Translating Addiction? Some Speculations*

Many scholars of drugs and alcohol that are engaged in comparative work within plural linguistic environments are already aware of the problems of translation. The encounter with compilations of mistranslated signs and slogans that many of us may have had in our first language courses have constituted some of our earliest brushes with the pitfalls of translation. (E.g.: Bangkok Dry Cleaner’s sign: “Drop your trousers here for best results” or an earlier version of KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan—“Eat your fingers off” 吃掉你的手指头.[1]) Translation, it seems, can be dangerous.

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Identified as in Shanghai, but likely a sign for Beijing’s Ethnic Culture Park.

In terms of problematizing translation, Lydia Liu’s Translingual Practice (1995) might be helpful in thinking about its effects on the knowledge that we produce. Liu defines translingual practice as “the process by which new words, meanings, discourses, and modes of representation arise, circulate, and acquire legitimacy within the host language due to, or in spite of, the latter’s contact/collision with the guest language. Meanings, therefore, are not so much ‘transformed’ when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter” (26). (Emphasis mine.)

It is an extremely reductive gesture, but perhaps within the limits of this blog post, we can think of the concerns over translation or translingual practice as anxieties over two interrelated problems: what gets lost in translation? And what gets created in translation? There is, of course, an enormous body of literature ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida regarding the complexities of translation and its impossibilities that we’re not going to get into here. So, bracketing larger questions of “truth” and the acts of power involved in the search for perfect equivalencies, let’s situate the problem of translation in the context of a more quotidian grind—the pragmatic slog of gathering data and writing.

Varying language abilities further complicate efforts to think about translation and scholarly enterprise. Although some researchers have language abilities that match their field of interest, there are many of us who work with local cultural intermediaries or in multiple fieldwork sites where substantive language acquisition poses an impossible investment. So, my question to our readers is: what are the problems of translingual practice concerning drugs and alcohol that you have encountered in your research? And what are some best practices that you have found helpful?

One imagines that the problems of translation weigh more heavily upon the study of drugs and alcohol than on most fields. Psychoactive substances were not simply some of the earliest global commodities; the circulation of drugs was also accompanied by a globalization of narco-discourse. Tracing the genealogy of the characters, 中毒 (ch. zhongdu) suggests that that word did not become coterminous with what we may imagine as “addiction” until the turn of the twentieth century in East Asia. Prior to the medicalization of addiction, these characters were used in strikingly different ways. Zhongdu can be literally translated as: “to be poisoned.” However, if we look at the use of these characters in eighteenth-century Korean documents, those who smoked ‘too much’ tobacco are described as being ‘poisoned’ as are those who might have also eaten too much of any substance.[2] Hence, it seems that the intellectual divisions between “excess,” “poison,” and its later incarnation, “addiction” were quite porous until transnational and translingual shifts in meaning in the early twentieth-century. In this example, we can see that the meaning of zhongdu, commonly translated as “addiction” is not historically stable. Also, since the word has a different intellectual history, zhongdu is at best a functional equivalent that is never completely congruent with the English term, “addiction.” Ultimately, what comparative scholars face is a globalized landscape of meaning, where even a common word like “addiction” can be disaggregated into multiple “addictions,” each with its own  local history, and with its own contribution in shaping a worldwide discourse of drugs.

Translation is also political. The word for opium, 鴉片(ch. yapian) is clearly a loanword  in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Lexical borrowing occupies a strange space in cultural discourse because such words are identifiably Other, often foreign. Although these phrases may circulate in daily usage, they retain their difference. Such distinctions can be observed in our own mangled borrowing of “laissez faire” or “raison d’etre” in English. The foreignness of this word has perpetuated the myth that opium was a scourge that arrived with Western imperialism in the nineteenth-century. As recent work has shown, it had merely gone by other names before assuming the mantle of “yapian” (Zheng Yangwen 2005, Dikotter et. al 2004). And, the linguistic is political in that twentieth-century Chinese states (the Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)) have made competing claims to legitimacy that created equivalencies between opium consumption and the loss of sovereignty. Interestingly, these nationalist narratives also posited each regime as the architect of restoration. The foreignness of ‘yapian‘ continues to feed the PRC’s nationalistic “century of humiliation” narrative, whereby its current meteoric rise is also offered as a corrective to the diminished sovereignty and foreign wrongs that it suffered in the nineteenth-century.

So readers, what are your thoughts on the politics of translation in drug and alcohol studies?

*With apologies to linguists everywhere.


[1] Later, 咂手指头. On the Q&A section of Baidu, a popular Chinese language search engine, you can also observe parallel curiosity about the meaning of the English phrase,“finger lickin’ good” http://zhidao.baidu.com/question/377954290.html

[2] Prior to the early twentieth-century, Classical Chinese or Literary Sinitic was the ‘Latin’ or dominant public script of this region. See Yi Ok (1760-1815)’s The Record of Tobacco.

4 thoughts on “Translating Addiction? Some Speculations*

  1. Prior to the medicalization of the word “addiction” it was used in English in many ways unrelated to drugs. Examples from Oxford English Dictionary for years 1577 – 1925 are compiled at

    http://www.maps.org/pipermail/maps_forum/2001-January/003204.html

    Its modern English usage is becoming political, as the word is used to express disapproval of some substances. Increasingly it is a philosophical claim about the human competence and self control of users of disapproved substances.

  2. In the 1930s and 40s, when opium smoking in the U.S. was more prevalent than now, the dregs of the opium was referred to as “Yen shi.” The poorest addicts would collect the blackened, almost crystallized dregs others left behind, and smoke.them. The high was weak, and even worse, the remaining alkaloids caused severe constipation. The phrase “Yen shi baby” was born — literally. I first heard the phrase in the mid-1950s, from old time addicts who had been using opium and heroin since the 30s. The pronunciation of “yen shi” by Chinese cannot be replicated easily by the English tongue, and almost all Chinese I have queried have no knowledge of this meaning of the phrase.

  3. @John French: without seeing the characters, it’s hard to know what “yen shi” might mean. You might have to find a Canto speaker as Cantonese (~same characters, different pronunciation) was common at that time among US Asian populations. Opium was sometimes called “da yan (大煙)” or “great smoke,” but that pronunciation is Mandarin. This is the first time I’ve heard about “yen shi baby”–was this from Asian-American smokers?

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