In many ways, language itself is at the heart of this novel.
In literature, as in life, mothers get blamed for just about everything. They are held responsible for being overly attentive, or not attentive enough; for providing bad examples, or establishing impossible standards; for staying with unworthy men, or leaving good men.
Such is the relationship between Hanne Schubert, the eponymous translator of Nina Schuyler’s most recent novel, and Hanne’s daughter, Brigitte, whom she hasn’t seen in six years. Brigitte blames her mother for her father’s death, and for sending her to a boarding school when she was most in need of Hanne’s love. Now Brigitte is hiding out somewhere, and only her brother knows the exact location.
The story opens with the widowed Hanne, alone in her apartment, fully engaged in translating a novel by “an up-and-coming Japanese author who is about to make his grand entrance into the American publishing world.” So intimately involved in the text is she, that she falls a bit in love with Jiro, the book’s protagonist. In real life, she has a casual arrangement with David, a married colleague at the university where she teaches, but she tends to prefer the characters who leap from the page into her imagination.
She can no longer communicate with David, however, after she falls and hits her head. Due to a brain injury, she is unable to access English or her childhood tongues, German and Dutch. Her Japanese ability, however, remains intact. This isn’t a problem when conversing with her adult son, whose father was Japanese, but she becomes isolated from everyone else, including her students. Although her son insists that she stay home until she has recovered, Hanne books a flight to Japan where she will be able to speak freely and where she has been invited to take part in a literary conference and discuss her latest translation. She will also have the opportunity to meet the Japanese writer of the book — the creator of the fictional character she has fallen in love with.
In many ways, language itself is at the heart of this novel. The characters are united — and divided — by language in its many aspects. Hanne herself is the daughter of a translator and has passed her linguistic gifts to her daughter: “Language, [Hanne] remembers her mother telling her when she was a girl, is the umbilical cord to other humans.” When Brigitte drops out of school, abandons her study of languages, and joins a cult, she is not only choosing a different career path, but also severing ties with her mother.
Thus language can be a bridge, but it can also be a means for transformation. Language is, after all, linked to culture. Hanne notes that she smokes only when she speaks French, eats dark rye bread only when speaking German, and pickled herring when she uses Danish. “I think I look my best when I’m speaking French,” she says at one point. “My clothes, my hair, my complexion, French brings out a shimmer.” When she speaks Japanese, “she could feel it shaping her private mental life into something more demure, indecisive, even wishy-washy. It would do no good to think this way, especially in dog-eat-dog American where the winner takes all.”
While in Tokyo, at the literary conference, she meets the author of the novel she has been translating. Although she expects to find in him a kindred spirit, to her great surprise, he believes that she has corrupted his work. Suddenly, her confidence is shaken, her professional reputation damaged, and her entire future as a translator is at risk. In an attempt to disprove him, or not, she endeavors to meet the Japanese Noh actor who allegedly inspired the character Jiro.
She manages to find the actor, Moto Okuro, a charismatic man with a birthmark in the shape of Montana, and becomes his house guest. Without the distraction of work, Hanne’s thoughts turn increasingly to her daughter. Moto convinces her to seek out Brigitte before it’s too late. But before she can find her daughter, Hanne must confront her mistakes in translation and in mothering.
The Translator is a smart and sophisticated novel. Schuyler is clearly familiar with Japanese culture and language, referring at times to Heian court poetry, the finer points of Noh theater, and of literary translation. Moreover, Schuyler offers a nuanced portrait of human relationships. This book should appeal to anyone interested in the power of words.