The translator in Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator (Pegasus Books, 352 pages), is Hanne Schubert. She is widow in her early 50s; her Japanese husband died of a heart attack several years before the book opens. She has two adult children: Tomas, a lawyer in New York, and Brigitte, with whom she has had no contact for six years and does not know where she lives. Hanne is multi-lingual; her parents were translators and interpreters and she moved around the world with them as a child. She makes her living translating Japanese fiction and teaching the language in a San Francisco college.
The book opens with a few pages of Hanne’s translation of a (fictional) Japanese novel. That novel had done well in Japan, in part because the author, Kobayashi, had revealed in an interview that the main character, Jiro, was inspired by the famous (fictional) Noh actor, Moto Okuro. We watch Hanne struggling to convey in English the improbable or incomprehensible Japanese. She understands the language well enough: “Yariba no nai ikidoori, meaning an unfocused anger. But also yaru se nai kimochi, a helpless feeling, or a feeling of no way to clear one’s mind… She pauses, baffled. How can Jiro be experiencing an unfocused anger and a helpless feeling? And just a moment ago he was frustrated. It doesn’t make sense.”
In the past Hanne has written Kobayashi for clarification. He had written back in Japanese, “I’m not the translator, you are!” so Hanne is on her own in her attempts to express not only the story's surface meaning but to convey the character’s deeper feelings. She spends more than a year living intimately with Jiro and finally sends the English manuscript off to the publisher and Kobayashi.
While waiting for a response, a bad fall and concussion puts her in the hospital. When she has recovered enough to talk, she can no longer speak English, only the language she’s been living with so intimately for the past year—Japanese. This inability to speak one language is apparently a rare, but real affliction. Fortunately her son Tomas speaks Japanese; both her children were raised to be multi-lingual like Hanne herself, but he is in New York. Because Hanne cannot communicate easily with anyone in San Francisco, she accepts an invitation to speak at a Tokyo literary conference.
After her Tokyo talk, Kobayashi confronts her: “You were supposed to translate my words, my story, not rewrite it and make your own story in the hopes of uniting mankind. I don’t know where you get your ideas about translation, but no author in his right mind would want you to translate his work. I put my trust in you to bring my story to the English-speaking world. My story. Not yours.” Kobayashi accuses Hanne of ruining his main character. “Turned him into an asshole…I am ashamed of what you did to my Jiro…. You should be ashamed….” If Moto, the person on whom Kobayashi based Jiro, were to read her translation, “he’d hate it.”
Hanne tries to defend herself : “‘If this Moto saw what I had to work with, he’d give me a medal.’ She loved Jiro! She understood this character better than Kobayashi did himself.” Nevertheless, Hanne is devastated. A reaction like this from an author means the end of her translation career. She’s particularly shaken because Kobayashi’s attack is so unexpected. She is trapped in Japan until her English returns—if it returns—and decides to find Moto himself to see what he is like.
To say much more would spoil the pleasure of the book, and The Translator offers a great many pleasures. There is the issue of translation itself. I have been translating Japanese fiction as a way to learn the characters and improve my fluency. I am regularly troubled by the possibilities a single phrase suggests. Schuyler gives an example: hito no kokoro no hana ni zo arikeru could be translated as “the heart of a man, like a fading flower” or “a flower that fades, like a man’s heart,” or “a single flower fading, like the heart of a man.” All three are correct. It suggests that translation is also an act of creation.
There is also the pleasure of watching the author explore the differences between Jiro, the character in the novel, and Moto, the real person. Jiro is not Moto and vice versa although Jiro and Moto share traits, features, attributes. The resonances between Hanne’s translated Jiro and the Moto Hanne meets are rich and rewarding.
Hanne Schubert is a fascinating character—intelligent, capable, passionate. At the same time, she like the rest of us, is a victim of her history. She’s been the best parent she knows how to be, but like the rest of us she’s made some bad decisions. She’s translated Kobayashi’s novel as faithfully as she knows how, but like the rest of us her experience has, in this case, misled her.
Moto, as a famous Noh actor, is also fascinating. He too is intelligent, capable, and passionate. But he refuses to be what Hanne expects, refuses to conform to her assumptions. And when we finally see him performing on the Noh stage, he becomes someone else entirely.
Nina Schuyler teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Her first novel, The Painting, was named a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle. If it is half as fine as The Translator, it deserved the honor. I am going to go look for it.