The following is an interview with Minae Mizumura, the author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English
Question: It is ironic that your book on preserving languages from the tidal wave of English has now been translated into English. Can you speak about the relationship between you, Mari Yoshihara, and Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translators of the book?
Minae Mizumura: Mari Yoshihara has long been an enthusiastic fan of my novels, especially of my second, autobiographical novel that traces my growing up in the United States. She has a similar background. As soon as The Fall of Language was published, she contacted me from Hawaii, where she teaches, and offered to translate it herself. I was initially taken aback; as you point out, it seemed rather perverse that a book warning about the dominance of English should be translated into English. It took me some time to realize that what she proposed underscores the whole point of the book: in our age, ideas can spread only when translated into English. After Mari finished her translation, I worked on the manuscript to make it accessible to a wider readership. I then asked Juliet Winters Carpenter to go over it and also to let me work with her at the final stage. I knew she would say yes. Julie translated my third novel, called A True Novel, and despite being one of the most highly regarded translators in the field, she had no objection to working with me closely in Kyoto where she teaches. Very flexible and open-minded. The English version of this book owes itself to two generous souls.
Q: How did you react to the controversial reviews when your book was first released in Japan?
MM: Very much bewildered, though I never actually saw those reviews. So I said nothing publicly. Like many writers, I avoid reading what people say about my books on the Internet and ask others to filter information for me. It seems that this was a particularly wise decision when this book came out. Japan lags behind in putting together quality online book reviews. As is often the case, the online controversies took place mostly among people who hadn’t read the book. The firestorm got out of control. Rumor has it that a famous blogger, the one who unwittingly initiated the controversy by declaring that my book was a “must read for all Japanese,” got so fed up that he no longer blogs or tweets. He apologized to me for having incited such vociferous reactions but was relieved to learn that I had only a vague idea of what was being said.
Aleksander Hemon comes to mind as a writer who acknowledges language’s untranslatable truths. In Nowhere Man he incorporates the Bosnian sentiment “sevdah,” “a feeling of pleasant soul pain, when you are at peace with your woeful life, which allows you to enjoy this very moment with abandon.” that does not translate clearly into the American state of mind. What sensibilities attached to the Japanese language are you most worried about being lost?
MM: Many. For example, my novel, A True Novel, was beautifully translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I feel as if the novel was given a new life with the translation. But there were many aspects of the novel that just had no way of being conveyed in English. Perhaps the most critical was the near impossibility of translating into English the honorifics that play such an important role in the Japanese language. The central narrator of the novel is a maid who uses honorifics throughout her narration—like the narrator in the Tale of Genji, who is a lady-in-waiting. In my novel, her unfaltering use of honorifics brings forth a multitude of literary effects. Distasteful deeds of her superiors acquire more poignancy by being described with honorifics. Her proud character is paradoxically enhanced by her lowering herself through her use of honorifics. On rare occasions when she does away with honorifics, her narrative voice suddenly gains an almost erotic intimacy.
Q: In The Fall of Language you discuss having autonomic dysfunction, visiting a psychosomatic clinic, and how your health affected your life physically, socially and mentally. Where do you still find the energy and inspiration to write?
MM: Writing depends so much on sheer physical energy—this is something I learned after I became seriously dysfunctional. So, it is hard to go on. But then life itself is hard. I can only be grateful that, because I’m a writer, someone like you would read my work and kindly take an interest in my personal ailment.
Q: What about the English language and culture that didn’t “stick” or become natural when you were being raised and educated in the United States?
MM: Diverse factors contributed to my not even imagining becoming a writer in the English language. First, my family did not go to the United States as immigrants. My father was just stationed in New York by a Japanese company and the whole family always assumed that we would go back to Japan someday. Second, I was an Asian, and in the 1960s, there were hardly any Asians in the East Coast; the States did not feel like a natural habitat for someone like me. Third, I was twelve when I moved to the States and was just beginning to enjoy reading books for grown-ups. Added to that was the fact that Japan already had a rich and substantial corpus of its own modern literature. My parents had brought to the States a collection for me and my sister to read, and I could just sit down and immerse myself in the flow of the Japanese language. That was so much more fun than having to look up every word in a dictionary when I was faced with English.
Q: What would you consider your literary style/taste? What do you find valuable within modern literature?
MM: All my works are experimental in one way or another, but my literary style and taste are themselves conservative. I admire the richness of those Japanese writers who began writing well before World War II and who were necessarily familiar with various literary forms, from Chinese classics and pre-modern Japanese writings to newly imported European literature. As for modern literature, I tend to equate it with modern novels, and I think they have played a critical, historic role in making us who we are as modern individuals. They create a private sphere in the mind by allowing each reader to engage in intimate dialogue with the text. Perhaps the experience of reading novels, which are now a global literary form, has made all humankind more or less similar (for example, we rarely believe in karma or fate, we no longer take seriously the divine right of our rulers, we think we can mold our own future, and so on) but at the same time novels make us see ourselves as individuals with individual minds.
Q: What advice do you have for young writers being thrown into the age and values of English?
MM: Assuming that your question concerns young writers who write in languages other than English, I’m inclined to give two totally opposite pieces of advice. Let us say that you are a young Japanese writer. On the one hand, if your ultimate goal is to be translated into English and be known outside Japan, it might be best to read contemporary American novels in translation (or in the original, if you can) and model your work on them. Throwing in some discernible Japanese exotica would be helpful: cherry blossoms, ramen, or robots, for example. On the other hand, if your ultimate goal is to work with all the potential the Japanese language offers, and to give a fresh understanding of the world in which you live through that language, I would first recommend reading and rereading invaluable works written in Japanese.