As evidenced by my previous blog posts, “My Preoccupation” and “The Collective: Divided,” I have been drawn by the predicament of writing race, or writing difference. Without a doubt, I am still bothered by this question of how we, or really, I, want to go about training my work to resonate on numerous levels, without sacrificing honesty for clarity, without having to play the endless game of cultural catch-up for a mixed audience. Without a doubt, this stream of thought turns almost every thing that I read, watch, or otherwise consume into a potential craft lesson. The latest item to fall victim is a documentary that I consider one of my favorite movies: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (Magnolia Pictures, 2011).
Jiro examines the life and practices of renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono, whose exacting, precise, even punishing chase for sushi perfection has turned the man into a worthy subject for a documentary, if not a model for a certain type of artistic sacrifice. Watch the movie—no summary will do the man and his legacy justice.
I watch this documentary maybe three times a year, either to show the movie to new eyes or to re-anoint my own to the visual wonderland of gleaming raw fish molded into pieces of artful sushi. I watch, above all, for my own viewing pleasure. But in my latest viewing, just a few late nights ago, I could not help turning the experience into an edifying one.
I may not have mentioned—Jiro is subtitled, with the words translated from Japanese floating on the screen in white. As the translations appeared, my brain made the necessary leaps. I realized that someone was in charge of writing and approving these translations. And that translation is the most obvious example of writing difference.
What I mean to say is that I suddenly saw that translation approaches, for the sake of simplicity, the English language with the understanding that loss is guaranteed. After all, we all know the phrase “lost in translation.” Layers of nuance, cultural context, or colloquialism potentially falls through the cracks. Translators are truly editors, choosing when to explain further and when to let context do the talking.
But rather than focusing just on the inevitable loss of translation, I saw the potential for audience members of different backgrounds to seize different combinations of layers of meaning was just as inevitable. As the movie played on, I noticed moments where I glazed the surface of understanding, and the moments where I gained an extra layer.
Part of the masterpiece of the movie is the momentum with which the strangeness and intensity of Jiro’s profession carries the viewer through a world with no true stakes. We’re talking about sushi, after all. And yet, we’re also being introduced to a brave, new world. The movie, in fact, rests on the untranslatable moments to hammer home just how separate the sushi world is, and a scene I’m still reflecting on is the one that takes place in the fish market, during what I can only assume is an auction for tuna parts. Nothing is translated during this scene as auctioneers bow, sweep off their hats, clang bells, sing out prices, and slap nametags onto the rows and rows of giant tuna. Intercut throughout the activity are tuna dealers peering at the meat through flashlights, palpating the flesh with their fingers. I’ve watched this scene almost ten times, and I still don’t quite know what’s going on. I was resistant, the first few times, by how the film denies me access to what I believed was my right to knowledge, to vital information. And yet, I get what I need, as an unknowledgeable American. I get the flavor of this particular, organized chaos. I get the stakes.
And then there are the moments when I am allowed in. A catalyzing moment, for me, was during an interview with Hachiro Mizutani. An old student of Jiro’s, he tells amusing stories of his old mentor’s ways, mentioning how he became so attuned to Jiro’s moods that he would be able to tell when to avoid the taciturn man and when to approach him. In speaking on Jiro’s awe-inspiring perfectionism, Mizutani says, “Let’s say I don’t sleep with my feet pointed in his direction.” There is no further explanation, no captioned side-note to clarify the superstition, but for me, as a Chinese-American, I felt that I accessed a deeper understanding of that statement.
The completely unknowledgeable audience would still understand the sentiment. From contextual clues, they would surmise that Mizutani is expressing some residual fear and respect for his old teacher. Perhaps this audience finds the phrasing strange and idiosyncratic, but they accept that there is no perfect translation. The translation has done its part, without sacrificing the subtle poetry of the idiom.
Yet as an audience member who shares some cultural similarities with the Japanese—in that overarching umbrella of Asia, or the East—I believe I gained an extra inch of visibility, which I cannot even quite articulate. Only that I felt a moment of recognition when this scene occurred. I did not find the phrase strange, though I have no prior knowledge of it. Instead, I was reminded of my parents, and their own system of values. I could see my mother and father, and my extended family, following this code of respect. I found myself in translation.
The takeaway from Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is partially that the chase for artistic perfection is paramount, so it is with some irony that I make a lesson out of the imperfection, and erased specificity, of the movie’s translation. Yet I am soothed by this relaxing of expectations when it comes to reaching an audience. I can lose my message in translation if, at least, what is lost leaves a shadow easily recognizable.