Translation as Moral Pedagogy: The Cultural Politics of China

Unlike the Taiwan Cinefest, what is being translated here for a London audience is more the idea of an ethno- or national culture than that of a national cinema. As the festival press releases sometimes stress, it is about “presenting the reality of the Chinese speaking world to global audiences”;50 the actually existing China behind the headlines, if you like. In this respect, the Chinese Visual Festival is what, in her chapter in this volume, Dina Iordanova terms a “corrective festival”: an event intended to address an imbalance in representations of China outside China proper. This term catches how the festival’s vision is shaped as much by issues of cultural politics as by commerce; what perhaps should be emphasized in this instance is the fluidity of this corrective drive, as well as the lived experience that fuels it. The Chinese Visual Festival is not a government event. Its direction does not stem from a policy directive, but has evolved in part as a result of Xie’s and Zhan’s own experience as cultural brokers, whether professionally, in the workplace, or more informally, as PRC nationals resident abroad. The festival therefore does not seek to promote government policy: Xie is rather trying to mediate between what she and Zhan have come to perceive as different poles of representation—official and unofficial, “local” and Western—that structure how China is perceived and represented across a range of social agents and institutions.51 What kind of cultural translation thus arises from such positioning, and how does it differ from that of the Taiwan Cinefest?

As with the Taiwan Cinefest, one of the key ways in which the Chinese Visual Festival attempts to communicate its message is by finding points of mutual reference between a British audience and the Chinese-language material screened. Unlike the Cinefest, however, the focus is less on points of common cinematic reference and more on sites of shared social or cultural experience. Thus, in the first year, the festival showed Zhu Chengguang’s documentary For the Love of Shakespeare, about children in China learning to recite Shakespeare, and Li Junhu’s Brave Father, which addresses the problem of how poor families afford university tuition fees for their children. The literary connection seemed an obvious point of contact in the former, while the latter theme was a hot topic in the UK, with protests against the rise in tuition fees for English university students having taken place the previous year. The films therefore seemed accessible for a London audience.52 Thematizing screenings has also been a way of framing them round common issues: the 2012 festival, for example, took the Olympics as its point of departure.53 Finally, where these other options have been inadequate, the curators have positioned the films for a non-Chinese audience through short introductions or talks after screenings. Sometimes these discussions have been led by academics—one of the advantages of being based in university spaces—sometimes by members of the organizing committee, but usually they have focused on elements of a film that Xie and Zhan feel require further elaboration, or have been an opportunity for Xie to explain her reasons for programming a particular work in the festival.54

I would suggest, then, that the kind of cultural translation taking place at the Chinese Visual Festival is best described as moral-pedagogical. I adapt this phrase from Chi-Hua Hsiao’s analysis of amateur subtitle groups in the PRC. Hsiao describes how these subtitlers of illegally distributed American TV shows view their own cultural brokerage practices—translating English-language dialogue for a Chinese-language audience—not as illegal activity but as moral enterprise: not-for-profit pursuits that “mediate between groups or persons of different cultural backgrounds for the purpose of reducing conflict or producing change.”55 This comes very close to the kind of brokerage that Xie and Zhan appear to understand themselves as engaged in. Primarily noncommercial in bent, with translation practices drawn less from marketing and advertising than from education, the festival’s goal is clearly more than entertainment. Xie and Zhan’s aim is rather to address “misunderstanding[s] and lack of understanding about Chinese among the British public” through visual culture;56 central to this process is the identification of common experiences that, if projected through cinema, may humanize China in the eyes of foreign viewers and thus open up space for further intercultural dialogue. As with the Taiwan Cinefest, infrastructural determinants and personal experience here combine to structure the kind of brokerage that the festival organizers are engaged in. The results, however, go beyond what I would consider to be mere taste formation.

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