When we were born, most of us were called first of all “a boy” or “a girl” (or a monster if we were discovered neither or both). We’ve received numerous names later on as we take on different roles with or without accountable titles, within a context where the evidences of identity are articulated before any settling of an account. The account that defines who we are. We bring such an account along with us. We may sometimes put it on as if it were accessory; consume it as if it were food; or turn it into something else. And as it may occur to us, in some occasions we translate it. We can then get “lost in translation” as a result of a translated interpretation of a translated term confronting a translated name of its translated beholder.
For the very first time that I can recall, one of the most embarrassing experiences when I felt lost in translation, was that of my own name. I was at a party with classmates from a language school in Paris. I was talking to someone who asked me:
A: Why do you call yourself Stellie?
Me: (silence…) Well… it’s a name that I’ve been using ever since… I was little. I started to use it when I lived in England for a short while.
A: Yeah, I see (silence…) But I mean, you didn’t prefer your own name? The real one? As how people call you in Taïwan ?
I was first embarrassed, and then perplexed, by the question. I was obliged to think about the puzzle of my name. More exactly, the name that I “choose” to use. The feeling of shame spread a furious blush over my face. All of a sudden I felt naked in front of people who were present at the party. I felt as if I’d betrayed my “real identity” by telling this big lie about myself.
And then, I wondered, what does that mean, “a real name”? The spelling of my name marked on my passport, as a translated version from the language of my mother tongue? According to the western convention of putting the family name after the first name or the other way around?
During the last few years, I was immersed in a doctoral research on the problematic of identity. However, I didn’t relate the questions in my research to myself. Without a literary context in which I’m allowed to be anonym behind my analyses, I would not be able to make an argument, because it gets unbearably intimate. The thing is, I’ve been analyzing what is being “Real” as such or such identity. The fact that all these thoughts were driven to a final destination where there is absolutely no absolute answer had seriously frustrated me. After all, the question of what is real is not always directly related to what is authentic. I’m now thinking of the image of this little boy which is a robot in the film, “Artificial Intelligence”, when he asks:
Am I real?
If I may let myself free from the burdens or inspirations of theoretical discourse and just put myself back to the scene where some one asks me:
But I mean, you didn’t prefer your own name? The real one?
As if it were clear enough that, by using an English name I’m willingly colonized by an Occidentalized version of myself. The question of free will vs. destiny remains essential. Meanwhile, key words and terms such as “agency” and “enabling violation” are circling around a mysterious center that I fail to reach. The symbolic me didn’t seem to embody the names of the representations that I tried to harmonize with diverse otherness bursting out from the Real. Nowadays I can’t precisely locate my name on an imaginary GPS in the jungle of theories.
I may refer to another film that I recently watched, Your Name. In the film, Mitsuha and Taki switch bodies. When memories are fading away and Mitsuha tries hard to recall the name of Taki, she remembers all of a sudden that the latter had written his name on her hand. She opens up her hand and finds the words to be a confession of love. The word that was supposed to identify the name of the character turns out to be the last real thing that matters for Taki.
However, there is probably no such an universal understanding about a name of one’s own. In reality, can we love legitimately without a name?
Over these years, I translated my name into several different languages for practical reasons. Life is making every doubt we have about ourselves a worthwhile task for the construction of our own identities. The voice questioning about what is real is being washed away by time. Translation can sometimes risk losing a profound meaning a term has in its original language, but somehow generate intellectual sparkles, inspire linguistic exchanges, and enlighten a long-lost shadowy part of us that we’ve become too familiar to recognize. And maybe it is after all a worthwhile task to travel all those years over all those versions of my own name, in order to get closer to the real.
One thought on “A name of anything but proper”
A name of all or a name of nothing, that is what my name is. A big mistake for those who think that a simple Word “name” can resume the several identities that this Word can hide. Thank you Shiau for this contribution. It is interesting to situate your text within our personal trajectories. Each of us has her own name story. Mine (s) according to my interpretation can be a kind of a volontary mistake or ERROR. May be I will write something about this.
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