Review: The Translator

Posted 1 July, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Translator
By: Nina Schuyler
Format/Source: galley copy courtesy of Pegasus Books via NetGalley

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, her injury is an unusual but real condition–the loss of her native language. She is left speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life. With her personal life at a crossroad, Hanne leaves for Japan. There, the Japanese novelist whose work she translated stunningly confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.

Reeling, Hanne struggles for meaning and seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel–a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate and intriguing relationship, Hanne begins to understand the masks she has worn in her life, just as the actor dons the masks that have made him a legend of Noh. The demons from her past and present begin to unfold and Hanne sets out to make amends in this searing and engrossing novel.

I found out about this novel through NetGalley. The situation that Hanne Schubert finds herself in sounded intriguing and the elements of Japanese culture, language and translating foreign language novels also drew my attention. I was approved of a galley copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. This novel will be available on July 2nd. May contain some minor spoilers ahead!

Simply put, I could not put this book down. It was wonderful to read in so many ways, touching on themes both serious but also fascinating, but also beautiful and, on some level, inspiring.

Languages and the art of translation has piqued my interest in recent years, in part because of my graduate programme (I had to learn Russian for my thesis & for a programme component) and in part because of my travels (living in Italy for a semester, I had to pick up the language). Having studied both Russian and Italian, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the tricky job that translators face; as the book mentions time and again, there’s a preciseness and a power to words, labeling and explaining things, thoughts, emotions, the material and non-material aspects of life. Which means that translating an idea from its original language to another language can often change the initial idea because the translator is trying to express these sentences, these ideas, in another language that carries its own world perspective (if that makes sense; the novel explains this a lot better). There are these nuances that fall to the wayside at times because the language in which the product is being translated into does not have the sufficient words and phrases to reflect those aspects (tone, the weight of the idea).

It was fascinating to read as Hanne grapples with the Japanese phrases, trying to find a suitable English counterpart but in the process changing the idea thanks to her word choices. There’s a precision to her approach to languages that is also reflective of her personality. Her passion for languages is clear with every sentence and every encounter; I found myself relating to her character in that we both understand how important the way in which an idea is expressed, rehearsing what to say at times in order to get it right.

The Japanese language and culture makes up an important role in the story. The presence of the language was fun, reminding me of when I used to watch anime shows in its original Japanese (with English subtitles) and picking up the odd phrase or word. It adds to the overall feel of the novel, a sense of being there in Japan with Hanne. Noh theatre and the aesthetics and ideas behind the art and its relation to national identity, the “soul of Japan”, were also explored to considerable detail. I enjoyed learning not only about the theatre but the emotions and ideas associated with it. It also ties in to Hanne’s personal journey in a way that was unique and perfect/suitable for her character.

Her trip to Japan and the storyline concerning her professional life and the translation she was working on reflects and feeds into Hanne’s personal journey. She is a woman who has gone through complicated relationships in her past, who is estranged from her daughter and who has gone through life with an armour of strength and resilience to the point that she’s forgotten about her emotional self. Her time in Japan and her recent health concerns prompted her own reflections and self-evaluations about who she is, the decisions she’s made in the past and where she’s headed with her life. I think it’s this self-examination and the gradual desire & transformation that she goes through that prompted the word “inspiring” early in this review; the desire and the courage to change your ways, that acceptance that you can’t keep the world out, not truly, the re-discovery of your true self along the way.

The reader also gets a sense of her relationship with her daughter through memories that crop up here and there over the course of her journey, tracing Hanne’s re-examination of the decisions she’s made as a mother. I would argue that on one level she is being a bit too hard on herself–she is a mother and ultimately what she wanted was the best life for her child–but then on the other level she did fail to truly understand who her daughter was and failed to be there for her when she needed her the most. It’s heart-breaking and it made the journey towards reuniting with her daughter all the more urgent/important/anxiety-inducing (you’ll have to read the novel yourself to find out whether Hanne does reunite with her daughter and if/how that plays out).

I enjoyed the prose and the way in which the story unfolded. If anything, the only thing I wished the story expanded on or fleshed out was Hanne’s relationship with her son, Tomas. While he was not estranged or cut off from her, there’s something about their conversations that say that there’s a level of detachment going on there as well. There’s a hint of favouritism that Hanne holds between her two children and it would’ve been interesting to explore her relationship with Tomas further.

The Translator is a beautiful, evocative and thoughtful novel that leaves plenty to think about for the reader. The lush descriptions of living in Japan, the landscape of Hanne’s past and her internal struggles were all fascinating to read. It’s definitely one of my favourite reads this year. I highly recommend this novel for fans of Japanese culture, language and a good character-driven story.

Rating: ★★★★★

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