Stephen Snyder recently wrote about translation of contemporary Japanese literature for the New England Review. In his article he examines the careers of Haruki Murakami and Minae Mizumura (A True Novel, Inheritance from Mother). Of Mizumura he writes:
Each of her works, for different reasons, is, in effect, untranslatable on one or more levels—not overtly or explicitly but philosophically and contextually.
Which brings us to Mizumura’s acclaimed 2002 novel entitled Honkaku shōsetsu, which is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan, but encased in a complex set of narrative frames, including an outermost one in which a writer named Minae, whose biography maps Mizumura’s own, introduces the reader to the main narrative. At first glance, this work, which is more plot-driven and compulsively readable than Mizumura’s earlier fiction, is also more readily translatable; and, in fact, as I’ve mentioned, in 2013 it did appear in English to considerable acclaim. Still, a closer look reveals a number of ways that the text presents challenges or puzzles to the translator and insists on its immersion in a Japanese cultural context that cannot be readily brought over into a target language or culture. The title, for example, was rendered as A True Novel in the English translation, no doubt for the ambiguous and possibly oxymoronic contention that a fiction or novel could also be “true.” But honkaku has a wide range of meanings in Japanese, and the book could plausibly be called A Genuine Novel or An Orthodox Novel (as the phrase has generally been rendered, meaning, to Japanese readers and critics, a fully realized novel with an ambitious, complex plot). Other possible titles with different nuances would include A Real Novel, A Serious Novel, or even A Standard Novel or A Full-Fledged Novel. The original title itself, then, for a writer such as Mizumura, who is fully conscious of the differences between Japanese and English, is a kind of intentional difficulty for, or challenge to, the translator. (A fact that is especially interesting, perhaps, since Mizumura initially wanted to translate the novel herself.)
The text, too, repeats this challenge. On the level of plot, Mizumura provides a richly and finely wrought story—a genuine novel—that comes across successfully in English, but on the sentence level—particularly in the dialogue—the text is a study in nuances that remain largely lost in translation. The story, like Brontë’s, investigates class relations between a poor young man who falls in love with a wealthy girl and seeks to woo her after he has made his fortune. But the social milieu Mizumura creates—replete with a cast of peers and magnates, maids and parvenus worthy of Jane Austen—engenders a text proliferating with finely graded linguistic markers of privilege and subservience—in which Japanese as a language is particularly rich. And by necessity these nuances go largely untranslated or receive only vague approximations in English, a language much poorer in explicit markers of class.
On Mizumura’s website, she labels herself, tellingly I think, as “A Novelist Writing Modern Japanese Literature in the Japanese Language,” implying, no doubt, that other writers—and perhaps explicitly the most notable of all contemporary Japanese writers—are writing in something other than Japanese—at least not in the nuanced, literary Japanese in which Mizumura casts her own work.