Minae Mizumura was a runner-up for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. That year Seiobo There Below was the winner (and virtually impossible to beat), but had that book not won, it’s very possible that A True Novel would have.
Mizumura’s project is original and interesting, and her second book to be translated into English was published last month by Columbia University Press. It is The Fall of Language in the Age of English, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.
Reviews in The Complete Review:
The Fall of Language in the Age of English is written specifically from an (insular) Japanese perspective but many of the issues and concerns addressed by novelist Mizumura Minae apply generally too — and, indeed, the somewhat unusual Japanese example serves as an excellent starting point for this discussion. In particular, Mizumura’s is a welcome voice on these matters, as someone writing from a language (that she worries about being) at risk — if not entirely an antidote, so at least, one hopes, helping to counteract what Mizumura sees and reveals as: “The virtually unfathomable naïveté of those whose mother tongue is English”.
Languages have materiality, Mizumura insists, and her personal essay-cum-allegory lets the landscape of English letters hover like a mirage above physical America. In Iowa “the view was not particularly beautiful. There was none of the poetry one sees in scenes of the countryside in American films.” Yet “turning to Chris [the program director], I roused myself and said exactly what an American might say at such a moment: ‘Beautiful day!’ ” Such are the dangers of a universal language: Being in America, speaking “American,” Mizumura can utter only “what an American might say,” even if that means lying about the blighted prospect around her. In contrast, here is the author’s memory of touching down in France: “Once I set foot in Paris, I was greeted with boulevards shimmering with new leaves and skies gloriously liberated from the dark of winter.”
Mizumura’s second book, an “autobiographical novel” written mixing Japanese and English, may explain the reasons for her antipathy and ambivalence. “Nihongo,” at any rate, is a book of discontent. Mizumura is dissatisfied with the possibility that English will overwhelm Japanese; her compatriots’ failure (in her judgment) to produce worthy writings in the language she cherishes; and the Japanese inability to manipulate English well.
Her fear of English as a lingual juggernaut is based on her reading of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities.” I haven’t read this famous analysis of the origins of nationalism, but Mizumura’s fear that Japanese may become a “local language” as English becomes the “universal language” strikes me as misplaced.