Found in Translation

Charlotte: I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Trans 2
Recent reading heavily skewed by translation as well as works by women.

So what do Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) have in common as the central characters in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003)?

Quite a great deal despite the significant age difference—disillusionment about marriage (Charlotte young and newly married while Bob is much older and married 25 years), being American as well as white and privileged, and possibly most importantly, feeling deeply out of kilter with their own separate lives.

Viewers watch as these two develop both an occasionally predictable and often unpredictable relationship while visiting Japan—and thus, the title’s play on the location and these two being lost and also possibly finding themselves while visiting a land foreign to them.

As a many-decades voracious reader, I can attest to the power of literature for offering the same sort of different context that being in Japan provides Charlotte and Bob. In fact, I have experienced deep and powerful affection for authors from countries outside the U.S.—from Milan Kundera to Haruki Murakami—and am drawn to the literary qualities but also their distinctly different world views and cultural experiences from my own.

Kundera and Murakami, for example, have forced me often to step away from my assumptions and re-see the world and many of the ideals I hold precious. From Kundera’s philosophical musings on sex and relationships along with his narrative unpacking of history and geography in the shaping of society and individuals to Murakami’s confrontations of reality and the awkwardness that is self-awareness as human sexuality—these works I have experienced in translation with an affection beyond most other writers I also love and cherish.

By comparison, I love the work of Margaret Atwood and value the Canadian and gendered elements of her writing, but she composes in my shared language of English.

While I have long been fascinated by writing in translation—reaching back to my high school English teaching days when we wrestled with literary analysis of non-English language authors such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and Henrik Ibsen—I have recently slipped into a trend of reading several new non-English language authors (see recent reading below).

The love of fiction often includes both an affection for the narrative (characters, plot, tension, etc.) as well as how that narrative is told, the weaving together of words and sentences. It is about both the what and how.

With traditional works in the canon of English-language fiction, and the dominance of New Criticism’s emphasis on textual analysis (echoed in the Common Core’s arguments about the four corners of the page), readers have been conditioned to consider rhetorical devices and literary technique as purposeful and singular tools of the author.

Here is where translation poses a problem of language—especially in translations of works by Murakami, Kim, and Kang, for example—and who makes those choices of language.

Zero K by Don DeLillo represents the most traditional sort of white male writing among the works I have read recently; this work overtly makes a case for language and words, represented by the narrator’s obsession with language:

Once, when they were still married, my father called by mother a fishwife. This may have been a joke but it sent me to the dictionary to look up the word. Coarse woman, a shrew. I had to look up shrew. A scold, a nag, from Old English for shrewmouse. The book sent me back to shrew, sense 1. A small insectivorous mammal. I had to look up insectivorous. The book said it meant feeding on insects, from Latin insectus, for insect, plus Latin vora, for vorous. I had to look up vorous. (p. 25)

With works in translation, however, the translator becomes another factor in the meaning as well as the compelling nature of the narrative. In Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, the Translator’s Note offers a window into that process.

Lisa Dillman, translator, explains that “Herrera’s prose…exhibits…non-standard language,” for example, posing challenges for her work. Dillman adds “[t]o prepare for the project, as many translators do, I first read widely. I read for theme; I read for tone; I read for style” (pp. 109, 110).

Interestingly, Dillman focused on the prose of Cormac McCarthy as a guide for this novel’s translation. Also compelling is her decisions with word choice, notably “the novel’s most talked-about neologism: jachar” (p. 112). Dillman eventually chose “to verse” as the translation, capturing the word’s meaning (“essentially, ‘to leave'”) and carrying an odd, quirky sense found in the original.

Herrera’s fiction offers beyond concerns about language, and translation, insight into how culture and even geography impact genre, as investigated by Marcelo Rioseco:

Two subjects seem inescapable for a Mexican author who works with the space of the border: immigration, drug trafficking, and, consequently, the violence associated with these two phenomena. Nonetheless, this swift and simplifying identification can be deceiving in the effort to create a taxonomy of border literature, especially in the case of a writer like Yuri Herrera, born in Actopan in the Mexican state of Hidalgo.

Herrera’s case appears more problematic, precisely because, since his first novel, Kingdom Cons (2005), Herrera has been seen by critics as a border writer and, indirectly, as a natural representative of a subgenre of border literature: the narconovela.

Reading the three novels listed below by Hererra were genre bending and genre expanding; these works in translation, then, are about narrative and language but in ways for me as someone with a different first language than the author that I cannot experience with DeLillo—or Kurt Vonnegut and Atwood.

Just as Charlotte and Bob find something between them while out of context, for them, in Japan, I have found myself anew in these translations often because of disorientation and lack of context that forces me to think and rethink the world.

Recent Reading

After the Winter, Guadalupe Nettel*

Zero K, Don DeLillo

The Plotters, Un-su Kim*

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera*

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera*

Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera*

The White Book, Han Kang*

The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

* In translation