Yoko Tawada: ‘Language is a Living Thing’
The Author of The Emissary in Conversation With Madeleine Thien
Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo and has lived in Germany since 1982. Her books have been widely celebrated in both Japan and Germany, receiving the Akutagawa Prize, the Adalbert-von-Chamisso Prize, the Goethe-Medal and the Kleist Prize, among many other honors. In 2018, her novel The Emissary won the National Book Award for Translated Literature.
This conversation took place in Berlin in 2019 and includes questions from students and listeners. The discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
Madeleine Thien: I wanted to start by asking you to talk about the specific beauty and insight you find in the German language, and then to ask you that same question about Japanese.
Yoko Tawada: Oh! German is for me like music. Not like a beautiful melody but something like a structure that is the base for the music. I really like Bach and Beethoven, like every other Japanese; that music is a kind of architecture. In German you can put yourself in your own space and make your philosophy, your thinking world.
MT: And is that very different with the Japanese language?
YT: It’s not easy for me to speak about the Japanese language because it’s my mother tongue, and you cannot really see your mother tongue. You are in it—you are sometimes arrested in it—you are not free from it. I had some distance after I moved to Germany, but still it is my mother tongue. How is the Japanese language? I don’t know. [laughter] It is not logical in the way of German logic. So writing Japanese, you are free.German is for me like music. Not like a beautiful melody but something like a structure that is the base for the music.
MT: In her translation of your book The Naked Eye, Susan Bernofsky writes that you started the novel in German, moved into Japanese, then came back to German. What caused the transitions and what was the cumulative effect of layering the two languages together?
YT: Before The Naked Eye, I wrote in German or in Japanese. Separate books. But I had the feeling the force of one language must come near the other. I wanted to find the connection between them so I wrote The Naked Eye. It was the absolute exception. I never did it before and I will never do it again! I wrote five sentences in German and translated them into Japanese, and then continued the text in Japanese, five sentences, and then translated those into German, and so on.
MT: Both versions were actually completed as you went?
But it’s not a good idea! [Laughs]. Because after you finish one chapter you read the text through and you must correct it. It has many disharmonies in it because of the way it was done. You read the translated Japanese version and it’s not good, so you must correct. But then you must change the Japanese version. None of them are original. So you don’t have the base and the process has no end.
MT: It’s almost like you have two translations but no original.
YT: That’s right. Two translations and no original. You don’t know what to do.
MT: You mentioned that you wanted to see the relationship between the two languages. Did you find what that was, that bridge between them?
YT: Yes, there is no historical relation between the two languages so you must make it individually. You must find it. And where can you find it? Maybe in the common human feeling towards the object and language. Or somewhere else.
Johan: Did you tell yourself, “Now it will be a German pool of words, of thoughts, from where I will take things,” and “Now the Japanese”? If something came up Japanese, did you let yourself accept it?
YT: I wrote this book in both languages, and when I wrote in German I tried to stay in the German language, but still the Japanese language is always present in my German in ways I can’t control. But it is German. The good thing is that German is very far away from Japanese so there is no mixing.
You are here or you are there.
When I write Japanese I forget German. But my Japanese is now influenced by my German. So you cannot really forget it. But I plan to forget it.
Fleur: The language question in The Naked Eye is really interesting because of all the different languages spoken in the text, Vietnamese, Russian, German, French. In the beginning of the book when you write about the Russian case system, it was the first time I ever thought about it like that, even though I speak Russian to my parents. I was wondering if you uncovered any connections not just between German and Japanese but maybe the other languages that are present in the book?
YT: Yes, Russian belongs to the European languages like German and has very little to do with Japanese. But Russian it is also the eastern end of Europe. In Russian you don’t say, “I have a child,” but, “With me there is the child.” It’s near to Japanese, a more eastern way of thinking. In German you must say everything, propositions, articles. In Russian, it’s much easier, and in Japanese, too. I was always thinking, Why must you say certain things in certain languages, while other languages do not need these things? Do you need it really? What does it mean, that you need it?
Maybe we can say that Russian is not only one language, it can be the Russian of the Communists, or the Russian of Dostoevsky, or the Russian of everyday life. There are many languages in one language. Maybe in Germany there are two languages—before reunification and after.
But I think we are moving not only between languages but between systems, and the systems are more complicated to understand than the languages. The system behind the language. For instance, we cannot immediately understand somebody for whom money means nothing. Or the Scandinavians cannot easily understand why, in German, so many hierarchies exist in the language and you cannot speak neutrally. In German you must choose between du and Sie, and it is a history, it is the system of society, and through the language you have access to this system, or the chance to understand something. What do you think?
MT: There’s a line I really love in The Emissary. It’s the teacher, Yonatoni. He says, “All we could teach them was how to cultivate language. He was hoping they themselves would plant, harvest, consume and grow fat on living words.” And I love this idea that it’s not about acquiring language, but language itself is this living thing and you’re accompanying it.
YT: If you want to learn a foreign language, you cannot buy it. You cannot take one word after another and eat it, or something. [Laughs] Or you cannot really touch it. But there are so many words and possibilities to make sentences. You must, you know, go into the language and see what the language does. You cannot really control the languages which have their own programs. You have your emotions, your thinking and what you want to say. You cannot use the language to express something but you can work with them together because they are also animals, maybe.It’s not about acquiring language, but language itself is this living thing and you’re accompanying it.
MT: Sometimes it uses us, I think.
YT: Yes, of course. And so you can let yourself be used by languages. You must be aware of it, so that it cannot manipulate us.
MT: In both The Naked Eye and The Emissary, the world has been turned upside down. The world the characters came of age in – what they learned when they came of age—is not applicable anymore to their new world. It’s almost like you come to the present through the future. And you and your characters meet on an equal plane, in an alien world.
YT: In The Naked Eye, the protagonist comes from a socialist system into a capitalist world, and so everything is upside down. But I used this mechanism to make everything—not only this kind of conflict but everything—new. To see through the naked eye. You know, we are living in the world of post-colonialism and post-Confucianism and post-Communism, three C’s. But it’s not really post, it’s not gone, there are many systems in our thinking, and we are not free from them. And because there are many systems in the world, there is always a moment in which something can happen that you never expected.
I had to use some people, or many people, whom I did not know, in this novel, The Naked Eye. It’s not autobiographical but… I wanted to write about Confucianism, communism and colonialism, and so Vietnam is more suitable to this topic than Japan. I visited Japanese friends in Vietnam a few years before I began writing. After, when The Naked Eye was translated, Vietnamese readers in France wrote me their thoughts. They were confronted with the fictive people. They didn’t say, No, it’s not true, or Yes, I can identify with it. It was like… the roles are new for them. They tried to go into the roles to see: does it work, is it a new idea, or is it something not interesting?
Weronika: For me the most striking thing is that the protagonist is so little eﬀected by who is in control over her life. It felt as if she was living so much in the moment that all things are overshadowed by that.
YT: It’s a very important point of this novel, it’s also my character, and it’s also my understanding of what it is to be in a foreign culture, and to be shocked by the experience of immigration. Normally you will protest, right? You will say, No, or, I want to. That is how people nowadays live. They know what they want and what they do not want and they say so. But you are not anymore in this position of control. You are not the subject of your life. But it is also not tragedy. You just look and you are wondering and you don’t understand. There’s only the here and now that you want to understand, and the next moment. You can’t make any big plans.
MT: When your narrator makes the leap onto the train, it’s a big leap. Maybe, in some ways, before, women in literature, when they make a big change, it must be a leap. It’s a somersault. The forces are so intense that you have to have so much propulsion to risk another life. Whereas maybe men can sort of blur from one position to another, or there’s more shading from self to self. I have the feeling that women, for a long time, if they wanted to make that jump, it was a deep cut. A break.
YT: Yes, that’s right. Today my friends, my male friends, do not want to go abroad or live in Europe. For a certain time, or if they’re working for a Japanese company, then it’s okay.
MT: But your women friends do?
MT: Perhaps before, women knew they would mostly likely have to marry, and so to leave one identity behind and take on another, it was the expectation.
YT: The men, as a first son, or from a rich family, had a position in their homeland and so didn’t want to go abroad. Maybe the women do not have things like this to lose.
Sophie: I was wondering if you knew the author Libuše Moníková–
YT: Moníková, yes.
Sophie: I was reminded of her by The Naked Eye. I could feel a similar thinking about language, about being a stranger or being made a stranger. She was from Czechoslovakia originally and moved to West Germany in the 70s and then wrote her novels in German.Sometimes female writers feel more strong or free in foreign languages because they are no longer in the original system in which they grew up.
YT: Yes, I knew her. In the 80s, when I studied in Hamburg, people like Libuše Moníková and Herta Muller, they were important to me. German language is not a national language. Franz Kafka was also not German, Paul Celan was Romanian. There are people who wrote in German outside Germany, or came to Germany and used the language—and so the language opened.
And Moníková said, also from the female perspective, that it was not easy for her to write her experiences in her mother tongue, the very negative experiences. But in a foreign language she was free, and so she wrote it in German, how she became a victim of the violence.
So there are many interesting things about the borders between languages. And sometimes female writers feel more strong or free in foreign languages because they are no longer in the original system in which they grew up.
MT: I always feel with your work that playfulness with identity is itself a kind of ethics. There’s a joyfulness in continuously new ways of looking at things. I don’t mean in terms of morality exactly, but for me there’s something very humane in your work. There’s something about the playfulness and humaneness that come together and need each other.
YT: To me, it’s important that if you’re interested in others who are not you, and this is normal for literature, you must go into it. You don’t have to think, Okay, I’m a Japanese woman, so I have to write only from the female Japanese perspective.
MT: You’ve always felt the ability to imagine otherwise?
YT: Yes, in my new book the protagonist is a man from Denmark. I feel very free.
With thanks to Johan Eriksson Thurn, Fleur Riskin, Weronika Gorczynska, and Fio Richter in Berlin for their contributions.
The full conversation is forthcoming in the summer issue of Brick, a literary journal.
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