Caught Between Zodiacs: A Capricorn Daughter Remembers Her Translator Father

The border between one year and the next slowly unfurls; the first day of the new year wrapping its arms around the globe with Tonga celebrating first, and then moving westward across all the continents, reaching American Samoa last. A crooked seam bisects the Pacific Ocean, separating today from tomorrow.

Long ago, I accepted the fragmentation of time zones and the strangeness of a phone call in which Tuesday can talk to Wednesday. Living in a different country from my parents, the time difference was just another border we crossed without a second thought.

My dad and I were both born in January, thirty-four years apart. January is named for Janus, the Roman god of time, beginnings, endings, and transitions; of passages, doorways, and gates. His two faces represent duality, looking in opposite directions toward the past and future. According to Western astrology, we’re Capricorns—pragmatic, serious, deskbound. You can count on us, just like you can count on New Year’s Day always being on January 1.

But if you look at the lunar calendar—used by Taiwan and other Asian nations to determine holidays—Lunar New Year is more fluid. It skips around, landing somewhere between late January and late February. In the lunar calendar, our birthdays are at the end of the year, not the beginning.

I am fascinated by the mismatch of these two systems, the fact that we can occupy two temporal spaces simultaneously, existing in a liminal zone that is transitional and transnational, belonging to both and neither. This zone can serve as a bridge, but it can also be a point of misunderstanding.

I am fascinated by the mismatch of these two systems, the fact that we can occupy two temporal spaces simultaneously, existing in a liminal zone that is transitional and transnational, belonging to both and neither.

I asked a friend if there’s a name for someone who is born during the overlap of the Western and lunar year. She said that we would be considered the “tail” of our Chinese zodiac sign. Think of a year as an animal that stretches across twelve months. In the Gregorian calendar, January is the head and December is the tail. In the lunar calendar, February is the head and January is the tail.

My dad was born in 1935, the Year of the Pig, but January would be considered the tail of the previous year, the Year of the Dog. I was born in 1969, the Year of the Rooster, but January is the tail of the Year of the Monkey.

I wonder if there’s a mythological creature that combines these attributes; I try searching online, but the closest I can find is a qilin, an auspicious horned beast with the features of a dragon, ox, and lion. Perhaps a more fitting metaphor would be the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake curled into a loop eating its own tail, the two ends joined in a continuous cycle of beginning and ending, of duality dissolving into unity.

Symbols fill the space where language fails. As the daughter of a translator and a child of diaspora, I’m often at a loss for words, stumbling over the edges and gaps where we switch from one system to another, where we lack a perfect translation or direct equivalent. I would give you an example, but I can’t find one I am satisfied with. I am terrified of getting it wrong.

I have written and rewritten this paragraph over and over because the hardest thing to write about is what you don’t know. How do I explain that living in two cultures is both abundance and loss at the same time? How do I describe the things I miss from another place and time when I don’t have words for them?

I wish I could consult my dad on this—he would know what to say. Now that he’s gone, I don’t know how to write across this divide, how to navigate all that he knew that I’ll never know. But I can tell you about who he was.

My dad was a middle child in a large family—the third of six sons, the fifth of ten children of a Presbyterian minister and missionary who traveled for months at a time spreading the gospel to the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. He grew up wearing hand-me-downs and jostling for an extra bite of rice at a crowded dinner table.

Once, he told me, my grandpa bought a brick of peanut brittle that he intended to cut into pieces and sell for a profit at the market the next day. The children, unaccustomed to the luxury of sweets but fearful of their dad’s wrath, snuck into the kitchen and took turns licking the peanut brittle with eager, furtive tongues, thinking he wouldn’t notice as the block became sticky and lost its shape.

Like many of his generation, my dad was fluent in three languages by the time he went to high school. His mother tongue was Taiwanese Hokkien, which originated with immigrants from Fujian province who settled in Taiwan starting in the seventeenth century.

When my dad was growing up, Taiwanese was mainly spoken in private with family members at home. Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, so my dad’s second language was Japanese, the official language of business, education, and the media. His schooling up until World War II ended was conducted entirely in Japanese, and he and his siblings called each other by their Japanese nicknames from childhood well into their old age.

The flight duration is identical, but the experience is asymmetrical; my body sags with an unnamed ache when going toward a place where my dad no longer waits for me, where I am still learning to speak for myself.

The third language he learned was Mandarin, which became the official language after Japan surrendered in World War II and the Republic of China took control of Taiwan. After Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) army arrived in 1949, Taiwanese Hokkien and indigenous languages were banned by the Kuomintang to consolidate power, and they remained underground for nearly four decades under martial law.

It was not until my dad was in college in the late 1950s that he began to seriously study English. His Christian faith and ability to master the fourth (and most difficult) language distinguished him from his peers and set him on a trajectory that led to graduate school in the United States and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. He would go on to become an expert in Bible translation.

My dad mastered four languages before I was even born. He navigated far beyond what he could have imagined as the impoverished son of an itinerant minister in colonial-era Taiwan, traveling the world to supervise translation projects that took him from Canadian First Nations reservations to the islands of Micronesia and everywhere in between. I wonder if he knew that the great distances he traveled and the struggles he overcame would one day make it harder for his daughter to find her way back.

I once interviewed my dad about his Bible translation work. He said that interpretation was the first step—referring back to and explaining the meaning of the original text (in this case, Greek or Hebrew)—and translation was the second step, explaining into the target language. “What language is the interpretation done in?” I asked him.

He said that it would normally be in the target language, but sometimes a third language is needed when the translator doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew. The interpretation is produced in a third language, such as English or Chinese, and then translated from the third language into the target language.

Many of the projects my dad oversaw were translations into various indigenous languages in China and Taiwan, and he was often the final editor and arbiter of the translation, checking the drafts against the original Hebrew or Greek. A circular process, ending where it began.

In 1960, when my dad boarded an airplane for the first time, it took twenty-seven hours to fly from Taipei to New York, with refueling stops in Oakland, where I live now, and somewhere in the Pacific, probably Hawaii. Today I can make that same trip nonstop in sixteen hours.

Although the miles are the same no matter which direction I fly, the psychic distance is greater when I travel to Taiwan. I lose a day in transit and feel like I can never catch up. The flight duration is identical, but the experience is asymmetrical; my body sags with an unnamed ache when going toward a place where my dad no longer waits for me, where I am still learning to speak for myself.

I tell myself the journey will get easier. If time and words are not fixed in stone, maybe there is a version of my life where I am not too late, a translation that will make me whole. Maybe the language where I live is not the end point but an interval—a rest stop on the way home.


Excerpted The Translator’s Daughter by Grace Loh Prasad, published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press. This essay originally appeared in KHÔRA.

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