The Word for Water – Michigan Quarterly Review
zao wou-ki nature morte watercolor painting

The Word for Water

Nonfiction by Nancy Au for MQR Online.

The Turkish translator Aron Aji[1] describes how speaking a new language feels like “losing your voice or embarking on a journey; that it is scary to not know what you are saying, what others are saying; afraid you and your language will become a memory, and that you could lose the memory of you.” Aji’s words speak to the heart of why I respect individuals who emigrate to other countries, and why I am so interested in understanding the linguistic struggles of my relatives that fled to the United States in the 1950s to escape the Cultural Revolution.

I grew up as a monolinguist in a multilingual household. My interest in translation derives from witnessing how meaning thrives within the liminal linguistic space between words. For writers and translators, this space is uniquely fraught. As a monolinguist, I approach the question of translation through my explorations into understanding how we hold and use the languages that we do. I am interested in investigating what fluency in multiple languages means to others, and I want to understand what it means to people of color to thrive in a world with expectations about what it means to be a person of color.


In Yiyun Li’s heart-wrenching essay in The New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” the bilingual author describes why she writes only in English, and about her choice to disown her mother tongue. “Like all intimacies,” she writes, “the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can be comforting and irreplaceable…yet it can also demand more than what one is willing to give, or more than one is capable of giving.”

Li’s essay expresses what it means to move like water between continents, and touches on the scars that language carries. I’m reminded of my mother, who vowed for years never to return to China, or to even visit her first home in San Francisco’s Chinatown where she immigrated as a teenager. She wanted her children to speak English without a Chinese accent, and like Li, had the same “violent desire to erase a life in a native language.” She held the belief that “language is capable of sinking a mind.”

Although my mother eventually became a U.S. citizen fluent in English, she couldn’t erase the legacy of her parents’ antiquated beliefs, ones that not only prevented her from attending college because of her gender, but prevented her from inheriting after their deaths. When my mother was alive, I often asked about her life in China. My question was met with the same three responses: You are lucky you were not born on a farm, like me; China is where you learned what hard work really means; or, Don’t ask. Just be grateful.

Over the years, I have come to believe this was her way of saying that she wanted the best for me, that she did not want her children to feel the same hurt and pain that she did growing up. The word for love was one that my mother rarely spoke, a word I do not know if she knew how to say.

Li’s essay made me question what it means to subsist without your mother tongue, when for some, like Li, one might try to kill the language within. For others, like myself, one might have been encouraged to renounce their mother tongue, discouraged from reaching their fullest linguistic and cultural potential in the hopes of avoiding discrimination.

In writing this, I wonder whether I even have the right to ask this of my mother’s memory. Her difficult history in China, her struggles with her parents — these are her own and no one else’s. It is her right to forget, to bury, to withhold, to re-forge.

And yet, I inherited her scars.

Li writes:

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction. What language, I wonder, does one use to feel? Or does one need a language to feel?… It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language. Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language.

I wonder whether my mother did not say more because she could not. She only spoke to me in her adopted language, in a language that she both chose and did not have a choice to choose. I wonder, now, of all the stories she might have told had I worked harder to defy her, to learn her native language. I wonder how much more I have lost of my mother because I could not truly speak to her.


Last year, I co-translated a poem with my 96-year-old grandmother in an effort to explore how to use Chinese language in my fiction writing. I wanted to understand how translation (and the gift of growing up in a home with multilingual speakers) could enrich my prose and poetry writing.

I am interested in both poetry and prose, often writing in a world that stretches the already messy line between the genres. I love to use poetry cut-ups to play around with syntax, and to create word-pairings for my short stories and flash fiction. I think about how translators perform similar gymnastics, and I see a playfulness and flexibility with language that I envy when listening to multilinguists speak. My grandmother, who recently passed away, spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, Toi-san, Shanghainese, and English — each of them fluently. She used words in lyrical and playful ways that required me to use cut-ups, erasures, and all sorts of poetic constraints to even attempt to try to achieve.

“Bring me my glasses,” she once asked of me. “I like to enlarge things, you know.” Enlarge! I would never have thought to use that word in that context without a cut-up.

The poem my grandmother and I collaborated to translate was “How Can a Spirit Tree Fall Asleep Among the Fear,” written by the contemporary Chinese poet Huang Jianpin (黄江嫔) who goes by the penname An Qi (安琪). Over the course of four hours, I pointed to dozens of Chinese characters and asked my grandmother dozens of times, “What does this mean?” She would tell me over and over in response, “You can’t just exchange one word for another word.” Each character, she explained, tells a story.

Li writes: “One’s relationship with the native language is similar to that with the past. Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would.”

The experience of translating a poem with my grandmother was like speaking with an old, dear friend, someone I hadn’t seen for a long time, someone I once knew very well. Imagine walking along a lake with such a friend; as you kick the coarse sand and skip pebbles into the water, she tries to explain how losing her childhood dog felt fifty years ago. In her explanation, she uses sensory details, inside jokes, and idioms, and she describes her complicated feelings of grief. And, yet, with each word she uses to explain another word, with each word you try to hold in your mind, it is like trying to hold water in your hands: you practice and listen, practice and listen, yet still you lose the word for water, the word for hand, the word for word


Li writes:

In the summer and autumn of 2012, I was hospitalized in California and in New York for suicide attempts, the first time for a few days, and the second time for three weeks. During those months, my dreams often took me back to Beijing. I would be standing on top of a building — one of those gray, Soviet-style apartment complexes — or I would be lost on a bus travelling through an unfamiliar neighborhood. Waking up, I would list in my journal images that did not appear in my dreams: a swallow’s nest underneath a balcony, the barbed wires at the rooftop, the garden where old people sat and exchanged gossip, the mailboxes at street corners — round, green, covered by dust, with handwritten collection times behind a square window of half-opaque plastic.

I find Li’s words meaningful for multiple reasons; first, and most importantly, because of the way in which she courageously and generously makes herself vulnerable by sharing her suicide attempts. Secondly, because her description encapsulates so much of how I interpret the translation process regarding what fragments get left behind.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that all languages carry other languages. As my grandmother tried to teach me, there’s no such thing as a one-to-one relationship with words. The translator and poet Andrew Joron describes this when he says there are “clouds of connotations, and that this cloud expands and expands into an infinite spiral.”[2] In other words, language is limitless. Language, like translation, is a constant negotiation. Without singular one-to-one meanings, when we share our dreams and memories with others, we might share that we were standing on top of a Soviet-style building, or that we were traveling on a bus, but we might not be able to explain in the same breath what it meant to see familiar mailboxes on corners, what it meant to leave home or see summer turn to autumn, the leaves changing from green to gold and red — or even what it meant to dream in the hospital after attempting to commit suicide.

From a craft perspective, the experience of translating poetry with my grandmother reinforced my love of writing. It has made me work harder at my poetry, dig deeper into my flash fiction, and it has encouraged me to learn more about the practice of translation — all tasks that rely on omission, on choosing what to bring with you and what to leave behind. In both flash fiction and poetry, the writer is challenged with constraints that push them to do daring, non-intuitive, nonlinear things with syntax, punctuation, and grammar. The wordplay one engages in through cut-ups and erasures is incredibly liberating, and learning more about the process of translation validated the practice for me.

Translation, like my grandmother’s glasses, enlarged all the things in my world.


Li’s yearning for solitude in language conveys an idea I deeply respect. I barely breathe when she writes:

In an ideal world, I would prefer to have my mind reserved for thinking, and thinking alone. I dread the moment when a thought trails off and a feeling starts, when one faces the eternal challenge of eluding the void for which one does not have words. To speak when one cannot is to blunder. I have spoken by having written — this piece or any piece — for myself and against myself. The solace is with the language I chose. The grief, to have spoken at all.

The essay prompts questions I’ll continue to ask myself as a first-generation Chinese American, as a writer, artist, queer woman, and educator: What does my Chinese heritage mean? What does it mean for me, a monolinguist, to utilize Chinese words in my fiction? Is this a form of cultural appropriation, and to that end, what is culture? Is culture the way I look, the language I speak, food I eat or the clothes I wear? Is culture the way I worship, the histories of my ancestors? Is heritage carried on the skin, the tongue?

What I do know is that just as my mother had hoped for her children, I have benefitted from the privilege that comes with being a native English speaker in the United States. I am not afraid of being teased for having an accent, or for using words in unique and interesting ways. And yet, I understand that I will never know what stories my mother was unable or unwilling to pass down to me. The translation of my own mother is incomplete, unfaithful to the woman she truly was, the woman that I did not wholly know.

And so to the spirits of my mother and grandmother, I speak this truth and comfort in the only language I know: you were loved, you were loved, you were loved.


Author’s note: This essay was adapted from a presentation delivered at the 2018 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa, Florida. My co-panelists for Writing as Migration included the brilliant May-lee Chai, Ploi Pirapokin, and Achy Obejas, who spoke to the different ways translators carry the scars of history, intersecting cultures and languages under their skin. Our panel described varying forms of resistance that subsist and thrive within the art of translation, and how language reflects the unequal power dynamics of the world. We discussed how we have approached translating the untranslatable, and the different situations and reasons that we’ve resisted translation.

[1] Aji translates Turkish literature and presented on a panel, The Immigrant as Translator, at AWP 2017.

[2] From Andrew Joron’s Theory of Translation seminar at San Francisco State University, Spring 2017.

Image: Wou-Ki, Zao. “Nature Morte.” 1953. Ink and watercolor on paper. Private collection.

Nancy Au’s writing appears in Tahoma Literary Review, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Lunch Ticket, SmokeLong Quarterly, Foglifter, and Forge Literary Magazine, among others. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She is co-founder of The Escapery, and in the summer she teaches creative writing (to biology majors!) at California State University Stanislaus. Her flash fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books in Spring 2019.

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