Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2021

In Translation (1994), by Annamarie Jagose

Winner of the Pen Award for Best First Fiction and the NZSA Best First Book Award in 1994 In Translation, at 190 pages only just scrapes into my definition of a novella as between 100-200 pages.  It’s the debut novel of Annamarie Jagose, who subsequently wrote that marvellous novel Slow Water which won multiple awards in 2004 including the 2004 Deutz Medal for Fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards;  the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. (See my review here). Alas for her readers, these days Professor Annamarie Jagose is the University of Sydney’s Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor and as far as I can tell she has published extensively in academia, but there have been no more novels.

Unfortunately, it may be hard to get hold of In Translation.  It seems to be out of print.

Moving backwards and forwards in time and place, In Translation is the story of a love-triangle.  A young woman called Helena arrives in Wellington fresh from a scandal involving her high school teacher.  Her parents have offloaded her to her aunt , a woman who shares a smell with her house, a mustiness of old carpet and thighs clenched shut for too long.  This aunt soon departs for overseas travel, sending Helena postcards of herself, and (imprudently) leaving Helena to reconstruct the house to please herself.  Helena shoves most of the furniture in the back of the house, sells the rest and then repaints the front rooms and carpets them with sand in the style of a Japanese garden…

The neighbours, Lillian and Navaz, invite her to a party.  Lillian is an artist who stages artistic photographs while Navez is a translator.  Helena embroiders the story of the scandal which brought her to her dreary work in Wellington as a bank teller, and before long they invite her to move in.  And In due course, Helena displaces Lillian as Navaz’s lover.

The women fly out to India where they are shown the sights by a guide called Prakash, and then, when they are in London, Navaz abandons Helena.

Navaz did not leave cruelly, exactly, but there is no such thing as a kind leavetaking.  As if I were the owner of lodgings, she gave me two weeks notice.  At first those fourteen days seemed like a hoard, one or two might slip past but there were still a dozen remaining, then there were only four, three, two, and these last ran out like thieves disturbed.  It seemed to take a long time, that departure: there was the last visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the meal with Navaz’s family, the last night in bed, the last breakfast, the last kiss, the sight of Navaz through the taxi’s rear window as it pulled out of the courtyard and into the street.  By my reckoning, however, a departure is never a stretch of, but a point in time.  There is all that preparation, those sad separations and packings, the bestowal of some small item of remembrance but then she is gone, and there can be no preparation for that moment, that calculable second, when you are suddenly, and unarguably, alone. (p.43)

Up to this point, the novella is reasonably straightforward.  But after her abandonment, Helena who in the pursuit of what she wants has demonstrated a sometimes cursory attitude towards the feelings of others (her parents, her aunt, Lillian) Helena is devastated.  And she tries to hang on to her lost love by appropriating Navaz’s work as a translator…

Navaz has been translating a novel by a Japanese author called Nishimura.  Their method is unusual.  He has apparently worked out the whole thing in his head, and is writing it out bit by bit, and it is these bits that he sends to Navaz for translation.  Navaz has been reading these instalments to Helena in bed, and so when the first envelope arrives after Navaz has gone, Helena opens it to find out what happens next.  Of course, it’s in Japanese, so she buys a dictionary and translates it herself, and sends it on to Navaz only when she is satisfied with her own translation.

However… The time comes when Nishimura’s letters stop coming.  Helena doesn’t realise straight away that the novel has ended, and she is not content with the ambiguous ending.  So she, with her rudimentary Japanese, continues the story herself, sending her contributions onto Navaz as if they were the author’s.  To do this she needs some help, and so she develops a most curious relationship with Professor Mody, who likes to share erotic Japanese haiku with her.

The characterisation of the central character of Helena is intriguing.  On the one hand she is a young woman who invokes the reader’s sympathy.  She has been treated badly because of her sexuality, all but abandoned by her parents and wilfully misunderstood by her aunt.  As narrator, however, her caustic observations of other people are not endearing: she is judgemental, dismissive and hypercritical.  She is blasé about Lillian whom she displaces, and is dismissive and cruel towards Professor Mody.

I really don’t know what to make of her!

BTW The VUP edition of the novel has a much more interesting cover: it’s a representation of Professor Mody in one of the more bizarre episodes in the novel!

Author: Annamarie Jagose
Title: In Translation
Cover art: ‘A Man and a courtesan watching a young man write’ by Masanobu
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 1995, first published Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1994
ISBN: 9781863739627, Paperback, 190 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Woodend Secondhand Bookshop during the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in 2014



  1. Sold! Japanese literature, translation and a fraud – I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that, does it?


    • It’s hypnotic too, did I mention that?
      PS BTW Thank you for the ReTweet, you are endlessly generous with the way you do that and I do appreciate it.
      How are you getting on ‘post-covid’?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Always happy to read and share with others, if I can. Struggling with the next cold/flu thing that sons brought home… so… yes, fed up already with winter.


        • I remember London winters. I don’t think they were the reason why my parents chose to emigrate, but memories of those winters became the reason they would never go back.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Weirdly, Annamarie Jagose had a hand in the attrition of the Arts department at the University of Sydney (although they have just recently created a new position in Australian literature):


    • Yes, I saw that elsewhere. But really, that’s attributing blame where it doesn’t belong. The Federal government, shamefully, did not support the universities financially when the overseas student market collapsed because of Covid, and all universities are faced with having to make staffing cuts. The blame belongs squarely with the Feds, and not IMO the hapless administrator who has no choice but to implement the cuts.


      • I agree that much of the blame lies with the Federal government, particularly as it does not care about education at all, but Jagose has worked in universities for a long time and has an intimate understanding of their bureaucracy and politics – she is far from hapless, particularly as a person high up in that bureaucracy.


        • I didn’t mean hapless as in incompetent, I meant as in being the unlucky one who is placed in an invidious position.
          We’ve been there, in my family, being put in a position where the bucket of money just isn’t enough to keep everyone’s job and having to make impossible heartbreaking decisions.
          In Arts (just for example) how do you choose between Classical languages with a very small and declining number of enrolments but valuable because it’s the only one in the country or state and it’s vital to train new teachers plus its staff have an international scholarly reputation; and Chinese which is popular because it’s vital to have fluent speakers of Chinese who know about China’s history and culture? These decisions are meant to be on merit, but both of these have equal merit. But it’s a no-brainer that Classical Languages will go, because of the lower enrolments.


          • Yes they’re cutting classes with the lower numbers, unless folk have the energy for protests (as at UWA). I don’t think things are going to get better until Labor gets into power, whenever that will be.


  3. That second cover! Hah


    • Trust me, it’s relevant to the story!


  4. That really is an intriguing plot. You, often wonder where a promising novelist has disappeared to after one or two novels (hopefully Jess, who is at no. 4, I think, is past that).
    I’m not sure that Labor is any more likely to chop down the million dollar Vice Chancellors, who seem to be the real problem, than the Libs are, but we can wish.


    • It’s the dependence on overseas students to fix their budgets that’s the worrying thing, IMO.


  5. […] Jagose: In Translation You can blame Lisa Hill from ANZ Lit Lovers blog once again for this hard-to-find book. A translator of Japanese literature, a love triangle and a […]


  6. […] In Translation by Annamarie Jagose (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: