Girl in Translation and the Choices We Make

BlogHer Review

I’m going to pretend the last forty pages or so of Girl in Translation didn’t happen.

Let me explain.

I had plucked Jean Kwok's debut novel from my reading stack to take on a family vacation, but instead ended up staying awake far too late the night before we left to read Kimberly (Ah-Kim) Chang’s story. Kim and her widowed mother immigrate to from Hong Kong when Kim is eleven years old only to find their a new life in New York is far more difficult than anything they imagined. The housing promised them by her mother’s sister, Aunt Paula, turns out to be a nearly unlivable vermin-infested apartment. The work promised in Aunt Paula’s factory turns out to be backbreaking hours for both mother and daughter in sweatshop conditions. Kim struggles to navigate a new language and culture at an unwelcoming school. It is brutal and seemingly hopeless, until Kim’s brilliant mind earns her a place at an exclusive private school.

As anyone who speaks more than one language knows, something subtle always changes in the process translation. Languages are so filled with symbolism and culture that a text can never be exactly duplicated in another language; every word choice brings with it the possibility of losing something of the original tone or meaning, or of inadvertently adding something new. And so it is with Kim as she shifts between her different worlds every day, morphing into different versions of herself at school and work and home. In each context she is Kim, but Kim translated: subtly different, with something lost and gained with each successive decision about how to present herself. I was drawn in as Kim confronted the shame and despair of seemingly inescapable poverty, constantly needing to balance the elite school where she hides her family’s hardships from her privileged peers with the factory where she hides her school uniform from a manipulative aunt and misunderstanding co-workers.

Which is why the ending—a clumsy, weak closing chapter and epilogue that, for me, undercut the rest of the novel—was so disappointing. Kimberly’s dogged determination through all the chapters before deserved more than soap opera twists and a tacked-on coda.

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