A Linguistic Dystopia.

Jacqueline Leung reviews Yoko Tawada’s novel The Emissary for Asymptote; it begins:

The very existence of language—the signified and the signifier, the sender and the recipient—denotes distance. For a writer like Yoko Tawada, who practices her craft in both Japanese and German (the latter picked up in her twenties), the space between reality and what is written or said is where poetry resides. Linguistic play is at the heart of Tawada’s creativity; in The Naked Eye, she wrote one chapter in German and another in Japanese, alternating between the two until the end. Then she decided to translate everything the other way so that she had a German manuscript and a Japanese manuscript for her publishers.

This exophonic maneuver—exophony being a term indicating the practice of writing in a language not your mother tongue (the distinction makes you wonder if there ever was a term for writing in your mother tongue)—is an impossibility in the dystopian Japan depicted in Tawada’s latest novel, The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani. Learning a foreign language is forbidden in the fictionalized Japan that has regressed to closing its borders after irreparable environmental disasters, possibly nuclear, contaminated the archipelago and pulled it away from the Eurasian continent, geographically and politically forcing its isolation. The aftermath is an exacerbated impression of Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population—government statistics released just this April reveal that over a third of its people are 60 and above.

I’m always glad to see novelists dealing with language in interesting ways, and that’s quite a story about the two versions of The Naked Eye. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Another Brexit allegory …

  2. John Cowan says

    Is not Brexit itself an allegory (though not on the banks of the Nile) for Grexit?

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Nile? (Though, yes, obviously. Something between an allegory and a zombie apocalypse …)

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    (The best kind of apocalypse, admittedly, but even so …)

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I suppose writing in your native tongue would be “endophony” (or エンドポニ), right?

  6. AJP Crown says

    Perhaps from now on we should write alternate comments (our own & the thread’s) in German and Japanese. Someone else can start, I’ll just watch.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    I call gimmick. Or rather Gimmick, as it’s called in German.

  8. David Marjanović says

    “Nile” as in “denial is not just a river in Egypt”.

  9. SFReader says

    Deal is not just a town in England

  10. AJP Crown says

    Dystopia…Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population…over a third of its people are 60 and above.

    Yeah? An over-60 writes: A constantly expanding working population is desirable to taxpayers but from an environmental pov 1/3 under thirty, 1/3 thirty to sixty and 1/3 sixty to ninety-ish sounds stable. It’s the goals of economists that have to change, not the statistic.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Instead of sitting around indulging in hickey-mopey hikikomori, those over-60s should get out more, run for office and help drain the swamps.

  12. As an over-60, my joints ache too much to do any swamp-draining, but I will cheer from the sidelines.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    A pity your joints ache, that means no impotent cane-shaking rage for you. I’m still going strong at 70. There has merely been a parting of the ways with my teeth. It’s a pitched battle, but at least a third of them are still loyal. “Hanging in there” is the expression, I believe.

  14. Oh, I can shake a cane (in fact, I have a very nice gnarly one my father picked up in Greece in the 1940s that I shake from time to time and will lean on with pride should it come to that), but swamp-draining calls for more sustained and demanding activity.

  15. AJP Crown says

    Here’s a 40,000 year old wolf that still has all its teeth and Siberia had no dentists until recently. Scary as heck, the wolf. Just saying.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    “Scientists now to examine if ancient man beheaded the beast.” This may have been a first stab at dentistry.

    Uh-oh. Just when I was about to look down my nose at “The SiberianTimes”:

    # ‘Siberia is indeed a land of superlatives: bigger than Europe and the US combined, with the biggest gas reserves in the world’ #

    It probably has the largest mosquito biomass too.

  17. No wonder people are so afraid of going to the dentist.

  18. John Cowan says

    No, Nile as in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals:

    Mrs. MALAPROP: Captain Absolute, I know not how to apologize for her shocking rudeness.

    ABSOLUTE: [Aside.] So all’s safe, I find.—[Aloud.] I have hopes, madam, that time will bring the young lady——

    Mrs. MALAPROP: Oh, there’s nothing to be hoped for from her! she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.

    As you can see, the Nile is the Nile all right, but the allegory not so much.

  19. David Marjanović says

    So… she’s not all right in the head? I’m not sure I get it.

  20. David, Mrs. Malaprop has some sort of disfluency where she’s always saying words vaguely similar to the one she means, but mal a propos in context.

  21. The example in the linked article, “Jesus healing those leopards,” reminds me that this has been reversed. The Evangelical hymn, “Jesus Gave It All,” contains the line “change the leper’s spots.” I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the author, Fanny Crosby, was blind.

  22. *”Jesus Paid It all.” It’s been a while.

  23. John Cowan says

    A partial list of malapropisms from the play: illiterate < obliterate, dissolve < resolve, pineapple < pinnacle, preposition < proposition, hydrostatics < hysterics, illegible < eligible, reprehend < comprehend, affluence < influence, perpendiculars < particulars, delusions < allusions, interceded < intercepted, persisted < desisted, physiognomy < phraseology, exposed < exploded, particle < article, benevolence < malevolence, accommodation < recommendation, and finally the famous line “Sure, if I reprehend [comprehend ~ apprehend] anything in this world it is the use of my oracular [vernacular] tongue and a nice derangement [arrangement] of epitaphs [epithets]!”

    But I don’t think it’s a dysfluency as such: it’s a matter of limited education. Mrs. M has heard a lot of these words from the learned, but being without learning herself, she can’t quite remember which term goes with which meaning.

    Dogberry, the comic constable in Much Ado About Nothing, basically uses the same devices, but adds considerably to them: tedious ‘wealthy’ is Dogberry’s own inference from an upper-class character using the word to him: he wishes to deny it, and protests that he is poor. Sometimes he gets a hold of the wrong end of the stick, as in salvation, redemption ‘damnation’, tolerable ‘intolerable’, blunt ‘sharp’ (certainly not the kind of error Mrs. M would make), allegiance ‘disloyalty’, youth ‘elder’, plaintiffs ‘defendants’. Sometimes he plain screws up: lechery ‘treachery’, examination ‘examine’, burglary ‘libel’. One of his most subtle is noncome, where you can’t tell if he means ‘nonplus’ or ‘non compos [mentis]’.

    At a higher level, some of his logic is at best chop-logic:

    DOGBERRY: This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom [vagrant] men; you are to bid any [such] man stand, in the Prince’s name.

    SECOND WATCH: How if ‘a [he] will not stand [i.e. runs away]?

    DOGBERRY: Why then, take no note of him, but let him go, and presently call the rest of the watch together and thank God you are rid of a knave.

    VERGES: If he will not stand when he is bidden, he is none of the Prince’s subjects.

    DOGBERRY: True, and they are to meddle with none but the Prince’s subjects.

    Nevertheless, he and his crew do manage to arrest the right villain at the right time for the right reason, which is more than any of the aristos manage: as the perp says, “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light.”

  24. I think LLog discussed sometime ago a word for senior citizens spending their golden years observing construction sites and kibitzing. As usual, I am too absent minded to remember and too lazy to search. Do not ask me about my age, I have enough teeth to lie easily.


  1. […] Hat links to a review of a dystopian novel by Yoko Tawada, The Emissary, imagining a future Japan where the […]

Speak Your Mind