#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

Cross-cultural Observations: Dear Oxbridge

I spent my entire Sunday morning in bed reading the book Dear Oxbridge: Love Letter to England by Nele Pollatscheck that a friend of mine sent me from Germany. I was actually going to be smug about ‘pre-reading’ for #GermanLitMonth for once, but in fact I’ll review it right away, because it says much more about the English than the Germans (yes, mainly the English rather than the British in general).

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash
Instead of filling it with post-it notes while reading, like I usually do, I’ve quote-tweeted extensive passages from the book, because I found it so amusing. I viewed it of course with a wary anthropologist’s eye, so I found it equally revealing about the author and the Germans, as well as often quite spot-on about privilege at Oxbridge, a certain class of Englishman (and it is most often the men she mentions). Bad housing standards and drains, tiny rooms, unmixed taps all make their appearance here, as do private schools, the red trouser brigade of toffs, the stiff upper lip and the constant obsession with the war.  
 
 
Of course, it’s fair to say that during her five years of studying first in Cambridge and then in Oxford, the author was living in a bit of a bubble, so it would be difficult to extrapolate her observations to all of Britain or even all of England.
For example, she says at some point that the upper classes tend to be more direct in their speech: they call a spade a spade and a toilet a toilet, while the working classes try to avoid sounding vulgar by calling it a cloakroom. Which may be somewhat true, but then she goes on to say that it’s mainly gentlemen who swear and cuss, and I thought to myself that she clearly can’t have been exposed very much to a pub in an average English town on a Friday night, where everyone is at it hammer and tongs.
 
I’m also rather unsure about her observation that the NHS oversubscribes anti-depressives because they are the cheapest form of therapy and that so many people use them almost routinely. I found that, on the contrary, the GP tends to push you into the direction of CBT rather than pills, even when there are long waiting lists to see anyone and you get only a small number of appointments on prescription anyway. But perhaps this has changed since she was living in the UK before 2016. (Also, it tends to be a bit of a postcode lottery as to how mental health is viewed and treated.)
 
These are minor issues, however, and on the whole I think she feels a lot of affection for the British, but is still capable of casting cold, clear eyes upon them. Unlike me after my year in Cambridge, when I returned to Romania for a year, saw everything British through rose-tinted glasses and couldn’t wait to plot, plan and arrange to get back to my studies in England. 
 
What struck me most about the book was how much your own cultural background influences what you seek (and find) in another culture. In the final chapter, the author muses about how she discovered she was more German than she had expected (in terms of punctuality, being quite direct and wanting to complain about things), and that what she admired most about the English was ‘kindness’, an almost untranslatable term in German. The Germans, she speculates, are disciplined and correct, they are even kind, but it tends to be more within the inner circle of family and friends. Perhaps the fact that there is no distinction between ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’ when the English say ‘you’, that most people address each other by their first names, makes it easier to add people to your inner circle.
 
To me, coming from a Latin and Balkanic culture, kindness and generosity were not the traits that most struck me about the English. On the contrary, I struggled with the coldness, with what I perceived as lack of hospitality, neighbourliness and genuine willingness to help (I have lived mainly in the South-East, I should say in my defence, and have generally met with much more kindness in other parts of the country.) However, what I did admire was the calm, the wit, the ability to laugh at oneself, the politeness, the non-escalation of conflict – all of the things which I felt were lacking in my own culture.
 
Dear Oxbridge is a farewell letter to Britain and an attempt to explain Brexit to the Germans. Given how critical the author is about Etonians, politicians, the privileged elite and how the British put up with far too much from their ruling classes, I don’t think it will be translated here any time soon.
 
 
 

An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs

Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.

I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.

In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]

She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.

Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.

 

 

Elizabeth von Arnim’s Eccentric Charm

After reading The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden in quick succession, I have to concede I have fallen in love with the witty, sly, unconventional author best known under the name Elizabeth von Arnim. These two novels are fairy-tales to a certain extent, where the brutal reality of married life is somewhat swept under the carpet, where amused forgiveness is still possible and desirable. I do worry about Mrs. Wilkins in The Enchanted April, and how she and the other ladies will fare once they return to the less romantic English landscape and climate.

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator openly refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath and his humourless, judgemental pronouncements (which she excuses with an ironical laugh) make me want to slap him around the face at times. Clearly, the author herself did not find her first husband all that congenial either, and none of her marriages or love affairs were fully satisfactory. She emerges as a strong-willed and eccentric woman, very dreamy, absorbed by nature and literature, but still caring about other people’s opinions and needs.

Although I barely knew the plants she was listing and describing, I enjoyed the passion she felt for her garden, her sadness at not being able to do the digging herself, the detailed study of seed catalogues and obvious pride at the results. It is utterly charming and unusual, the very essence of Englishness, full of astute observations about people and cultures. And sometimes she voices opinions which sound remarkably modern.

Archive picture of Nassenheide manor with April, May and June babies.

To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important?… It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else… I should cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment…

The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snaring on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty – everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty.

Well, trials are the portion of mankind, and gardeners have their share, and in any case it is better to be tried by plants than persons, seeing that with plants you know that it is you who are in the wrong, and with persons it is always the other way about…

Miss Jones looked as though she did not like Germans. I am afraid she despises us because she thinks we are foreigners – an attitude of mind quite British and wholly to her credit; but we, on the other hand, regard her as a foreigner, which, of course, makes things very complicated.

Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs… In spire of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don’t believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us and make us kinder, and more gentle.

Original picture of Nassenheide from 19th century.

If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don’t let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

If this sounds like a self-help book, it is not. And the narrator is quickly brought down to earth by her friend’s retort to the above exhortation:

To hear you talk, no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck.

It is this down-to-earth quality, this endearing exchange of firmly-held points of view, as well as the love of nature which makes this book such a delightful companion, although it is clear that the author is speaking from a position of privilege to which we may find it difficult to relate. A true mood-booster, which should not have been relegated to the dark, dank reserve stock cellars of the library.

Another archive picture of Nassenheide during Elizabeth’s time there. The property has been demolished and now lies within the borders of Poland.

Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast

MusselFeastWritten just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.

The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper.  They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal.  It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying.  The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either.  From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him.  Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family.  The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.

Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements.  Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read.  It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals  to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of  ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect.  And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.

Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice.  Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves.  A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.

I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.

Their reaction surprised me a little.  OK, a lot!

They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’.  Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well.  The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English.  It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...
English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Türkçe: Berlin Duvarı, 1989 sonbaharı (Photo credit: Wikipedia)