Volume 16, No. 1 
January 2012

  Wing Bo Tso (Anna W.B. Tso)


Front Page

  Translation Journal

Book Review

Engaged Translation

Submerged Gender Ideology in the Chinese Version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

by Dr. Anna W.B. Tso


According to Tymoczko, ‘[t]ranslations are inevitably partial…This partiality is not merely a defect, a lack, or an absence in a translation—it is also an aspect that makes the act of translation partisan: engaged and committed, either implicitly or explicitly’ (2000, p.24). This view is well supported by the alterations that occur in the Chinese translated text of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995—2000).

n this paper, I will examine how the notions of genderlessness and formlessness of Guan Yin (觀音), the popular Buddhist prophet, are implicitly fused into the Chinese version of Pullman’s work. First, the paper starts by giving an introduction to the Buddhist notions of gender. The genderlessness and formlessness of Guan Yin will be looked into, and a comparison between Guan Yin and Pullman’s invention, i.e. the daemons, will be made with reference to Judith Butler’s notion of performativity.

Next, by using illustrative examples, I will demonstrate how Wang Jing, the Chinese translator, introduces Guan Yin’s genderlessness through various translation strategies, such as the creative translation of pronouns, the ellipsis of pronouns, and other translation skills that bring in Buddhist views of gender.

1. Introduction: Background of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and its Chinese Translation

As a text begins to be interpreted and translated, its original ideology, values and norms will be shifted, diminished or lost, and new ideas might be added.
Among notable children’s books in recent years, Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials (1995—2000) is considered one of the most prominent. The last volume, The Amber Spyglass, published in 2000, won numerous prestigious prizes, including the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in January 2002 (the first children’s book to receive the award). In 2003, the series took the third place in the BBC’s Big Read Poll. Later on in 2005, Pullman was also announced as joint winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children’s literature (‘His Dark Materials’ in Wikipedia, 2008). The novel was then made into a motion picture. The first episode was shown in cinemas worldwide in December 2007.

One of the most fascinating elements of Pullman’s trilogy is the invention of daemons. Daemons, as described in the trilogy, are the visible and tangible animal counterparts of human souls. As Squires notes, daemons “reflect the character of their human, but also…can act as a restraint, setting up an externalized internal dialogue.” (2003: 25) From a feminist perspective, one notable feature of Pullman’s daemons is that the appearances of children’s daemons change, while adults’ daemons remain only in one animal form. The different animal forms manifested by children’s daemons can be read as the multiple, fluid expressions of the ‘Self’. When a daemon gradually stops changing and remains in one form, it indicates that the person may have fixated in one identity expression and have it solidified in the unchanging appearance of his/her daemon.

The fluid form of children’s daemons becomes more interesting as Wong Jing, the award-winning and professional children’s books translator, translated Pullman’s books into Chinese. In the Chinese version, the translator implicitly adds the idea of form transformation and genderlessness of Guan Yin, the Buddha of Compassion (Li: 2006), who is well-known for the supernatural power of taking on any gender and form to expound Buddhist faith (Xing: 1999).

With the objective of investigating how engaged translation may alter the meaning conveyed in the original text, this paper examines the notions of genderlessness and formlessness of Guan Yin that are fused into the Chinese translated text of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I will look into the representations of Pullman’s daemons in the Chinese translation of His Dark Materials. . . The translation strategies that Huang Jing, the Chinese translator uses to introduce Guan Yin’s genderlessness will be analyzed and discussed. However, before starting the comparative study of the source text and the target text, in the following, I will give an introduction to the Buddhist notions of gender, as well as the fluid physical and gender forms of Guan Yin.

2. Buddhist Notions of Gender

Buddhism today is well-known for its humanistic elements such as tolerance and equality (Barua, 2008). However, the notion of equality between men and women developed only when religion entered the Chinese culture (Xu and Huang 2006). According to Shi (2005),, early Buddhist scriptures are not only full of negative associations of women, but also misogynist sentiments. Women’s status used to be so low that often they were compared to inferior life forms such as beasts and demons. In “the Tale of King Udayana of Vatsa” in Maharatnakuta Sutra, it is claimed that:

Women can ruin the precepts of purity. They can also ignore honor and virtue…As the filth and decay of a dead dog or dead snake are burned away, so all men should burn filth and detest evil. The dead snake and dog are detestable, but women are even more detestable than they are (Paul (trans.) 1979: 27—50; Sponberg 1992: 21).

Moreover, Buddhists believed that women were not qualified to become a Buddha because of their sins and impurity; men who want to become a Buddha should avoid contact with women. In The Cullavagga, women are described as “cunning, tricky thieves, stay with them and you can’t see the truth).” (取巧多智的賊,和她們同在一塊兒,真理就很難找得着) (Li, 2001: 311). Similarly, in The Law Code of Manu (1871 - 1941), the most authoritative and the best-known legal text of ancient Indiamen, men are warned of the evil nature of women:

Seducing men and leading them to the fall are the nature of women…on earth, women can tempt not only the foolish ones, but also gentlemen to stray away from the right path, making them become the slaves of love and flesh.

誘使男子墮落是婦女的天性,……因為在人世間,婦女不但可以使愚者,而且也可以使賢者悖離正道,使之成為愛情和肉欲的俘虜 (1980: 50)。

It was believed that women, trapped by their evil nature, are not capable of reaching the state of Nirvana. To reach Nirvana and become a Buddhist, a woman must work hard and do good deeds in her life. Then, in her next life, she will have a chance to become a man, who can then follow the right path and start his journey to Nirvana (Shi, 2005: 156).

3. Guan Yin, the Genderless Buddha of Compassion

The biased view in Buddhist belief changed as changes in the representations of Guan Yin took place. Xing (1999) points out that in Avatamsaka Sutra of the Huayan School, Guan Yin was portrayed as “a brave, courageous man” (勇猛丈夫) in the second century B.C. However, as Buddhism became popular with Chinese believers in the eighth to tenth centuries B.C., Guan Yin has almost always appeared in the form of a charming lady. What is interesting is that Guan Yin today may look like a female, but is in fact “非男非女” (neither male nor female); at the same time, “亦男亦女” (both male and female) (Jiang, 2006: 247). This Buddhist prophet is believed to have the wisdom of seeing through the superficial surface of gender and form. Freed from the restrictions of gender, Guan Yin can take on any gender and physical form to save beings from suffering and ignorance. The following is a description of the formlessness of Guan Yin by Li Ao (2001), a renowned Chinese writer and scholar in Taiwan:

Guan Yin has no form of his / her own. The manifestation of Guan Yin occurs in the corporeal forms of everything and everybody. Hence, Guan Yin is not male or female. Guan Yin is also both male and female. Guan Yin can be male or female. When he wants to become a man, he’s a man. When she wants to become a woman, she’s a woman. Besides having the ability to transform interchangeably as a male or a female anytime, anyplace, Guan Yin can also take the form of birds, animals, and beings of any kind, including the form of a green dragon, a white tiger, even you and me.

觀音是無形的,他要靠「現眾身」— 在大眾身上顯現—來表示自己。所以不男不女、亦男亦女、可男可女、要男就男、要女就女。不但如此男女自如、雌雄隨意,他還可以化為飛禽走獸、化為青龍白虎、化為你和我。(2001: 97)

What is remarkable is that unlike the incorporeal Holy Spirit in common Christian belief, Guan Yin’s fluid forms are corporeal and tangible. This feature is clearly demonstrated in the legend of “Guan Yin with the fish basket” in the Tang Dynasty, where it is said that Guan Yin transformed into a beautiful maiden who sold fish in the countryside. Interestingly, Guan Yin is portrayed as the sexual object of desire in the story. Moreover, special attention is paid to the early death of the maiden, her dead body, and its subsequent miraculous transformation... Below is a retelling written by Bagyalakshimi, an Indian scholar (1998),

Just as the marriage ceremony was to commence the girl took ill and died. Soon after the burial an old priest visited Ma Lang and requested him to dig up the grave. The coffin contained only pieces of golden bones. The old priest said that the girl was a manifestation of Guanyin who had come to lead people to salvation. After saying this the old man too vanished. From then on the people of the district became Guanyin devotees.

It is impressive to see how Guan Yin, with a body of flesh and bone, can rise above the corporeal level. Through Guan Yin, the corporeal form and gender are understood as ‘empty forms’. Buddhist believers are expected to try the best they can to learn how to see beyond the corporeal form (including gender) and perceive it as ever-changing, so that they will be free from stubbornness, and finally overcome all suffering and calamity.

4. Pullman’s Daemons in the Chinese Version: Guan Yin Incarnate?

On reading the one and only one Chinese version of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, I find that on the level of story plot, the translator has made an effort to be loyal to the source text. Yet, ideological alterations mostly occur subtly on the level of discourse. Implicitly, the translator engages in importing Guan Yin’s notions of genderlessness into the translated text in the descriptions of daemons. Next, I will examine how the Chinese translator manipulates the source text to make it carry the Buddhist gender notions as manifested in Guan Yin.

4.1. Inherent ‘Guan Yin’ Nature in Pullman’s Daemons Magnified

In Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995—2000), there are several parallel universes co-existing. In the world of Lyra Belacqua, the female protagonist, all humans possess a body, a daemon/soul, a ghost and a death. While the body is capable of sensing the world around it, the daemon/soul is the part capable of loving the world around it. The ghost, on the other hand, is for learning about the world. When a person dies, his/her daemon fades away, whereas his/her ghost lives on, and a death will lead the ghost to the underworld. While the idea of personal daemons is derived from Greek and Roman philosophy (Levison 1995), a similar saying about humans can be found in Chinese culture. As Xu (2005), a scholar who studies Chinese mythology and philosophy recounts:

Humans consist of three kinds of yun [ghosts] and seven types of pa [spirits], together with the body, a being with wisdom and life is formed…the seven types of pa are happiness, anger, sadness, fear, love, hatred and desires. Yun [ghost] is metaphysical in nature but pa [spirit] belongs to the physical world. Hence, when a person dies, his / her three ghosts continue their way [to heaven, underworld and the grave], but his / her seven spirits follow the flesh and dissipate.

人類本來就有三魂七魄形成一個有智慧活動的肉體…七魄有:喜、怒、哀、懼、愛、惡、慾。三魂在於精神中;七魄在於物質。所以人身去世,三魂歸三線路,七魄歸肉體消失。 (79)

Comparing Pullman’s inventions with the traditional Chinese myth, the similarity between ‘ghost’ and yun, as well as ‘daemon’ and pa becomes apparent. The Chinese translator may well borrow the equivalent terms yun (魂) andpa (魄) when translating for the terms ‘ghost’ and ‘daemon’ respectively. However, in the translated text, only yun (魂) is used for ‘ghost’. Pa (魄) is discarded and a new term “守護精靈” (guardian creature) is invented for ‘daemon’ instead. The question at issue is: why does the translator use”守護精靈” (guardian creature), a term that does not originate in the source text? Before the discussion, we may first consider the translation theorist, Gouanvic’s idea of habitus, or the set of socially constructed, acquired patterns of thought, behaviour and taste:

If a translator imposes a rhythm upon the text, a lexicon or a syntax that does not originate in the source text and thus substitutes his or her voice for that of the author, this is essentially not a conscious strategic choice but an effect of his or her specific habitus, as acquired in the target literary field (2005: 158).

Judging from a single example, it is hard to say whether the variation in the translated text is due to the effect of the translator’s specific habitus. Nonetheless, the translation of daemons as “守護精靈” (guardian creature) instead of pa (魄) has, in Gouanvic’s words, ‘imposed a rhythm upon the lexicon”. Semantically, there are two differences between”守護精靈” (guardian creature) and pa (魄): firstly, there is the idea of ‘guardian’ added in”守護精靈” (guardian creature). Secondly, compared to pa (魄), which refers to the seven spirits, the lexicon “精靈” (creature) has less to do with the spiritual but more with a solid, corporeal body of flesh and bones.

In the source text, daemons play different roles, such as parent, friend, pet, and protector at different times. The role of being a protector is only one of many. However, in the target text, with the additional meaning of ‘guardian’, it is made explicit to the Chinese readers that the role of daemons, like that of Guan Yin, is to protect humans from harm and danger. The role of the protector is emphasized. As for the use of the more corporeal term “精靈” (creature) instead of pa (魄), the translator prevents the readers from associating daemons with intangible spirits or emotions, as pa (魄) would suggest. Using “守護精靈” (guardian creature) can help readers to perceive daemons as living, physical beings with thoughts, mind, and a physical body. The form and shape changing of daemons, in this sense, is understood to be the same as that of Guan Yin, where dramatic, obvious changes happen to the creature’s body and its physical appearance.

4.2. Genderlessness of Guan Yin Enhanced in the Translated Text

Besides magnifying the inherent ‘Guan Yin’ nature in Pullman’s daemons, the Chinese translator has also added elements that do not belong to the daemons in the source text. Comparing Guan Yin with the daemons, it is not difficult to notice that daemons are not exactly the same as Guan Yin the Buddhist prophet. First of all, daemons’ formlessness is subject to more constraints when compared with that of Guan Yin. While Guan Yin can take the form of a human or an animal, daemons can only take the form of an animal. In addition, when a person grows into an adult, the animal form of the daemon will be fixed forever. Secondly, while Guan Yin does not have a fixed sex or gender identity, the biological sex of daemons in Pullman’s work is fixed. They are either male or female, and they are almost always of the opposite sex to their human counterparts. For instance, Pantalaimon (Pan), Lyra’s daemon, is male. No matter how many different forms it takes on, it always remains male. In the source text of the trilogy, Pullman uses pronouns such as he, him and his to refer to Pan. Similarly, the male protagonist’s daemon, Kirjava, is female. Pronouns like she, her and hers are used in the source text to refer to this daemon.

4.2.1 . Genderlessness Imported through Inconsistent Translation of the Pronoun ‘it’

Interestingly, in the Chinese version, this may not be the case all the time. Although on the whole, it is made clear to the Chinese readers that daemons do have fixed sex, in the target text, alterations in the use of pronouns occur several times. Before analyzing the inconsistent use of pronouns in the TT, we can briefly look at the features of the five different third person singular pronouns that commonly occur in Chinese language:

  • 祂 : Similar to it, gender-neutral, refers to a celestial / divine being only
  • 他 : Equivalent to he, refers to male only
  • 她 : Equivalent to she, refers to female only
  • 牠 : Similar to it, gender-neutral, refers to an animal or a beast only
  • 它 : Similar to it, gender-neutral, refers to non-living object only

For some reasons, occasionally in the target text, different pronouns like 他 (He), 它 (It that refers to lifeless objects; gender unspecified) and 牠 (It that refers to animals; gender unspecified), which suggest different gender identities and life forms, are used to refer to the same daemon. In these cases, the Chinese text seems to have made use of the sophisticated system of third person singular pronouns in the Chinese language. Skillfully and subtly, daemons in the target text are provided with a further freedom of formlessness and genderlessness similar to that of Guan Yin, which is different from that suggested in the source text. The following is an example that illustrates my point—in chapter one of The Subtle Knife (1997), the pronoun it is used to refer to Pan:

It leapt into her arms, and when it got there, it had changed shape. Now it was a red-brown stoat with a cream throat and belly, and it glared at him as ferociously as the girl herself. (21. My emphasis)

It is understandable why Pullman chooses to use it instead of he to refer to Pan in this case. The narrative suggests that Will sees Pan, a daemon for the first time in his life. In Will’s eyes, Pan is an animal and he cannot tell whether it is male or female. In the Chinese version, the translator faithfully translates ‘it’ as 牠, a gender-neutral pronoun that refers to animals only:

It jumped into her arms and changed its shape immediately. Now it was a red-brown stoat with a cream throat and belly. It stared at him ferociously, just as the girl stared at him.

跳入她懷裡,迅速变換形狀。現在 是隻紅棕色的鼬,有著奶油色的喉嚨和肚皮, 兇狠注視他的模樣,和女孩如出一轍。(Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 37. My emphasis.)

The pronoun “牠”can no doubt be viewed as an equivalent term for it, the gender-neutral pronoun for living animals. However, a few pages later, the it pronoun in the source text is translated as yet another Chinese pronoun in the translated text.

In the source text, Lyra says, “Your daemon en’t separate from you. It’s you. A part of you.” (1997: 26. My emphasis). In the translated text, it is translated as “你的精靈並非和你分開。 就是你,是你的一部分。” (Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 43. My emphasis) Here, the Chinese pronoun becomes 它, which can only be used to describe non-living objects. The daemons are not only referred to as genderless, they are also represented as lifeless. At this point, a Chinese reader might wonder: why is the daemon sometimes an animal and sometimes an object? What is the gender of the daemon? The inconsistent use of pronouns causes confusion. There is even more confusion when the translator uses the pronoun ‘he’ (他) to refer to the daemon later on in the passage, “He has already noticed…” (‘ 已經注意到…’) (Wang Jing (trans.), 2002: 83. My emphasis).

The inconsistent translation of the pronoun it provides the daemon with more room for form transformation. Instead of being a male animal, Pan is represented sometimes as a non-living object, sometimes an animal with no specific gender, and sometimes a male.

4.2.2 . Gender ‘Hidden’ through Ellipsis of Pronouns

What is also interesting in chapter one of The Subtle Knife (1997) is that Wang Jing, the Chinese translator, seems to have the inclination to avoid and delay telling readers explicitly the true gender of Pan. In the source text, as Will comes to realize that Pan is a daemon with the opposite sex of Lyra, the narrative gradually employs pronouns such as he, his and him to refer to Pan, replacing the gender-neutral it. For example, on page 23 of The Subtle Knife (1997), “Her daemon had changed again, and become a huge brightly-coloured butterfly…The butterfly raised and lowered his wings slowly” (My emphasis). Similarly, on page 24, “Her daemon, a cat again, was dipping his paw in it too, but he backed away when Will came near” (My emphasis). Yet, in the translated text, Pan remains genderless for a much longer period of time. Most of the masculine pronouns used to refer to Pan are avoided. This is done either by using ellipsis, or by insisting on the use of “牠”,the gender-neutral pronoun that refers only to animals. On page 39 of the translated text, the translator uses ellipsis to keep the daemon’s gender hidden:

Source text: “The butterfly raised and lowered his wings” (1997: 23)

Target text: “蝴蝶緩緩舉翅又落下”(Wang Jing (trans.), 2002: 39)

Back translation: “The butterfly slowly raised [ellipsis] wings and then lowered them”

Also, on page 40:

Source text: “Her daemon, a cat again, was dipping his paw in it too, but he backed away when Will came near” (1997:24)

Target text: “她的精靈此時又變回了猫,也將掌子伸入碗內,但威爾一靠近, 就立刻退後。” (Wang Jing (trans.), 2002: 40. My emphasis)

Back translation: “Her daemon changed back to a cat, dipped [ellipsis] paw into the bowl, but when Will came near, it (the gender-neutral pronoun for animals) backed away”.

As shown in the examples given above, time and again, the translator refuses to mention and reveal the gender of Pan. At the risk of being considered unfaithful to the source text, the translator stretches the language and style presented in the translated text and keeps the gender-free notion as much as it can be.

4.3. Daemons’ F orm-fixing I nterpreted and T ranslated as a L amentable L oss

Besides magnifying and importing Guan Yin’s genderlessness and formlessness in the daemons, the translator also seems to have taken special attention and concern when Lyra’s and Will’s daemons settled into a fixed form and lose their power of form changing. In the last book of Pullman’s trilogy, Lyra and Will, the two main characters touch each other’s daemon lovingly and intimately with their bare hands. The ecstatic feelings experienced by the boy and the girl are written in detail. At about the same time, the readers are told that the forms of the daemons of both Lyra and Will will not change anymore:

And she knew too that neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover’s hand on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other (2000: 528).

The moment of intimate physical liaison, together with the form fixation of the children’s daemons, can be seen as a symbol of maturity and self-identity formation. On the other hand, it is also a farewell to childhood and the fluidity of forms, a rare quality owned only by children’s daemons. On the loss of the daemons’ free forms, Lyra realizes that it is a loss but she accepts Pan’s fixed form as a pine-marten:

“It’s funny,” she said, “you remember when we were younger and I didn’t want you to stop changing at all…Well, I wouldn’t mind so much now. Not if you stay like this.” (2000: 527).

Pullman also asserts that neither Lyra, Will, nor their daemons would need or want the freedom and ability to change their daemons’ forms anymore, “they would want no other” (2000: 528). In a sense, childhood, innocence, and the changing forms of daemons are represented as a phase which will have to be relinquished and accepted in life. In the Chinese version, however, the sadness of the loss of fluidity in the daemons’ forms is exaggerated. The expression “neither daemon would change now” is translated as “他們的精靈再也無法改變了” (Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 577), which, when translated back into English, means “their daemons can no longer change by any means”. This translation implies that the inability to change forms is not just a turn in life, but an undesirable, yet unavoidable consequence of coming of age, if not a punishment. Also, while “they would want no other” (2000: 528) reflects a serene, peaceful state of mind, in the Chinese version, it becomes “他們也不要別的模樣” (Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 577), which bears the meaning of “they refuse to take on other forms”. In the source text, the word “want” can be read as a lack, desire or need. “Want no other”, in this light, is a bliss because it means nothing is lacked. However, in the translated text, the line “they refuse to take on other forms” shows a hint of stubbornness, antagonism and resistance.

Such interesting alterations will be well explained if we look at how the ability of changing one’s form is normally perceived in Chinese and Buddhists. Buddhist believers suggest that there are numerous realms in the universe. Humans and all living beings on Earth belong to the Realm of Desire. Above the physical realm, there exists the Realm of Form, where beings have outward appearances but no desires. Then, above the Realm of Form, there is also the Realm of Formlessness, the highest of all realms (Sadakata, 1997). Celestial beings such as ‘Guan Yin’ belonging to this realm are said to be free from the limitations of the senses and the physical realm. They have no forms or desires. The state of formlessness, therefore, is superior to the state of a fixed form. It is a perfect reflection of the Buddhist belief, which is written in one of the most important texts in Buddhism, The Great Heart Sutra –“舍利子,色不異空,空不異色,色即是空,空即是色,受想行識亦復如是。” In English, this means:

Sariputra, form is no different from emptiness; emptiness is no different from form. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Feeling, thought, activity, consciousness are also thus (Wong (trans.) 2002: 323—324).

Simply put, The Great Heart Sutra preaches us that forms such as gender are not ordained by nature. They can be changed according to your will, if only you have the wisdom and allow the changes to occur. Meanwhile, the freedom to escape from the constraints of the senses, form and shape is recognized as a divine gift. It is one step closer to Nirvana, i.e. a condition or place where the being is free from the endless cycle of reincarnation and suffering. On the contrary, losing such a freedom would be like taking a step down.

The notion of free self-expression and performativity has long been perceived with a positive light, as well as happily embraced by Chinese readers. Thus, it is understandable why the Chinese translator uses a lamenting tone when the children’s daemons are ‘stuck’ in one form.

5. Conclusion

Translation, according to André Lefevere (1992) and Jiri Levy (2000), is not done in a vacuum. It is an important form of rewriting and a decision process influenced by certain linguistic, ideological and poetic factors. As a text begins to be interpreted and translated, its original ideology, values and norms will be shifted, diminished or lost, and new ideas might be added. This view, as I attempted to argue, is supported by the transformation that occurs in the Chinese translated text of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995—2000).

In the Chinese translation of Pullman’s trilogy, the notion of gender performativity is not only well-preserved, but also made explicit when the translator blends in Buddhist ideas of gender. The ‘genderlessness’ and formlessness of the Buddhist prophet, ‘Guan Yin’, are borrowed to enhance the notion of gender performativity in the source text. Through translation strategies such as the creative translation of pronouns, the ellipsis of pronouns, and the addition of a lamenting tone over the settled form of daemons, the Buddhist views of gender are added and introduced to create a fusion effect in the target text.


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