:: Article

honest work: an experimental review of an experimental translation

By Matthew Jakubowski.

Portrait of a Tongue, Yoko Tawada, An experimental translation by Chantal Wright, University of Ottawa Press, 2013

Man hat nicht immer Lust, eine Sprache mit einer anonymen Masse zu teilen. —Tawada

You don’t always want to share a language with the anonymous masses. —Wright

The critic had been given three weeks until her deadline. It would’ve been plenty of time; the book was short. Her assigning editor wanted 1,000 words. The rate was $30. Virtually nothing. But it was a rare paying job for an online journal that was popular in the small circle of writers, fellow critics, and translators she admired. Was it worth her time? Depending on her mood it was either an optimistic stab at the hope that someday a reputable editor might read her words online and contact her about a better-paying job, or another byline trophy-hunt, an exercise in self-exploitation.

She tried to stay positive, focused on the excitement of writing for a new publication. Her email to the publisher, the University of Ottawa, yielded a review copy: Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue, An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright. She’d asked for a print copy because she wanted to see what this experiment looked like on paper.

The same day the book arrived her sister called to say that her husband had bolted to New York for “an amazing assignment” (most likely to do drugs and maybe blog about Banksy), leaving her alone to care for their eight-month-old daughter. When the critic arrived at her sister’s apartment she found that their mother had barged in half an hour earlier. Mom said she’d come to help, too. The girls knew this meant she’d stand around asking what she could do and when told, she’d sit and sip wine while others washed diapers, cleaned the house, and cooked her meals.

The critic did most of these things while overloaded more than usual at her marketing day-job. Her sister’s place was further away from work, adding thirty minutes to each end of her commute. Evenings were spent trying to keep her sister from screaming at her mother, who could not resist verbal jabs at the girls for marrying poorly or not marrying at all, in the critic’s case. “Yes, Dad’s rolling in his grave, Mom. We get it. Move on. Or perhaps pay him a visit?”

One week living at her sister’s turned into two and the critic had done zero reading for her review. She composed an email asking for an extension from her editor and deleted it; she didn’t want to make a bad first impression and have word get around. When her sister’s husband returned, the critic had just six days left before deadline. She finally got to sit down with the book, smiling at how this was supposed to be her chance to shine and attract a better-paying job some day.

She turned to read the introduction. There were two. Skip them? No. She’d read and tried to adopt the principles set out in Some Thoughts for Reviewers of Literary Translations. One thing it advised: “If the translator has included a note describing his or her approach to the translation, it is useful to summarize the principles mentioned in the statement and to indicate whether the translator’s aims have been achieved.”

Chantal Wright, the translator, had included much more than just a “note”; there were thirty-three pages of introductory material. The critic read them.

Wright said Tawada’s prose was “often described as minimalist,” as a method of evoking “the fiction of the first-person narrator moving with wonder through a new language,” a quote Wright had translated and attributed to German scholar F. Gelzer.

Wright contended that much of Tawada’s work came with a built-in sense of “fictitious anthropology,” as the unnamed narrators move through the real world sustained by imagination to overcome their doubts and confusion. These narrative personae, Wright wrote, often describe their experiences and observations in a manner that “signals a narrative shift away from realism and toward the metaphoric and absurd”.

A beautiful word, “signals,” thought the critic. To feel a writer signaling you as a reader can be one of reading’s most enjoyable moments. When a writer establishes this sort of channel in a text to signal to you in some way, well, how can you not be hooked? It’s as if we are then ushered into a story told in the secret language of shared thought, one which, in Tawada’s books, as Wright seemed to say, describes the true world from a fragile interior perspective that survives only because the narrator can see absurdity and suffering so clearly.

Wright discussed things like the use of Adorno’s “concept of epic naivety” in Tawada’s work. It sounded like a nice phrase, but it was simple math really: if as a writer you can get the reader worried about the narrator right away, of course that’s fantastic. It’s an instant source of momentum and risk for readers to enjoy, which the author can modulate to develop layers and richness and blend in their themes if they have the talent and ambition.

The critic turned to the actual text of the translation and saw that the experiment was printed in two columns. “Chantal Wright’s translation places Tawada’s text on the left-hand side of the page and the translator’s dialogue with the text on the right. The translation therefore occupies the page in a manner which draws attention to the presence of a translator, to her personal experience of two languages and cultures, and to the impact of this experience on the reading and translating process”.

Why not use footnotes? the critic thought. She flipped back and found that Wright had addressed this. “(Footnotes) seemed an inadequate response to its challenges,” she said about the book, and “the text, in its cultivated naivety, invites the reader to enter into dialogue with it,” to the point where Wright said that her “very personal identification with Tawada’s text also found its way into the translation”.

“Despite the inclusion of this personal response,” Wright said, “the translation was never intended to be an exercise in narcissism”. But all writing could be viewed as slightly narcissistic, couldn’t it? And if an artist’s methods stirred up self-accusations and a little shame in artist and audience, that’s fine. It’s just one troubling element of the reading experience that yields many complex benefits.

“It is in the nature of an experimental approach,” Wright said, “that some will perceive it as having gone too far, and others not far enough. I have taken my experiment to the lengths that I felt were suggested by the source text, and to the lengths that I felt were appropriate. Throughout, I have endeavored to show my respect for and enjoyment of Yoko Tawada’s text.”

“In the final layer of the commentary,” Wright also said, “I practice the art of thinking out loud in the same way Tawada’s narrator thinks out loud. As a reader, I follow the narrator’s thoughts and the development of the narrative, and record my responses in the commentary. In this respect, and indeed in the commentary as a whole, I am endeavoring to show ‘what we are doing when we read’”.

This was exactly what the critic had always wished she could do. But Good Lord this seems complicated, she thought, and she hadn’t yet read a word of the translation itself.

She closed the book. She was tired. She could not stop thinking about her sister and her mother. She made herself a few drinks and went to bed.

She did not begin reading the book again until four days later, when she only had about 36 hours left before the review was due. Then she devoured it.

At the end, the critic looked over the pages she had scribbled in. She had felt a slight loathing at having not been able to read as quickly as she liked. The plodding effort of having to take notes was almost always tiresome. It also made her somewhat disgusted because it reminded her again of a hidden experience she had as a critic. As she would read and take her notes, underlining passages, feeling the lines and phrases disturb eddies within herself, the hundreds of pages floating upwards through her current life and sometimes reminding her of things she had read before, she knew that maybe only a tenth of one percent would ever make it into her review.

Because the review was about “the book” as it existed outside the reading experience. And reviews were defined by practical enterprises interested in audience share, ad-clicks, and page-views. The entities involved in publishing the review claimed to want something erudite and punchy, the juicier and wilder the better, perhaps, but in a 600 or 1,000-word burst. These limitations meant that the critic kept what mattered most about the book hidden. It had become a disappointing part of the reading for review, underlining phrases as she read and sensing somehow as she did that it would not ultimately matter in the final draft. Her sense of bowing to word-count limits and editorial concerns would make her cut the best parts out or never even include them in any of her many drafts.

She diagrammed the book itself, then diagrammed her reactions to it. She argued in her mind with Wright’s approach, with her word choice, with the tone Wright had given Tawada’s words. She tried to remain both skeptical and open. Only after attacking the book and her notes did she allow herself to begin what she would later call her review.

It was not a review like those she’d written before. It did not contextualize or rely on her knowledge of the author’s work. (Rather than beginning with a bio, “Tawada was born in Japanin 1960, first visited Europe at age 19, and moved to Hamburg in 1982. She now lives in Berlin. She wrote her Ph.d. thesis in Germany. The title was Spielzeug und Sprachmagic in der europaischen Literatur (Toys and Linguistic Magic in European Literature)”, she left it out entirely. As for plot summary, why bother? The publisher’s jacket copy did just fine: “Porträt einer Zunge is the narrator’s portrait of a German woman, referred to throughout only as P, who has lived in the United States for many years. The text is part declaration of love for P…part ‘thinking-out-loud about language’…”

Her review, as it was, did not serve basic journalistic purposes of explaining who the author was, why she was important, and summarizing the plot and major themes.

Instead, the critic started writing what she wanted to for herself about the book and why some parts of it felt important. “Another layer within the commentary is provided by my use of personal anecdotes,” Wright had written, “in conscious mimicry of the narrator’s anecdotal style.” So the critic let voices rise up within her like characters observing her behavior and acting them out.

She imagined herself as a famous critic writing a wild note to readers of the book, of every translated book:

You must choose a new way to read this book, find a way better than any you’ve used before. Imagine this as the last book you will ever read. Heighten all your awareness, try to simultaneously forget and remember both everything you have read and every thought about books you’ve loved. Move along in equal balance to create and destroy new thoughts as you read. You must do this to honor both the original author of this work, and the translator.

She wrote a creative description of what she thought Wright had tried to do:

See the book’s dual-column format as if it were a split-screen of dueling subtitles to a film. It is two streams of input, a film and commentary. But the “film” is your conception of the original text in German. Even if you have no knowledge of German, you’ve heard some in your lifetime, even if it’s only German spoken by actors pretending they know German. Now add to the sound of the original text in German the images in your mind that arise when you think of Yoko Tawada’s name. (For advanced readers, imagine that Tawada is also imagining an actor’s German speech as she writes her text in German.) The “film” running in the back of your mind as you read these dueling columns of text should be your composite image of an author named Yoko Tawada sitting in a room, being filmed, as she writes the book to the background sound of an American film on the television that has been dubbed into German.

The critic wasn’t quite sure why she had written these things, or who they were for. It felt as if they were aimed at someone.

“An influencer,” she said aloud. It made perfect sense. This was her word for that editor who would someday offer a real job with good pay where she could settle in and do great work for decades.

She despised needing to somehow impress an influencer, lacking as she did the sort of connections that get people ahead.

It felt good to let herself despise the powerlessness, but strange to have felt this in response to Wright’s book. She picked it up again and flipped through. She found notes she had marked as important at the time, but later ignored. She had drawn a half-circle around a passage in Tawada’s story where P had related an anecdote to the narrator: “[An] old friend of hers weighed only forty kilos when she died. She was beaten by her husband, tried to save herself by numbing the pain with alcohol and one day stopped eating. P told me the story in a half-empty parking lot in front of a grocery store.”

Another highlighted anecdote described P’s curious misunderstanding of the phrase “a package deal”. Tawada wrote, “When she had taught literature at a renowned university in New England, she had been very unhappy because she had lived alone with her baby. Her husband was working in another part of the USA and was able to visit her only on weekends. After a while he was given a chair at Harvard. She gave up her position, which was a good one, to move to Cambridge with him and the child. The position she got there wasn’t good for her academic career, and that was a ‘package deal’”. Wright had commented, simply, “This is not, of course, what ‘package deal’ usually implies”.

When the critic looked further, she found similar passages she’d highlighted in Tawada’s text. The examples included times when P “had eaten a lot of candy to deal with her unhappiness” and a powerful detail in a negative picture of the American suburbs, where wives drove their husbands to the station in the morning, returned home and began to drink right away. “The bottle openers are antique, whereas the glasses come from the supermarket”.

The critic resisted the recent memory, then let the echo in, and heard her mother’s voice bellowing semi-drunk about her girls’ misspent lives. During one such tirade, the critic had been standing in the kitchen with her sister, who had clenched her fists when their mother shouted and all the knuckles of her sister’s fingers had cracked in unison.

There were only about 24 hours left before the review was due. The critic decided to make some tea. Back at her laptop, she drafted a note to her editor:

“If you want the real review, you’ll have to hire a camera crew to follow me for the rest of my life. Pretend you’re the book’s author and translator searching for evidence you’ve had an effect on me. If you see no effects, you’ll have your answer. If you do see effects, you’ll have to ask yourself whether my reactions were genuine or if I performed for you and your readers’ benefit”.

She didn’t email it. With 24 hours left, she could still bang out a decent enough real review. There’d be consequences if she missed her deadline or told the editor she’d decided not to review the book after all. Yet there would also be quieter, more enervating consequences for her if she gave in and wrote another traditional review for nothing more than $30 and a chance to impress some invisible male editor somewhere.

She typed a sentence. “This book changed my life.” It was true in a way. And she could twist the provocation further in her review. She could pose, too, imitate Tawada, use doubt and ambivalence as her second language, speak through it, let readers think she was naïve enough to believe a book could change her life. “But it won’t change your life,” she wrote, “because of course no two people have ever read a book in the same way.”

Matthew Jakubowski has written for Music & Literature, The Millions, BOMB(site), hyperallergic, and more. He is Interviews Editor for Asymptote, and has published fiction in various journals, including 3:AM. Go waste time with him right now: @matt_jakubowski

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 9th, 2013.