The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura

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While reading The Fall of Language in the Age of English, I couldn’t stop thinking about audience. This is a book that was originally written in Japanese for a Japanese audience, has now been translated into English by an academic press, and includes the text from a speech to a French audience about the downfall of the French language. The shift in audience from Japanese to English also shifts the content, so that Mizumura’s celebration of the unique history of Japanese language and literature, and her lament over its current waning, becomes an indirect scolding of the perpetrators of its downfall—us, the all-assimilating English-reading masses. And Mizumura does a good job of convincing me that we deserve that scolding.

In the opening chapter, we follow her experience with the International Writing Program (IWP) at Iowa, a summer writing residency. Right off the bat, Mizumura hits us with a list of complaints. Her health is bad, she often gets the feeling that she’s only invited to programs like this because she speaks English, she can’t afford business class. At first blush, I found these details tedious and off-putting. But they serve two important purposes. First, they give insight into what it’s like to be a famous writer in a non-English language who still feels beholden to English-speaking interests. More importantly, it sets up an emphasis on the disparity between Mizumura as a privileged writer in a country with a major literary tradition and a strong economy compared with the other writers at IWP. Mizumura is subtly reproaching herself here for being aware of how good she has it.

Among her cadre of fellow IWP participants from around the world are writers that an American audience is unlikely to read. They’re from places like Mongolia, Korea, and Ukraine. But more importantly the majority of them are not writing in English. In this section Mizumura is at her most engaging. Through her eyes we get an unfiltered portrait of the other writers. An Argentine novelist named Leopoldo is described as “a wild leopard” with “feet full of life.” He’s foiled in the next paragraph by the German Matthias who “predictably, almost comically, reeked civilization.” (In case you were curious, a brief sketch of Americans includes the phrase “too many hamburgers and French fries.”) Mizumura imagines their collective as a group of soldiers “headed for their downfall” because of their refusal or inability to write in English, but she just as quickly dismisses that metaphor. The very thing that unites the writers—lack of English as a common language—prevents them from fully unifying. But it’s not just language, of course. Mizumura contemplatively catalogs the political and economic situations of the countries of origin of the writers and realizes what a relatively privileged position she holds.

The narrative style—thoughtful, thorough ruminations—is reminiscent of Mizumura’s A True Novel, and it continues in the next section. Here, after an abrupt shift, Mizumura gives a history of the fall of French as a semi-universal language. She compares French’s modern status with Japanese, telling her French audience, “Welcome to my side of the asymmetrical relationship!” The tone here is more academic, but it’s punctuated by the same astute observations that make her novel and the first chapter of this book so enjoyable. She gives a fantastic example of how, a century ago, a book could be written in French about the universal experience of feeling a disconnect between art and reality and people in Japan might read it, whereas the same book in Japanese wouldn’t get read in French due to the asymmetry between the languages. But now it’s unlikely the French book would be read in Japan either. Mizumura is great at using these small anecdotes or hypotheticals to make her big points, and it keeps the book digestible even when it veers into the highly academic. Toward the end of this chapter, though, Mizumura starts to lose me.

Minae Mizumura

Minae Mizumura

The second half of Fall of Language becomes decisively more academic, and it brings several of the problematic aspects of that genre along with it. Mizumura goes to great lengths to argue that Japan’s language and literature are unique and incomparable with other languages. She cites Japan’s having never been colonized but being forced to open itself up its empire to foreign powers instead. She discusses in detail the evolution of written Japanese from its Chinese origins. She describes how many members of Japan’s budding academia were devoted solely to translating works from Europe and had no time to build their own base of knowledge. Each of these points is made up of brilliant comparisons and remarks, but in building her case for Japan’s exceptionalism, she frequently goes overboard. When she makes statements like, “Even as I write in Japanese, a language that has never played a major role in the history of humankind,” it’s hard to carry on as a willing audience. She chastises Japanese youth for not reading Japanese classics or Japanese literary journals, as if this isn’t a tragedy felt by readerships across the globe. It’s also very difficult to ascertain how any of her points about Japanese don’t also apply to languages like Gaelic, Korean, Nynorsk, Vietnamese, or dozens of others. On top of this, it’s unclear how it would functionally change her argument if she didn’t spend significant energy insisting on Japanese’s uniqueness.

Similarly, I was fully on board with Mizumura’s observation that English readers and writers rarely acknowledge or try to make up for their collective inattention to works in other languages or in translation. When she goes into specific criticisms and specific solutions, though, I became lost and tried to locate the disconnect. She leads us through an in-depth summary of the argument in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, which draws a parallel between pre-printingpress Latin and modern English. Mizumura makes thorough use of this parallel, but then takes Anderson to task for not sufficiently problematizing the global dominance of English as a universal language. She makes the same argument about a New York Times Magazine article about the all-encompassing digital library, deploring its lack of acknowledgment of how moving to an Internet library leads to monolingualism. In both cases, I agree with Mizumura’s argument, but I’m unsure why she chooses to criticize these particular cases. In the process, she makes statements like “Only books written in Standard English and published in major cities in the West circulate worldwide at this stage,” which are especially hard to digest not too long after reading New Yorker articles about their darlings Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante, both of whom are not writing in English and are enjoying American success. Mizumura’s solutions to this problem include calling for the Japanese government to take measures to protect the language like the French government does (despite the fact that Mizumura at other times bemoans the intervention of a post-WWII Marxist government into language) and removing English education from the Japanese school system (except for the “cadre of bilinguals that Japan needs”). She closes the book with a wish that “more English native speakers walked through the doors of other languages.”

I want to agree with her. I chose to review A True Novel partly because it is written in a non-English language, and I ended that review lamenting the fact that it took ten years and a government grant to get it translated into English. My New Year’s resolution was to read more books in translation. Unfortunately, when Mizumura moves from providing evidence to offering an argument, she takes it a step too far and I no longer feel in sync with her rationale.

Overall, there is incredibly smart stuff in here. The IWP section would be a brilliant standalone essay. The close reading of Sanshirō by Sōseki, comparing its plot with the history and current state of Japanese literature and academia, is wonderfully done. There’s tons of fascinating little details that draw in an English audience, like the fact that there is no Japanese 101 equivalent to freshman English courses. Mizumura’s ability to weave together so many strands of history (lingual, academic, economic, geopolitical) paints a clear picture of the evolution of Japanese literature, with commentary on the rest of the globe being a pleasant byproduct. In the end, though, these moments are often drowned out by Mizumura’s academic-like insistence on presenting her argument as unique and, in the process, often overreaching.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English is translated from the Japanese by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.

Graham Oliver is an MFA candidate and writing instructor at Texas State University. He is the nonfiction editor for Front Porch Journal. His work has previously appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, Full Stop, Ploughshares' blog, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about family, legacy, and genealogy. You can follow him on Twitter @GRAHAMMOLIVER. More from this author →