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Today's Story by Richard Harris

Those boors from Tokyo wouldn’t know good sashimi if they were hit in the head with a lead fish from Tokyo Bay.

The Language of Love

The screen a few rows up ahead says we’re cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet. A little white plane moves in geometric lefts and rights as it progresses on its two-dimensional course from Tokyo to Toronto. We’ve only been in the air for three hours and already I’m a mess. If I don’t get some sleep soon, I think I’ll go crazy and jump out of the airplane, pirouetting down into the Pacific headfirst. Knowing my luck, I won’t die on impact. I’ll simply bob up and down on the stupid waves until a gang of hungry sharks gets smart and realizes I’m the easiest meal they’ve ever had.

Love plagues me, love frees me.

I want to tell Sakura that I love her, in English, but I’m scared. That it’ll have more meaning than it should. Than I allow myself to feel. That’s why I switch to Japanese. It’s safer if I do that. And safety is insulation from pain.

I reach for my copy of South of the Border, West of the Sun, turn on the reading light, and open the book. I’m only 50 pages into the story, and although I like it, I have issues with the translation.

Let it be known that I’ve come to both love and loathe translating. In university, when languages were abstract concepts like the space-time continuum, I thought it wonderfully exciting to be working with mankind’s greatest invention. With Japanese, French and Spanish, I felt I was on my way to becoming a regular Richard F. Burton, the man who learned twenty-nine languages in his lifetime.

Okay, so I’m nothing like Sir Dick Burton.

The original idea was to translate the Japanese equivalent of The Arabian Nights into English, perhaps from some esoteric language like Ainu, the minority ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido whom I’d make famous through my work.

That was the dream then. The truth is, after three months of living in the insanely expensive metropolis of Tokyo I wasn’t getting enough translation work to pay the bills, so I started teaching on the side. Eventually I was so busy teaching that I had no time to work on any translations. I wasn’t completely blind to the irony that I had gone to Japan to translate Japanese literature and ended up teaching my native language. The only good thing to come out of my teaching was the day Sakura walked into one of my classes. That was nine years ago.

Man, I love Miles Davis, especially when I’m cloaked in silence. Like right now, as the plane drones on and everyone sleeps. The flight’s complimentary headphones are pressed hard against my ears. I forgot I was listening to the in-flight radio service, and those last few notes of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” when his trumpet fizzles out breathlessly, send a shiver through my body.

The little white plane on the monitor has hardly moved since the last time I checked. We’re still at the same height. Same speed. Same destination. Caught in between the two worlds of East and West, I feel like a rootless tree spinning through space. Sakura is still sound asleep, her measured breathing my only tranquility right now. I feel part of my heart tearing away under a mountain of guilt.

I don’t deserve her.

I don’t.

I know I don’t…

I keep telling myself this until I lose track of what it is I’m coming down on myself for. I switch channels on the in-flight radio service and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. Five in C Minor” is just coming on. I close my eyes, wishing this situation would disappear.

Two days ago Sakura told me through a cascade of tears that she could not go on with us as boyfriend/girlfriend. At 39, she said, she was too old to be using the word “boyfriend” when she introduced me, and on the brink of losing her last chance to have children. She still wanted to be in the relationship, but she wanted to have a child and she wanted me to propose.

But (isn’t there always a “but” with stuff like this?) I had always told myself I would never do two things in life: I would never say the “L” word out loud and I would never get married. My parents went through a protracted divorce that lasted from the time I was eight until I was in grade eight. They fought over money, over property, over a screwdriver in a tool box, over a debt my father had incurred before I was born, and, ultimately, they fought over me. Like a monk who vows to renounce all his earthly possessions in his quest for enlightenment, I cast off the shackles of what I saw as my parents’ downfall: the falsehood of love and the psychopathic institution of marriage.

Beethoven’s symphony comes to an end and Bach’s “Cantata No. 4” comes on. My emotions are in rhythm with the music as I look down at the open book on my lap and begin reading again. I’ve read a few of Murakami’s novels and short stories and one of the things I really like about him is the way he describes love. There is something fresh and youthful – sometimes even morbid – in the way his characters fall in love with one another.

One of the first arguments I ever had with fellow translators back in university was how to translate what we in English call “love.” The kanji character for “love,” or ai, is a spiritual kind of love that, according to Buddhists, is related to a degree of someone’s selfishness or selflessness. It was a Chinese character developed by a philosopher almost 2,500 years ago to embody what might be termed “egalitarian love.” In verb form, “to love” is ai shiteiru in Japanese, but nobody ever says that. I “really like you,” or daisuki, is about as close as a Japanese person gets to saying the “L” word in real life.

When Sakura first said she “really liked me,” it threw me off. She was the first girlfriend I had who did not speak English as a first language. Something about the fact that she didn’t “love” me upset me a little. I knew it was hypocritical. I suppose that’s the first time I started wondering whether I had the capacity to tell Sakura I loved her in English.

For a few weeks I gave it a lot of thought and came really close to using the “L” word with Sakura in English. But something always kept me back. Then, like anything in life, time passed, my attention was diverted to other matters, and I continued saying “I really liked her” because it was easy. I know that sounds awful to say, but when you are as afraid of saying three one-syllable words as I am, it starts to make a lot of sense.

We just passed the International Date Line so “today” has started all over again. Sakura’s snuggling up against the window, oblivious to the fact that we’ve just flown back in time. Whether I say it aloud or not, I love Sakura with all my heart. And yet we’re so different, parallel worlds somehow colliding in separate universes. Blind lovers groping at parts we don’t know the names of. Fumbling in the dark with childlike naiveté.

Back to the book. Focus on Murakami’s words as interpreted by another individual.



That’s the wrong approach. At least with translation, it is. Some people try to find a substitute for one word after another, one phrase after the next. It can’t be done like that. Translation is an art precisely because it needs to be looked at for the larger picture that it is.

A work of translation is worth more than the sum of its individual parts.

I ask a passing flight attendant for a beer. I put my book down and reach for my journal. I want to write something down. What exactly, I have no idea. I run the pen through my hair. Rub my ear. Scratch my nose.

All right. Now I’m ready to brainstorm…

Words, convey, express, feeling…love.

Damn it. Avoid that word. Start again.

Thread, connection, cultures, deep…love.


Japan, West, cord, bridge, understanding…love.

Shit shit shit.

I fling my pen at the chair in front of me. It bounces off the top of the magazine, sings across the aisle and hits a sleeping passenger in the head. A dazed and confused man is given a start. He searches frantically for the source of the attack. I’ve got my tongue sticking out, pretending to be asleep, one eye closed and the other one checking to see what he’s doing. When the poor guy gets back to sleep again, I stealthily lean forward and pick up my weapon from the floor of the aisle.

Maybe I should take that as a sign. I look at my watch. What time is it now that we’ve crossed the International…Meridian of…the Pacific? Where the hell are we? The Meridian of Cherry Blossoms?

My eyes fill with tears.

The stupid white thingamajig on the stupid screen has hardly moved. The plane smells like my grandparents’ living room. My right knee is aching. My knuckles creak like antique furniture. My brain is swimming in a pool of beer and wine.

Still, when the same flight attendant passes by again, I ask for a Scotch on the rocks, deciding that cool drinks going down dry throats at high altitudes will be fun. She returns a minute later and I offer up a dumb grin, like my front teeth are falling out. She, on the other hand, flashes me a perfect flight attendant’s smile – crisp and meaningless. I haven’t used my Japanese with her yet, deciding that will be my Ace in the Hole should push come to shove with the liberal dispensing of alcoholic beverages. What’s that? I’ll say in Japanese. You’re from the Kansai region? Smashing! That’s my favorite part of Japan. Those boors from Tokyo wouldn’t know good sashimi if they were hit in the head with a lead fish from Tokyo Bay. This, of course, will evoke laughter from her and land me another drink.

I look at Sakura and slide down in my chair, hands folded across my chest. I narrow my eyes and drink her in. An incandescent aura frames her angelic face from the reading light above me. She’s snuggled tight beneath two blankets. I can’t think of being with anyone else in this whole wide world but her. And yet from the beginning of our relationship I’ve always erected a wall between us. What I’ve failed to see these last nine years is that she’s been building a causeway to my hermetically sealed-off island the whole time, connecting us the only way she knows how – through selfless acts of love and charity. The blind, though they cannot see, are not without the use of their other senses. For someone not to see is hardly a crime; for someone to turn off all their senses while in the midst of being loved is unforgivable. Therefore, I conclude, clearing a lump in my throat, Sakura must be a saint to stay with me.

My head begins to throb, so I ask the flight attendant for an aspirin. She asks me if that’s such a good idea.

Suddenly I’m disoriented. “Where is your hometown?” I say in Japanese. She twitches. “Are you from Osaka by any chance?”

Yes. How did you know?”

I heard you speaking with the grandmother behind me earlier.”

Your Japanese is excellent. Have you been living in Japan long?” Her tone is friendly, though she remains formal.

Yes. I love it there. To be frank, I’m planning on moving to Osaka.”


Yes. Those boors up in Tokyo wouldn’t know good sashimi if they were hit in the head with a lead fish from Tokyo Bay.

This does not evoke the guffaws I had hoped it would. Instead, we merely stare at each other like the strangers we are.

So sorry to be a pest, but do you think I could have one little aspirin to take away this dreadful pain in my head?” I ask, breaking a silence long enough to span an ocean.

I’ve put her in a real bind. I can tell she likes me, or at least she doesn’t not like me, but she’s clearly worried about all that alcohol swimming around my bloodstream.

So sorry, but I think you should wait just a little while, sir. Until the effects of the alcohol have worn off.”


Now I’m cut off from all chemical and narcotic crutches. This is worse than being pinned under a sumo wrestler after going to an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’ve got to relax. Chill out. That’s the only way I’m going to make it through this flight in one piece. Just then I notice that Sakura is looking at me.

Register that: She’s not asleep … Her eyes have opened … She’s looking at me


Sparks are popping like Roman candles at the back of my brain. Fires have broken out all over my circuitry. The guy at the control booth, the mother board of my brain, is about to abandon ship. This fire could raze everything inside my rotten head.

Are you awake? I mean, are you looking at me right now?”

Those little puffy parts under her eyes pulsate for a fraction of a second. She blinks so effortlessly that I think someone has put her in slow motion. There it is. The look comes screaming out of each pupil like a gunshot, the one that says:

Tread carefully, for the petals you are walking on protect my heart.

I turn my body sideways so that our faces are almost touching.


Sakura’s got both hands, palms pressed together, between her head and the back of her chair. I want to say something memorable. I’m working through translations in my head faster than Deep Blue can make chess moves. Think, damn it!

No. Don’t think. Just say it. I whisper her name.


Cheekbones rise…

Eyelids flutter…

I mouth the three most important words in the English language. I don’t even know if the words actually come out. It’s the first time I’ve said them to anyone and the moment I do, I feel the fire in my head extinguish at once. My ears pop. I’m so light I could pass into zero gravity.

Sakura takes a deep breath and I swear the ends of her eyes are turned up in a smile. “Daisuki,” she finally says in a willowy tone as she drifts back off to sleep.


Richard Harris is the author of two works of published non-fiction, Roadmap to Korean and Faces of Korea. He is also the author of a novel and a collection of short stories. His short story “Men Gone Mad” was just published in the Fall/Winter 2011 edition of Geist magazine.


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