In a discussion on Danish television of people whose countries no longer exist, Hiruko is asked what is this language. As part of her answer, she explains: “recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.”
Tawada, Tokyo-born and Germany-based, writes in Japanese. So even as her gripping story pulled me along, my attention remained partially focused on what the process of translation into English may have involved, and how passages such as this one may have been rendered in the original Japanese. But it took a rereading of Edith Grossman’s 2010 classic Why Translation Matters to register an oddity in Scattered All Over the Earth: the fact that the translator, Margaret Mitsutani’s name is not printed on the front cover; it is mentioned prominently enough on the back.
Translators as writers
Grossman has translated countless novels from Spanish to English, including those by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Why Translation Matters is based in great part on lectures she delivered in 2008 at Yale University in the U.S., and remains an invaluable guide on how to read translated works, as readers and reviewers. At the heart of her essays is her assertion, “I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves — forgive me, I mean ourselves — as writers… I also believe we are correct to do so.”
At its most visible, this demands that the translator’s name be visibly, legibly mentioned on the book’s cover. It involves a consideration of what it is that a good translation achieves. It needs the translator to have “a keen sense of style in both languages”. A translator must first gain a deep understanding of the original — “this is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be,” she points out. This, then, must be re-created “as far as possible, within the alien system of a second language”. In other words, reading a work in translation is to be aware that it draws from the translator’s reading and then the translator’s writing in the second language. As she quotes Walter Benjamin, “No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.”
Grossman notes that the incapacity to consider the translator’s role and give the translator her due shows up in the perfunctory nod that most reviewers deign to give by way of recognition by mentioning that the volume at hand has been translated “ably”, or some such phrase. How do the reviewers know, she asks, when most have not read the original, or even know the original language. “‘Ably’ compared with what?” It is, after all, the translator’s writing that is being read by readers and reviewers. The translated work, Grossman writes, must be read as such, and “judged and evaluated on its own terms”. She explains that while a good translator is deeply mindful of the original work and strives to make “the second version of the work as close to the first writer’s intention as possible”, its presentation in another language is in the translator’s words.
Perhaps readers would appreciate the idea of the second version in a more informed way if publishers included a note from the translator.