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Book review: A Japanese novelist takes on the dominance of English

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Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

The Fall of Language in the Age of English By Minae Mizumura; translated by Mari Yoshihara & Juliet Winters Carpenter, $35.

You don’t know how lucky you are. That’s because you read in English, the “universal language.” From Minae Mizumura’s perspective, you’re on the auspicious side of a linguistic “asymmetry,” spared not only the exclusion from ideas locked away in another language but also ever having to contemplate your good fortune.

“English is becoming a universal language such as humans have never known before,” Mizumura argues in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, the translation and adaptation of a book she wrote in her native Japanese. As translators Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter observe, Mizumura’s original book, whose title translated to “when the Japanese language falls: in the age of English,” implored her country to rejuvenate the study of both Japanese and English there.

That you are unlikely to have heard of Mizumura, or of the furor her book aroused in Japan, only partly vindicates her thesis that writers in mere “national” languages are overlooked globally. She addressed her 2008 book specifically to Japanese readers, and one of her novels, Shishoosetsu from left to right, apparently defies translation—although Carpenter has translated Mizumura’s A True Novel into English.

In The Fall of Language, Mizumura reprints an address she made in French to a Parisian audience, craftily aligning herself with writers whose language once was universal. In it, she describes Shishoosetsu, or “I-novel,” a fictionalized autobiography about a girl who moved to New York at age 12 and chose to study French rather than English: “French was the perfect language with which a girl like me could gain an advantage over the monolingual Americans.”

This enduring pre-teen petulance occasionally blinkers Mizumura. She argues that “the English language cannot dictate ‘truths,’” which is true, then adds, “there are other ‘truths’ in this world that cannot be perceived through the English language,” which is at least debatable. And at times her grievance is with a world in which literature ineffectively competes with other amusements, regardless of language. But her synopsis of postwar Japan’s attack on its own language is edifying, and she has a point about English’s monopoly on international debate. Researchers at MIT recently documented the language’s centrality by mapping “Global Language Networks” in books, on Twitter and on Wikipedia.

Near the end of The Fall of Language, Mizumura suggests English speakers would do well to acknowledge their linguistic privilege and to refrain from abusing it. Fair enough.

Find more by Chuck Twardy at chucktwardy.com.

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