“Language is the only homeland.”
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world we are translated men.”
John Lanchester’s novel Fragrant Harbor and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet both feature languages as an important theme. Specifically, the two novels draw attention to the inevitable encounters between foreign languages as one aspect of a much larger exploration of clashes between cultures. Most of the characters choose to align themselves with their homeland, and consequently, with their mother tongue. However, a few exist that actively transgress these linguistic boundaries and flirt with foreign cultures and identities. They are the translators. But in navigating past language barriers, can a translator use that success to truly find a new home in foreign lands? While traditional thought views the translator as one capable of transcending cultural boundaries, both novels complicate the trope by demonstrating how even an accomplished translator may still fail to successfully and fully integrate into a foreign culture.
Foreign languages create an obvious obstacle towards any attempts at communicating with other people. Occasionally, the characters of both novels use this phenomenon to their advantage by excluding others from not only a conversation, but from an entire culture. Wo Man-Lee’s criminal organization and their methods in Fragrant Harbor provide an insidious example. When the police finally gather evidence regarding the rampant corruption, they cannot find anyone willing to translate the incriminating tapes. One policeman in particular bemoans how, “The structure of the criminal organization is completely integrated with that of the old village. Everyone is known to everyone else. Highly secretive. No way in” (Lanchester, 226). The observation inextricably links the organization to the region and the language. Language in this instance acts an identity for these people much in the same way their village, their home, does. This allows Wo’s organization an incredibly easy strategy for conducting their questionable business in almost broad daylight. They simply hide behind the already present language barrier. Only those people who come from the same community, who know the same dialect, may understand them. This same linguistic exclusion, however, simultaneously results in a sense of camaraderie between those speakers. By the end of the book, Matthew Ho admits to Wo Man-Lee that they both speak the same dialect, Fujianese, which comes from a very small but close-knit town. The revelation provides an instant sense of community between the two. It leads to a more cordial meeting, and eventually helps Matthew’s important business proposal pass. Matthew probably would not have succeeded had the linguistic connection not been made clearly evident.
Since language carries the potential to both exclude and include others, translators traverse uncertain grounds. After all, language does not exist alone. It acts as a marker for culture and identity. As a result, “translation does not occur in a vacuum, but in a continuum; it is not an isolated act, it is part of an ongoing process of intercultural transfer” (Bassnett and Trivedi, quoted in Winks, 2). Japanese interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet certainly recognizes these connections when he discloses his dream to Jacob for “one year in Batvia, to speak Dutch…to eat Dutch, to drink Dutch, to sleep Dutch” (Mitchell, 87). He understands, whether consciously or not, that language does not stop at speech. Rather, it is tied to food, drink, location – in short, to culture. Conventional tropes agree with such sentiments and assert that the translator, as someone who can speak a foreign language, can cross both linguistic and cultural barriers to find a new home. According to such logic, should Ogawa fulfill his desire to live in Batvia for one year, he would eventually adopt a Dutch identity.
For Tom Stewart in Fragrant Harbor, the formula works. After learning Cantonese and living in Hong Kong (eating, drinking, and sleeping Cantonese), the people of Hong Kong accept him as a part of their community. The pivotal moment shines through with the sharing of a joke. In such cases, jokes act as a powerful tool for identification, especially if taken in conjunction with language. After all, some jokes are dependent on language, so much so that their spirit often becomes lost in translation. Orito Aibagawa neatly sums up how the “joke is [sic] secret language … inside words” (Mitchell, 127). She recognizes how, on a small level, private jokes shared solely between members of a community provide a shortcut to identify in-groupers from out-groupers. This method, however, still holds true on a much larger scale, when involving questions of foreign languages and translation. When Tom finally finishes his Cantonese lessons with Sister Maria, and they both land in the port, Maria explains, “It’s Hong Kong… Heung gong. Fragrant Harbor” (Lanchester, 98). When he faces the stench of the harbor in reality, his teacher clarifies that the title is a “Chinese joke”. The deceptively simple exchange belies a much more critical encounter. By sharing the linguistic community’s joke, one that is ruined by translation, Maria symbolically accepts Tom into the Cantonese community at large. In the city of Hong Kong, in the language of Cantonese, the cosmopolitan Tom Stewart finds a home.
The same story cannot be said for all translators. Many other factors contribute to a group’s willingness to accept outsiders as one of their own, regardless of whether or not the other person already speaks the language. For example, De Zoet’s Japan, in pursuing a general policy of isolationism, finds that “obscurity is [their] outermost defense. The country doesn’t want to be understood” (Mitchell, 477). If the host country actively resists foreigners, using methods such as preventing others from learning their language, the chances of a translator’s successful integration into that culture plummet. The issue of translating identities is further complicated in a colonial context.1 Language carries not only culture, but power relations as well. After all, the colonizers often impose their language, as part of subjugation, on the colonized. Some of the Japanese clearly identify this danger. In an academic debate on the merits of isolationism, one man notes that “It is a mere twelve years since a Frenchman … named the straits between Ezo and Karafuto after himself,” right before warning “of a near future when straying Europeans no longer request provisions but demand trade, quays ,and warehouses, fortified ports, unequal trade” (Mitchell, 202). The scholar views the use of language, in this case to claim a land through naming, as a frontrunner to other activities that lead to eventual colonial conquest. Such fears may partially explain Japan’s extreme, if not questionable, prohibitive policies. The barring Westerners, such as Jacob, from learning Japanese acts as a preemptive effort to avoid colonization. As a result, Jacob De Zoet faces as incredibly inhospitable environment, wherein his attempts at creating a home in Dejima through language ultimately end in failure. In contrast, the more cosmopolitan and modern Hong Kong that Tom encounters is very receptive to cultural interactions, allowing for the free exchange of languages among its people and for Tom to find a home.
Jacob De Zoet engages in a linguistic struggle that only further alienates him from the people of Japan. Marooned in the country after a series of altercations with his fellow shipmates that estrange him from the company, De Zoet eventually attempts to find a new community in Dejima. He admits to Ogawa, “Dejima is to be my home for some years” (Mitchell, 278). At first glance, the statement sounds like an admittance of feeling at home. It is important to note, however, that despite already living in the area for a while, Jacob still refuses to actively refer to the situation as a home in the present tense. De Zoet recognizes that his forced stay in Japan may have provided him with a “home”, but only in the loosest sense of the term, as a place of occupation for an extended period of time. If a home can be found in language, as Miłosz asserts, then certainly De Zoet should have found acceptance in learning Japanese. This notion proves false, not from some fault of his own, but from the community’s rejection. The very act of learning Japanese isolates Jacob further, as the prohibitive laws force him to continue his studies alone and in secret. Even when he reveals the fruits of his studies, responses vary, but lean towards negative. Some of the Japanese men reluctantly applaud Jacob De Zoet’s efforts, while one only comments that, “his accent was like a crow’s!” (Mitchell, 379). Implicit in such criticism is that while Jacob De Zoet may try to learn their language, and may even technically succeed, but he will always stand apart from the linguistic community. The Japanese will constantly remind him of his status as an outsider, even if by something as petty as making fun of his accent.
Jacob De Zoet’s displacement further leads to the unintended consequence of alienation not only from the foreign culture, but his original one as well. By spending so much time in Japan, even without successful integration, Jacob finds his identity irrefutably changed. He believes himself to belong only partially to both a Dutch and Japanese identity. As a result, he knows that “he is too Japanese to leave, but not Japanese enough to belong” (Mitchell, 477). The Japanese never fully accepted Jacob as one of their own, but as a temporary, distinctly foreign, visitor. However, he has spent enough time and learned enough about the culture and the language that he feels he has become somewhat Japanese, however partial. The images of his time at Dejima haunt him persistently even back at “home” in Europe. Jacob constantly compares his life to half-remembered scenes and images from Japan, including “the cherry blossoms in Miyako” and “an elderly samurai’s shaven plate” (Mitchell, 479). The frequent comparisons leave him restless and discontent, unable to reconcile his new place between cultures. Jacob inhabits a state of homelessness as a result. He somewhat resembles Rushdie’s “translated man”, borne between languages and cultures, but unlike this concept, Jacob is barred from making the full journey across. He is caught in-between and unable to find a home in either one.
While a translator may certainly succeed in navigating linguistic and cultural boundaries and consequently find a new home, as Tom Stewart manages in John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbor, not all successfully integrate, as Jacob De Zoet demonstrates in David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Language functions as a marker of community, one which has the power to include or exclude others. Translators inhabit the unique position of possibly crossing these boundaries. However, acceptance also heavily relies on a community’s openness to outsiders. Without this openness, the translator will fail. Ultimately, while the act of translation may certainly bring someone into a community, it is not guaranteed.
1Please note that the three examples of translators that I give (Ogawa, Tom, and Jacob) all exist in very different circumstances. Tom and Jacob are both white and European, while Ogawa is distinctly Japanese. As a minority, he would have a very different experience trying to “become Dutch” in a society and era steeped in imperialism and racist rhetoric. Tom and Jacob arguably have much more privilege and ease of access to such opportunities as they come from countries with colonizing backgrounds. The two books are also set in separate eras, with Mitchell’s portraying budding colonial powers and Lanchester’s dealing with a modern landscape of postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism. As such, while all three translators deal with some similar issues, I would caution against viewing their cases as perfect analogues.
Lanchester, John. Fragrant Harbor. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002. Print. Book
Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. London: Granta, 1991. Print.
Winks, David. "Forging Post-Colonial Identities Through Acts Of Translation?." Journal Of African Cultural Studies 21.1 (2009): 65-74. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 June 2014.
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