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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Translator: On The Unreliability of Perceptions

Translation is an interesting topic.  There are always terms in any given language that can only be approximated in a translation.  I have always wondered how translators handle such dilemmas and whether they believed themselves successful.  I mentioned a translator of the Koran who considered himself relatively unsuccessful in my review of Halal Monk here

The Translator by Nina Schuyler is a contemporary novel whose protagonist, Hanne Schubert, is a professional translator.  As the novel opens, she has just finished translating a Japanese novel into English and submitted it to the publisher.  An accidental fall causes her to lose the ability to speak any language except Japanese.  Japanese was a language she acquired as a teenager.  This is considered late for language acquisition.  People who experience memory loss generally don't lose the ability to speak their first language learned from their parents or other caregivers in early childhood, so this is a highly unusual circumstance.   Ignoring the advice of her doctor, Hanne Schubert decides that a trip to Japan would be the best way to deal with her problem. Although I rarely read contemporary literary fiction, this sounded like an original plot. I wanted to know how it would end.


I have to say that any cover that includes masks attracts my attention.  The Noh Drama masks and the cherry blossoms definitely evoked Japan for this reader.  I have often enjoyed novels that take place in Japan, though they are usually historical rather than contemporary.

Noh actor Moto comes into the narrative as the basis for the protagonist in the novel that Hanne Schubert had translated.  It occurred to me that a fictional version of a real individual is also a translation.  The author translates a living being into a character.   So Moto had gone through two levels of translation.   He was translated by Kobayashi, the author of the Japanese novel within Schuyler's novel, before Schubert's translation.   Then I realized that Moto as an actor is a translator as well.   The actor translates characters portrayed by authors into the medium of stage performance.

I was already aware that artists are translators.  I am fond of  Surrealist René Magritte's famous painting of a pipe with the caption "Ceci n'est pas une pipe".  In English the phrase would be "This is not a pipe."  It's a two dimensional translation of a real pipe in oil paint on canvas.  Magritte selected a very safe subject.  A pipe isn't capable of complaining about the accuracy of the translation.

Translation goes wrong due to the subjectivity of the translator's perception.  Material involving two levels of translation is further away from the original.  The subjectivity of two individuals has intervened.  Each level of translation could vary according to the perception of each of those individuals.

I noticed my own subjectivity intervening in my interpretation of the book when a boy spoke to Hanne Schubert at an indoor artificial beach (a translation of the outdoor original).  He said "This is a pen."  In English, there is more than one definition of the word "pen".  It could be a writing implement or it could be a structure for the confinement of animals.  I thought the boy was expressing a sense of being confined by the artificial beach inside a building.   This felt like an important statement to me.  Then I read further and learned that "This is a pen," is one of the first sentences Japanese students are taught in English classes. The boy was trying to practice his English.  I had over-interpreted and given the boy's statement added significance that was unintended.  It was hard for me to let go of my interpretation even though it was essentially a translation error. 

On the macro level, the theme of The Translator is the limitations of perception.  All human perception is a translation of reality through the interpretation of our minds and senses.  No one ever perceives reality directly without it being translated.  Character relationships in this book are encumbered by differing perceptions of events and motivations.

 A huge misunderstanding separates Hanne Schubert from her daughter, Brigitte. Some may find it ironic that a translator who facilitates intercultural exchange of ideas can't communicate with her own child.  I felt that there was a tragic inevitability in their separation.  Their relationship was particularly vulnerable to mistranslation because of cultural differences.  Their backgrounds would necessarily cause mother and daughter to have completely variant understandings of their experiences.  This happens to all mothers and daughters to a certain extent since each generation is born into a world that diverges from the world of the previous generation. Yet when mother and daughter were born in different countries, their relationship becomes even more problematic.  Translation difficulties abound.  Only a conscious effort could bridge the gap between them. 

This is an intellectual review because the central concept of this book is a complex one.  It is matched by equally complex characters whose painful process of evolution is quite moving.  The Translator is a masterful novel that both engages and enlightens readers.




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