by Yule Heibel on May 5, 2003

In a recent OpenDemocracy article, Lost in translation: the narrowing of the American mind, K.A. Dilday notes that Americans seem to read only other Americans, perhaps throwing in some Brits and Canadians and Aussies, but at any rate rarely anything not originally written in English. Only about 3% of the fiction and poetry published in the US in 1999 was translated: that’s about 330 titles out of a total of 11,570. As Dilday notes, “Without translations, Americans, who are notoriously monolingual, have access only to the perspectives of those who write and speak in English; thus the ideas of millions are lost to them.” She adds that “The passions and mores of other cultures travel most easily when borne on a fable. Writers give voice to unspoken national longing.”

Here’s a Japanese tale, via email. My eldest sister lives in Tokyo, Japan. There are many abandoned cats in the city, and my sister rescues as many as she can. The strays seem to be emblematic of a bigger social and cultural attitude difference, though. She sent this story today, which she dubbed “for mother’s day” (but I’ll have to translate it; she wrote to me in German):

A human mother loses her 22-year old son to a catastrophic error relating to a medication he was taking. Inconsolable and pierced by wild pain, she puts the entire blame on the family cat and demands of her husband that he throw the cat out. The cat lands in a public park. Mourning his son’s death and looking for comfort, the father in turn can’t bring himself to abandon the cat entirely. Thus he goes daily to feed it. The cat gets pregnant and gives birth to six kittens in the park bushes. Last week, extremely heavy rains inundated Tokyo. The cat mother carries her six kittens back to her old home. She carries each one individually, of course — through rain that appears to be getting dumped over Tokyo rooftops by the bucket. Six times she pads to the house, five times back, each way lasting about 20 minutes. The human mother is enraged when she discovers that the cat has returned, and makes her husband carry cat and kittens back to the park. On the way he meets an acquaintance to whom he tells the story; that person tells a cat rescue volunteer, who brings the tale to my sister. She tells me in a postscript: “I can help the cat mother, she and her kittens are coming to my house today; I can’t help the human mother, I don’t have the charisma or the soul for it. But one asks oneself, why didn’t anyone come upon the idea of spaying the cat?”

Suddenly, every story I had ever read translated from Japanese, or subtitled film I had seen by Kurosawa or Itami et al., seemed connected to this story. Translation works.

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