, but what the characters might say if their native language were English.
Now, I must add that we don't even have enough good translators who are able to convert Kundera's works into Chinese. Our "proctology hospital" shows up as "anus hospital", and "spring chicken", a popular item in Chinese restaurants overseas, is decoded into "chicken without sexual life".
But we need people who are able to decipher the nuances of culture, who can translate the cultural significance of Kundera into Dostoyevsky. Hunan Satellite Television has grasped that skill - it makes huge hits by localizing foreign reality programming. The Chinese hosts of David Beckham, on the other hand, have not. They treated him to a lavish banquet full of outlandish dishes like fried scorpions. The football star didn't even touch it.
(China Daily 12/01/2007 page4)