- English as a Foreign Language:David Mitchell and the Born-Translated Novel
The truth of a myth, your Honor, is not its words but its patterns.–David Mitchell, Thousand Autumns
Why would a novel want to undermine its own words? Surely, literature is made of words, and any ambitious novel would want to wear its words proudly, declaiming their truth as well as their beauty. Yet we know that novels produced in smaller languages, which possess fewer publishers and fewer readers, have needed to make their words accessible, both to distant audiences and to translators in dominant languages. And some works in dominant languages, when they are produced in spaces far from the centers of publishing, have likewise had to retract idiomatic phrases, alter references to regional languages, and provide glossaries. But why would a British novel, produced in English and first published in London, stake a claim for patterns rather than words? And why would it pretend – as David Mitchell’s does – to be taking place in one of several foreign tongues? In this essay, I address these questions by turning to Mitchell’s several novels, which solicit future translation by registering translation’s past. Mitchell’s novels incorporate the history of translation in an unusual way: they narrate languages rather than describe them. His works rarely display multilingualism. Instead, they make English into a foreign language by emphasizing target rather than source, audiences rather than authors, and by attributing their own beginnings to prior editions and literary works in other languages. Mitchell’s novels are therefore born translated: not merely appearing in translation, in one of many language editions produced throughout the world, they have been written for translation from the start.1
Mitchell’s works seek to keep being translated. They register their debts to translated works, and they also invite future translations into new languages and literary histories. To keep being translated, as Barbara Cassin has argued, means that translation is already taking place and will continue to take place.2 Writing from a dominant language, novelists such as Mitchell know that many readers will encounter their works, as we say, in the original. Addressing themselves to multiple audiences, their task is not to defend their language against incursion or absorption by some another language. Rather, it is to provincialize English as a medium of globalization. For starters, this means reminding readers that English is [End Page 30] one language among many. But it also means acknowledging that English has a distinctive geopolitical history: today, it is often invisible, at least to monolingual users; in the past, it has been less powerful and less central, and it may be so again. Mitchell presents English as a foreign language in order to demote English as a language of composition and reception, to welcome translation into new languages, and to affirm the centrality of other language traditions in the history of the British novel. In Mitchell’s novels, circulation is a source of literary production.
A resident of Japan for many years, Mitchell was born in England and now lives in Ireland. Most of his novels – there are six to date – feature the movement of people and books among Asia, Europe, and the U.S. To be sure, Mitchell is not the only British novelist who writes about East Asia. Kazuo Ishiguro’s first two novels focused on U.S.-occupied Japan, and his fifth on the international settlement in Shanghai; the Japan-based British novelist David Peace is writing a trilogy of novels about Tokyo in the years immediately following the Second World War. There are also many U.S.-based novelists, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Chang-rae Lee and Monique Truong, who write about twentieth-century emigrations from the Pacific to the U.S, and occasionally, in Truong’s case, from the Pacific to Europe. However, Mitchell’s novels are unusual in their attention to longer histories of European-Asian contact, to transactions both within and across those regions, and to the multilingual and multigeneric sources of the British novel.
Creating books whose editions are multiple and ongoing, Mitchell invites his readers and translators to see themselves as makers. In...