August 2013

Jessica Henkle

fiction

The Translator by Nina Schuyler

Hanne Schubert, the translator, both defines herself by and prides herself on her talent for languages. For her, the art of translation goes beyond merely converting words from one tongue to another -- she "must sing the human condition," and in fact, "has found no other way to be in the world." But when an accident robs her of every language but Japanese, she is deprived of her raison d'Ítre, catapulting into question not only her future but also her past. Hanne is the protagonist of Nina Schuyler's elegant new novel, The Translator, which explores the themes of passion, family, love, and loss with deep insight.

Schuyler's elegant, understated prose pulls the reader into the story like a warm bath. Her language is as careful as it is surprising, as in her description of the demise of Hanne and her late husband Hiro's marriage: "No explosive event, no hair-tearing affair or sudden falling off a cliff out of love, the end was more insidious. By the time Hanne noticed the huge gap between them, it had calcified into something other than a marriage." Hanne's dedication to her work is both an excuse and filler for her feeble relationships -- her son and his family live in New York, while Hanne resides in San Francisco, and her daughter, whose whereabouts she is perpetually unaware of, hasn't spoken to her in years. Hanne doesn't seem to feel strongly about any of this. As she says, "Things that are unacceptable are eventually, resignedly accepted."

After the accident, however, her perspective on this and everything else begins to change: "she walks slowly, deliberately, aware of the sidewalk, the cracks and bumps, the dips and drops. Aware now of how easy it is to fall." Unable to speak English, Hanne begins to see San Francisco as a kind of prison, and so she journeys to Japan -- in part to give a talk at a conference, but mostly to immerse herself in language again, even if it's only one. While there, she is confronted by Kobayashi, the Japanese author whose novel she translated just before her accident, and he publicly berates her for destroying his work. Though she tries to brush it off as the drunken railing of a temperamental artiste, she can't shake his criticism. Never mind that she may not be able to translate ever again, but is it possible she wasn't even good at it to begin with?

Though the reader can see Hanne is coming undone, that's not the label she gives it -- and if she is going to unravel, it'll be on her own terms. Still shaken by the encounter with Kobayashi, she sets out in search of Moto, the now-retired Noh actor upon whom the novelist based his main character. Schuyler has created Hanne's match in Moto: an intelligent, enigmatic man who is battling his own demons after divorcing his wife and losing his desire for the stage. Being around him forces Hanne to wonder, "If someone's destiny is to possess a talent, and the world embraces it, all is well. But when the talent is denied, what happens? When the soul, for whatever reason -- even by one's own hand -- is denied its destiny, what are the consequences?" It seems that consequences are all Hanne encounters, no matter how or where she tries to run from them.

Though fraught with his own problems, Moto revels in peeling back the layers of others' psyches, and despite Hanne's resistance, he begins to deconstruct her life, including her falling out with her daughter, Brigitte. When Hanne chided her daughter for spending too much time mourning her father's death, Brigitte told her she couldn't help it, saying, "'It's the way it feels to me.' And she stretched out the word 'feels' as if it were a foreign word that Hanne didn't understand." The older Brigitte grew, the more difficulty Hanne had in relating to her. But the more she talks with Moto, the more she considers the possibility that her misunderstanding might have been a choice -- "a deliberate misreading of her daughter to bolster her, not just once but many times to cultivate something bold and resolute, something hearty and robust so the blows of the world would not break her like a cheap knickknack." Though her intention was to brace her daughter for the trials of life, in so doing, Hanne ignored the person Brigitte was. Just as she read what she wanted into Kobayashi's novel, so Hanne realizes she's done the same to her daughter, and now she faces the daunting task of undoing a lifetime of mistranslation.

Relatable, beautiful, and honest, The Translator is as heartbreaking as it is redemptive, written by an author with a firm grasp on both the interior and exterior lives of her characters. Schuyler's writing is like the calm before the storm -- quiet, but packed with power, the perfect stage for a novel that explores the differences between truly reading our loved ones' stories and merely translating them into a language we can more readily comprehend. Of her daughter, Hanne longs to ask, "Are you listening? Or have you slipped away from me into a hidden seam I can't cross to?" After so many years and such a wide rift, Hanne is unsure if she can mend the damage she's caused, if she can now become a different mother, a different person than she's always been -- "but she's not there, she tells herself. She's here. And there are still possibilities. She need not settle for her old life." As any good translator knows, our definitions are always open to interpretation.

The Translator by Nina Schuyler
Pegasus
ISBN: 978-1605984704
352 pages