Jay Gao – Feldman Prize in Fiction, 2021

The translation of past to present, of obligation or affection into compassion and action are the terrain of “The Translator.”  The piece’s narrator, living in Tokyo, is trying to complete a translation of a Shusaku Endo novel, the work strangely stalled, when a friend from the past (from her university days) arrives for a visit.  Certain things are intuited:  the narrator has formed the idea that her friend is ill, though the nature of the illness is unknown, the illness itself unspoken; she intuits that Tokyo is just a waystation on a longer journey that her friend won’t talk about.  At the same time the reader is informed that the narrator herself has a surgical scar that the visiting friend notices – but the friend doesn’t ask about it.  As the story opens, the narrator is watching the Brazilian family that lives in the apartment downstairs move away.  The family has twin boys.  There is a quote from Endo: “I felt something stir inside me.  If my boy was alive, he would be that big. Without thinking, I reached out my hand to the boy.  ‘Please don’t touch him.’” Thus from the outset a sense of undefined loss and of illness hangs over the friend’s visit.  The friend speaks of former colleagues and classmates whom the narrator cannot remember; the conversations are like translations from past to present that somehow fail.  Despite a strong sense of obligation and of connection to the friend, somehow the visit is not a success, and ends early.  “…to be honest, I was beginning to tire of dragging her around, all over the place, as if she was a child,” and “I wanted to help but it seemed obvious then that she was far more ill than I had previously assumed… I let her vanish, I let her escape the city; to be honest, I was glad to be rid of her.”  Written in brief sections, with frequent quotes from the Endo translation that refuses to be completed, this is a graceful piece about the pull of obligation, and about relationships that misfire.