In just her protagonist’s name alone, author Nina Schuyler imbues linguistic magic in her latest novel about language, communication, understanding, and ultimately, the bonds of family. Schuyler’s leading lady is Hanne Schubert, a 53-year-old woman who speaks seven languages including Japanese, German, along with her English. She teaches Japanese language courses at a San Francisco university, although her professional reputation is built on her prowess as a translator of Japanese texts into English.
Hanne’s given name reflects her German-Dutch origins, yet its pronunciation is not far from the Japanese infinitive, hanasu, which, depending on the kanji characters, can mean ‘to speak, to talk’ (話す), or ‘to separate, disconnect, divide’ (離す). Over the novel’s 300 pages, or just over nine hours stuck in the ears (be warned: the only language Kirsten Potter seems to share with Hanne is English – her garbled attempts at Japanese and German are mostly incomprehensible), Hanne will move between the desire to speak and communicate, as she longs to repair the separations and disconnects that have left her isolated in middle age.
And then there’s her last name, Schubert, surely a nod to the prodigious composer, Franz Schubert, who passed away far too young, leaving behind what would become one of his signature pieces, “Unfinished Symphony.” Even in her isolation, so much of Hanne’s life is unfinished, unsorted, unknown. Having walked to City Hall where her married life began decades prior (only to be unexpectedly cut short), her future is considerably altered when she falls down the stairs. One of her last thoughts before she tumbles is a line from the book she’s just translated: “Every situation, every person has a melody playing, even if you can’t hear it.” Hanne will need to learn how to listen – to others, as well as her own self – in order to truly hear and genuinely comprehend.
Although Hanne seems to recover from her accident in just a few days, her ability to speak English disappears. Suffering from a rare form of aphasia, her fluency is limited to only Japanese, the language of her husband, the shared language she instilled in both their children, the language that literally feeds her as translator and professor. Unable to communicate at home in San Francisco, Hanne takes the opportunity to speak at a conference in Tokyo. She’s publicly confronted by Kobayashi, the author whose work she’s just translated, who accuses her of having “‘ruined my main character!’” That ruined protagonist, Hanne is reminded, has a living counterpart: a renowned Noh actor named Moto – of the many kanji characters his name might represent, moto (元) could mean ‘the beginning,’ or ‘the genesis.’ Hanne spontaneously decides to visit this Moto, and in discovering Kobayashi’s inspiration, she is forced to confront her own beginnings, especially her past relationships with her own estranged daughter, in order to finally ford the divide, restore lost communications, and reclaim severed connections. With so many layers to be deciphered, puzzled, revealed, and understood, Translator is a lingua-lover’s near-perfect novel.