What is it like to live day-to-day as a translator? What are the worries and the stresses, the pleasures and the reliefs? How does a translator get by, and where do her projects fit into the rest of her life? In this new year-long feature, translator Emma Ramdan gives us some answers by keeping an open diary about a year her life.
Nathanaël’s translator’s note for a body, in spite: a slight philosophy for actors by Alain Jugnon begins “…if Jugnon’s text keeps its parts hidden on the verge of being exposed, the translation arrives with its skirts up.” What follows is an exploration of the specific ways wordplay can happen in the French language, how the reduced French vocabulary allows for a polysemy and an ambiguity that English doesn’t often permit. This is something I’ve come up against time and again, both due to the nature of English but also due to the nature of translation, needing to understand the nuances of each and every word before you can know which English word is most appropriate. For example, the French phrase sans doute can mean either certainly, without a doubt, or else probably, perhaps. Hilariously, hocher la tête can mean either to nod yes, or shake one’s head no. Context tends to help, but sometimes I find myself interrogating the author I’m translating about whether a word with multiple meanings was intended to be understood as x or y. The answer, inevitably: both. Translation doesn’t do well with ambiguity. How can I translate a sentence if I don’t know what the sentence means, if the sentence is hovering between two very different interpretations? How can I pick the right phrase in English, a language that seems to have a word for everything, erasing all ambiguity?
In the first translation I ever did, of Anne Parian’s book of prose poetry Monospace, there is a word at the end that is perfect in its double meaning. Foncer, to darken, or to hurry. In the context of the book, the author was drawing a close to the performance of her work, calling for the rideau, or curtain, her words becoming increasingly rushed and sparse as the text tunneled towards its end. Both the idea of the stage lights growing dimmer, and the author asking the reader to hurry, make perfect sense. Which to choose? As always: both. Basking in the generosity of poetry, My idea was to use both, separated by blank space on the page.
Hurry dim the lights
Poetry can allow for that unexpected duality, that gracious compromise, in a way that fiction or nonfiction often cannot. Sometimes I have to make a choice, and it feels like an entire half of a sentence or word’s potential has been lopped off in my version of the text. As Nathanaël says at the end of her note, “The translator has been called by many names, but she can never be accused of having told the whole truth.”
Translation used to be my hobby, when I had another job to pay the bills. My stable side-project, the thing I could go home to or spend weekends with, the place I could turn to in secret when there were slow moments at work. I was happy to be spared from that. When my fiancé Tom and I moved to Rhode Island to open Riffraff, our bookstore/bar, for the year leading up to our opening, translation was suddenly my only job. My full-time job. I was a literary translator. I could ease into it every morning. Wake up, make a cup of tea, commit myself to my desk, pull down the blinds so the sun wasn’t shining in my face, force myself to sit and translate until I reached a certain point in the book, then let myself get up, pee, shower, eat lunch, watch some reality TV to let my mind rest for a bit, then get right back to it. I would translate until around 5pm, then Tom and I would play board games for an hour before dinner, or have a drink outside and grill. Ever-present that year was the anxiety of trying to get our store open. All I wanted in those moments was for our store to exist. But I erase that part from my memory when I look back on that time with longing.
What do other translators who translate from home wear to work? Do you wear pajamas? Do you dress as if you’re going to the office? My daily routine used to be translating in my pajamas until the halfway point of what I wanted to accomplish in that day. Then I would shower and get dressed up. In clothes I would never wear to any office. I would put on a slinky black dress, smooth red lipstick and black eyeliner over my face, pouting at my reflection in the mirror. I would try to make myself feel sexy, like I was going on a date with myself. Maybe because when you spend all day in front of a computer screen, sometimes you need an excuse to dress up. But also, the better I feel the more I’m able to believe in myself. The more I’m able to believe in my intelligence, my ability to do the work, resolve the difficult wordplay, turn a mess of a draft into a living piece of writing. Flannel pajamas aren’t going to do that for me.
I think now I’m supposed to identify as a bookstore owner who also happens to translate. Translation is supposed to return to its place as my side project. But I feel like a translator who happens to own a bookstore. I spend at least 11 hours a day, 6 days a week at the store, snatching 30-minute slow stretches to get in a few paragraphs of editing, irked when a customer interrupts me, immediately reprimanding myself for wishing I could continue my work in peace rather than celebrating an opportunity for a sale. I’m still clinging to my identity as a translator and worried that if I let go of it, the hard work I’ve built up will have been for nothing.
How to explain that translation is the only thing I have right now that makes me feel like me? I don’t have time to do the small things that make me healthy or happy anymore, like working out, going to my favorite Providence restaurants, meeting friends at the bar a ten minute walk away, taking advantage of a spare hour to pull a book of poetry from the shelf.
On nights when I close the store, I always clean the toilet. Mostly so that our employees don’t have to, a little bit because I don’t trust anyone else to do it as thoroughly. But also because that moment alone in the bathroom is sometimes the only chance I have to be alone that day. Making small talk with strangers for hours on end is, for me, exhausting. Closing the bathroom door, knowing I won’t be asked for anything for a few minutes, is something I actively look forward to. Three different customers have told me now that the medicine cabinet in our bathroom that we got at a local vintage store is haunted. That there are “things” or spirits attached to it. Normally so afraid of ghosts, I convinced myself this spirit wouldn’t want to do me any harm after watching me get down on my knees and clean the toilet every night. When I was feeling beaten down our first few months, the idea of that presence was oddly comforting. Certain nights I was even tempted to say hello.
I’ve had to take quite a few train rides recently. I tell myself I’m going to accomplish loads of work during those train rides, and sometimes I do, but mostly by the time I sit down and pull out my laptop I’m just wishing I had thought to download a cheery romantic comedy to pass the hours instead. Most recently, I was on my way to New York and had instructed myself to tackle all the translation problems Tom and I had left for the very end of our co-translation project. One of the main characters crafts poems that contain a secret code for her lover to understand. One such poem uses the first word of each line to communicate that her father has died. All the rest of the poems are incredibly lewd. Thinly veiled porn, essentially, using every other line, or the first words of the lines, to excite her lover in public, secretly. With each draft Tom and I both kept skipping those poems, hoping to pass the buck to the other. Finally, I decided to take one for the team and tackle these poems during my train ride to New York. What I wasn’t anticipating was that the train would be full and I would be sitting next to a very wholesome-seeming middle-aged man, making the translating of these raunchy sex poems on my bright laptop screen rather embarrassing. After an attempt at screen-dimming that made the act of translating nearly impossible, I finally passed the buck once again to train-ride-home-Emma and called it a day.
Co-translating has been an exciting way to continue working despite how busy I am right now. Chris Clarke, who has been studying and translating the Oulipo for years, suggested we co-translate an Oulipian play called Pas de deux, Two-Step in English. It’s a “simultaneous play” written in 2003 as a collaboration between Oulipo members Jacques Jouet and Olivier Salon. It takes the form of two different plays set in two different eras, both of which share a character during multiple acts. This character—Armand—often make use of homographic “hinge” words, allowing his responses to signify something different to either storyline. Chris and I did our best to replicate the original writing process in our translation process. This had us working across the table from each other for certain sections, apart for others, and exchanging one reply at a time by email for another. I learned more about the text because of seeing and reading Chris’s translation of it, I grew as a translator from it. And I learned about Chris as a translator, too.
On the other hand, when I co-translate with Tom, I feel like I learn about him as a person. Tom prefers the word “beneath” to my “under.” He uses words like “selection” that make me cringe. He makes fun of me for saying “corner of the street” rather than “street corner.” We have different ways of constructing sentences, different ways of approaching puzzling language. We just finished translating a long novel together. I did a rough first draft of the book, then sent the slop over to Tom with the instructions: fix it. I made it English, now make it good English. Reading through all of his edits added to my understanding of him. It’s exciting to learn about him in this way.
There is something incredibly comforting about a co-translation. Someone else has validated your choices, someone else has said “this is a good idea,” the potential of being scoffed at has been reduced. And if you are scoffed at nevertheless, you’re only half to blame.
This month I was asked to speak at a French studies conference about a possible future translation of Anne Garréta’s newest book, Dans l’béton, published a few months ago in France. I have translated two of her previous books, Sphinx and Not One Day. For this panel, I was paired with another Providence-based translator who has become a good friend of mine over the past few months. Garréta’s latest book is filled with impressive, innovative language, as is to be expected, and our task was to speak on a panel about how one might go about translating the book. As we were trying to summon into English the voice of Garréta’s narrator, a young precocious girl, my co-panelist posited the idea of one of Sally Mann’s photographs, the young blonde girl with the cigarette hanging from her mouth. That photograph instantly and perfectly summed up the voice we needed to recreate in English. I never would have landed on that idea on my own.
My translation partner and I were hyper-focused on the word level, how to translate the narrative quirks of the young girl, Garréta’s rampant wordplay, her transformation of language. Before it’s our turn to speak, the other two panelists, academics, talk about the actual content of the book, what it’s doing, its themes, its successes, in the way that I imagine most academics do at academic conferences. I was blown away by how deep they were able to get into this book, how much they were able to tease out and reveal to us. Immediately the cloud of imposter syndrome settled over me: I’d been resting on the level of the words, the strange spellings, the linguistic play. How could I be speaking about translating this book when I had not gone as deep into its meaning as the others? Would they make better translators than me? Would they do this book justice in a way I couldn’t because of their capacity for critical analysis, the connections they’re able to make through their thorough knowledge of seemingly every work ever written by a French author? What is it that I bring to the table as a translator who does not come at projects from an academic angle?
I got a text from Anne Garréta the day before the conference saying she would be coming to Riffraff that night. I was touched, and excited, and terrified. I hadn’t seen Anne for years, since I was living in Paris and translating her first novel, Sphinx. We used to go to dinner and eat red meat and drink red wine and she would generously explain some of the references and layers in Sphinx that I might otherwise have missed. Anne walked into Riffraff and there was a warmth. I wouldn’t let our bartender serve her, I wanted to wait on her myself. The bond formed over two challenging translations, all those accumulated hours of thought and energy had served to form between us something unspoken but immediately comprehensible. Something like sisterhood, a mutual trying to share an idea, to get to the same place. And maybe what I bring to the table as a translator is precisely that I come at books from a place of emotion. That urge to translate a book comes from seeing what it can do for a reader emotionally, what it does to me emotionally, how it can impact the way people feel in the world. Garréta’s writing is intensely smart, reading her books is indeed an intellectual exercise, they can be unpacked in classrooms for days on end. But it’s the way her books make me feel that has led to me spending years translating them into English, binding my words as closely to hers as possible.
This month I started working on another co-translation with a friend from my masters program who speaks English and French fluently, along with a handful of other languages. She’s brilliant and her way with words is something I envy deeply. We split the text down the middle: she will translate and edit her half, and I will translate and edit my half, and then we’ll switch and edit each other’s, make everything cohesive and consistent, check that we’re both calling that character “the child with gray eyes” rather than “the child with the gray eyes” or “the gray-eyed child.” It’s a treat to be co-translating this book with her. I am in awe of the way her drafts completely consume me. She has captured the rhythm and the beauty of this text and I am modeling myself after her.
She lives in Spain, I live in Rhode Island. When we first started pitching this project, we were both living in Paris. Back then, I had imagined we’d be able to translate together in person, laughing through the hours, getting very little done each day and then rewarding ourselves with bottles of wine anyway, channeling the author’s indulgent drinking habits, basking in how glamorous and thrilling translation can be when you’re translating an author you love and you’re co-translating with a person who jolts you awake and reminds you of why you enjoy doing this.
The reality is that now, with the project finally underway, I’m here in Providence and she’s over there in Europe. Different time zones means that as I’m sitting down at my desk to start the day, she’s just getting up from hers to put things to an end. I’m walking into the library and she’s walking into the gym. One day I text her to ask if she’s also working so we could at least send text messages back and forth and blurt across the Internet a phrase we’re struggling with.
It’s frustrating to feel so out of sync. Half the fun of co-translating is being able to witness the other person’s process, hear their thoughts, watch as they replace words with others that feel more right—or at least less wrong—struggling and breaking through together. She is on vacation in Capri while I’m translating from the bar at Riffraff on my off-hours. We finally work out a time to talk on the phone. It turns out since we last spoke both of us have had to deal with the aftermath of a burst pipe. The worst kind of burst pipe. In the end we were more in sync than either of us had thought.
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she is the co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of an NEA translation fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and a Fulbright scholarship to Morocco. Her forthcoming translations include Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, The Shutters by Ahmed Bouanani, and Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent.
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