Two hard questions: have I failed at my art? Have I failed as a mother? To even pose these questions cuts too deeply to the core of who I am, and I don’t want to go there. But these essential questions are the very ones thrust upon Hanne Schubert, the protagonist of Nina Schuyler’s engaging and thought-provoking second novel The Translator.
When we meet Hanne she’s prideful, certain the Japanese novel she’s just translated will establish her as a master in the art of literary translation. She brushes aside the fact that her daughter Brigitte has refused to see or speak to her for the past six years. In her view, their estrangement is an unfortunate consequence of Hanne’s decision to protect Brigitte by sending her to boarding school. She acted in Brigitte’s best interest, and if Brigitte doesn’t see it that way, Hanne doesn’t fault herself.
With an abundance of confidence and resilience, Hanne seems primed for a fall, and fall she does, tumbling down the grand marble staircase in San Francisco’s City Hall and suffering an unusual brain injury that leaves her able to speak only Japanese. Deprived of spoken English, Hanne travels to Japan, where she embarks upon a transformative journey in which she must consider whether she’s misinterpreted not only the novel she believes to be her masterpiece, but her daughter Brigitte, as well.
I talked with The Translator’s author, Nina Schuyler, in the North Light Court of San Francisco’s City Hall, not far from the staircase down which Hanne takes the literal fall that sets the novel in motion. Amidst couples arriving to take their marriage vows and surrounded by conversations spoken in a variety languages, we delved into Hanne’s narrative of missed meanings, severed connections, and self-renewal.
The Rumpus: One thing that was wonderful in The Translator is how intensely bonded Hanne becomes with Jiro, the protagonist of the novel she’s translating. Jiro is a companion in her thoughts, and she imagines him as her lover, even after she’s done translating the novel. He seems like he’s the one who’s most present in her consciousness. Is one of Hanne’s struggles that she’s projecting or supplanting actuality with these made-up ideas that she has?
Nina Schuyler: I think I’m drawing on the writer experience of writing a novel where the characters over time become so alive and real. She’s spent a year translating this novel, day in and day out, sitting with this character Jiro, trying to figure out his psychology, his motivations, his intentions, his strengths, his weaknesses, his relationship with his wife who’s depressed, and his relationship with his new girlfriend once his wife is sent away—an echo of Hanne sending away her daughter to boarding school.
If you’re writing a book and it takes four-and-a-half, five years, you’ve spent a lot of time with imaginary people. Now you realize they don’t exist, but you’ve explored so deeply and intimately a psychology that seems more real because few people in real life give you that kind of access. But it is a flaw. Because the other thing that happens is that you become godlike of your own world: as translator because you’re recreating a work, and as a writer. Hanne does create the kind of character that she’d like to be with. So yes, projecting qualities that she admires onto this character Jiro, which is somewhat what she does with her daughter, although there’s a little more intent behind it.
Rumpus: Did you uncover any real-life schisms between a translator and an author while you were working on the book?
Schuyler: The most public one has been between Milan Kundera and his translators who moved his novel, The Joke, from Czech to English. He was outraged at what they did to get an English audience to read his work. He had all the work retranslated once he became famous. He just hated what was done to his original story so much, that he hired his own translator and redid it.
In his essay “Sixty-three Words,” in a section called “Rewriting,” Kundera quotes himself from his play Jaques and His Master:
Death to all who dare rewrite what has been written. Impale them and roast them over a slow fire. Castrate them and cut off their ears.
That’s in a play, talking to translators. That’s how outraged! So, when I read that, I knew a translator can really piss off a writer.
Rumpus: Have you done translation work yourself?
Schuyler: I’ve taken many, many Japanese language lessons and I used to translate poetry, though I had the help of my sensei. I should mention there are some translators that work very closely with authors. Haruki Murakami comes to mind. I went to hear a lecture by Jay Rubin, who is his primary translator, and Jay Rubin will go through the whole story or novel and fly over to Tokyo with pages and pages: “What did you mean?” “Is this good translation?”
Rumpus: I enjoyed Hanne as a narrator because of how nuanced her sensory perceptions were, of sound, and visually as well. On the other hand, she has emotional blind spots. Can you talk about the interplay of those two features of her character?
Schuyler: It’s almost like Hanne has a heightened sense of sound and love of language—an obsession—that has put this patina over everything so that other aspects of self have diminished because they haven’t been focused on. As a writer, and I think it’s the same for a translator, it can be an obsessive craft—you just can’t put it down. Even when she’s interacting with people, she’s thinking of words and what was said, versus what’s the feeling here? The gesture? What’s the subtext? The obsession colors everything for her. And you want to create a character with a flaw. What is her fundamental flaw? She may be extraordinary in some ways, but she’s quite ordinary or even flawed in other ways, which creates a complex character. And she’s so blind to it. It’s really a story of an awakening, a resurrection of a character.
Rumpus: Along with her emotional blind spots, Hanne’s also arrogant and stubborn. In a number of ways, she’s not a genial character. There’s been a flurry of media attention given to Claire Messud’s remarks about the likeability of characters, particularly female characters. What are the rewards of writing a character like Hanne who perhaps isn’t especially likeable?
Schuyler: To me, it’s an easier story to write a woman who’s been victimized in some way. There are a lot of stories like that. You know, a husband leaves, some deficit happens in a life. So how do you write a character that is confident in who she is and her mastery of a subject area—in Hanne’s case, translation—and yet has tremendous blind spots? It’s a challenge. Male writers seem to have an easier time of creating an unsympathetic character. I’m thinking of J.M. Coetzee, his work.
Rumpus: Like David Lurie in Coetzee’s novel Disgrace?
Schuyler: Yes, that’s it. The older guy who’s a little curmudgeonly. And yet when you have a female character like this, there can be resistance. When Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge did so well, I felt as if I had permission to go ahead and write a more aggressive female. There’s an Italian writer named Elena Ferrante that creates unsympathetic female characters with harsh edges, and it sells out in Italy. There were times my friends were saying, “Well, maybe you should try to sell this in Europe first. There might be a bigger market for this,” understanding that women are not always maternal, or the victims of something, suffering from something, or in the midst of a love affair. This is eventually a love affair with her daughter, it’s not a love affair with Moto. It would be easy if this was a love affair with Moto. It’s an easier story to write to lure people in.
I really liked what Claire Messud said, that you’re trying to make the character come alive. For me, this more complex female character is alive and vibrant and very real, given the problems that she has to grapple with: making a living, putting her daughter through school, helping her daughter through difficult times. These are real problems that don’t have easy solutions. It’s not clear what she should do.
It was challenging, but in that way, good for me as a writer. I think that’s how you keep going as a writer. What next risk haven’t I done that I want to try? I’m going to stand in the shoes of this person over here because I never have. What does it feel like?
Rumpus: The settings are one of the highlights of the book, and I loved experiencing them through Hanne because she is such a fine observer of the physical world. Most of the novel takes place in Japan. Did you travel to Japan to write this?
Schuyler: I’ve been there probably five times, and I lived there for a couple of months. One of the trips I took was from Tokyo to Kurashiki, which is the town where Moto lives. Many of the buildings there are from the Edo period. It wasn’t bombed. Hiroshima is by train about forty-five minutes away. There are still these little pockets where you can see original Japan. It was intriguing to ask, What’s the heart of Japan and is it knowable? Hanne professes to know Japanese, and she finds out she knows nothing in a way, by going to Noh and experiencing Moto, who’s not the stereotypical Japanese man. Again, it’s bringing attention to interpretation and all the things you project on something and what is the real thing. That’s why the pool ended up in there, the fake indoor ocean. It exists in Japan in this huge building. If you close your eyes, it feels like the ocean, but it’s a really huge building.
Rumpus: The Translator is firmly grounded in realism, but there are many touches like the indoor ocean that felt surreal. Are you interested in exploring the ways in which reality can seem surreal?
Schuyler: I am. There’s an early scene where a woman shows up with the balloons for Hanne. Hanne thinks the woman’s a prostitute, but her son Tomas has sent the woman, and she sings Hanne a lullaby in German. I wanted to set the tone early. We’re going to push the envelope a little bit here and rub up against reality. What’s real, what isn’t? It’s also to keep surprise in the writing and the story and the sentence, moving not completely into surrealism but inviting edges of it in. It felt right, thematically, and it felt right as a writer wanting to create surprise. Also, it’s a nod to Japanese Shintoism, which has similarities to animism, where the inanimate is given spirit or life.
Rumpus: I was very moved and troubled by the estrangement between Hanne and her daughter Brigitte. The daughter makes a decision not to speak to her mother and they haven’t spoken in six years; the mother doesn’t even know the whereabouts of the daughter. I wondered if you thought Brigitte’s action was justified?
Schuyler: I think Brigitte really needed to sink into silence. Hanne gave up everything to be a mother, to give her daughter the world, and it ends up backfiring. I felt Brigitte was suffocating. If I had written it in her point of view, Hanne is just overdoing it with Brigitte: “Oh, I see your potential, Brigitte, and you’ve got to go this direction, you have so much expertise in sound and language, and you could do this and this and this.” And yet that’s not her path, it’s not who Brigitte is. Hanne refuses to listen to her daughter and to see her. Brigitte needs breathing room, and the only way she can find it is retreating—figuratively and literally retreating. She goes on a retreat first, and then retreats into a space where she won’t reveal the location because this mothering and extension of Hanne into her daughter was so overwhelming, that she needed to have her own way to grow and find herself. I do think that you can have very different personalities in a family and that the key there is to recognize the differences versus ameliorating them, or polishing them away.
Rumpus: Do you think Brigitte could have become the really remarkable person that she does become if she’d had a mother who had been more sympathetic to her personality? I wonder if it was critical to her development that she reach an impasse with her mother?
Schuyler: I think so. I mean, you think you want what you want. I could imagine Brigitte really wanting a mother who understood her completely, and yet in reaction to her mother, she became what she is, and she’s quite happy and peaceful. So that’s another complication. The ideal isn’t necessarily to have a mother that completely understands a child and is there every step of the way. Maybe you need friction to find out what the edges of yourself are. What do I truly love? Unless I’m brushing up against an opposite, I may never know. I may just merge and never completely individualize. Brigitte harbors some anger toward her mother, but at the same time she found where she wants to be in the world.
Rumpus: In the novel, you include samples of passages that Hanne is translating. Readers get a very hands-on glimpse into the art of translation. Was it fun to concoct examples of translation?
Schuyler: Yes, and it’s also a way to show her passion. I’m trying to create avenues into this character so you can relate to her or you can be intrigued by her. By showing her in the act of translating, which is her passion, you get to see her really alive. And I think it’s human nature to be drawn into something like that. It’s a little subculture and not a lot of people know about it. Translators don’t have real answers. They have to grapple with, how do you move this word into this language?
Rumpus: Do you have a favorite example of a translation from the book that you could read? I smiled at the Macbeth translation.
Schuyler: That’s a good one. Let me find it. It’s when Hanne’s at the indoor ocean. A little girl has just given her a paper origami crane:
She puts the crane on her towel and picks up her book, Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Japanese. She found the book in Renzo’s library and tucked it into her bag, thinking she’d spend the day reading. But the book is so poorly translated that she finds it impossible to read without re-translating it. Life’s nothing but a dark shadow, a poor player fretting on stage. And then it’s over. She can remember the original sentence from secondary school: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.
I made the Shakespeare translation up. So yeah, that was fun to play with, and that’s what translators do. You can capture the intent, but it’s not quite right, especially if your ear hears the original.
Rumpus: After Hanne suffers her brain injury she travels to Japan, and there she befriends Moto, the man who’s the model for the protagonist of the Japanese novel she’s translated. His views are so at odds with Hanne’s. An engaging friction arises between them, and attraction. Can you talk about the differences of their viewpoints?
Schuyler: If you think of sound again, of melodies of characters, her melody is this, and I want to create the exact opposite melody with these characters together to create that friction. There was a real thought process going on about who would poke and probe and be playful with Hanne. Because that’s what she needs. Not someone to be serious or brush her off, but just keep poking at her.
I’ve been enamored with existentialism, and the Camus story, “The Guest,” is in the novel for a reason. Hannah believes that you must construct meaning in life, that there is no inherent meaning in life. But she finds this liberating: okay, if there is no meaning I get to create meaning. And she’s creating meaning as a translator. What’s the meaning of this word? I can find a similar word that means the same. Her whole personality, her whole way of being is constantly creating or manufacturing meaning. Not only in her work, but in life. How do I make my life meaningful?
But there’s a type of person—and Moto and Brigitte are this way—that thinks meaning is inherent here, in life, it just exists. If you open yourself to the experience of life, you don’t have to create meaning, it’s there. It is just in living, in paying attention. That’s what Moto does. He’s enamored with life even though he’s in deep grief; it’s just that that’s the experience now of life. So I love the line he says: “’Hanne, I may not be on stage’”—he’s an unemployed Noh actor—“’but it doesn’t mean that there’s no life off of stage. I’ve fallen off the stage, but I’m still involved in life. It’s still here. Is that what you fear? That you’ll fall off your stage and you’ll be in nothingness? That’s not true.’” So he keeps poking and probing. Words aren’t the only thing in life. It’s not all category and labels and thinking and words. Then he goes deeper. You don’t have to be creating meaning all the time. It’s just here. This is divine. Right here.
Rumpus: Do you feel more allied with Moto’s view of living or with Hanne’s?
Schuyler: I have both, and I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more like Moto. As the finish line approaches, you get a sense that you’re not twenty anymore. You think, I’m here. I definitely have both. I’m in the world of words. I love finding the right word, and the right sound. That can give me hours of pleasure, but I’m learning more about Moto’s way, and it’s a really pleasurable way of being in the world.
Rumpus: Did the path of the story come to you bit by bit, or did you have an overall map for the novel at some point in the writing, or even before you wrote it? I was particularly curious about when you arrived at the ending, which one reviewer praised as “a stunning surprise to the reader.”
Schuyler: The ending took a while. I just didn’t know if Hanne had changed enough. It was hard. I wrote so many different endings, and then I thought I hadn’t earned it yet. I can’t have that ending. So then I’d write a new ending. But then I thought that’s not enough satisfaction—for the reader, for her. That’s not enough change. So I’d write another ending. That was really a struggle: how to end it. Has her character moved enough to have an ending that is earned and satisfying and yet stays with you in some way?
Rumpus: How have readers reacted to the ending?
Schuyler: Moved, really moved. I think they feel it’s earned and it makes it a real book.
Rumpus: It’s a heartbreaker.
Schuyler: My mom died before I had children. So there are some ways that things were never resolved in my life. I think once you become a mother you understand so much more about your mother and there can be some meeting ground there that wasn’t there before. In my own life there’s been this unresolved ending. And that’s life. Not everything wraps up neatly.
Image of indoor ocean © by K.W. Leung.
Second image of Nina Schuyler © by Ann K. Ryles.