Yoko Tawada @ Goethe Institut 09-Oct-2008
Tucked away in the west end of Glasgow there’s a building that I’ve known about for a while but never taken the time to visit. It’s the Goethe Institut, promoting the German language abroad. One way in which it achieves on its mission is with literary events. After an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I was given a promotional flyer for three separate events at the Institut, highlighting writers who have come to the German language from other mother tongues. Two of these originally hail from Europe, Bosnian Saša Stanišić and Hungarian Terézia Mora, but the series began yesterday with a reading from Japanese born writer, Yoko Tawada.
The chair Marc Lambert, Chief Executive of Scottish Book Trust, opened with a brief summation of Tawada’s career to date. Born in Tokyo in 1960, mastered in Russian literature, and moved to Germany at the age of twenty-two where she has lived since. In her writing career, in which she uses both Japanese and German, she has proven competent in different forms, such as prose, poetry, and essays, picking up prestigious prizes along the way. Notable honours include the Akutagawa Prize in 1992, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, an award for foreign writers’ contribution to German culture, in 1996, and a Goethe-Medal in 2005.
In discussing her early interest in Russian literature Tawada mentioned how it was that Russia’s writers, along with some French, were among the first European literatures that she knew. Dostoevsky, she loved, along with Gogol, who, along with Kafka, she later named as one of her main influences. As a result of steeping herself in the Russian works, Moscow became the image of a literary Europe, not to be mistaken with the Europe of reality. So it came to be that she travelled to Moscow to discover Europe for herself, eventually landing in Germany, planning to stay for two years.
Tawada showed an appreciation of the German language, notably for the strength of its vocabulary. Where the Japanese for water is mizu, she preferred the force of Wasser, its German equivalent. Likewise strong: Japanese tsuyoi, German stark – the latter preferred because it sounds strong. It’s no surprise, then, that sounds play an important part in Tawada’s work. One particular highlight was a poem inspired by the Austrian poet, Ernst Jandl, in which she translated a poem between German and Japanese, not literally, but by the sound of the words used.
In another reading, a story titled Canned Foreign, taken from Where Europe Begins, the book she was promoting, Tawada gave an immediate taste of her themes – language, loneliness, bewilderment – in prose informed by her own experience, when she said, “I already knew the alphabet when I arrived in Hamburg, but I coud gaze at the individual letters for a long time without recognising the meaning of the words.”
Language plays a central role in Tawada’s fiction – her reading was a trilingual affair, offering a delicious mix of Japanese, German, and English. Punctuating her reading was an element of performance, put there to keep it interesting for those who may not have the grasp of all languages (i.e. me), be it holding up Japanese characters, speaking from behind photographs, or reading off a glove, the text written along each finger, and literally peeled off parallel to a figurative peeling in the text.
On the subject of the aforementioned Gogol and Kafka, she credits them with changing her style. When writing in Japanese her fiction followed a traditional mould. Now, her works are less linear, experimental. Being translated to English comes as a relief to her. She said she felt as if she were two writers: a Japanese writer translated to German and a German translated to Japanese. Having work from both Tawadas consolidated into English (and French) made her German and Japanese selves feel whole.
At one point Marc Lambert took to the podium to read, at Tawada’s request, a short-short story called Hair Tax, a bizarre piece about the government basing tax rates on having hair. In this strange world different prices are set for hamsters and Alsations, and to show off a body of hair – or objects given hair through genetic modification! – is a sign of affluence. When the punchline came Tawada seemed genuinely excited that the audience laughed given an implied complexity in the original German. A testament to the translator, perhaps?
While Tawada has over twenty books to her name, available in both German and Japanese, few are available in English. New Directions in the United States has put out two collections thus far, the aforementioned Where Europe Begins and Facing The Bridge. With another translation scheduled for early next year, it looks like Tawada is sure to stay whole for some time yet. That’s the kind of performance I like.
October 10, 2008