Girl in Translation

Cover image for Girl in Translation by Jean Kwokby Jean Kwok

ISBN 978-1-59448515-2

“We would be allowed to work and not cause any trouble for her, but she didn’t want us to be any more successful than she was.” 

Eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang arrives in New York speaking only the smattering of English she learned at school back in Hong Kong. Her mother speaks no English at all. They arrive already in debt to her mother’s sister, who has sponsored their immigration, and go immediately to work in her Chinatown sweatshop. Although child-labour and piecework are officially illegal, unofficially it is the normal order of business for the factory’s immigrant workers. Unable to afford to rent anything as they pay off their debts, Kimberly and her mother live in an otherwise abandoned building owned by a friend of her aunt. By summer it is overrun with rats and roaches, and in the winter the only source of heat is the oven. By day, she attends school, hiding her poverty from teachers and classmates, and by night she works alongside her mother in the factory to increase their meagre income. From being at the top of her class in Hong Kong, Kimberly struggles with being a less proficient student in America as she fights against the language barrier. But as her talent for school reasserts itself, she begins to dream of a better future for herself and her mother.

Although told as a novel, many aspects of the story mimic author Jean Kwok’s own life. She and her family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was five years old. They lived in an unheated, pest-infested apartment in Brooklyn, and she worked alongside her parents in a Chinatown clothing factory. By day, she attended a high school for gifted students. While Girl in Translation is fictionalized, and diverges from the author’s own life in significant ways as the story progresses, Kwok’s acknowledgement of these real parallels helps break the silence that subsists around the real conditions of immigrant workers in the United States. The novel also portrays how Kimberly is forced into unusually early responsibility. She must become a wage earner alongside her mother, and she is also almost entirely responsible for navigating the English aspects of their world. Working such long hours, her mother has no time to study the language, and little occasion to leave Chinatown. Kimberly tries to protect her mother from her early failures at school, and struggles through her difficulties fitting in by herself, unwilling to burden her lone parent.

Girl in Translation covers a fairly long period of time within a relatively short novel. As a result, transitions between scenes and over periods of time can be abrupt. Although Kwok’s writing is generally fairly straight-forward and plain, there are a couple of interesting things going on stylistically. In dialogue, Kwok mangles English words to simulate how they sound to Kimberly as she struggles to translate the English she learned at school in Hong Kong into practice once she arrives in America. The reader’s efforts to puzzle out what was said simulate Kimberly’s own. Kwok also includes English translations of Chinese idioms and expressions, allowing the English reader to experience some of the beauty and nuances of the language, and understand how Kimberly thinks.

Although dealing with interesting themes, the novel begins to fall apart in the final pages. The ending seems to derive from some need for a quick hit of drama, and the efforts at concealment in order to provide some form of surprise prove more annoying than shocking. From a promising start, and an important topic, Girl in Translation comes to a disappointing and overwrought finish.

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Read-a-likes:

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One thought on “Girl in Translation

  1. The premises of Jean Kwok’s books all appeal to me, but the reviews I’ve read generally seem fairly average. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to pick them up. Great review 🙂

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