Gay Jouissance: Queering the Representation of Same-sex Desire in 1990s Taiwan Literature

Written by Yahia Zhengtang Ma.

Image credit: Jacques Lacan, painted portrait by thierry ehrmann/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

The last decade of the twentieth century was an especially interesting time in the emergence of ‘tongzhi literature’. This genre consists of literary works that ‘deal with homosexuals and homosexuality’ in Taiwan when queer cinema was introduced to Taiwan via Hong Kong. The 1990s are widely considered the golden age of tongzhi literature, animated by such widely-celebrated literary works by Ta-wei Chi, Chu T’ien-wen, Qiu Miaojin, among many others. However, existing scholarship on this has primarily emphasised the complexity of the tongzhi identity, subjectivity, and discourse around tongzhi, tongxianglian and queer in solely its original Chinese texts through the lens of cultural studies and literary studies. The potentialities of a queer reading or a critical examination of same-sex desire within the emergence of Queer Translation Studies have yet to be elaborated. In this article, I briefly discuss how jouissance for same-sex male bodies represented in the 1990s tongzhi literature from Taiwan is queered and de-queered in its English translation.

The concept of jouissance has been aligned to Lacanian understanding of a phallic, pre-Symbolic, orgasmic, and ejaculatory form of pleasure, essentially dependent on a cis-gender and gender binarism notion of pleasure and desire. As jouissance, in Gareth Longstaff’s (2019) words, has ‘ideological, political, and subjective interpretations and, in this way, remains difficult and unruly’. Just as phallus and phallic enjoyment remain a focus of the examinations of jouissance, it counters to be defined, represented, and translated, thus questioning the name and nature of jouissance, its relation to desire, and its translation. My use of “gay jouissance” is not limited to discussions about the fulfilment of gratifying male same-sex desire through non-normative practices such as fetishism and sadomasochism. Given this, I expand analyses of queering and de-queering of intimacy, pleasure, affect, and pain-in-translation—which is restrained imaginatively, discursively, and representationally—under the influence of patriarchal, hierarchical-institutional norms and systems-in-translation.

Like the translation of jouissance and the translation of ‘gender’, if representation without affect is sterile, translation/representation of same-sex desire is castrated without recognising and creating queerness. In other words, bringing together jouissance and the representation of same-sex desire navigates it towards non-binary understandings of desire, thus moving beyond a set of dichotomies of source text vs target text in translation, dominant vs secondary language and culture, normality vs abnormality, pain vs pleasure, and dominance vs submissiveness. This move leads to questions of the queering of translation through exploring ‘the intimate connectedness between translation and queer aspects of sex, gender, and identity’ as argued by José Santaemilia (2018), investigating a ‘fuckable’ text to queer translation and how we think about translation. In this spirit, we can disentangle some of the established binarism around relationships between translation and sexuality, subject and object, and the textual and the corporeal, considering translation as a queer praxis or undermining the myth of monolingualism.

Perhaps arguably the greatest exemplar of tongzhi literature from the 1990s is Ta-wei Chi’s oeuvre. The Membranes by Ta-wei Chi, first published in 1996, has experienced a relatively long history of publication, re-publication, translation, and re-translation since the mid-1990s, some novellas from which have been translated into Japanese, English, French, and Swedish with a first English translation of the science fiction 膜 (The Membranes, 2021) by Ari Larissa Heinrich and the English translation of 1998 novella 嚎叫 (Howl, Ma, 2021) forthcoming in 2021. Chi, in the 1990s, joins Chang Hsiao-hung’s celebration of ‘commodity fetishism and the carnivalesque spirit of the queer movement’ in 1990s Taiwan (Liang-ya Liou, 2003). While challenging the normative binarism of sexuality and divides of sex and attending to the differences, Chi represents fetishism in a celebratory manner through fictional representations. Olfactophilia, a fetish where individuals derive sexual pleasure from smells and odours, is seductively and sensually depicted and has been accurately translated by translators such as Fran Martin and Chris Schifani, as evident in their well-crafted translation of the fetishistic, affective tones of desire for the carnal pleasures between males in The Scent of HIV (香皂1998), Intimacy (親密關係2014), and I am not Stupid (因爲我壯1998).For example, in I’m Not Stupid, the protagonist – named Tongqing – seems to oscillate between his intense desire for a fragrant scent and that of male body odour. However, he has fallen unconsciously for the sweating body of an intoxicated man, which is a great pleasure for him. This is a merry and gay jouissance that is not necessarily penetrative or ejaculatory. Martin’s translation preserves Chi’s queer thoughts to highlight the contradictory combination of the fragrant and the stinky smells, which counters the binarism of the pleasant and unpleasant odour of the male body. It marks a sense of jouissance that does not characterise libido in the Freudian sense of fetishism as sexual deviation or Lacanian jouissance and its pursuit. Instead, jouissance, in the text, demonstrates the significance of what the unspeakable/untranslatable jouissance implies and how it is potentially lost in translation.

Unlike Martin’s complete and ‘faithful’ translations of Chi’s queer texts, the translation of Chi’s Umbilicus from The Membranes, a story about an encounter between a male stripper and a half-transitioned transgender person, remains incomplete, or in other words, a translation that is however castrated. In addition to their removal of some nuanced depictions of the highly sexualised stripper’s breathing, chest, waist, and penis (which is referred to as “the pride” by the author), the translator Susan Wilf (2005) softens the sexualisation of the male body in addition to what can be called the glorification of the body as a sexual object gazed at and fantasised by his spectators of the same sex.

We see evidence that while some translations test and challenge standard translation practice by acknowledging queerness of same-sex desire in Taiwanese literature, some translations mis-recognising and minoritising same-sex desire and practices in translation, this means that not all translation of same-sex desire is necessarily queer, leading to the question of how desire can be queered and de-queered in translation. Certainly, analyses of same-sex desire and its fulfilment in translation work can provoke new sites for knowledge production and stimulate significant shifts in queering social identities and categories. In this spirit, I call for attention to consider translation as a ‘queer’ praxis when we work across languages and cultures. By queering translation, it does not mean to seek equivalences across linguistic borders but to rethink how we can disentangle some of the established binarism around relationships between translation and sexuality, the source-target equivalence binarism in translation, question long-established gender roles and heteronormative sexuality, and undermine the regime of homolingual address and the model of heterolingual address.

*This work is part of the author’s PhD research project funded by the Melbourne Research Scholarship, The University of Melbourne.

Yahia Zhengtang Ma is a PhD student at the Asia Institute at The University of Melbourne. His critical work has appeared or is forthcoming in Melbourne Asia Review, Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, American Journal of Chinese Studies and elsewhere. His English translation of Ta-wei Chi’s 1998 novella Howl is forthcoming in Queer Taiwanese Literature: A reader edited by Howard Chiang with Cambria Press in 2021.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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