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What global English means for world literature


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A Public Books, Haruo Shirane, professor of Japanese literature at Columbia, reviews the English translation of The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, a book that caused considerable controversy when it was originally published in Japan in 2008—enough to propel it onto the best-seller list. Cultural conservatives in Japan maligned the book for suggesting that the Japanese language was being corrupted by global English. While this is an oversimplification of Mizumura’s argument, the book does use Japanese as a case study for how the global hegemony of English impacts national languages, especially non-European ones. An excerpt from the review:

The combination of globalization and “Globlish” paradoxically tends to flatten foreign cultures even as it enhances their accessibility. Minae Mizumura’s recent book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English (skillfully translated from the Japanese by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter) reveals the various consequences of that flattening from the perspective of a prominent writer working in a non-European language. For those living in the Anglosphere, no barrier seems to stand between their world and the many other worlds that now appear at the push of a button. But for those outside that world, particularly in non-European countries, the literary and linguistic consequences of globalization in the age of English can often be severe…

Why was Mizumura’s book translated into English? What can this book teach those who know little or nothing about Japanese literature and will probably never read Japanese? The book challenges us to reconsider global literature in an age of English, and it reminds us of the value of reading literature in the original, whatever that language may be. Mizumura traces the rise and decline of modern national literatures, using the example of Japanese literature. In the process she raises key questions about the relationship of local vernaculars to what she calls “national language” and the complex relationship of that national language to the new “universal” language (English), particularly as these concern a writer working in a non-Roman script or non-phonetic writing system.

Image: Japanese edition of The Fall of Language in the Age of English