Linda Jaivin: Sex, Sinology and the Translator

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin – Photo: Jade Muratore

Linda Jaivin is a renaissance woman who describes herself as a secular humanist. Born in New London, Connecticut, USA, she has been an Australian citizen for over twenty years, after many years studying and working in Taiwan and mainland China.

Linda's activity is prodigious. The list of hats she wears includes translator, interpreter, anthology editor, poet, novelist and playwright. Her written works include short stories; essays; novels such as the comic, erotic “Eat Me”; historical fiction such as “A Most Immoral Woman”; and non-fiction such as the outrageous “Confessions of an S & M Virgin”.

Words that apply to Linda: stimulating, challenging, quirky, provocative, original, salacious, graphomaniac. Her writings and her conversations take us many unexpected or unfamiliar places. She may once have shocked much of her audience, but Linda has helped expand the openness of public discourse. As the Wheeler Centre video interview shows, she can be in your face, but in the friendliest way.

There is a lot more than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in Linda’s box of tricks. Whether she’s exploring Tiananmen Square or the treatment of refugees, her mixture of the personal and the political does not brook political correctness. She regularly pops up on panels and in interviews, not just as a writer but also as a commentator on national current affairs programs such as the ABC’s Q&A.

As a translator, Linda especially loves film work. Her subtitles for many well-known Chinese films include “Farewell my Concubine” and “The Grandmaster”.

“The challenge is to make the translation as short, direct and simple as possible and yet convey both sense and emotion. You have to consider what information viewers will be getting from the soundtrack and the picture as well. It’s like a puzzle. It’s also very nice to have your name pop up in the end credits of a film by someone like Wong Kar Wai or Chen Kaige, even if no one except your mother actually sits in the theatre long enough to see it.”

She hasn’t yet experienced the downside of being in the public gaze. “Writers, even ones like me with a performing streak, aren’t ever going to be ‘celebs’ in the way that rock stars are. We don’t tend to get mobbed when out shopping, or have paparazzi trying to photograph us dressing badly (writers dressing badly is hardly news—many of us work in our pajamas). Sometimes people in restaurants send over drinks, saying they like my novels, or people on buses come up to me to talk. Nothing I’d call a ‘pitfall’.”

She has no preferred genre. “When I’m writing erotica, I like erotica best. Then I stop to write an essay and revel in the art of writing essays. Etcetera. I love all kinds of writing. Each presents subtly different challenges and offers subtly different joys. I feel like my latest novel, The Empress Lover (April 2014, Fourth Estate HarperCollins), although fiction, combines quite a few of my literary loves including translation, history, and the essay.”

Her comic and satirical side is one of her strengths. “I’m something of an infernal optimist, I suppose. But I think it’s because writing things that make people laugh makes me laugh while I’m writing. I like to enjoy myself.”

Her views on a range of political and social issues place her clearly on the progressive side of politics. “I consider myself a secular humanist. I believe that as individuals we owe our fellow human beings respect, consideration, and compassion and that as a society we must look after the most weak and vulnerable among us. When governments display a lack of respect and compassion towards the weak and vulnerable, it distresses me (and my visits to asylum seekers in detention was a deeply revelatory and distressing experience). I want to use what influence I have as a writer and an individual to try to move others to think about these issues and maybe even act on them.”

Asked how her life as a translator might unfold from now on, she responded: “As it has up till now—a mix of long-term projects and ideas and random opportunities. I’m writing this in Beijing, fresh from being asked by a Chinese rocker to translate the lyrics to all his songs—with the idea that some can be sung in English. Not something I’d planned to do, I’m already pretty busy and it’s a very hard call. So I said yes.”

Her advice for today’s youth, who are often blamed for not fighting to fix the environmental and social mess they have been born into, is concise and pointed. “Know that some of us have wanted to fix the mess all our lives as well. But it’s a pretty big mess. Pick your battles. Do your best. Good luck.”

If you haven’t encountered Linda before, please visit her website and choose one of her many offerings. Her Goodreads page also has lots of valuable links and information.

Her latest writing includes the Quarterly essay Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World and her historical novel about China The Empress Lover.

Found in Translation


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.