Of course, my interest was immediately peaked by Nina Schuyler’s newest novel when I saw the title and then when I read further, the description did indeed outline that this tale was focused on a Japanese-to-English translator.
The Translator is about Hanne, a middle-aged woman who grew up in Europe speaking German, Dutch, and English who had moved to the US where she mastered Japanese. Hanne is finishing the translation of a popular Japanese novelist when she has a head injury. She awakes in the hospital only speaking Japanese. She is unable to communicate in the languages of her youth and only in this language she learned later in life. (what was quite odd about this was that on my second day into the novel, I read an article about a man in Florida waking up after an accident only speaking Swedish and unable to speak in his mother tongue.) Frustrated, Hanne takes off for Tokyo to attend a conference she initially turned down. During a lecture she is giving, Hanne is interrupted by the incredibly frustrated Japanese novelist she had been translating. He hated her translation and continued to publicly shame her.
The story flows as easily as a leaf falling from a tree branch. Somehow Schuyler has weaved a mystery through the plot as well. As Hanne is trying to sort through how she could have gone terribly wrong with this translation, small slivers of detail surrounding the main character’s estranged daughter–also a polyglot–are an essential part of Hanne’s journey in Japan.
After being shamed at the conference, the bond that Hanne formed with the protagonist of the book within the book, is something she must deal with. She thinks about Jiro and Schuyler included bits of the supposed translation. How could she have gotten it so wrong? is the question she continues to ask herself.
I enjoyed the book immensely, however, the opening pages (mostly chapter one) could have used a bit more ironing out. It was a bit too heavy with Hanne’s translation fragments to really grip onto, but once I moved on from this, I felt safe in the hands of Schuyler. Also, I refuse to give the ending away, but here I also found myself trying to grasp onto the novel. What had preceded the ending was so marvelous, I thought the end odd. It was definitely an answer to all of the questions raised earlier and it made sense. Yet, I felt pulled out of the story. It did not leave me hanging, it did not leave me wanting more, it just left me wanting something else. Regardless, though, I enthusiastically recommend The Translator. It won’t take long to read and it will be a pleasure for both translators and lovers of literature alike. I particularly liked Hanne’s observations of translation,
She has found no other way to be in the world, only the movement of words from one language to another. She knows most people don’t even think about translation, and when they bother to, they don’t assign it much value: a mechanical process, substituting one word for another, a monkey could do it; worse, a computer. She’s tired of defending it, of explaining that even though she’s tethered to an already-assembled drama, her role is akin to being an author.