By Jennifer Igawa
David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet1 was a well-received addition to his already critically acclaimed collection of novels when it was published in 2010. The book follows the title character’s tenure as a clerk at the Dutch East India Company’s trading outpost on Dejima, an island in Nagasaki, Japan designated for foreign trade in the late 18th century. The beginning of the book was a bit of a slog, but eventually the pace picked up. In the end, I did enjoy the novel, perhaps because the setting was familiar. I was also impressed by what must have been an extensive amount of research in order to maintain historical accuracy. What really caught my attention, though, was how much the Japanese characters seemed so modern, how little change would be required if the setting were, for example, an English language class at a Japanese university in 2021.
…For his part, Kobayashi takes pains to prove that he bears no grudge over the peacock-fan incident and introduces Jacob as “Clerk de Zoet of Zeeland, Esquire” and “Man of Deep Learning.”
The man of deep learning modestly denies this paean.
Motogi explains that, in the course of their work, the interpreters encounter words whose meanings are unclear, and it is to illuminate these that Jacob has been invited. Dr. Marinus often leads these unofficial tutorials, but today he is busy and nominated Clerk de Zoet as his substitute.
Each interpreter has a list of items that evade the guild’s collective understanding. These he reads out, one by one, and Jacob explains as clearly as he can, with examples, gestures, and synonyms. The group discusses an appropriate Japanese substitute, sometimes testing it on Jacob, until everyone is satisfied. Straightforward words such as “parched,” “plenitude,” or “saltpeter” do not detain them long. More abstract items such as “simile,” “figment,” or “parallax” prove more exacting. Terms without a ready Japanese equivalent, such as “privacy,” “splenetic,” or the verb “to deserve,” cost ten or fifteen minutes, as do phrases requiring specialist knowledge—“Hanseatic,” “nerve ending,” or “subjunctive.” Jacob notices that where a Dutch pupil would say, “I don’t understand,” the interpreters lower their eyes, so the teacher cannot merely explicate but must also gauge his students’ true comprehension.
Two hours pass at the speed of one but exhaust Jacob like four, and he is grateful for green tea and a short interval. Hanzaburo slopes away without explanation. During the second half, Narazake asks how “He has gone to Edo” differs from “He has been to Edo”; Dr. Maeno wants to know when one uses “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”; and Namura asks for the differences among “If I see,” “If I saw,” and “Had I but seen”; Jacob is thankful for his tedious hours of schoolboy grammar. The last queries of the morning come from Interpreter Kobayashi. “Please may Clerk de Zoet explain this word: ‘repercussions.’” (Mitchell, 2010, pp. 120-121)
With apologies to Mitchell, I venture to twist this excerpt from historical fiction into a modern tale.
…For her part, the program coordinator ignores the familiarity with which this new hire has been addressing her and introduces Jacob as “Professor Jacob de Zoet” who “has a master’s degree in TESL” from some university the students have never heard of.
The sufficiently educated professor proudly introduces himself in a loud timbre. He may be new, but he is nothing but confident and in control.
As de Zoet introduces the course, he explains that, over the semester, the students will encounter words whose meanings may be unclear. Students should first try to work out a reasonable understanding based on context. If that fails, students should consult their classmates—in English, of course. Should no one have a clear understanding, they should consult an English-English dictionary. Should that in turn fail to give the students clarity, he would be more than happy to explain their meanings.
Not far into Unit 1, each student already has circled several words that evade the students’ collective understanding. These are read out, one by one, and Jacob tries to explain their meanings as clearly as he can, with examples, gestures, and synonyms. The group discusses appropriate Japanese substitutes—in Japanese, of course, sometimes testing them on the teacher, who would really like to test his own Japanese but obediently adheres to the institutional rule of speaking only English—until everyone appears satisfied. Straightforward words such as “crouch,” “mammal,” or “revolver” do not take long. More abstract items such as “tolerance,” “personification,” or “paranormal” prove more demanding. Terms without a ready Japanese equivalent, such as “privacy,” “spite,” or the verb “to deserve,” use ten or fifteen minutes each, as do phrases requiring specialist knowledge: “cryosphere,” “photoresist,” or “purpura.” Jacob laments that he had not been a better student himself and assigns the words for the students to look up. “There will be a quiz next week!”
Jacob notices that where a student back home would say, “I don’t understand,” the students here lower their eyes, so the teacher cannot merely explicate but must also gauge students’ true comprehension. Furthermore, when asked a question directly, a student immediately searches her textbook for the correct answer. When advised that the answer is not in the book, that she needs to infer, the student seeks out support from neighboring students. Whisper, whisper, whisper.
Time passes quickly but de Zoet is exhausted nonetheless. Only half-way through, he is yearning for the short break he will have at the end of class. De Zoet looks up from his color-coded, detailed lesson plan to notice a student stepping out of the class without explanation. He turns to the remaining students and scolds them, making it clear that no one should leave the classroom without permission. During the second half, after receiving only silence in response to each “Are there any questions?” Jacob implores the students to respond in some way. “Mumble ‘No’. Give me a thumbs up. Or even just shake your head.” He tries humor and claims that his crystal ball is broken, so he cannot read their minds. He tries reason and explains that if they do not communicate to him that they do not understand, or even that they do understand, he cannot help them. “So, do you have any questions?”
One student asks how “He has gone to the America” differs from “He has been to the America”. Another student wants to know when it’s OK to say “Fuck!”. And the attentive student in the front middle seat asks for the differences among “If I see”, “If I saw”, and “Had I but seen”. De Zoet recalls the tedious hours of grammar in his MA program and reconstructs on the blackboard the complex diagrams his own professor used. How could such reticent students know enough English to ask such esoteric questions? The last query of the morning comes from a boy sitting smack dab in the middle of the class, slouched and with arms crossed. His was the only name in the roster that suggested non-Japanese heritage. “Teacher, what mean this phrase: ‘bored to tears’?”
De Zoet ends the class by asking one more time, “Are there any questions? Does everyone understand the homework?” Silence.
The bell rings. De Zoet lets out a sigh and mumbles, “Good God.” Two girls quietly approach the dais. De Zoet looks at them and waits, too many moments, for them to speak. Finally, one asks, “Teacher, what is the homework?”
1 Mitchell, D. (2010). The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (International ed.). Random House.