Nina Schuyler

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!


The Translator cover

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.

Hmmm... I wonder what Leo would think of certain translations of his novels?

Hmmm… I wonder what Leo would think of certain translations of his novels?

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.iStock_000004476910XSmall

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.”


Thanks to reading Nina’s novel, I learned more about of the art Japanese Noh theater.

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.2116_51851016261_9466_n

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.


fingers on vintage typing machine on white

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.iStock_000000471976XSmall

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.



Thanks, Nina! NS WEB 020


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:


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

29 thoughts on “Nina Schuyler

  1. This sounds really interesting. A few months into learning Spanish I had a sort of breakthrough when I realized that translating wasn’t a matter of replacing one word with another, but instead taking a whole idea or concept and thinking about it in a different way. I’m putting “The Translator” on my list to read next. I wonder if it has any similarities to Memoirs of a Geisha, another book set in Japan that was really great. Oh, no need to enter me in the giveaway. I already bought, read and loved “Shake Down the Stars.” 🙂

    • Kelly,
      That’s a fascinating transition to make in learning a language. So many hours are spent learning the individual words. Then, with the new words in place, they are like jewels waiting to be lined up, creating a necklace that we call a sentence.

      THE TRANSLATOR is not like Memoirs of a Geisha, which takes place in 1929 and does an excellent job in capturing that time period in Japan. Here, I take you to contemporary Japan, with its rich often jarring mix of East and West. In the novel, there is a taste of old Japan because you travel to Kurashiki, a small town west of Okayama Prefecture, which retains its Edo-period charm, because it was not decimated in WWII. And, as a reader, you also travel to a Noh play, which is one of Japan’s oldest art forms.

      Thank you for putting my book on your reading list!


  2. Oh, but remember your advice can be to an old writer, too! My sister-in-law is Japanese and teaches English and it will be interesting to see how it relates to her. Great interview. Books sometimes seem richer when you have a little insight into the author and the process. Thank you!

    • Barb,

      One of the beautiful things about writing it that it can only get better with age: all that insight and experience and wisdom wants to find its way onto the page. So, yes! Advice for an old writer, too!

      Your sister-in-law is an ideal reader, having a foot in both worlds. And you, too, having knowledge about Japan from your sister-in-law and perhaps a visit to the country. From my experience speaking Japanese (as a native English speaker), I have found so many differences between the languages, both subtle and not so subtle.

      I hope you enjoy my book.

  3. The Japanese culture would be far better off if the generations continue to honor their elderly citizens. Celebrate Respect for the Aged Day. Japanese culture is steeped in religion and custom. They hold a particularly special place in their culture and their aged. Respect for the Aged Day (敬老の日, Keirō no Hi ?)

  4. What a terrific interview! It brought to mind the good/bad translations of my beloved George Simenon’s novels of Maigret. Japanese culture has always been of great interest to me and this book will definitely be on my reading list.

  5. Nina, your book sounds divine. And your advice to a young writer is spot on. Everyone should take it to heart. Thank you SO much, Renee, for bringing Nina and The Translator to my awareness. I appreciate YOU!

    • Lori,

      Thank you for your enthusiasm. As I revised (and revised and revised), I was very conscious of trying to create surprise–not only at a plot level, but a sentence level. You’ll have to let me know if I succeeded.


  6. It is always nice to find a new author. After reading this interview The Translator is on my to-read list. I never really thought about whenever a Russian or French novel was a good translation or not!!

  7. I don’t even know how I got this link sent to me, but I can’t wait to read the book. As a parent to a daughter whom I fear to be mistranslating all the time, this idea is relevant. However mysterious, I’m so very glad I found this review and know about Nina’s book! Thanks, Renee!

    • Melissa,

      I love when mystery can enter the day. It makes me trust the world a bit more. You will find a complicated relationship between Hanne and her daughter, one full of good intentions and also regret.


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