Distorting mirror

by Terence MacNamee

Minae Mizumura has written a book that has come out in the US with the title The Fall of Language in the Age of English. This is a Japanese author who grew up in America but now lives back in Japan and makes a point of writing in Japanese. Here she talks about the difficulty of maintaining good Japanese writing in an age of English dominance.

The original, of course, is in Japanese, and this is an English translation by two American academics. They have tried to make it about something of more international relevance than just Japan and Japanese, but obviously the Japanese-ness of the author is the whole point.

In books like this one catches the melancholy of national decline. It is striking to see the extent of Japanese pessimism in an age of Chinese optimism. But Japan does seem to be in decline, culturally as well as economically. With all the wealth the people of Japan have generated, at least they can live and die in comfort. They seem to be turning their backs on the world and choosing stasis over change, as they so often have in the past. (Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it hasn’t.)

Mizumura seems to exaggerate the dominance of English in the world. This is understandable for someone who speaks English and uses it to communicate with non-compatriots. But maybe it is also counter-phobic. There is something the Japanese fear much more than English: it is Chinese dominance. And that is a far more likely scenario.

Judging from excerpts, the writing style of Mizumura’s book is jarringly bad. Is this the fault of the author, or the translators? It is impossible to know if one can’t read the original.

Of course this book, as translation, is caught in an impossible double bind. The act of translation is an offence against what the book is all about: untranslatability. The double bind cannot be overcome. Whatever the book was like in Japanese, in translation for American readers it is only a caricature of itself.

I can’t help thinking back to Heidegger and his 1953 dialogue with the Japanese Tezuka, in which the latter bemoaned the difficulty or impossibility of explaining Japanese culture except in Japanese – and even that was endangered, due to the rapid Westernization or Americanization of his country after losing the War.

As pinpointed so long ago by Heidegger and his Japanese friend, the whole paradox of translating authentic Far-Eastern thought into Western languages is that you inevitably lose the point. What comes out at the other end is not the original or anything like it. At best it is a distorting mirror. Is a distorting mirror better than no mirror at all? Very good question. I wish I knew the answer.