Navigation – Plan du site
British Literature in the Present (Supplement)

Mediations: Science and Translation in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Médiations : science et traduction dans The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
Claire Larsonneur et Hélène Machinal

Résumés

La question de la médiation revient fréquemment dans la « maison de fiction » de David Mitchell, où chacun de ses cinq romans est intimement relié aux autres par des personnages récurrents, des obsessions partagées et des motifs littéraires communs. Son dernier ouvrage, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), reprend les codes du roman historique et s’inspire en grande partie des mémoires d’Hendrik Doeff, qui fut l’ancien Directeur du comptoir de Dejima entre 1799 et 1817 dans la baie de Nagasaki. À partir de ce moment charnière entre la période des Lumières et celle des impérialismes, Mitchell se livre à une exploration minutieuse et subtile des enjeux liés à la transmission du savoir. La question de la traduction et celle de la science, prises comme paradigmes de la médiation, sont développées à la fois au sein de l’intrigue, de la mise en personage et de la narration. Elles engagent une méditation plus générale sur ce que nous laissons à la postérité, l’émancipation et les étonnants périples de l’esprit.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 ʽI can't read anything earlier than Black Swan Green. The errors jump at me, the flourishes that ar (...)

1The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) was hailed by most critics as a turning point in David Mitchell's work. Mitchell himself disowned recently his former postmodern razzle dazzle, favoring a return to more conventional narrative.1 The novel recounts the eighteen years spent by Jacob de Zoet on Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki, his doomed love affair with Orito, a Japanese midwife, his friendship both with Marinus the local surgeon and with Uzaemon, a translator, his struggle to keep this trading outpost up and running. Whereas mediation was embodied by objects passed on from one story to another in Cloud Atlas, or by a ghost haunting several characters in Ghostwritten, Mitchell chose here to explore the complexities of transmission through knowledge. Focusing on science and translation, he builds them into paradigms of mediation and uses them to fuel his narrative.

Translation or the Thousand Voices

  • 2 Mitchell emphasized this in the acknowledgements and the interview by Wyatt Mason (June 25, 2010)
    ww (...)

2One key source for this historical novel2 is Recollections of Japan, written in Dutch in 1833 by Hendrik Doeff who acted as Chief Officier of Dejima between 1799 and 1817. A mix of autobiography, treatise, travel writing and pamphlet, Doeff's text is considered a classic of Dutch-Japanese history, was early on translated into Japanese but remained unavailable in the West until recently.

  • 3 Doeff's Recollections opens on translation: ʽYou could perhaps assume that the translators, whom th (...)

3Doeff took particular pride in his work as a scholar, having written the first Dutch-Japanese dictionary and worked closely with the Japanese interpreters and translators.3 He is the main inspiration for Jacob de Zoet and many of the narrative twists and turns are drawn from real life events, such as the attack of the British warship and the suicide of the governor of Nagasaki, or copper trade frauds. All lead characters have a link to translation: Uzaemon works on Adam Smith and Abbot Ennemoto on Newton, Orito and Marinus use translations in medicine, Jacob needs it to decipher a crucial scroll.

4But translation stands as a paradox here, rhyming both with accumulation of knowledge and with loss. The real-life loss of primary sources (all Doeff's notes and scientific memorabilia were lost in a shipwreck) is echoed within the plot when Jacob's love letter to Orito, hidden in a copy of a dictionary, is intercepted by Abbot Enemoto who abducts the young woman: this crucial message will never reach her. Translation is repeatedly marred by failure: Uzaemon's work on the Wealth of Nations is interrupted for several years when he loses access to the only copy of the book. The official body of Japanese translators includes downright crooks and a few babbling fools, reciting fragments learnt by rote. Much of the novel rests thus upon what is lost in translation, all that has been omitted or twisted out of shape.

5Translation becomes the locus of confrontation for this set of adventurers, merchants, scholars and sailors, who trade in a heady mix of languages. English sailors spurn Dutch, that ʽgagged, mud-slurping thingʼ; they debunk Jacob's use of diplomatic French: ʽhow I hate a man who farts in French and expects applauseʼ (TA, 412). Commercial interests are in the balance, overriding the quest for knowledge: Uzaemon's father, himself an interpreter, thus condemns his son’s passion for ideas over trade: ‘But to those dazzled by—Mimasaku uses the Dutch word ‘Enlightenmentʼ—the opportunities are wastedʼ (TA, 281). So translation, as an act of language, works upon the mediation of knowledge both ways: it may send it off course or drive the point home.

6Beyond its uses in terms of plot, characterisation or historical reference, thematising translation enables Mitchell to shift the focus from knowledge per se to the journey through which it is transmitted, the role played by individuals and institutions as mediators of knowledge, their successes and failures.

Medecine: Beyond Autumn, the Promise of Renewal

  • 4 At the end, Orito is invited by Dr Maeno ʽto advise one of his disciples, who plans to establish a (...)

7Mediation is also at the core of Mitchell’s representation of medecine. In the first chapter, Orito and Dr Maeno belong to a sphere of knowledge which promotes the necessity of enlightened exchanges. Thus, the use of Dr Smellie’s A Set of anatomical tables is important as it immediately anchors Maeno and Aibagawa in Scottish Enlightenment as these tables were actually published in 1754. Beyond the opening scene, Orito also adumbrates the theme of education and transmission.4

8Dr Marinus mirrors Orito’s commitment in a Western context. A doctor, scholar, botanist, and musician, Marinus definitely stands apart from the other Europeans on Dejima as epitomized by his rejection of slavery as a colonial necessity (TA, 128–134). He also exposes outdated medical practices (TA, 331–333). His commitment to cultural exchange equally applies to the East: he belongs to The Shirandô, a ‘native Academy of Science’ (TA, 114).

  • 5 Magistrate Shiroyama is on the verge of being ruined and dishonoured. The Magistrate’s thoughts ref (...)
  • 6 Many facets of religion, superstitions and beliefs appear in the novel. An interesting example is t (...)

9As in other novels by Mitchell, resistance to mediation and exchange is due to corruption. The three main Japanese seats of power are presented as contaminated: the Magistracy,5 the Shrine6 and the Shirandô Academy. The latter is however presented as a last resort. Although sponsored by Lord Enomoto, it represents a place of resistance associated with the first three Japanese scholars who dared to conduct ‘the first medical dissection in the history of Japan’ (TA, 201–202). The academy is associated with potential evolution in chapter 16, in which the leading scholars debate over the role of science and knowledge in the wider political and economic picture of the future of Japan. Once again, the principle debated at the Academy is that of exchange hence dissemination of knowledge.

  • 7 ʻYou’re absolved! I’m indestructible, like a serial Wandering Jew. I’ll wake up tomorrow—after a fe (...)
  • 8 See Sarah Dillon (DM, 5–8).

10In chapter 16, Dr Marinus posits science as instrumental in cultural exchanges which led to evolution (TA, 204–205). He announces a transformation: science will become sentient. Marinus hints several times7 at the possibility of his coming back in another life and times, which reveals his special status: he is part of Mitchell’s house of fiction which connects with a humanist approach to the fictive and the real worlds. Indeed, Mitchell views his work as a house from which characters can be summoned to appear in one novel or another.8 Thus, we know we have not seen the last of Marinus, and transmission does not apply to the intra-diegetic level only.

  • 9 The comparison is also used to describe the sky: ʻThe night sky is an indecipherable manuscriptʼ (T (...)

11The mind also becomes the matrix of both knowledge and transmission. Compared to a scroll (TA, 304), it becomes a metonymy of individuality and of individuals’ enmeshment into a universe9 seen as an organic whole, but it also connects them beyond their here and now. Jacob de Zoet’s dictionary, Orito’s knowledge in midwifery, Marinus’s teaching in medicine are fragments which fit in this universalistic picture of the mind as ʻa loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self, and which sometimes calls itself Perceptionʼ (TA, 238). This microcosm connects in turn with Mitchell’s house of fiction and his vision of humankind as escaping contingency: ʻThere are times when I suspect that the mind has a mind of its own. It shows us pictures. Pictures of the past, and the might-one-day-be. This mind's mind exerts its own will, too, and has its own voiceʼ (TA, 299).

  • 10 The Game of Go is also used as a metaphor of life (TA, 350).
  • 11 John Darwin (UE, 268–269).

12The thousand voices of Mitchell’s fiction thus use translation and medicine in a marginal 19th century Japanese locale to revive the humanist spirit of the Enlightenment and its focus on transmission: ‘Knowledge exists only when it is givenʼ (TA, 459). Beyond its referential value medicine10 becomes a wide metaphor: the world is a great organism, individual characters are instruments used to excise superstition, the novel itself is an evolving cell, part of a larger body. (TA, 461). Similarly, fiction, tales, translations, dictionaries and treatises all participate in a universal impulse, that of breathing life into words and stories. In so doing Mitchell echoes John Darwin’s description of the writing itch that possessed those years poised between Enlightnement and Empire :11 this ‘huge treasure trove of information . . . collated in handbooks, codified in regulations, circulated and recycled in bowdlerized versions, crushed into stereotypesʼ. And so the novel points to their most enduring legacy, the will to pass on knowledge and fight its fossilization by religion and politico-economic interests.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

A selection of reviews is available on www.thousandautumns.com.

Darwin, John, Unfinished Empire, Allen Lane: London, 2012.

Dillon, Sarah (ed.), David Mitchell: Critical Essays, Canterbury: Gylphi, 2011.

Doeff, Hendrik, Recollections of Japan, trans. Annick M. Doeff, Victoria: Trafford Publishing, 2003.

Haut de page

Notes

1 ʽI can't read anything earlier than Black Swan Green. The errors jump at me, the flourishes that are so pleased with themselves and the metaphor rate is too high.ʾ in
www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/08/david-mitchell-project-great-experimenter.

2 Mitchell emphasized this in the acknowledgements and the interview by Wyatt Mason (June 25, 2010)
www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/magazine/27mitchell-t.html?fta=y&_r=0

3 Doeff's Recollections opens on translation: ʽYou could perhaps assume that the translators, whom the Japanese appointed to trade with us on Deshima, and who were supposed to be versed in the Dutch language, were able to enlighten us about the history and customs of their country and give us its peculiarities. During my 19-year stay in that country, from 1799 to 1817, it was my experience that the translators, who only learn Dutch through association with the Dutch in Japan, had the greatest difficulty understanding newly arrived employees whose use of the language was as yet alien to them. At the same time, the new arrivals had a most difficult time understanding the translators’ pronunciation and their use of the language, which was geared to Japanese speech patterns.’

4 At the end, Orito is invited by Dr Maeno ʽto advise one of his disciples, who plans to establish a School of Obstetricsʼ (TA, 458).

5 Magistrate Shiroyama is on the verge of being ruined and dishonoured. The Magistrate’s thoughts reflect the drifting of Japan into corruption (TA, 348).

6 Many facets of religion, superstitions and beliefs appear in the novel. An interesting example is that of the Old Herbalist, Otane, who evokes the Tea Shack owner of Ghostwritten. See chapter 14.

7 ʻYou’re absolved! I’m indestructible, like a serial Wandering Jew. I’ll wake up tomorrow—after a few months—and start all over againʼ (TA, 430). ʻThe doctor joked that he was a grass-snake, shedding one skinʼ (TA, 456).

8 See Sarah Dillon (DM, 5–8).

9 The comparison is also used to describe the sky: ʻThe night sky is an indecipherable manuscriptʼ (TA, 304).

10 The Game of Go is also used as a metaphor of life (TA, 350).

11 John Darwin (UE, 268–269).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Claire Larsonneur et Hélène Machinal, « Mediations: Science and Translation in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/957 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.957

Haut de page

Auteurs

Claire Larsonneur

Université Paris 8
Claire Larsonneur is Senior lecturer in English literature and translation at Université Paris 8. Her research interests include contemporary British literature, travel writing, translation studies and digital studies. She has published Les Mots du territoire (Dexia, 2005) and La Recherche internet en lettres et langues (Ophrys, 2088) and various translations (Odile Jacob, Flammarion). Currently Joint Head of the research group Penser la traduction (E.A. 1569) she is also a founding member of two Laboratoires d’excellence (Labex) projects (2012–2015): ‘The Digital Subject’ and ‘Collective Translation’. More at www.ea-anglais.univ-paris8.fr/spip.php?article1194.

Hélène Machinal

Université de Bretagne Occidentale
Hélène Machinal is full professor at the University of Bretagne Occidentale in Brest where she teaches English literature. Her research focuses on the gothic, detective fiction and speculative fiction during the second half of the 19th century. She wrote a book on Conan Doyle published in 2004. She is the author of articles on 19th century authors such as Doyle, Stoker, Stevenson, Machen or Collins and she has also studied the modes of resurgence of the mythical figures of the detective, the vampire and the mad scientist in contemporary British literature. Her more recent research includes articles on David Mitchell, Patrick Mc Grath, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ken Macleod, Deon Meyer, Jeanette Winterson and Will Self. She is the Head of two research projects, an InterMSH project on Post-humanity in modern arts (http://confinshumanite.blogspot.fr/), and an international project with South Africa on ‘Crime in Africa’.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • Revues.org