The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake
Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love explores the triumphs and failures of expressing love in postwar Japan.
Lynne Kutsukake is a third-generation Japanese-Canadian writer who studied Japanese literature for many years, and worked as a librarian at the University of Toronto library. The Translation of Love is her first novel.
How many ways can love be expressed in English? How about in Japanese, or in the space between the two languages? These questions are at the heart of Lynne Kutsukake’s debut novel, The Translation of Love, which takes place in the wake of World War II in US-occupied Japan. One thread of the story follows timid, 12-year-old “repat” Aya Shimamura, a Japanese Canadian who was repatriated to Japan at the end of the war, along with her father, after being interned and losing her mother at the camp.
Stuck in a strange country with an imperfect grasp of the language and an absent father, Aya has no real allies except her homeroom teacher, Kondo- sensei. Kondo tries to help Aya by pairing her with Fumi, a headstrong classmate who initially bullies Aya to deflect the attention of her own frenemies, who whisper that Fumi’s older sister Sumiko is a pan-pan girl. Fumi isn’t entirely sure what that means, but she knows it’s bad, and she knows that Sumiko has started living in the Ginza district, wearing flashy Western clothes and dancing with American GIs. When Sumiko stops visiting home altogether, Fumi realizes that she needs Aya’s help to find her. She asks Aya to translate a letter to General MacArthur asking for his help.
Fumi isn’t the only one. Hundreds of Japanese wrote letters to MacArthur—both in real life and in the novel—to express admiration, anger, to seek help or simply to ask existential questions. But since most of the letters were written in Japanese they had to be translated. That’s where the novel’s other thread picks up, with Yoshitaka “Matt” Matsumoto, a Japanese-American translator for the occupation, who spends his days translating the hopes and dreams of everyday Japanese citizens. But when the girls personally deliver Fumi’s English letter, he decides to search for Sumiko himself, even as he struggles to search for his own identity.
Matt takes on Fumi’s request because he believes that MacArthur will ignore her letter, that it will get lost in the endless pile of voices looking for closure of one kind or another. Matt works in an office of occupation translators, but there are other, unofficial translators at work too. When he’s not teaching, Kondo-sensei moonlights as one of several back-alley translators, most of whom work on letters from GIs to their Japanese mistresses. Many of the letters are full of unwelcome news, but Kondo translates each one faithfully, even as his competitors edit freely to please their lovelorn customers.
Kutsukake’s story treats a difficult time in our history with a light hand, almost too light at times. But the plot takes second stage to a bigger story in this novel: the story of how to learn to love oneself, and how to express love to others. In war-torn Japan, it’s a hard task for everyone, but the most moving stories come from those characters caught between two countries, adrift without a culture to call home. Matt’s ambivalence about the occupation is shaped by the death of his brother, who sacrificed his life in the 442nd infantry, while Aya craves a female mentor who calls her by her Western name and laughs without covering her mouth, even as she mourns her quiet Japanese mother, who died unable to translate her love of self and family to the icy desolation of internment.
Add to your historical stack
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Dear General MacArthur: Letters from the Japanese during the American Occupation