Shirley Smith


Chinese Lost in Translation: “Shun Li and the Poet”

The crux of the issue seems to be the degree of superimposition of one linguistic/cultural point of view on another. Is translation meant to be literal? Does the translator capture the sense of the original by some degree of transliteration (in this formula greater is better)? What degree is plausible? If you are speaking, for example, of a biblical text, and you are a philologist, perhaps the greatest degree of superimposition of one language on the other is most useful. You may be, say, less than fluent in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, and a ‘literal’ translation is productive — with hypertext links to every possible historical reference for each word: click on it and find a complete scholarly list of references. However, if you are trying to capture the sense and the context of the original, your translation is necessarily subjective to varying degrees. The translator ‘interprets’ and adds coloratura based on a more or less historic, or perhaps even simply subjective, view of the text and its collateral materials.

In the case of Shun Li, Andrea Segre is both author of the script and director. The text is the multi-layered interstitial encounter of the Yugoslav ‘poet,’ Bepi, with the Chinese immigrant, Shun Li, in the cultural context of twenty first-century Chioggia. In researching the linguistic and cultural background of the poet, Segre found it necessary to provide linguistic coaching for the actor Rade Šerbedžija. Although Croatian himself, Šerbedžija needed to speak the language of a fisherman who had spent thirty years with dialect-speaking provincials. Zhao Tao, the actress who portrays Shun Li, however, was not coached. In fact, her speech is the elegant Mandarin of an educated Chinese woman – not the character in the film, daughter of a fisherman from Fujian. Her Chinese voice in the film is as out of synch as Ethel Barrymore would have been if cast as “Fanny.”

Several other Chinese elements in the film are less than tenable and raise a series of questions. Is this just another case of Orientalism? If so, is the author/director guilty of some sort of sin-by-omission? Or from another point of view is this simply the interpretive license typically employed in most translations? And does the end somehow justify the means? While Edward Sapir’s cultural linguistics of more than a century ago defended the integrity and sovereignty of individual cultures, today we are interested in migrants and the new cultural context created in our world of ever-multiplying pockets of hybridity. Perhaps Segre’s film sacrifices (whether in good faith or not) the cultural and linguistic accuracy in favor of a moment of intercultural communication. In this paper I shall explore the theory and practice of translation and translatability, using the recent successful Italian film as an example.


Shirley Smith is Professor of Italian at Skidmore College where she teaches courses in Italian language, literature, and film. She also offers courses in Gender Studies (Italian Women and Intro to Gender Studies) and in First-Year Seminars  (British Love Affair with Italy: the Grand Tour and Italian Film in the New Millennium). She has published on Anna Maria Ortese, Francesca Duranti and Anna Banti. Her translation of “Lavinia fuggita” appears in Metamorphoses (2009). In 2012 her monograph on Italians in China (Imperial Designs) was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Her current research projects include completion of a translation of Camilla Salvago Raggi’s novel Dopo di me (Mursia 1967) and a book-length essay on “Reverse Colonialism: Made-in-Italy by Chinese Immigrants.”