After I finished Nina Schuyler’s The Translator, I found myself thinking about the power of language, the art of translation, and–do indoor beaches really exist or is that something Nina made up? Luckily, Nina agreed to an interview. Here, she answers all my questions about her novel, including how she came up with the idea for such a masterful tale. PLUS, there’s a book giveaway! Leave a comment after reading the interview and you’ve entered to win a copy of The Translator. It’s that easy!
In the opening of The Translator, Hanne, the protagonist of your novel, is transcribing the work of a well-known Japanese author. After completing the novel, she suffers from an accident and loses the ability to speak any language except Japanese. The Translator also deals with mother-daughter estrangement and offers terrific plot twits and depictions of Japanese culture. I guess I’m wondering how you created a novel with so many compelling layers? What was the genesis? How did it unfold?
In 2005, The New Yorker published an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” about a married couple that was busy re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. The couple was Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigrée. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett who had first translated Russian literature into English could be set aside.
As a girl, I’d loved Russian literature. It turns out, I’d read Garnett’s translations. I felt, well, betrayed. But I was also intrigued. I began reading about translation theory, including George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language & Translation, which I loved.
Soon, I was down a novelistic rabbit hole, researching the brain, language acquisition, talking to neurosurgeons, translators, Noh actors, reading about the relationship between language and thought, and pondering how we are translating all the time—every single action, every verbal exchange.
One of the many things that interested me about Hanne was her smarts and her dedication to her work. She’s also rather reserved and introverted. How did Hanne come to you? Did you ever worry that her personality would distant readers or was that even a concern?
I knew Hanne was a translator, but that’s about it. I interviewed a handful of translators who translate Japanese into English to get a sense of how they worked. There is a great deal of commonality between translators and writers: both have a passion for language, both are constantly rubbing up against words, so I knew I could understand and write these aspects of Hanne.
When you create a character who doesn’t align with society’s designated roles, you risk alienating readers. For a whole host of reasons, I think this is especially true for female characters. I really like Claire Messud’s response to an interviewer who professed she didn’t want to be friends with Messud’s main character, Nora, in Messud’s novel, The Woman Upstairs. Messud said, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’
For me, after many drafts, Hanne came alive—yes, she’s reserved, introverted, sometimes cold, arrogant, and she’s also passionate, driven, stubborn, frightened, bewildered, grief-stricken, a single mother who worked unflaggingly to pay for her son’s college, her daughter’s school.
An added dimension to Hanne’s character is her estrangement from her daughter Brigitte. Did you know from the start that Hanne would be alienated from her daughter?
Early on, I knew I was working with two stories, one was a literal translation, the other a metaphorical translation involving Hanne and her daughter. What I didn’t know was how Hanne had mistranslated her daughter. I also knew I wanted to capture the complexities of their relationship—the love and hate and disappointment and their shared love of language.
There’s a scene in The Translator where Hanne visits an indoor beach in Japan. Does this beach exist? If so, can you tell us more about it? It sounds surreal!
Yes! It’s located in Mayazaki, Japan. It’s the largest fake beach in the world. I’ve been there, walked on the white sand with the waves lapping the shore and the fake palm trees. The temperature is about 86 degrees Fahrenheit and the water about 82. Yet overhead, there is a retractable roof. You are, in fact, in a very large building.
I was telling a friend about your novel and he reminded me of a time when we were both reading Crime and Punishment. At some point we compared a few passages and that’s when I learned I was reading a crappy version of the novel. I had no idea until then the important role translators play in shaping the world of a book. Have you always been interested in translation? How can readers tell when we’re reading a good translation or not?
With a lot of help from my Japanese language teacher, I’ve tried to translate Japanese poetry into English. My feeble attempts showed me the wide variability in moving the work of language A into language B.
How do you know if you’re reading a good translation? I recently had an exchange on Goodreads with Larissa Volokhonsky, who is busy re-translating the great works of Russian literature. I asked her this very question. Her response: “A reader who does not know the language of the original can only read a translation and see whether it is or isn’t to his/her taste. Translations do differ.”
Basically, you’ll probably think it’s good, until someone comes along who knows the work in the original language and tells you otherwise. We put our trust in the translator, though most of us don’t even think about this person, because if you are monolingual, what can you do other than read the book? Yet a translator has so much power. All those great works we’ve read—we’ve glimpsed Homer through Fitzgerald or Fagles, Marquez through Gregory Rabassa, Proust through Moncrieff or Davis.
What I loved about your novel is that I never—not once—knew what would happen next. I love that feeling. Do you write with an outline or did the novel unfold on its own?
I just let myself write a messy first draft. Pages and pages, where I’m working, trying to figure out character, plot, setting, images, all the things that make up fiction. After I have a first draft, I begin to take a closer look to determine what is there—are there character arcs? Narrative arcs? What images stand out? At this point, I begin to outline, figuring out what still needs to be developed, what should be tossed out.
What books would we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
I’m working on something now and wanted to understand the personality of someone like Anthony Bourdain. So I have his memoir, Kitchen Confidental: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It’s funny.
A young writer wants your advice. What three things do you tell her?
1) Writing is a practice. Just like golf. If you want to get better, practice. Set up a schedule, commit to it. Include rewards to reinforce this very good behavior.
2) Read and read widely. Find the stories you love and take them apart—how did the writer do this? This structure? This complex character? Create this tension? The style of writing? This is the way to be your own teacher.
3) Don’t compare. Everyone has her own trajectory. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt. How true.
Nina, please describe your perfect Sunday.
I have two boys, ten and two-years-old. So a perfect Sunday requires that someone other than me tends to them, and I have complete trust in the person who is doing the tending. My husband is happy, outside, riding his mountain bike in the hills. The house is still, quiet. A big swathe of unhurried luxurious time is in front of me, so I write. Two hours in, I’ve transported myself into the blue space of my imagination. I get on my bike and ride in the sun, letting what I’ve written float around in my head.
Revived, I come home and write some more, until I begin to miss my family. It’s time for everyone to come home and make noise.
Nina Schuyler’s first novel, The Painting, was a finalist for the Northern California Book Awards. It was also selected by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the Best Books of 2004, and has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, and Serbian. Book List dubs The Translator, as “Evocative, powerful, and well-paced. Schuyler’s novel illuminates how interpreting a person is as complicated an art as translating a book because of the risk of reading what one wants to discover rather than what one needs to learn.” (Starred Review)
You can learn more about Nina Schuyler and her work by visiting her website: http://www.ninaschuyler.com
Don’t forget about the book giveaway. Leave a comment and you’ve entered to win a copy of The Translator. Contest ends September 16th. Thanks!
The winner has been contacted. Thanks for entering everyone! -RS