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Monday, 3 March 2008

Xiaolu Guo - 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

Not only is Xiaolu Guo a wonderful writer, she's also a funny and intelligent speaker. I saw her at the Bath Literature Festival yesterday, talking about A Conscise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers and her new book, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth.

The Dictionary is concerned with the detached nature of language, or more specifically the English language, and the way the emotional elements have been abstracted from the language and, as a result, from life. She contrasted this with Chinese, which has characters that represent a definite ideal (Chinese red is not the same as English red was the example she gave). I think the same is the case in English, though, and from Plato through to Kant, Wittgenstein and beyond, in whose philosophies words and concepts have their representational ideals existing in mystery worlds that root our transitory lives and language in some kind of solid and absolute entity.

Indeed! Most interesting was the dilemma of translation of the Dictionary - a book written in "badly written" English (and of course it's well-written "badly-written" English). How can it be translated into Chinese where the badly-writtenness is nearly impossible to translate. The solution is to have both versions in the book - one page English next to one page Chinese. Which makes the book impossibly thick. It's being published in Taiwan next month.

The writer is living in France now and commented that due to the obsessive French protection of their language, the Dictionary would be impossible to write in French, a language that doesn't have the open-ended flexibility that English has ( a flexibility that English speakers across the world accept in such a matter of fact manner).

I haven't read 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth yet (but will soon - my wife has it at the moment) , but it looks beautiful, with each chapter starting with one of Xiaolu's pictures of Beijing in the midst of development - art photography cliche. They're pretty good pictures and they set the scene and create a visual imagery for the reader to follow.

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