Yoko Tawada s Portrait of a Tongue : An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright
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Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright is a hybrid text, innovatively combining literary criticism, experimental translation, and scholarly commentary. This work centres on a German-language prose text by Yoko Tawada entitled ‘Portrait of a Tongue’ [‘Porträt einer Zunge’, 2002]. Yoko Tawada is a native speaker of Japanese who learned German as an adult.

Portrait of a Tongue is a portrait of a German woman—referred to only as P—who has lived in the United States for many years and whose German has become inflected by English. The text is the first-person narrator’s declaration of love for P and for her language, a ‘thinking-out-loud’ about language(s), and a self-reflexive commentary.

Chantal Wright offers a critical response and a new approach to the translation process by interweaving Tawada’s text and the translator’s dialogue, creating a side-by-side reading experience that encourages the reader to move seamlessly between the two parts. Chantal Wright’s technique models what happens when translators read and responds to calls within Translation Studies for translators to claim visibility, to practice “thick translation”, and to develop their own creative voices. This experimental translation addresses a readership within the academic disciplines of Translation Studies, Germanic Studies, and related fields.



Publié par
Date de parution 26 septembre 2013
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9780776621272
Langue English

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Yoko Tawada

Translated from the German with an introduction and commentary by CHANTAL WRIGHT
University of Ottawa Press
© University of Ottawa Press, 2013

The University of Ottawa Press acknowledges with gratitude the support extended to its publishing list by Heritage Canada through the Canada Book Fund, by the Canada Council for the Arts, by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and by the University of Ottawa.

“Porträt einer Zunge” was originally published by konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke in the volume Überseezungen (2002).


Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Tawada, Yoko, 1960-
[Porträt einer Zunge. English]
Portrait of a tongue: an experimental translation /
Yoko Tawada; translated from the German with an introduction
and commentary by Chantal Wright.

(Literary translation)
Translation of: Porträt einer Zunge.
Includes bibliographical references.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-0-7766-0803-7 (pbk.).--ISBN 978-0-7766-2090-9 (pdf)
ISBN 978-0-7766-2127-2 (ePub)

I. Wright, Chantal, translator, writer of added commentary
II. Title. III. Title: Porträt einer Zunge. English
IV. Series: Literary translation (Ottawa, Ont.)

PT2682.A87P6713 2013 895.6’35 C2013-902705-X

ePub conversion by Studio C1C4
I would like to thank everybody who contributed to this translation: friends who lent their anecdotes and who shall remain anonymous; my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee who shared their linguistic knowledge and ideas; my PhD supervisors at the University of East Anglia, Jean Boase-Beier and Clive Scott; and also Valerie Henitiuk, Ken Lodge, Claire Thompson and Karen Seago; Marc Charron at the University of Ottawa; Rebecca Ross and Marie Clausén at the University of Ottawa Press; Peter Filkins for allowing me to use an extract from his translation of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Erklär mir, Liebe”; my husband, Dan Vyleta; and finally Yoko Tawada for graciously consenting to have her work experimented upon in this fashion. I would also like to acknowledge the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funded the PhD research from which this book developed, and the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which supported the publication of this book through its Awards to Scholarly Publications Program.
Yoko Tawada’s Exophonic Texts
I should write down things whose importance isn’t yet obvious. The most important things often occur in isolation, they are peculiar and very small.
Y OKO T AWADA , “Portrait of a Tongue”

I n 2003, when I began my doctoral research on Yoko Tawada, there was little published scholarly discussion of her work. Master’s and doctoral theses were the most comprehensive secondary sources at that time, 1 an indication of the then emerging status of this Japanese-German writer as a subject of academic enquiry. An English-language anthology of Tawada’s texts, Where Europe Begins (2002a), translated from the German and the Japanese by Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Selden, had just been brought out by American publisher New Directions; the only other Tawada title available in English was The Bridegroom Was a Dog , a collection of stories translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani. 2 Since 2003 Yoko Tawada has become the focus of two edited volumes dedicated solely to her work. Germanists and Japanologists collaborated on the first of these, a book entitled Voices from Everywhere , edited by Douglas Slaymaker (2007a). A German-language volume entitled Yoko Tawada: Poetik der Transformation , edited by Christine Ivanovic, became available in 2010. New Directions followed up its 2002 anthology with a collection of Japanese-language stories, Facing the Bridge (2007), translated by Margaret Mitsutani, and the German-language novella The Naked Eye (2009), translated by Susan Bernofsky. 3
Yoko Tawada is an example of a type of writer I will label “exophonic.” 4 Exophony describes the phenomenon where a writer adopts a literary language other than his or her mother tongue, entirely replacing or complementing his or her native language as a vehicle of literary expression. The adopted language is typically acquired as an adult; exophonic writers are not bilingual in the sense that they grew up speaking two languages, and indeed do not necessarily achieve the type of spoken fluency associated with the term “bilingualism.” Exophony in post-war Germany has generational nuances: its emergence as a phenomenon goes hand in hand with the Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s that brought thousands of foreign guest workers to the Federal Republic. From among the ranks of these Gastarbeiter emerged a number of writers, some of whom organized themselves into a collective known as PoLiKunst , which adopted German as its official language of literary expression. Franco Biondi, Carmine (Gino) Chiellino and Rafik Schami were among the writers who belonged to this collective. This first generation of post-war exophonic writers typically came from Italy, Turkey and a variety of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Their preoccupations were socio-political: guest workers in Germany were disenfranchised; Germany’s de facto status as an immigrant country had not yet been acknowledged.
Yoko Tawada belongs to a second, entirely distinct generation of exophonic writers whose migrational histories are more individual and who do not bear the “burdens of representation” (Cheesman 2006: 471) with which German-Turkish writers, for example, are confronted. 5 Tawada, who was born in Japan in 1960, studied literature at Waseda University in Tokyo and made her first trip to Europe with the Trans-Siberian Railway at the age of nineteen. In 1982 she moved to Hamburg and now lives in Berlin. Her PhD thesis, written in Germany, was published under the title Spielzeug und Sprachmagie in der europäischen Literatur [Toys and Linguistic Magic in European Literature] (2000). A glance at Tawada’s website (yokotawada.de), confirms her as an inveterate traveller who has completed over eight hundred readings across the globe since 1987. She is frequently invited to the United States and has held writer-in-residence positions at MIT, Washington University in St. Louis, Stanford and Cornell. Tawada writes in both Japanese and German, but does not self-translate into German. 6 Her German-language publications cover the spectrum of literary genres from the novella to the poem, but the essay that populates her collections Talisman (1996a) and Überseezungen (2002b) is perhaps her most characteristic mode of literary expression. Tawada has been awarded numerous literary prizes in both Japan and Germany, including, in 1996, the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-Preis . The Chamisso prizes are given annually to writers whose mother tongues or cultural backgrounds are not German; the existence of these prizes reflects the development of exophony in the German-speaking world in the post-war period.
“Fictitious Ethnology”
“Portrait of a Tongue” has to be understood within the context of the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of Tawada’s German oeuvre. Much of Tawada’s German-language prose writing is narrated from the perspective of an outsider, usually a Japanese woman, living in a foreign culture, typically but not always Germany. Tawada’s prose texts, like the novels of Emine Sevgi Özdamar, another prominent German exophonic writer, are “auto/fictional,” displaying a “generic mix of fact/fiction or invention/history” and featuring “the two-headed monster of the narrator/protagonist peculiar to first-person narration” (Boa 2006: 526). Stylistically, Tawada’s prose is often described as minimalist. Gelzer (1998: 25) argues that this is a deliberate strategy employed to support “the fiction of the first-person narrator moving with wonder through a new language,” 7 and should not by any means be read as indicative of Tawada’s personal command of German (ibid: 24). 8 Contemporary stylisticians understand style as much more than the presence or absence of linguistic fireworks, however; style extends beyond the purely linguistic to take into account “voice, otherness, foreignization, contextualization, and culturally-bound and universal ways of conceptualizing and expressing meaning” (Boase-Beier 2006a: 2). Central features of Tawada’s style in this broader sense are the defamiliarizing techniques that the reader encounters in her texts 9 and the texts’ tendency to foreground structures and properties of language itself, achieved via metalinguistic reflection.
To appreciate the effects of these central stylistic features of Tawada’s prose, one has to consider how her texts operate within the receiving culture. As Kraenzle (2004: 10) argues, German readers of migrant writing have come to expect not literary texts but “ethnographies, which can be mined for information about minority groups.” Tawada resists this expectation by “turn[ing] the ethnographic gaze on the space of German culture, considering the text’s power to construct rather than to simply represent” (ibid: 11). Tawada parodies the often Orientalist gaze of the Western anthropological tradition and its “domestications of the exotic” (Said 2003: 60) by foreignizing, even exoticizing, the familiar via her “fictitious ethnology” (Tawada 1996b: 24). Krauss (2002: 58) draws upon Adorno’s concept of epic naivety to describe Tawada’s methodology:
The naive fading out of certain contexts, the alienating reduction in complexity or the complete abandonment of the usual differentiation— such as one would expect to find in a child’s mode of looking at the world —has the effect of producing a different, more intense kind of perception. This, in counterpoint to the judgement of everyday reason (Adorno), brings something previously unobserved out into the open.
Perhaps the best examples of this epic naivety in Tawada’s writing can be found in the short prose text “Talisman,” which appears in the 1996(a) collection of the same name. The narrator contemplates the fact that many women in the city where she is living— which appears to be Hamburg —wear a piece of metal in a hole in their ear. The narrator wishes to learn the significance of the piece of metal, but is unsure whether this would be considered an inappropriate question to ask. She assumes that the piece of metal— which comes in various shapes and forms —is a talisman of some kind, and begins to wonder what kind of danger would make it necessary to wear such a thing. Her attempts to discover the significance of the piece of metal are rebuffed. Gilda, a student who lives in the same building as the narrator, tells her that the “earrings” are only for decoration and have no significance. The narrator interprets this response as denial: “As I had suspected, Gilda did not want to talk about the meaning of the earring” (Tawada 1996c: 53). 10
The defamiliarization of the earring is achieved via the construction of the narrator as an outsider. The object is still recognizable, but through the eyes of the naïve narrator, we see the familiar object in a new light. Further on in “Talisman,” Gilda, who is a student, complains to the narrator that a creature has crept into her computer and inserted random sentences into her essays. The narrator— still convinced that earrings are talismans and that people in German society place great store by such objects —recommends that Gilda affix a talisman to her computer to encourage the evil spirit to leave. She is then confused when Gilda buys three stickers— one depicting a car, one a nuclear power station and one a gun, all displaying the words “No thanks” above the pictures —and sticks them to her computer. “It seemed to me overly polite to reject an evil spirit and to thank it at the same time, but perhaps the word ‘thanks’ was an attempt to avoid antagonizing the enemy” (ibid: 55). The narrator misreads Gilda’s political stickers, expressions of the student’s green and left-wing views, taking them to be the talismans the narrator had recommended against the evil spirit in the computer. She becomes even more confused when Gilda goes on to buy stickers for her bike, her fridge and her front door. Her misreading creates a chain of causality where there is none and leads the German reader— who of course understands the function of the stickers —to view the printing of messages on sticky pieces of paper through the narrator’s eyes, and hence to perceive the strangeness of a long-familiar practice.
It is important at this juncture to recognize that Tawada’s fictitious anthropology succeeds in its foreignization of the familiar precisely because, in its methods and aims, it has little in common with anthropology proper. Anthropology can be defined at its most basic level as “the comparative study of culture and society, with a focus on local life” (Hylland Eriksen 2004: 9). By studying a range of societies, the anthropologist can “develop general theories about how societies work” (Layton 1997: 1). Participant observation is the “core methodology” of ethnographic research— research into peoples —and “requires that researchers simultaneously observe and participate (as much as possible) in the social action they are attempting to document” (Hume and Mulcock 2004: xi). This participant observation is the key to being accepted by the group under observation, facilitating access to it and enabling the anthropologist to see and understand the members of the group as they see themselves. The anthropologist’s subjectivity is therefore built into the methodology of his/her subject: anthropologists are within the community of study rather than outside it (Layton 1997: 190). Furthermore, they are “already situated within their own previous experiences, largely obtained within their own culture” (ibid: 191), and “have had to learn to be reflexive, to ask themselves what past experiences they are relying upon to interpret an event and how their presence is subjectively interpreted by those they are working with” (ibid).
Unlike traditional anthropological texts, which are always destined for a home audience, Tawada’s prose texts are written for a German readership. Unlike the anthropologist who must acknowledge his or her subjectivity as a matter of methodological good practice, Tawada’s narrators generally attempt to remove themselves from the text; they give the reader no direct indication of which previous experiences they are drawing on when they make their assumptions about social and cultural practices in Germany and elsewhere. However, the reader cannot help but make assumptions about the narrator— and, because the line between the narrator and the author is so blurred, about the author too —as a result of her construal of so many social and cultural features of German life as alien. Inevitably, the reader will construct the narrator even as the narrator is in the process of constructing her “others.” More often than not, the narrator will be constructed as being from the “East.”
Is the narrator in danger, therefore, of reinforcing the West’s Orientalist prejudices? Her own naïve, “Oriental” gaze is, of course, as much a parody as is her anthropological treatment of German society. In fact, Tawada freely acknowledges that her Japanese gaze is a fictitious device and that “the fictitious element is the person doing the describing and not that which is being described” (Tawada 1996b: 24). Tawada does not believe in the existence of a Japanese point of view (ibid: 50); rather, her adoption of a Japanese gaze stems from her belief that a culture is more easily described from outside its boundaries rather than from within (von Saalfeld 1998: 189). One does not have to be foreign, Tawada maintains, to have a foreign gaze, but if one is foreign, then one may as well make use of the opportunity (ibid). Any understanding of Japan and the East arrived at by the reader of Tawada’s texts can therefore bear no relation to “reality”; it reflects only the artificial position of difference from which Tawada constructs an equally artificial German-ness. Readers are thus put into a position where they have to resist their own preconceived ideas about the “East” even as they rediscover their home culture.
Tawada’s texts also lack the kind of contextual detail and sociological specificity that are essential to ethnography proper: “Every phenomenon deemed relevant must be understood in its full context” (Hylland Eriksen 2004: 49). “Talisman,” for example, begins: “There are many women in this city who wear a piece of metal in their ear” (Tawada 1996c: 52). The city remains unnamed and the women are not identified as belonging to any specific social group or class. Indeed, Tawada’s narrators are prone to generalizing statements about the culture(s) they observe that are sometimes provocatively essentialist, such as when, reflecting on the nature of body language and eye contact in Europe, the narrator asserts that a “European body always looks for a gaze” (ibid: 46). “Europe” and “European” are here used as generic categories, implying either that intra-European differences are negligible or that the narrator is unaware of their existence. Tawada’s concept of Europe here “mimics” the Orientalist label of the East in Bhabha’s sense of the term (Bhabha 2004). This theme is taken up again in a humorous narrative text entitled “Ein Brief an Olympia” (2005), in which the narrator, an IT specialist, talks of her attempts to develop an artificial life form with a riveting personality. Tawada (2005: 19) writes:
The latest model will be a successful poet in exile from the East. By the “East,” I mean of course the entire stretch of land from the former GDR to Japan, so it could be Eastern Europe, an Islamic country, Siberia, Mongolia, China, North Korea or South Korea. His literature, I feel, will be more open and multi-faceted if I don’t restrict his origins to one nation.
The successful poet in exile “from the East” is in one sense, of course, Tawada herself, who does not restrict her literary creations to one language or country. Here, Tawada is poking fun at a term so all-encompassing that it spans two continents, several religions, and both capitalist and communist political systems.
Tawada’s “anthropological” method is in fact based on retrospective foreignization rather than participant observation. She explains that her “Japanese gaze”— literally, her “Japanese glasses” (1996d: 50) —developed only once a certain amount of time after her initial exposure to German culture had passed. Shortly after her arrival in Germany she was “exhausted and surprised, without knowing the cause” (von Saalfeld 1998: 189). In the essay “Von der Muttersprache zur Sprachmutter,” Tawada (1996 e : 9) attributes this exhaustion to the new stimuli she encountered in Germany. After her eventual adjustment to her new environment, she was able to re-foreignize [ verfremden ] the phenomena that had now become normal (von Saalfeld 1998: 189).
Tawada’s texts deliberately court the distortion that emerges from the process of re-creating her initial sense of alienation. Tawada is precisely not “seeking to better understand” (Hume and Mulcock 2004: xi), as an anthropologist would. On the contrary, Tawada’s narrators deliberately cultivate misunderstandings and are frequently misunderstood by others. In the novella Ein Gast [A Guest] (1993), for example, the female Japanese narrator goes to an ear doctor for treatment of a middle ear infection. The doctor places an examining instrument in her ear and, after a few minutes, says, “You are pregnant” (Tawada 1993: 15). 11 The narrator interprets the doctor’s blush as anger that she has sought out an ear specialist instead of a gynaecologist for her condition; she had been unaware of any pregnancy up until this point. She begins to reflect on when she could possibly have become pregnant and asks the doctor to look more closely into her ear, saying: “Maybe you’ve confused a flea with an embryo?” (ibid: 16). The narrator misunderstands the doctor’s routine question as a statement of fact, the wider implication being that there is something odd about a language in which a question can be misunderstood as a statement. It is possible in German speech, as it is in English, to use a statement structure to ask a question; intonation differentiates one from the other. In Japanese, the word order for a simple interrogative and a statement also remains the same, but a question particle— ka —is added at the end of an interrogative sentence (cf. Bunt 2003: 224). This marker is absent in German and explains the narrator’s confusion. The misreading on the narrator’s part signals a narrative shift away from realism and toward the metaphoric and the absurd. When the doctor looks into the narrator’s ear a second time, he sees women in kimonos on a stage in a theatre. The narrator realizes that the doctor is watching a scene from the opera Madame Butterfly . Whereas her misreading was a linguistic misunderstanding, the doctor’s misreading is rooted in his ignorance of Japan and the Japanese, which leads him to fall back on a popular and clichéd Western artistic representation thereof.
Misunderstandings in Tawada’s texts also arise from the arbitrariness of the relationship between sign and signified. Tawada’s Japanese narrator is unaware of the conventions that bind together symbols and their referents. In “Der Apfel und die Nase” [The Apple and the Nose] (2002c), for example, the narrator accounts for the apple logo on her Mac computer in the following manner: “The computer company tempted a woman with forbidden fruit and trapped her inside the computer. You can still see the apple nibbled on by the woman in the corner of the screen” (15— 16). The narrator’s ignorance of the Mac logo marks her gaze as a “primitive” one, since one would have to come from a non-industrial society to be unaware of the logo’s “meaning.” Interestingly, this ignorance rests uneasily with the knowledge of Genesis that allows the narrator to draw on the Christian symbolism of the apple as forbidden fruit. Once again, therefore, the text invokes a highly artificial foreign gaze that involves the reader in the process of constructing the narrator’s identity.
In “Das Fremde aus der Dose” [Canned Foreign], 12 the narrator purchases a tin upon which a Japanese woman is depicted. When she opens the tin at home, she finds that it contains a piece of tuna fish. “The Japanese woman appeared to have turned into a piece of fish during the long journey by boat” (Tawada 1996f: 43). The bizarre Orientalism of Western society has created this connection between a Japanese woman and a piece of tuna fish, a connection which for the narrator is completely arbitrary and therefore incomprehensible. The baffled reaction of the Japanese narrator exposes the absurdity of the stereotype.
Tawada’s “fictitious ethnology” is ultimately a parody of ethnographic approaches; it deliberately cultivates misunderstandings and misreadings. Indeed, Kraenzle (2004: 127) argues that Tawada’s literary essays “display extreme doubt about the very possibility of reading, writing or representing the cultural other.” Anthropological or cultural translation— that is, the translation of native or indigenous concepts —which includes both non-verbal and verbal acts, is depicted as problematic, if not impossible, in Tawada’s texts. 13 Portions of Tawada’s work are inaccessible— both because only a certain number of her Japanese texts are available in German translation and vice versa but also because, as Ivanovic argues (2010b: 12), readers are confronted with their own inability to process cultural otherness. Tawada is well aware of this; in fact, it is a deliberate textual strategy and reflects “an elementary cultural experience”: “The normative paradigms of knowledge and understanding are replaced by a recognition of and reflection on the ever-present limits of perception and mental assimilation, which the readers of her texts are forced to learn to accept” (ibid). In other words, Tawada cultivates the “metonymic gap” that is more typically a feature of post-colonial texts (cf. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 2002: 53). The superficial and flawed “translations” that characterize Tawada’s texts do, however, draw attention to another dimension of language, which extends its function beyond the purely communicative, and focuses on its associative and physiological features.
Tawada’s “Surface Aesthetic”
Many critics (e.g. Gelzer 1998: 61— 68; Kraenzle 2004: 169 —173) have observed parallels between Talisman in particular and Barthes’ L’empire des signes (1970a), his collection of fragments of writing on aspects of Japanese culture. Tawada mimics Barthes’ disinterest in representing the reality of Japan ( S/Z , “l’Orient m’est indifférent,” 1970a: 10). Barthes is preoccupied with “la possibilité d’une différence, d’une mutation, d’une révolution dans la propriété des systèmes symboliques” (ibid: 10). Tawada’s writing is also preoccupied with the awareness that knowledge of different sign systems can bring, making use of “la fissure même du symbolique” (ibid: 11). Perhaps the most powerful expression of this “fissure” is the tendency of Tawada’s narrators to remain on the surface of linguistic and cultural phenomena, often to disorientating effect. As Krauss (2002: 71— 72) points out, “[Tawada’s] gaze does not glide into the depths of the non-understood object, into its inaccessible meaning, but creates —along a kind of surface aesthetic—the potential for networks which lead off into the horizon.” Thus, in the novella Ein Gast , associations between words, particularly between nouns and their associated idioms, form threads that run through the narrative, linking seemingly unconnected places and events. On her way to see the doctor, the narrator of the novella— who has an ear infection —walks through an underpass where a flea market [ Flohmarkt ] is taking place. “The previous night I had dreamt of either a flea or a market. When I was woken up by the earache, I felt as though a flea were jumping up and down in my ear” (Tawada 1993: 5). The narrator then tells the story of a young woman who suffers pain in her ears while on a journey. The young woman’s mother and lover pour water into her ear until, suddenly, a wet flea jumps out. The lover catches the flea with his fingertips and puts it into his mouth. Later, at the ear specialist’s, the narrator tries to explain that she has earache and that the sensation is akin to having a flea in her ear, but instead she tells the doctor that a flea is, quite literally, living in her ear, perhaps because she has difficulties expressing herself in a foreign language. There are further references to ears later on in the text, when the Japanese narrator observes that German women often claim that they are very busy or have a lot to do or think about (ibid: 34, 38) and that they express this using the phrase viel um die Ohren haben [literally, to have a lot around one’s ears]. Where the narrator cannot see obvious connections between words, she searches for them, as in the following example in which she considers the objects standing side by side in the flea market.
An iron and a candlestick stood next to each other, as though a relationship existed between them. In this case I even thought of a way to decipher their neighbourliness: an iron produces heat and a candlestick produces light. Both of them replace the sun, which you can never see from the pedestrian tunnel. (ibid: 8)
Misreading signs such as the apple on a computer screen or the Japanese woman on a tin of tuna fish occurs because the narrator attempts to read these signs as truth-conditional rather than, respectively, as a cultural convention and a stereotype. As cultural outsiders, Tawada’s narrators are not privy to the contextual knowledge that would automatize their readings of these signs. The often fragile link between sign and signified is suspended by the foreign. The naïve position adopted by the narrator makes the reader aware of the arbitrary relationship between certain signs and their signifieds, of the possibility of reading a sign in a number of different ways, and finally of difference in general. Kraenzle (2004: 154) argues that Tawada’s acquisition of a foreign language has led her to the realization of the difference that exists between sign systems, which in turn allows her to disentangle signs from their signifieds. Tawada herself states that it is the “fissure” that exists between Japanese and German that attracted her to the German language (Koelbl 1998: 228). In the essay “Von der Muttersprache zur Sprachmutter” [From the Mother Tongue to the Tongue Mother], for example, the Japanese narrator talks of the difficulty she experienced in regarding her pencil as a Bleistift rather than as an enpitsu : “Up until then I hadn’t realised that the relationship between me and my pencil was a linguistic one” (1996 e : 9). The heightened awareness of difference and surface structure facilitated by the encounter with the foreign leads Tawada to explore the materiality of language, to create associative texts around particular words and sounds and to mix German and Japanese sign systems, thereby allowing the linguistic surface to dictate the narrative, rather than the other way around.
In the essay “Sieben Geschichten der sieben Mütter” [Seven Stories of the Seven Mothers], for example, the narrative is structured around six compound nouns and one compound adjective, all of which contain the word Mutter [mother]: Stiefmutter [stepmother], Gebärmutter [womb; literally, birthing-mother], Doktormutter [female PhD supervisor; literally, doctor-mother], Perlmutter [mother-of-pearl], Muttermal [mole (on the body); literally, mother-mark], Muttererde [rich top soil that nurtures seeds; literally, mother-soil] and mutterseelenallein [all alone; literally, mother-soul-alone, formed with the help of the linking morpheme “n”] (cf. Tawada 1996g). A process of what one might refer to as “radicalization” characterizes this essay, whereby the text superimposes the Japanese system of word formation onto the German system. The Chinese characters known as kanji , one of three different groups of characters in the Japanese writing system, are composed of one or more radicals or classifiers. Radicals are core units of meaning and are ideographic or pictorial in nature, which means that a reader can often decipher the meaning of an unknown compound word from his or her familiarity with its constituent radicals. In this essay, the narrator draws our attention to lexical radicals in the German language, constructing the narrative around one radical in particular— Mutter . The radicalization in evidence here is an attempt to make a phonetic writing system such as German more ideographic, if only on a metaphorical level. The narrator forges (or renews)— Yildiz (2012: 129) argues that Tawada’s quest to “rethink relation,” to reconsider the “affections, affinities, and possibilities” that exist between words and things, is “neither purely organic, nor purely mechanical” —conceptual connections between the sieben Mütter based on their material or surface commonality; in Japanese, a material similarity would already imply a conceptual connection. The conceptual connection made by Tawada between the various “mothers” is an obvious one: that of birth, of giving life, but also the development of a sense of self that comes from being born and separated from the mother. She explains the significance of each of these “mothers” in turn. Thus, for example, a Doktormutter offers an intellectual environment rather like a womb, where thoughts and images can develop in a protective atmosphere. Muttererde produces and nurtures each and every person on the planet; it spits them out and eventually swallows them back up again. The adjective mutterseelenallein plays on the loneliness of the mother, who gives birth but must die alone, and on the loneliness of the soul. 14
Tawada also muses on the fragility of meaning rendered by a written language dependent on phonetic transcription. In the lecture “Schrift einer Schildkröte” [Tortoise Writing] (1998), given in Tübingen in the winter semester of 1997— 1998, Tawada spoke of the uneasiness she experiences when contemplating the Roman alphabet: “The letters of the alphabet are incomprehensible creatures. By themselves they are free of all meaning and therefore unpredictable. Only when they are combined do words come into being” (30). She goes on to relate how there was a crucial error in the proofs she received for one of her books, which contained a story about Baumgeister [tree spirits]. Ancient trees had been cut down to provide wood for the town walls and the people of the town had to placate the anger of the tree spirits. By accident, the letter “g” was omitted from the proofs, a typo that instead created the word Baumeister [master builder]:
… and that turned the whole story upside down, because after building the city walls, the master builder was supposed to go home so that the spirits could appear and demand a sacrifice for the trees that had been felled. Instead the master builder returned and drove away the spirits. (ibid: 31; my translation)
Tawada’s conclusion is that the letters of the alphabet are inherently untranslatable (ibid: 35), since they are only phonetic representations with no inherent signifying power.
The chance omission or change to which words in the phonetic writing system are susceptible may make Tawada uneasy, but she also exploits its creative possibilities. The title of the collection of essays in which “Porträt einer Zunge” appears is Überseezungen . The word Überse t zungen in German means “translations.” Überseezungen , however, is a neologism, a compound noun meaning “overseas tongues” 15 ; the volume is indeed divided thematically into sections entitled “Euro-Asian Tongues,” “South African Tongues” and “North American Tongues.” The word Seezunge , which occurs in the middle of Überseezungen , literally translates as “sea-tongue” and refers to the type of fish known as sole in English. Seezunge accurately describes the appearance of the fish, which is flat and wide, rather like a swimming tongue, and which suggests the ability to cross the oceans, both physically and linguistically. It also evokes the port of Hamburg where Tawada lived for many years and which is referred to in some of her narratives.
Überseezungen “marks a step beyond the heretofore dominant East-West axis in Tawada’s writing and toward a reorganization of her imaginary topography that now includes an engagement with the North-South axis” (Yildiz 2007: 78). Tawada’s interest in “peculiar and very small” things (2002d: 136) remains, though the focus of this interest becomes more linguistic and less material. The linguistic tics, silences and unvoiced emotions of Tawada’s protagonist P in “Portrait of a Tongue” are woven into a complex narrative web. Readers paint their own portrait of the anonymous portrait painter despite her efforts at anonymity.
1 Florian Gelzer’s Lizenziatsarbeit [Master’s thesis] (Universität Basel, 1998) and Christina Kraenzle’s PhD thesis (University of Toronto, 2004) were pioneering at that point. See bibliography.
2 The only other translation of “Portrait of a Tongue” of which I am aware forms part of a University of Oregon undergraduate thesis by Sarah Andrea Rubin (2004).
3 Tawada’s translators have been particularly active in the discussion and promotion of her work. See the online journal TRANSIT (6(1), 2010) for the correspondence exchanged by Tawada’s American translator Susan Bernofsky and French translator Bernard Banoun, and also for an interview with Banoun (Banoun 2010a). Banoun is co-editor of a special volume of Études Germaniques (3, 2010) devoted to Tawada’s work, which includes an essay by Bettina Brandt and Désirée Schyns on their experiences of translating “Bioskoop der Nacht” into Dutch. See also Slaymaker (2007a) for essays by Banoun, Brandt and Margaret Mitsutani, and Ivanovic (2010a) for essays by Banoun, Bernofsky and Mitsutani.

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