Translating Love in the Time of Brexit

Xiaolu Guo, author of "A Lover’s Discourse," on using interracial relationships to examine immigrant identity and cultural differences

I’m willing to bet most of us have copy-and-pasted a phrase we don’t know into Google Translate, only to be confronted with a string of gibberish. Even in an era where translation is immediately available, there are always glitches. Novelist Xiaolu Guo is a master at exploring both the humor and the poignancy of mistranslation. 

When I first read her 2008 debut novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, I was floored by the way Guo explored the sometimes daunting, sometimes thrilling process of learning English. Zhuang, or “Z,” is a young Chinese woman who comes to London and begins a relationship with an older British bachelor. While her English grammar and vocabulary improve throughout the course of the novel, Z learns that speaking the same language as your lover does not always lead to better understanding. 

Guo’s latest novel, A Lover’s Discourse, explores transnational communication and immigration through a similarly interracial couple: a Chinese woman, who is a Ph.D. anthropology student, and a German-Australian man, who is a landscape architect. They meet at a book club in London, just as the Brexit movement is reaching its peak. While their relationship blossoms, they struggle to find a place that they both can call “home.” The novel also shares the title with Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. Barthes, a French theorist, was fascinated by fragmentation and the idea of communication. Fittingly, Guo’s new novel is also structured in fragments, each chapter starting with a snippet of unidentified dialogue. It pays homage to Barthes, while simultaneously crafting its own “discourse” of love and (mis)communication. 

Guo, a filmmaker as well as a writer, offers an astute visualization of language learning. In her world, language is a being unto itself: viscerally alive—something (or someone?) that you can fall in love with, find a home in, or rub up against. Her meditations on “translation” are never as simple as translating words from one language to another—she uses mistranslation in interracial relationships as a way to examine cultural differences, lifestyle preferences, and interpersonal relationships. 

I had the chance to speak to Xiaolu in September, when we spoke about the importance of transnational identities, supermarkets, and, of course, Roland Barthes. 

Jae-Yeon Yoo: Your novel shares the same title as theorist Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, and references Barthes throughout the narrative—whether that’s through narrative fragmentation or exploring the philosophy of love. Could you talk about your relationship with Barthes and how he influenced your work?

Xiaolu Guo: I was very attached to a few European authors when I was in Beijing, as an art school student. Barthes was one of the very important ones when I was studying film writing; [he offered] a different type of narrative, of fragments–not a complete narrative. I read Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse in Chinese translation in my film school in Beijing. I loved it, without knowing any background information. Later on, I read his Empire of Signs. It was amazing to understand how Chinese characters, Hànzì (汉字), was a pure media of visual representation for someone like Barthes. I guess reading two works by Barthes really told me how the Western cultures see the Eastern cultures and how, actually, these cultures are different. I left China from all these kinds of influences; I wanted to see the West. 

I have to mention the first novel I wrote in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. I wrote in broken English, and I was making an attempt to somehow make my own “lover’s discourse,” [of] when I first came to London, 18 years ago. In a way, Chinese-English Dictionary is a kind of naive attempt to record my journey in England, and to somehow pay homage to the certain Western writers I was so much in love with when I was in China. I just continued to write other books after that, making documentary films, going back and forth between China and Europe. My recent memoir [Nine Continents] is this farewell letter to all sorts of memories I had about China and how I grew up. I felt I needed a break, a kind of intellectual break. And therefore, I began to write this one. It’s a return to my earlier attempt—this is my continuation of the concerns in Chinese-English Dictionary. I thought, after all these years, perhaps I can court myself and court Barthes again to write this book. 

JY: I’m fascinated by how you explore imperfect, “broken” English. What initially spiked your interest in mistranslations and the untranslatable? 

XG: I’ll [start with] identity, when you talk about this word, untranslatability. I left China when I was 30-years-old, which is very old to start a new life as a second language writer. As a writer, you have this very loyal linguistic identity. Because if you’re a painter, you have a visual identity, and the visual is more universal than a specific linguistic identity, right? So if you are a writer, the linguistic identity is your first identity, beyond nationality. Say, I’m an American Chinese and I grew up speaking English. Even though my parents might be Chinese, I will still see myself as an Anglophone writer. When I came to the West, I was 30-years-old and I just saw myself as [a] monolingual Chinese linguistic. I transplanted myself in the West and that was this identity crisis: how do I interpret my vision through this broken English? 

That’s one of the reasons I just invented two characters [in A Lover’s Discourse]. The woman comes from a different language—of Chinese ideograms—that is so remote from the European alphabetical language of the man. With this novel, I thought not only about linguistic differences but also their different visions about life. For example, the Anglophone German man is a landscape architect. He believes in the human attempts to transform the landscape, and make use of that landscape. But the woman character is much more naturalistic in her belief; if you come from an East Asian Buddhist background, you sort of believe in human and nature as one entity. Whereas in modern life, humans have treated nature as an enemy, killing all the animals in order to somehow conquer nature. I tried to create the man and woman as these opposite forces. They hold opposite visions of life, not only linguistically, but culturally, philosophically. 

JY: I’d love to hear more about the narrator’s work as a Ph.D. anthropology student; I particularly enjoyed reading about her research, which focuses on a Chinese artisan village that produces copies of Western classical paintings. 

XG: Absolutely. I mean, this is a very big section which comes quite late in the book. The Chinese village is a real experience from my life. My father and my brother are professional painters—but they’re not artists like in a Western sense. Both were trained as propaganda painters. During the Cultural Revolution, my father was trained to paint Mao’s portrait, Red Army peasants. They were extremely skillful state artists to paint wherever they needed to paint for the Communist Party, but they might not paint what they wanted to paint in their private lives. Or if there was ever “private life” in China in the 60s, 70s, 80s—everything’s public; we belong to the state, we belong to the public. I wanted to write about that, but without involving my own memory of my father and brother. Then, a few years ago, I went to that village to do some research. I discovered how wonderful these artisans are—they are peasants, self taught–but they can do a “Mona Lisa” in one afternoon, Caravaggio in two days. They won’t even paint Picasso, because it’s just too easy to copy. I made a documentary called “Five Men and a Caravaggio,” about this Chinese artisan painting a Caravaggio work in three days. In the novel, I write about [a copy of] this well-known painting, “The Virgin of the Rock ” by Leonardo da Vinci. It’s such a representation of a Western ideal, of Virgin Mary and Christianity. In a way, I also wanted to say the Western religious painting is a copy, a reproduction of the idea of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The idea is reproduced, though the actual paintings might be original from one another. 

So, that was the thinking, how [the narrator] would use her experience as an argument against this fanatic worship of originality. I wanted to put the Ph.D. defense scene earlier in the book, when she challenged, “What is authenticity?” And the idea of authenticity or originality actually doesn’t exist. It’s just a discussion of history, in a way, about which history we belong to. I wish I could add a few more pages in the book to present the argument about originality. You know, to write a book is very painful. There are a lot of painful but almost random decisions, about what is the main bone for the book. I found it very easy to write about this Chinese village with all these crazy artisans painting Western art, because that’s how I grew up. But in this novel, I had to delete a lot of Chinese sections in order to shape the lovers’ relationship. In the China part, the male lover is not present, so I had to make the woman return to the U.K. sooner than she should. It’s really about control and, you know, giving up some sections in order to say the main theme. 

JY: In that exact Ph.D. defense scene, I was intrigued by the narrator’s thoughts on industrialization and capitalism—she talks about “a capitalistic system where reproduction was the main engine. All the things I wrote about originality were kind of beside the point. Originality is a fetish of people who want to control the art market and the publishing industry.” You’ve talked before about the censorship and self selecting nature of U.S. and U.K. publishing; I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts on what it means to be kind of an anti-capitalist consumer and/or creator of literature. 

If you are a writer, the linguistic identity is your first identity, beyond nationality.

XG: I mean, anti-capitalist. I don’t know. It’s a perhaps simplistic slogan from the character. But I think my vision of the current world, of art and life, is rooted in a kind of agricultural society where I see nature as part of my daily life. I somehow believe in this beautiful balance or harmony between individual life or collective life, nature and the environment. I have a very deep attachment to the rural countryside where I grew up, but I live in this very internet-oriented, speedy world. I travel everywhere, I live a very modern life in London, in Berlin or in another big place. I just have this kind of deep disconnection all the time. It’s who I am. I’m a mad gardener, a flower maniac; I need to grow plants in my tiny garden. It’s kind of a sad attempt of my lost past. As an artist, I know I live in this very contradictory state. I think this conflict and alienation permeates a lot of my novels.

Maybe I’d use that term, anti-capitalist, because I’m clearly in love with a few books [such as] The Society of the Spectacle by a French Marxist philosopher called Guy DeBord. He wrote about [how] authentic life has disappeared after, let’s say, the Industrial Revolution. We live in this very super-supermarket, where our life is decided by supermarkets and the choices we’re being offered have already been made by the market. We have some kind of organic thing for breakfast, but yet we don’t know where those organic things grow or where the farms are. I was very affected by that book and that kind of post-Marxist theory. There’s no way to go back to the agricultural world because, after the Industrial Revolution, we have divorced with our past. I think it’s incredible, our loneliness and sadness of urban life. Not only the sadness, there’s joy and wonderful excitement. But there’s an alienation of urban life; in a way, everyone is constantly uprooted and we’ve all adapted to this modern, urban, work-oriented life. Work is purely for capitalistic gain. I think about these things when I write and when I make films. I try to present those thoughts with narrative, with characters. 

JY: Yes, I noticed that uprootedness, foreignness, and home are really integral themes of the book. It’s also set during Brexit; how did those political circumstances shape this book?

With the pandemic and the Trump era, the dream about being American seems to be becoming deconstructed in such a powerful way, in a violent way.

XG: A storyteller knows that you need a crisis or an uncertainty. In this book, it’s post-Brexit, so she is not welcome. When I came to the U.K. 19 years ago, I could prolong my student visa another year. I remember it was very easy. And now you cannot do that. And there are many, many things about being an immigrant now in post-Brexit Britain. It’s all about leaving—it’s about not coming in or leaving basically, [becoming a] country that is shrinking in cultural difference. So that’s the background for the two characters. This means they might not settle in the country where they met. And so they are up and down, down and out, looking for a common home between the two. I didn’t want to write about Brexit at all, because you don’t want the novel to be dated, right? Once it’s published, it’s become dated news, old news, and I just wanted Brexit as the background. She came, Brexit happened, and then she immediately lost a future in that country. So that is a constraint to the future that they have. There is also the uncertainty of being in Europe or the U.S. as a foreigner, a non-white immigrant. You know, if I were a new immigrant, I would think twice if I would move to the U.S. It seems that with the pandemic and the whole Trump era, the whole dream or fantasy about being American seems to be becoming deconstructed in such a powerful way, in a violent way. 

JY: Any final thoughts or words?

XG: One thing I always say about my novels and documentaries and films, they’re kind of novelistic images. I try to minimize narrative, to reveal the ideas and discussions of our current life. The stories are always quite simple in my books because I can’t bear a confusing story in the novel—then I can’t really say those thoughts. A Lover’s Discourse is really an attempt of doing that. I also wanted to talk about identities through languages and through translation—the power of transnational identities, the work of translation. This novel is basically sort of suggesting that those are the very important limits in our modern international life, of multilingualism, of transnational identities. And if you don’t consider those things, the world becomes very insular, very conservative.

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