Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Girl in Translation

Posted by nliakos on October 4, 2011

by Jean Kwok (Riverhead/Penguin 2010)

Kimberly Chang, the narrator of this short coming-of-age novel, has much in common with author Jean Kwok. Both immigrated to the United States  from Hong Kong; both lived in Brooklyn; both worked in a sweatshop; both graduated from top schools, making successes of themselves through sheer grit and brains.  So it is tempting to wonder how much of the novel is autobiographical: the freezing apartment in a condemned building? the roaches and mice? the full scholarship to a fancy prep school? Kimberly and her mother’s mistreatment by an unfeeling, jealous relative and their perseverance under seemingly impossible conditions make the book hard to put down (I read it in two days).  It’s impossible not to like this plucky young girl (when the book opens, she is eleven; it ends when she is eighteen and there is an epilogue that takes place twelve years later) as she resolutely develops her American self, smart and successful in school, and her Chinese self, rather more outspoken than is proper, but ready to do whatever it takes to survive and help her mother.

I enjoyed the way Kwok portrays Kimberly’s limited English by substituting what she thinks she hears people say for what they actually say, for example: the prep school headmistress tells Kimberly that although she is applying after the normal deadline, they can “make an excession for you”–possibly “up to fifty percent of the twosheen costs.” It’s a good reminder that language learners do not always hear what we think they hear!  I also loved the way Chinese idioms are translated word for word in the dialogue between people speaking Chinese, and then interpreted, for example: “Hey, someone has to find the rice, right?” To earn the money. And “he has the white disease.” She was calling Park retarded. Additionally, colorful Chinese insults are translated word for word, like “You have the nose of a pig and slits for eyes too!” These add an authentic flavor to the text.

There are several wonderful characters besides Kimberly, including her true love Matt and her best friend Annette, a Caucasian girl she has the good fortune to meet when she enrolls in public school. Annette has a pure soul and offers Kimberly true friendship, even though Kimberly finds it necessary to lie in order to hide the extent of her poverty from Annette. Annette goes on to the same prep school as Kimberly, and it is a pleasure to watch her grow from a rather naive child who cannot imagine a life so different from her own wealthy existence into an independent thinker, a political activist, a feminist, but always a true friend to Kimberly. I wonder if Kimberly would have had the strength to persevere through the years of abject poverty, bullying, and accusations of dishonesty on her road to immigrant success, had she not had the love, support, and trust of this one friend. By offering friendship to someone like Kimberly, the Annettes of this world can make a huge difference in their lives.

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