The Fall of Language in the Age of English

The Fall of Language in the Age of EnglishAuthor: Minae Mizumura
Translator: Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
U.S. publisher: Columbia University Press
ISBN: 9780231163026
Released: January 2015
Original release: 2008
Awards: Kobayashi Hideo Award

Currently, only two major works by Minae Mizumura have been translated into English. The first, and one of the best works of literature that I’ve read in recent years, was A True Novel. More recently, the English-language edition of Mizumura’s first nonfiction work, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, was released, published in 2015 by Columbia University Press with a translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter (who was also the translator for A True Novel) and Mari Yoshihara. The Fall of Language in the Age of English is actually a revision of its Japanese counterpart, Mizumura rewriting portions of the book, most notably the final chapter, to better suit a non-Japanese audience. The Fall of Language in the Age of English caused something of a stir when it was originally published in Japan in 2008—the work won a Kobayashi Hideo Award, became a commercial success, and even sparked some amount of controversy.

Mizumura opens The Fall of Language in the Age of English with a personal account of her participation in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003. Afterwards, Mizumura, who studied French and French literature at Yale, proceeds to outline the rise and fall of French as one of the world’s universal languages. She then discusses the concept and role of universal languages, the development of local languages into national languages, and the relationships among the three in general before specifically turning to the emergence of Japanese as a national language. From there Mizumura describes what she calls the miracle of modern Japanese literature, shedding further light upon its peculiar evolution and how it came to be considered a major world literature. Mizumura then addresses the current prevalence of English and its spread before closing with what she sees as the possible futures in store for non-English languages in the digital age.

The Fall of Langauge in the Age of English is an immensely readable and engaging work examining the place of literature, national languages, and translation in a world in which English increasingly dominates. In addition to the main text, The Fall of Language in the Age of English also includes a newly-written preface by Mizumura specifically for the English-language edition of the work, an introduction by the translators, notes, a selected bibliography, and an index. The volume is written in a very approachable manner and is intended for a general audience, Mizumura presenting ideas and concepts clearly and eloquently. I happen to already have a particular interest in the subject matter of language (I even once seriously considered pursing a career in translation or linguistics), but no specialist knowledge is needed to read, understand, or enjoy The Fall of Language in the Age of English.

I found The Fall of Language in the Age of English to be utterly fascinating. The work deftly combines many differing elements together into a single, coherent whole—autobiography, history, linguistics, literary criticism, and so on. Mizumura begins by examining language and writing from a very personal perspective before placing her experiences within a greater context. She shows how geopolitical circumstances allowed Japanese language and literature to initially develop and flourish and how those circumstances now place them in danger of becoming obsolete in the worldwide arena. Language, culture, and power are all inherently and inextricably intertwined. Though The Fall of Language in the Age of English warns of what could be lost if national languages and literatures are allowed to decline unabated, Mizumura doesn’t come across to me as fatalistic or alarmist, believing there is still time to establish efforts to nourish and ensure the preservation and importance of non-English languages, cultures, and literatures.

A True Novel

A True NovelAuthor: Minae Mizumura
Photographer: Toyota Horiguchi

Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
U.S. publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 9781590512036
Released: November 2013
Original release: 2001
Awards: Yomiuri Prize for Literature

So far, only two works by Minae Mizumura have been translated into English. The first was the Yomiuri Prize-winning A True Novel. Originally published in Japan in 2002, A True Novel was selected for translation as part of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project. The novel was ultimately released by Other Press in 2013 with an English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Other Press’ edition of A True Novel is a lovely two-volume box set retaining the black-and-white images taken by Kyoto-based photographer Toyota Horiguchi scattered throughout the pages. Mizumura’s second work to be translated, her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, was published in early 2015. It was the release of The Fall of Language in the Age of English that reminded me that A True Novel had been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time. My excuse was that I wanted to make sure that I had the time to devote to the novel that it deserved—A True Novel is a massive work well over eight hundred pages in length.

Taro Azuma immigrated to New York from Japan in the 1960s, finding a position as a personal chauffeur. Not much was known about the enigmatic young man and he was reluctant to talk about his past, but he did very well for himself in America, eventually becoming an extremely successful, wealthy, and respected businessman. It’s only after he made a name and a fortune for himself that he began to return to Japan on occasion. Growing up Taro was an orphan raised in a poor and abusive household. His fate was changed when he was taken in as a helper by the well-off Utagawa family, becoming remarkably close with their youngest daughter Yoko. But as time passed, the differences between Taro and Yoko’s social classes became more pronounced and more problematic for the Saegusas—Yoko’s high-society relatives—especially after a series of “indiscretions.” This was what prompted Taro to initially leave the country, but his destiny had already become intrinsically connected to those of Yoko and her family.

In part, A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Mizumura moving the setting of the story from nineteenth-century England to postwar Japan. While someone who has read Wuthering Heights will be able to appreciate the parallels between the two narratives, A True Novel stands completely on its own as a separate work. It’s been a long while since I’ve read Wuthering Heights, but I must say I think I actually prefer A True Novel. The structure of the novel has several layers that build upon one another. The story opens with an autobiographically-influenced prologue long enough to be its own novel which outlines Mizumura’s life growing up in America and her impression of Taro when she meets him there. A True Novel continues with a young editor named Yuske Kato relating to Mizumura his later encounter with Taro in Japan and the story told to him by Fumiko Tsuchiya who at one point in her life was a maid to the Utagawas. It is these two stories that Mizumura weaves together to form the main narrative of A True Novel.

Each of the three nested stories—Mizumura’s, Yusuke’s, and Fumiko’s—draws the reader closer and closer to the heart of A True Novel. The work is tragically romantic, Yoko and Taro born into circumstances where their love for each other is all but impossible to realize, their hopes for happiness dashed by the expectations of society and matters of privilege and class. The characters and their relationships in A True Novel are marvelously complex with love and hate, redemption and revenge all playing a role. At times they can actually be infuriating, but that’s part of the reason A True Novel is so compelling and engaging—the characters are believably flawed individuals navigating (not always successfully) a world that is inherently unfair. A True Novel is a tremendous work, the story tracing decades of family history and drama and the dynamics of complicated and shifting relationships. The novel may be lengthy, but it never felt overly long. If anything, while I was immensely satisfied I was still sad to see it end. A True Novel may very well be one of the best works of literature that I’ve read.