Pushing Hands

yin yan

This is the thirtieth and final blog in the series, ‘Loafing and Lurking’. Over the new year, we moved back to Macao from Brazil, and in the last two weeks, I’ve resumed my post at the University here. The spare time for blogging that I enjoyed in Sao Paulo is likely to be swallowed up in a quicksand of new responsibilities. The University is also about to move campus to a new site across the river, and I anticipate that this migration is also going to take up a lot of my time in the next few months.

Still, I’ve enjoyed dipping my toe (the one I didn’t injure in an accident a few weeks ago!) in the blogosphere. I’ve realised that keeping a blog is in itself a prompt to keeping your eyes and ears open and an encouragement to think in greater depth about what you are reading and listening to … and what you are doing in your teaching and research. It sharpens your senses. I may be tempted back again when the dust settles.

It’s good to be back in Asia. The energy here is palpable, and I’ve already attended a typically challenging colloquium in Hong Kong, a fabulous city. The event was arranged at HK Baptist University to commemorate the translation scholar, Professor Martha Cheung, who sadly passed away last year. The respect and affection she inspired both locally and internationally was evident in the range of contributions from young graduate students to distinguished visiting professors, such as Sandra Bermann of Princeton University and John Milton of the University of Sao Paulo.

The colloquium was hosted by Douglas Robinson of HKBU on the theme of performativity in translation studies, the idea that travelling across languages doesn’t just involve exchanging information but rather it is a form of action, of ‘doing things with words’, to echo the British philosopher, J.L. Austin. Professor Cheung’s distinctive take on this idea was to conceive of translation as an idealised form of martial arts, a model of intercultural communication that she called ‘pushing hands’ or ‘tuishou’.

The notion seems similar in some ways to Brazilian capoeira: there are two performers, but in the Chinese discipline, the participants touch hands, then they attack and defend, developing over time a heightened awareness of the other’s likely manoeuvres, and attempting to deflect force not with opposing force, but by yielding and deflecting. One (slightly controversial) addition to Professor Cheung’s model, suggested by Douglas Robinson, was the actuality or even just the sense of an audience – actors whom he called ‘periperformers’ – who watch and judge the pushing of hands, according to a set of standards.

When you think about it, the metaphor is a powerful one for translation and for intercultural communication more generally. There is the essential nature of contact between self and other. There is the complex play of forces that result in a goal-directed performance with an unpredictable outcome. It involves the development of ‘ting jing’ or ‘listening power’, an almost innate sensitivity to the intentions of your partner. And, when watched from outside, the performance can be beautiful.

The pushing of hands seems like a fitting point at which to draw this series of posts to a close. Thanks for dipping and out of them from time to time. And may the new year – whether it’s the western one or the upcoming Chinese one – be good to you!

Cheung, M. P. (2012). The mediated nature of knowledge and the pushing-hands approach to research on translation history. Translation Studies 5:2, pp 156-171

Robinson, D. (2004). Performative linguistics: speaking and translating as doing things with words. London: Routledge.

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2 thoughts on “Pushing Hands

  1. teachernc says:

    Hello, John. It´s nice to hearing from you so far away from now. I´ve had the pleasure to attend 2 of your lecturers/workshops in SP, Brazil and I really enjoyed and learned from them. Also I´ve become awared of the importance of intercultural language education at all levels. I´ve also got used to your blog wonderfully written posts and I guess I´ll miss them a lot! Anyway, I wish you all the best in the New Year 2014 and hope you´ll remember us brazilian people from time to time wherever you are.
    kind regards,
    Neusa, São Paulo, Brazil

  2. John Corbett says:

    Thanks for the very kind comment, Neusa! I had a great year in Sao Paulo, and do hope to return soon – and often! Um abraco, John.

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