March 2015

Corinna Cliff


An Interview with Minae Mizumura

In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura examines the role of English as universal language, asking about the future of the other languages whose speakers have to adapt to living in a bilingual world whether they want to or not.

She traces the Japanese language back to its roots, to show how it could develop into a written language suitable as a medium for great works of literature before entering its current phase of decline, a fate which she sees it sharing with most languages today. The book became a bestseller after it was originally published in 2008 and caused a countrywide controversy to which it partly owes its huge success there.

Having grown up in the US as well as in Japan and being frequently invited to international literary events, Mizumura has a unique perspective on the growing influence of English in the world of literature in particular.

After studying French literature at Yale she moved back to Japan to become a novelist writing in Japanese. Only one of her four novels -- all of which have won literary awards in Japan -- was translated into English, under the title A True Novel.

As a German bilingual writing for an American literature magazine, I am benefitting from what you call the "mixed blessing" of having a mother tongue that is close to English. You point out that, for Japanese learners or any learners of a more distant language, learning English is much more difficult. You are fluent in English though.

How was learning English for you as a child when you came to the US?

Let me start out by saying that I don't consider myself fluent in English. The Japanese language is so distant from Western languages that hardly any native speaker of Japanese becomes truly fluent. I am more comfortable reading English than speaking it.

That said, learning English was a very slow process for me because I resisted it all the way. I could afford to do so for a couple of reasons. First, my family didn't go to the States as immigrants; we always knew that one day we would be moving back to Japan. Second, my parents belonged to a generation that only expected their daughters to be decently married; they hardly cared about how we did in school. Not knowing English at school, however, was painful for me -- even traumatic. Once I stepped out of my comfortable Japanese-speaking home, I always felt left out and lonely. Yet rather than trying to learn English, I turned away from it. It's a wonder that my English ultimately attained even this level.

What made you turn away from English?

Several "ifs" would have made me less resistant to learning English. For example, it might have helped if I were a European and not an Asian; there were just too few Asians on the East Coast in the 1960s for me to feel at home. Or if I had been younger and not yet an avid reader of novels. Or if there hadn't been a substantial corpus of Japanese modern literature, an abundance of highly regarded books that a girl like me could lose herself in. Or if I had been smart enough to realize that we had indeed already entered the age of English! But, as it happened, the more I read in Japanese, the more I loved Japanese literature and the less attractive reading in English -- not to mention speaking in English -- became.

Anyway, teenagers are obstinate. I suppose I was defiant in my own childish way, revolting against what seemed to me the American assumption that every living soul must be dying to become an American.

Can you describe what it was that you could only find in the Japanese language, but not in English?

This is a difficult question. You see, it wasn't because I saw something I could only find in Japanese that I started writing in Japanese. I didn't compare the two languages and say, "Aha, there are wonderful things I can only do with Japanese so I'm going to write in it."

Nevertheless, now that I have had more experience with both languages, I'm more sensitive to the uniqueness of Japanese. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the language for me is how its writing uses three kinds of signs: Chinese characters -- which mostly function as ideograms -- and two sets of phonograms. The resulting text contains an embarrassment of riches impossible to replicate in other languages. I'll try to explain it. Let's say you are reading a page describing a flower garden. Names of flowers jump out at you. They are rendered in complex Chinese characters that can't help standing out as they are embedded in phonograms much simpler in form. And since flower names in ideograms usually have poetic connotations, looking at the page, it really seems as if you are looking at a garden filled with clusters of fragrant and beautiful flowers.

Have you ever thought about writing in English instead of Japanese just for practical reasons?

Not really. If I were in journalism or academia, I would see the point in writing in English so that what I have to say might reach as many people as possible. In that sense, I feel indeed fortunate that The Fall of Language in the Age of English has been translated into English. I did have something I wanted to say in this book. But novels are different. It's difficult to separate what I write from how I write. As Yeats famously wrote, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

You also studied French literature. Have you ever wanted to write in French?

Oh, no! I do love the language, but no. There are of course writers who write in a language other than their own and it is theoretically possible that I might have wanted to write in French. I would then have had to read a hundred times more in French and probably go live in France. But all I ever wanted to do was to write in Japanese.

You write about a certain kind of truth that is dependent on the language it is expressed in, in a way that you have to read the actual text and not just a summary of its points. I was wondering about the translatability of such truths. You name Aristotle as an example for texts that we still read, and he is mostly read in translation.

Academic writings can ultimately be translated into a textbook, whereas literature remains a text that you must read in the original to really "get it." Many writings, however, fall between the two categories. Aristotle's writings are a case in point. You often have to go back to his writings if you want to discuss him, but as you mention, you wouldn't go back to the original unless you happened to be a Greek scholar. People usually read him translated into their own language.

Here again, because the English language is the universal language, English translations of Aristotle play a privileged role. Let's say you want to write about Aristotle and have your words read by as many people as possible. You would most likely write in English. You would also most likely read him in English because you would be quoting him in that language. English translations of Aristotle may not be any better at conveying his truths than other translations to begin with, yet with the passage of time they have a strong chance of becoming superior to others: the greater the number of people who read and quote Aristotle in English, the greater the competition to come up with better and better translations. One day, a particular English version may come to be considered the authoritative version everyone in the world reads and quotes.

You point to the naïve enthusiasm that is expressed in an article about the idea of a universal library: while everyone would have access to all the texts ever written (thanks to the Google Library Project), only the English library could actually be universal; all other libraries are only accessible to a very limited number of people. How comforting do you find the thought of Japanese literature entering the universal library in translation?

I'm truly grateful to each and every translator who is making it possible for Japanese literature to enter the English library -- the only true universal library. It is quite comforting to know that this process of translation is likely to continue for a while, with better and better translations emerging. But for someone like me, it is even more comforting to know that Japanese texts, old and new, will one day all be stored somewhere in the cloud. The works that used to delight me, and still do, will continue to be available for those who read Japanese, however limited their numbers may be. Moreover, even if the entire Japanese archipelago is one day blown up by a volcano, humanity will still have access to those works in the original, and there will always be some quirky people who will enjoy deciphering them and be fascinated by them. Though I'm not an optimist, I guess I have faith in the quirkiness of humankind!

I found it very interesting when you said that Japanese sentences do not require a subject. I imagine this must have a great influence on how Japanese people relate to each other and to gender.

Yes. You basically don't need a grammatical subject in a Japanese sentence; the context usually tells you what the subject is. Not having a grammatical subject works nicely when you just want to evoke a mood, for example. The grammatical subject of the word "jubilant" may either be specific or vague depending on how the word is used. If it is not only you who is feeling jubilant but everything surrounding you seems jubilant, just write: "Jubilant." One often takes the liberty of doing this sort of thing in English as well, but in Japanese, it's a perfectly fine sentence.

Naturally, in everyday conversation, things can get rather confusing when one omits proper names or personal pronouns as subject. If I'm talking to other Japanese about people who are not present, I often have to ask, "Who said that?" or "Who did that?" to make sure. The more Westernized your speech pattern is, the more you tend to specify grammatical subjects.

Japanese also commonly does away with the word "I." But the fascinating thing is that when you do use it, the word you use for yourself varies according to the person you are talking to -- and the kind of relationship you want to maintain with him or her. In informal conversation, it also varies according to your gender. (This is why Japanese novels can often dispense with markers like "he said" and "she said.") I can easily come up with more than a dozen words for "I." The same is true with the words for "you." All of this may be a bit bewildering for speakers of Western languages.

What do you think about different languages having different qualities? German, for example, is said to be a good language for philosophy, being so logical and analytical. Does this relate to the kind of language-dependent truths you mention?

Yes, I definitely think so. This may sound like a terrible generalization but the Japanese language has taught me that a person's understanding of the world need not be so well articulated -- so rationally articulated -- the way it tends to be in Western languages. The Japanese language has the full potential to be logical and analytical, but it seems to me that it isn't its real business to be that way. At least, not the Japanese language we still use today. You can mix the present and the past tense. You don't have to specify whether something is singular or plural. You aren't always looking for a cogent progression of sentences; conjunctions such as "but," "and," and "so" are hence not all that important. Many Japanese people used to criticize their language for inhibiting rational thought. It was quite liberating to me when I realized that we can understand the world in different ways depending on the language we use. There isn't a right way or a wrong way.

The difficulty for native speakers of non-western languages to learn English seems to protect these languages from too much English influence. As you said, it is almost impossible for a Japanese native speaker to become fluent in English. You write about the high number of English words that are imported into Japanese especially in the advertising industry and on television. I was wondering how much this can really affect the original language as long as it is only about single English words that are used in certain areas.

The Japanese language borrowed Chinese words freely in the past. The borrowing worked marvelously well because Chinese characters function as ideograms -- or, more precisely, they came to function as such after Japanese invented their own phonograms. Each Chinese character carries a meaning and once you know what these characters mean, you can borrow as many expressions as possible from Chinese and people would understand.

Things do not work in the same way if you just borrowed European words. Today, the Japanese people are borrowing more and more English words and are directly incorporating them into Japanese sentences. But, unlike Europeans who use alphabets, the Japanese people must have recourse to their own system of phonogram to replicate the approximate sounds of these English words. People often have no idea what these words mean. Borrowing English words probably works in IT industry, where everyone is more or less bilingual. Other than that, the whole phenomenon is plainly stupid and demeaning.

You say that the fall of language occurs when people start taking their own culture -- e.g. books written in their own language -- less seriously than what is imported from the English-speaking world. As in times of earlier colonialism, there is the effect that people experience their own culture as inferior and abandon it. You yourself were rebelling against everything American when you grew up though. Are there more people wanting to defy the dominance of English in Japan? Do you think there is the potential for a cultural shift against the dominance of English?

I don't know. Since the end of World War II, any talk about the need to defend the Japanese language has been considered as a reactionary, nationalistic gesture. But I do feel that current is slowly shifting. Now, there seems to be more of an awakening among the general population that they should take a fresh look at their own language, that they should appreciate it more. Where we go from here is still open to question.

What can be done globally to preserve the diversity of languages? You focus on the example of the Japanese, which had been lucky to be able to become a national language. But what about smaller languages that are not connected to a strong national state?

Again, this is a difficult question to answer. Institutional decisions such as the one implemented by the EU in preserving multilingualism obviously provide an important model, even if English remains the de facto common language. Maltese, with only 430,000 native speakers, is represented in EU, not to mention Irish with only 130,000 native speakers. Of course, small languages not connected to a strong nation–state would have difficulty surviving. Many will fall and die, especially if the language does not have a writing system. But take for example a language like Basque. Though the number of its speakers is not that large -- 720,000 -- and though it might never be connected to an independent nation–state, Basque could remain a vibrant language because its users are so much invested in it.

For me, your book was a very interesting read because it made me think about the role English plays in my own language. What could native English speakers take away from your book?

When native speakers of English use their own language, they are in fact using the universal language. This is a privilege accorded only to them. If they become even a slightly little less naïve about how privileged they are, then the book would have served its purpose.