Does Literature Have to Be Monolingual?

Ellen Jones on Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Multilingualism in Translation

Japanese writer Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel was originally published in 1995 under the title Shishōsetsu: From Left to Right, to huge uproar. It is a reworking of the traditional “shishōsetsu” or “I novel,” a modernist Japanese autofictional genre that is typically “narrated as if they were the author’s true confessions, while allowing fiction ample play.” So, like its author, the protagonist and narrator is a girl called Minae who moves in her teens from Japan to the United States, where she lives throughout her twenties.

In Japanese the novel is formally radical: it moves seamlessly between Japanese and English and is printed not vertically (as is customary for Japanese publications) but rather horizontally, from left to right, to accommodate the inclusion of English words and sentences that readers would otherwise have to turn the book to read. It was hailed as Japan’s first bilingual novel. Interspersed with black-and-white photographs of streets and buildings appearing in the story, it takes place over the course of a single winter’s day in the 1980s. It is structured around phone conversations between Minae, who is coming to the end of her graduate studies in French, and her older sister, Nanae, an artist struggling to make ends meet in New York. Their dialogue is interspersed with Minae’s memories of their years growing up trying to fit into U.S. society.

Mizumura is also the author of a nonfiction volume titled The Fall of Language in the Age of English, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter alongside Mari Yoshihara. This book was written as a response to the current state of written Japanese, which she perceives to be in crisis, largely as a result of the global spread of English. Its strident arguments for the cultivation of the national language as a way of preserving the national literature show its author to have had a Japanese readership firmly in mind. It drew strong reactions, both positive and negative, to its criticism of Japan’s “juvenile” literary scene.

The reverence for the Japanese language and corresponding aversion to English advanced in The Fall of Language is present in An I-Novel too. Despite two decades in the United States, the protagonist Minae has resisted assimilation. Even as a young teen she made no effort to learn English properly, nor to mimic the habits and appearance of her predominantly white schoolmates, as her sister Nanae did. Instead, Minae obsessively read fiction in Japanese, a language that for her represents escape, the return to a previous self, and a sense of belonging. She has clung to the idea of returning to Tokyo and writing a novel in Japanese, despite doubts about her written fluency. Through the character of Minae, Mizumura thinks extensively about whether and how language can change our perspective. For instance, when Minae’s “string of platitudes” about the sunset over a paddy field is praised for its originality in a middle school composition class, she starts to wonder: “could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions—the manifestation of a banal literary sensibility—transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?” In the knowledge that this novel was—is—bilingual, and that we are reading it in translation, readers begin to wonder too.

In my own book, Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas, I examine many of the same questions as Mizumura—questions about language mixing and about translation—although with a focus, as the title suggests, on literatures of the American hemisphere. I try to break down an assumption long held in institutions of literary study and publication: that literature is fundamentally monolingual. I show that changing this perspective has wide-ranging implications, not only for literary pedagogy and the international publishing industry but also for contemporary translation practices.

Juliet Winters Carpenter’s English translation of An I-Novel demonstrates particularly well some of the arguments I make in Literature in Motion. I do not know Japanese, which limits my ability to comment on the ingenuity of Winters Carpenter’s translation, but there are aspects of her approach that I can identify from reading just the English. It would have been easy for Winters Carpenter to elide the bilingualism in Mizumura’s novel in such a way that English-language readers would have no idea how formally and stylistically unusual the Japanese is. Mizumura herself, in The Fall of Language, suggests that the bilingual format of An I-Novel could be maintained in translation into any language except English (65). In Literature in Motion, however, I argue that translations of multilingual texts such as An I-Novel can defamiliarize and disrupt just as well as multilingual writing can, even when the “target” language is the same as one of the “source” languages (terms that are, of course, troubled and undermined by multilingual writing and translations). Juliet Winters Carpenter shows this to be true: her translation does not erase the subversive nature of its source, but is linguistically playful in its own unique ways, reminding readers of the existence of multiple languages in the version from which it derives.

Let’s look at how this is achieved. The following passage is taken from the first pages of the novel in English. Minae is watching an ambulance pass by her window in the snow:

Good-bye. Farewell, ma belle Sirène.

I remained at the window.

Below, circling the streetlamp, infinitesimal snowflakes danced, shimmering in the cold. The double-paned window rattled in the wind.

How deep was the snow now?

Tarō o nemurase

Tarō no yane ni yuki furitsumu

Jirō o nemurase

Jirō no yane ni yuke furitsumu

Snow piles deep on Tarō’s roof

putting Tarō to sleep

Snow piles deep on Jirō’s roof

putting Jirō to sleep

And this was the only poem he could recite by heart.

One night, Tono had stood here at this window, looking down like this at the falling snow and recited those words, rather shyly. And how I swished and wished I had that snowy scene in front of me.

 

This page demonstrates that the two versions of this novel—the bilingual source and its foreignizing translation—share an aesthetic. Like the Japanese version, this page is visually very hectic, with multiple different typefaces and three different languages present. As Winters Carpenter explains in her translator’s preface, the use of bold typeface indicates passages that were written in English in the source text. So lines like “And this was the only poem he could recite by heart” are actually Mizumura’s words, not Winters Carpenter’s. This goes too for the occasional word or two in French, as with “ma belle Sirène” here, which reminds us that the protagonist is in fact trilingual. Italics indicate Minae’s internal monologue. Meanwhile, the poem she remembers her ex-boyfriend Tono reciting appears twice, once in transliterated Japanese and once in English translation, mimicking the multilingualism of Mizumura’s version.

Not every page is as visually varied as this one, but most have at least one word or phrase in bold, some many more than that. They range from the names of people and places (Cathy Tang, SoHo) and food (chocolate fudge, lasagne) to whole sentences (“I told you they went absolutely nuts!”) and they serve various functions in the translation. Not only do remind us that the original novel moved between English and Japanese, they also do important character work. They show us, for example, that Minae’s older sister, Nanae, speaks more English than she does—an easy, old fashioned-sounding American English full of “gee whizzes” and “you bets” and “whatchamacallits.”

It is clear to me, reading the translation, that the nonbold English (Winters Carpenter’s) has tonal consistency with the narrator’s bold English (Mizumura’s). This is testament to Winters Carpenter’s skill, but also, perhaps, to the extent to which author and translator worked together on the English version of this book. In an interview, Mizumura describes a collaborative process that “allowed us to diverge from the original, changing a word here and a sentence there. … In those instances, Julie was not translating but co-authoring.” Collaborative approaches like this contribute to my argument, in Literature in Motion, that the creative practices of multilingual writing and translation are closely intertwined. Since translation is already shaping Mizumura’s work stylistically, structurally, and thematically, it is only natural that her translator should also exercise her multilingual creativity, making her presence visible on the page in ways that were long met with disapproval in order to ensure her translation is formally challenging and diverse enough to mimic its “source.” With An I-Novel, Winters Carpenter has achieved this admirably.


Ellen Jones is a literary translator and an editor. Her literary translations from Spanish include Bruno Lloret’s Nancy and Rodrigo Fuentes’s Trout, Belly Up. She is the author of Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas, which will be available in December 2021.

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