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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

Portrait of a Tongue

Yoko Tawada

An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright

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To purchase Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright

Title: Portrait of a Tongue
Author: Yoko Tawada
Genre: Non/fiction
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 144 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Portrait of a Tongue - US
Portrait of a Tongue - UK
Portrait of a Tongue - Canada
Portrait of a Tongue - India
in Überseezungen - Deutschland
  • German title: Porträt einer Zunge
  • Originally published in the collection Überseezungen
  • An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright
  • With an Introduction and Commentary by Chantal Wright

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting (and welcome) approach to presenting a story in translation; fascinating introduction to Tawada's work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       'Portrait of a Tongue' is a fairly short piece first published as 'Porträt einer Zunge' in Yoko Tawada's German-language collection, Überseezungen (2002). Rather than simply presenting a translation -- or a bilingual edition of the texts, in both the original German and the English translation -- Chantal Wright offers what is described on the cover as 'an experimental translation'. In fact, the title-page description -- 'Translated from the German with an introduction and commentary by Chantal Wright' -- is closer to the mark. A thirty-page, two part introduction, devoted first to Tawada and her work in general, and then to the translation at hand precedes the translation, offers the basic framework. As for the text-proper, Wright explains:

The reader sees two columns: on the left, an English translation of Tawada's text in the classic sense; on the right, a commentary that is designed to be read interstitially, so that the reader weaves from left to right and back to left.
       The translation per se is fairly traditional, but the commentary offers what amounts to an ongoing conversation with the text and reflection on the translation-process -- in its broadest sense, i.e. the commentary is not just concerned with word-choice and definitions, but actively engages with the text, offering a (personal) reading of the text and translation. Wright pointedly does not offer a translation with foot- or end-notes -- the usual way of dealing with ambiguities and explanations -- but rather uses the commentary to guide readers through the story, consider a variety of translation- and language-related issues, and essentially wonder out loud about aspects of the text. So too, for example, she explains (and justifies): "my use of personal anecdotes, in conscious mimicry of the narrator's anecdotal style".
       Tawada's work should be of particular interest to readers concerned with questions of language(s) -- and so, of course, to translators. A native Japanese speaker, she only learnt German as an adult (a student, but still) and has become a bilingual and exophonic writer -- publishing extensively both in her mother tongue, as well as in German. Wright's Introduction tends towards the academic, but nevertheless offers a good introduction to Tawada's unusual background and work. It's quite fascinating, as Tawada actively explores differences in language, culture, and perception, often utilizing whichever language she is working in in relation to the other in her texts, often on multiple levels.
       As the wordplay of the title of the collection this piece is taken from -- Überseezungen -- already suggests, trying to convey what Tawada does in yet another language (English, in this case) is a further challenge. (As Wright notes, 'Überseezungen' is a neologism -- but German readers immediately see the word 'Übersetzungen' ('translations') in it, as well as the implied 'Übersee-Zungen' ('overseas (i.e. foreign) tongues') -- as, indeed, Tawada then presents a variety of texts dealing with different 'tongues'. Finally, it also yields 'über-Seezungen' -- 'Seezunge' being the German word for a fish (sole), in other words: 'over-soles'.)
       'Portrait of a Tongue' itself is concerned with issues of language, with the narrator -- A Tawada-like figure, a German-speaking foreigner (presumably Japanese) -- focused on a period spent as: "an artist-in-residence in Massachusetts" (as Tawada had, at MIT, in 1999) -- in other words, dealing with English (as a language) and American culture. Much of the piece deals with her interaction with the figure P -- with it remaining unclear, as Wright points out, if Tawada is: "looking for a real person (Deneuve) on whom to model a fictional character (P), or is she fictionalizing a real-life P ?" This works well insofar as Wright, in her commentary, is able to treat the narrator in many ways as Tawada treats P.
       Much of the original text does involve questions about specific words and meaning, and Wright often leaves these in the original German, presenting the translation in and with her commentary. However, Wright's primary concern is decidedly not this sort of detail-work for which foot- or end-notes would certainly suffice. Nevertheless, occasionally one wishes for a bit more probing -- as, for example, with:

Mein Gefühl zu dem Wort "teilen" ist gespalten. Share or divide ? [My feelings about the word teilen are mixed. Share or divide ?]

       'Teilen' can be translated as 'share' or 'divide' -- but Wright fails to point out that 'gespalten' also means 'split' (conveying something quite different from what 'mixed' does), and it is presumably of interest to readers who don't have German that the word is thus also a more forceful variant of the word 'teilen'.
       Wright's commentary-as-reading, commenting on and asking questions about what Tawada has written, as well as offering her own anecdotes to complement what Tawada presents are also interesting, and this form of running commentary that is more-than-exegesis seems a particularly useful way of dealing with 'foreign' texts. Obviously, Tawada's work lends itself to such an exercise particularly well, but this is something that it would be great to see more of -- and, indeed, among the regrets here is that Wright did not choose to comment more expansively (as is, the ratio is about 1:1 with the text itself). (Douglas Hofstadter's Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation is another recent variation on bringing the reader into the translation-process.)
       This volume is certainly of interest to -- and hopefully also an inspiration for -- everyone who deals with translation. It also serves as an excellent introduction to Tawada and her work -- an important author who should be better-known.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 November 2013

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Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright: Reviews: Tawada Yoko: Chantal Wright: Other books by Tawada Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tawada Yoko (多和田葉子) was born in Tokyo in 1960 and moved to Germany when she was 22. She writes in both Japanese and German.

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© 2013-2022 the complete review

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