by Binta Ohtaki
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Let there be light. It then occurs to a mathematician that language itself is the ray of light that shines on all objects. As every object reveals its contour only in light, the light must have come into existence after everything else. At the same time, we want to believe the image formed on the retina in order to embrace the joy triggered by the beauty of color that hasn’t yet seen the light. Yet if language is light, then what we see is a shadow one language casts on another.
Our cognitive space is constructed upon all possible languages. This space has every object embedded. We can perceive an object only through a certain language. In other words, we get no more than a partial glimpse of the object each time. The mathematician’s study concerns the development of a method to see the multi-linguistic pluralism of an object through a single language. This method has come to be known commonly as translation.
If, according to him, translation refers to the shadow of one language on another, then the translation affinity between two languages manifests as its inner product. By paying attention to the angle formed by the distance between the languages that define the space, he has proven that an observed object can be calculated as the same square matrix as the number of languages from one set of observed data. He dubbed this “language matrix.” And the number property of the language matrix is given as its eigenvalue and eigenvector.
Yet when the mathematician observes the light in the universe, the characteristic equation yields no solution. The rays shoot toward all languages, i.e. all the shadows extending toward an imaginary number. We can’t even stare at a shadow we can’t step on. It then dawns on him that the language that goes straight to every language is his mother tongue.
His dwelling constructed by his own words isn’t located anywhere in the world.
Even so, from there, he gets an excellent view of the whole universe.
Translator’s Note by Toshiya Kamei
Binta Ohtaki (b. 1986) is a Japanese fiction writer and essayist based in Kobe. In 2017, he published the short story collection Colonial Time. In the same year, he won the first Awa Shirasagi Literary Prize. Organized by Tokushima Shinbun, a newspaper of Tokushima prefecture located in the island of Shikoku, this contest seeks the finest short fiction set in the region. Ohtaki’s award-winning story depicts the world of traditional indigo dyeing, known as aizome in Japanese, which is practiced in Tokushima. In addition, his short fiction has appeared in venues such as Hidden Authors, S-F Magazine, and Taberu no ga osoi.
While a PhD student in physics at Kyoto University, he spent several months at Carnegie Mellon University. There he was exposed to the works of U.S. writers such as Pynchon. This study-abroad experience deepened his preoccupation with language. As he immersed himself in an ambient where communication was hindered by the linguistic barrier, his interest in literary translation emerged around this time.
A decade ago, he discovered a Japanese writer whose work sparked his literary ambitions. It was Mieko Kawakami. Her poetic prose destroyed his preconceived notion of this genre and freed him from the self-imposed literary confines. Now he intends to produce texts that expand the traditional boundaries of fiction.
Recurring themes in Binta Ohtaki’s writings include linguistics and mathematics. As this brief text shows, his fiction proposes fictional linguistic theories and pseudo-mathematical formulae through which readers are asked to make sense of the universe and even examine our own existence.