'The Translator,' by Nina
The Translator, by Nina Schuyler
(Pegasus; 352 pages; $25)
The most affecting transformations in a novel are surely of characters who see themselves in no need of rescue or salvation. Such people are managing perfectly well, thank you, untilsome series of jolts in the story bring them up short, causing their self-confidence and complacency to fall away.
We first meet Hanne Schubert, the protagonist of Nina Schuyler's moving and intelligent new novel, "The Translator," in the thick of the work she loves: literary translation, in this case of a novel by a Japanese author named Koboyashi. The multilingual Hanne was originally German, but English is the language of her home (in San Francisco), Japanese the language she translates and teaches. Hanne hopes her rendering of Koboyashi's novel will both bring success to its author, whose book has been a big hit in Japan, and also plaudits and more work for herself, as its guiding spirit into English.
So deeply involved in the project is Hanne, and so close is the novel's third-person narration to her sensibility, that the predicaments pressing on her in the opening pages have little to do with her personal life, but rather concern word choice, nuance and her attempts to understand Koboyashi's main character - with whom Hanne develops a whimsical infatuation.
A visit from Hanne's son Tomas, a married lawyer in New York, fleshes out Hanne's situation, but a troubling reference to her daughter - "It's been six years since she's seen or heard from her daughter, Brigitte. ... It's mind-boggling how little she knows about her" - is initially left unexplained. Gradually, we learn that Hanne's Japanese husband, Hiro, from whom she had separated, has died 12 years earlier and that her brilliant teenage daughter took the loss hard:falling apart, getting poor grades and eventually sent off by Hanne to a reform school in Connecticut. From that time on, mother and daughter have been estranged, though for Hanne the recollection occasions more defensiveness than regret.
Then comes the first, literalshock that sets the wheels of Schuyler's plot in motion. Having finished her translation, confident it is a triumph, Hanne is walking through San Francisco and visits City Hall, where she takes a terrible fall down the stairs, suffering an acute (though dreamily described) head injury. When she wakes up in the hospital and begins to recover, she emerges as the kind of patient Oliver Sacks might write about: The first language Hanne retrieves from her muddled brain is Japanese, and though she can comprehend English, she is unable to speak it.
This is both a real neurological phenomenon and a device that helps initiate Hanne's necessary journey toward greater self-awareness. (More often, we learn, it is the mother tongue, in Hanne's case German, that returns, while later-acquired languages remain inaccessible.) As Hanne's strange impediment makes normal San Francisco life a challenge - she can't communicate verbally with neighbors, the mail carrier or even to her English lover, David - she accepts an invitation to speak at a literary conference in Japan, where she willfinally meet Koboyashi.
Hanne's sojourn in Japan, which takes up the bulk of Schuyler's novel, is rich in details both sensory (the country's colors and tastes, as well as the sounds of its language) and cultural(manners, habits, social expectations). After being rudely confronted at the conference by Koboyashi, who to Hanne's great distress accuses her of rewriting his story and "ruin[ing] my main character. ... You should be ashamed" - Hanne embarks on another journey, inland, to meet the gifted Noh actor on whom Koboyashi's character was based.
The literalness of Hanne's project - to get to know the modelfor Koboyashi's fiction in order better to understand the fiction he accuses her of butchering - seems misguided and due to a misunderstanding of how novelists create their characters, but, gradually, the reader comes to suspect that is Schuyler's point.
Perhaps Hanne Schubert, though immensely gifted at language, aware of every shade of literal meaning, is impeded in her grasp of emotional nuance, imposing her own will on the work of another, and blind to the complex emotions of an author's creation - particularly when they conflict with her own values and judgments.
It is Moto, the great Noh actor, with whom Hanne develops a close and complex tie, who helps her to see her failing in a way that slowly opens Hanne up both to a reassessment of her work and to her relationship with her daughter. While Hanne idealistically describes translation as "an effort to deepen the connections of the world," Moto asks her, "Do you ever wonder when you're busy naming, what you might be leaving out?"
The creed on which Hanne has based her career (and the novel is clear that Hanne is a disciplined, hardworking, supremely intelligent woman) has omitted the importance of empathy and humility. This lesson, which Hanne finally receives in a setting far from her San Francisco home or any familiar geography, is delivered with great grace. It comes as a stunning surprise to the reader, in a powerful, beautiful scene that illuminates the value of listening carefully, even when one doesn't completely understand.
Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of five novels, including a book for children, "Kepler's Dream," published under the name Juliet Bell. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Causes Nina Schuyler Supports
National Resources Defense Council