San Francisco author Nina Schuyler wrote a gem of a novel called The Translator. Like many who grew up acquiring more than one language, perhaps easily, the translator’s stream of consciousness feels real. And for many who have attempted to translate more than just a few tag lines, second-guessing your translations become routine. When the original Japanese author rejects Hanne’s translation of his novel, it isn’t surprising that she falls into the abyss of failure that all who have pride in their work experience when critiqued.
It helps to seize the hermetic feeling of the protagonist’s mind that following a brain injury she can only speak Japanese while the rest of her consciousness can perfectly hear English. And it helps that Japanese language and culture are hermetic too. We follow Hanne as she traces the fictional Jiro (to add to the feeling of mental confusion, she had a husband called Hiro) to the real Noh theatre actor Moto, and spends a few days with him. Together they unblock each other, he in returning to acting, she in recovering her English speaking ability. Through this ordeal we also become aware of how her relationship with her daughter had fallen apart – in a way that the emotional bond had been broken because of language.
“I’m used to being in many worlds at once,” Hanne says to Moto, when trying to explain herself. She then discovers that the Noh actor wears masks, and as mask wearers will tell you, the mask’s personality takes over the wearer’s mind. When we speak different languages, we have such compartments in our heads that a translator learns to bridge. Finally, Hanne realizes she had failed to bridge with the emotional compartment of motherhood, and she makes it her new quest to find her lost daughter.
Of course, and fortunately perhaps, this is a work of fiction, and I was tempted to dismiss her experience as made up in her own mind as in a long dream while the concussion heals. There are layers of plots and dreams and consciousness to enjoy in this novel, until it comes down to the simplest reality of life and death.
Nina Schuyler, The Translator, Pegasus Books 2013. Bought at Moe’s in Berkeley.