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.
In June I got married. I wrote my wedding vows between selling books to customers at Riffraff, and then at the end of July we were off on our honeymoon. I didn’t bring my laptop with me, I didn’t bring anything work-related, or tried not to. I brought seventeen books, five Tuesday crosswords, and six black linen dresses. Unintentional uniform dressing, like Marguerite Duras used to do. I stared at the ocean our entire time in the South of France, like Marguerite Duras used to do.
The sea. The sea. I’m working on a co-translation of a Marguerite Duras book this summer. It’s about the sea, and a young boy and girl who meet and fall in love by the sea, and Duras and Yann Andréa, who meet and fall in love by the sea, and a young boy and the shark who carries the boy through the sea, and Marguerite Duras staring out at the sea from her window in Trouville.
But mostly it’s about the sea. The sea. It. Her? Elle. Elle, la mer. She. It? I go back and forth with my co-translator, Olivia Baes. The sea feels like a character in the book, an overwhelming presence, the insistence and repetition of elle in Duras’s book feels like it carries something more than the English “it.” But there are sentences that call out for “it” rather than “she.” My ear tells me certain places don’t sound right with “she.” And would it be too jarring for readers? Would it be putting too much into the English text that isn’t in the French? Or is this extra emphasis present for French readers, and by not making the sea “she” in English, we’d be denying something from English readers? We read an interview with Duras in which she refers to the sea in English as “she”—but Duras didn’t speak English fluently, maybe this was a mistake on her part. A mere mistake. Like the printing error we only spot in one of her articles when Olivia miraculously happens upon the original version of the text in a doctor’s waiting room. Who’s to say?
Flicking back and forth between these two versions of the sea, I happen to read The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, in Sarah Booker’s translation, for the Riffraff fiction book club. There it is: the sea, she. This same sea. This same motherly force, overpowering entire pages of the book, commanding personification, reaching beyond the limits of “it.” Does this mean we can, too? Do we have permission? Someone else has done it. No one in the book club found it jarring. Are we too quick to decide that readers would find it distracting, odd? Even so—those sentences where “she” doesn’t fit loom heavy.
I reread our translation and the phrase “thousand-year-old” jumps out at me. The same phrase appears in the book of poetry by Ahmed Bouanani that I translated, The Shutters. I check the French in both books: not the same phrase in the French. But the same in English. Am I bringing Bouanani into Duras? Am I carrying traces of previous translations into new books like breadcrumbs, leaving a trail of all the authors I’ve worked on?
Back in Providence post-honeymoon, Olivia and I set ourselves a Skype and editing schedule. I thought I wasn’t working over the honeymoon, but when I reread our passages about the sea, I feel things clicking into place. In long passages about the water, the churning of the water, the way the water moves, I reread certain sentences and realize they mean nothing to me in English. The image has been lost. I’ve read these sentences at least five times and I didn’t even notice before that they didn’t mean a thing. But now I can see Duras’s images clearly in my mind. “Collapses that sealed back up the moment they transpired.” What the hell does that mean? Ah, it’s the sea. The way the sea retreats into itself, sucks backwards, leaving a hole that is then immediately filled back up again, its violence erased by its continuous movement. “Crevices filled back up the moment they opened.”
In Kate Briggs’s This Little Art, she talks about how the timing and circumstances of my reading, the books I am reading the book with, the people I am talking to about it, who might make me think differently all play a part in translating a book… The translator collaborates with the prose she is translating…and let’s say, also, with time, with the moment of her work and the new circumstances in which it appears, to enable your relationship to the book, your sense of what it is, and of how it was written, and the person or people who wrote it. I watched the ocean and its (her?) waves for ten days straight on vacation and it turns out I was working the whole time.
What does my honeymoon have to do with translation? Or the ghost in the Riffraff bathroom? Or Kate Briggs’s zumba class? Or Olivia’s spin class?
When Olivia and I are Skyping and come across a problem in the text, a place where something sounds off but we’re not immediately sure how to fix it, I feel it in my back. A sharp pain, suddenly, in the same place each time. A literal ache to get the sentence right. As Briggs says, I read with my body, I read and move to translate with my body, and my body is not the same as yours. If we resolve the problem, the pain disappears just as quickly. Sometimes we leave it “for later” and I can feel traces of that ache the rest of the day. Translators as real people, with bodies, with gut instincts, that play into how we translate, that determine which of a hundred possible synonyms we ultimately choose.
I feel also, in my body, something like butterflies as we inch closer to the magic of certain lines. The same butterflies I feel when reading the French. Are they there yet in English? When I read “They walk along the whiteness, on the nakedness, on the beach,” the butterflies are there.
Butterflies because the sentence I fell in love with in the French is giving me the same feelings of possibility in English. But also butterflies because in that moment when we recreate Duras in English, I feel slightly more like myself. This translated space, somewhere in between me and Duras, Duras and Olivia, me and Olivia, as a space where I could be anything, and so maybe I could be me.
I develop a habit of online shopping after every few pages of editing. I scroll through pages of dresses that I’ll never buy, but that I could buy, and that could make me feel like some other version of myself, something closer to the “real” me—if only I had this dress or that watch, I could be more like me. When I read Duras, her words set off something in me, awaken some truth. Me? Or the me I could have been had I done x instead of y at a given moment in my life. Not the book I would have written, but the person I could have been. Am I falling in love with the text, or with myself as I translate it?
We translate a short text by Duras about translation, in which she describes the act of translating as rigoureusement personnelle, rigorously personal, and même, s’il le faut, aberrante. Possible translations of aberrante: abnormal, strange, unusual, weird, aberrant, aberrational, absurd, outrageous, ludicrous, untenable, deviant. We choose deviant. Or rather, I choose deviant, and Olivia approves. Presented without context, you might find this odd. And yet none of the above adjectives are more or less wrong or right than any others. Which word would another translator have chosen? What does it say about us that we’ve chosen this one?
In her book, Kate Briggs quotes Barthes, who says, every work I read as desirable, even as I am desiring it, I experience as incomplete and somehow lost, because I didn’t do it myself, and I have to in some way retrieve it by redoing it…I want to add myself actively to that which is beautiful and that I lack; as we might put it with an old verb: that I require. Reading Duras makes me ache. Not the back ache that indicates to me something is off, but another kind of ache, a lack, a lack of me in the text when I identify with it so deeply. A dull ache that is both exacerbated and quieted as I rewrite it. What Briggs describes as occasions for inappropriate, improbable identification. Who am I to identify with Duras? And yet I feel it in my body, my stomach, my bones. And how else to cope, if not by translating her words?
When I first read Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile for my high school AP French class, an alarm went off on me. That I was reading the words of someone who understood love in the same way I did. At that point in my life I hadn’t yet experienced love, but it didn’t matter. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come, of what I already knew to be true. The next year, in a college French class, I read Duras’s The Lover. From the first page (J’ai un visage détruit) I saw myself again. I felt recognized. But even as I was, in Kate Briggs’s words, underlining, typing the passage out, capturing it on my phone…even in its plenitude, even as it is right now filling me up, there is, I feel, something missing. What is missing is me: my action, my further activity…the audacious counteraction—of the active force that is me. Perhaps in reading these words, the ache that opened up in me was not from identification but from feeling that this writing wouldn’t be complete until I had acted my own force on it. The drive to translate—not for glory, not for recognition, not for money (obviously): to complete the text (in my eyes) by adding my own force to it. When I read a given book and feel the jolt Briggs describes as a matter of intensely felt identification, it’s not the text, it’s me in the text. In the words of Duras (in our translation of her), What moves me is myself.
Is this the way out of the binary of the hubristic, overly intrusive translator and the docile, invisible, glossed-over translator? Is this what lies in between? The translator who identifies with the text, sees herself in the text, recreates the text in English through that connection, acts out her force on it in a way unique to her, in a way no one else could. With no desire to change the text, but simply to replicate it in order to honor her connection to the original, to preserve the feeling the original gave rise to. Why distort that? Why not seek to emulate that jolt exactly? The pull of the sentences she has written, and what they call forth, as Briggs says. Do you feel something when you read the translator’s English words? Do you feel the jolt? This is the work of the translator. Not the words but what the words call forth in you in English.
As Olivia and I translate together, we frequently clash over whether the text is too French or too English. Olivia, a native French speaker, listens for Duras’s French rhythm in our English translation. At first, out of a sense of embarrassment at my French not being as good as hers, I take her lead on almost everything. I am a pushover. But in the second round, I start to fight back. I try to pull the text into an English that sounds natural to me, an English that’s not clinging to the French quite so tightly. What to Olivia seems like disrupting Duras’s rhythm feels like a necessary way for me to create a rhythm for Duras in English. We dub our argument over whether or not to use dashes for clarity (where the French doesn’t need them, and Duras didn’t use them) the “dash clash,” and my attempt to delete 90% of the “that”s throughout the text the “that spat.” As might be obvious, we are loopy by the time we get to our final round of edits. We leave passive aggressive comments for each other in our Google Doc and then laugh about them when we Skype. “I was hangry when I wrote that,” Olivia admits one morning. Over nearly a year and many drafts we pull it back and forth between us until we find a compromise that feels and sounds right. The day we turn it in, Olivia says she knows we’re done because it sounds like Duras, and not like either of us.
Olivia and I are lady translators. But we’re not the lady translators of Briggs’s This Little Art, defined as those translators apparently at liberty to pick their projects, to follow their inclinations… those translators who are materially enabled to spend their time writing literary translations. This image is perhaps even more dangerous than the idea of translators as robots or machines. This perception of translators as independently wealthy, with nothing better to do than pick up translation as a hobby to pass the time. Or the idea that most translators are academics with full salaries who take on translation projects on the side. There are indeed “lady translators,” and there are indeed academics with professor’s salaries who also take on translation projects. But this isn’t true of all translators, and this perception can be harmful for the rest of us. Like many translators I know, I depend on literary translation for most of my income. Translation work pays my bills, buys my groceries, feeds my pets, puts gas in my car. So when a publishing house is several weeks, or months, late in paying me, it keeps me up at night, throws my life into panic. I lie in bed happily dozing off and then am reawakened with a start when I remember that in the morning I have to send yet another follow-up email about payment long overdue. Why should that anxiety be just another part of the job? The idea that as translators we should come to expect and accept this is, frankly, infuriating. I am a translator: not an impersonal transferring device, but a person.
I think this is why Briggs’s book This Little Art has had such an impact on me, and has been rightfully praised as a necessary addition to writing on translation. Her book examines translation as a project undertaken by real people. It looks at what translators might feel, and how this can play into our work. It examines translators as people who exist within a given time, whose personal lives might play a part in how they approach their work. Translators as existing within a given context where priorities and aesthetics are shaped by that time. Translation as a space that is open to challenges and growth and againness, where to try to make any claims about what is “right” or “wrong” or “successful” or “failed” in translation is, frankly, ludicrous. When I had the privilege of taking Kate Briggs’s translation workshop as part of my Master’s in translation at the American University of Paris, her class was the space in which we actually practiced translation, rather than just talking or reading about it. Because theorizing is all well and good, but what we think is only part of how we translate. What we feel, who we are, how we write, makes up the other parts.
Olivia and I have both recently adopted puppies. In the middle of our Skype editing sessions, often one of us needs to take a break to let the dog out. In the middle of a chapter, I help her research how she can train her dog not to bark at strangers, and she reassures me that my dog’s loose stool is a normal part of her adjustment period. Beyond our new dogs, we’re both going through a lot of the same personal and professional issues, coincidentally, and when we Skype, it’s as though, in Briggs’s words, she had gone from standing across the room to all of a sudden holding [my] hand. One day, Olivia laughs guilty about having just accidentally thrown away the bowl of guacamole her boyfriend had spent a long time making. I comfort her by telling her that a few weeks before my wedding, I absent-mindedly threw away my birth certificate and almost wasn’t able to get my marriage license. A few months ago, both of our pipes burst, and it seems like every day new parallels spring up between us. A kind of folie à deux. And what is co-translation if not passing the same hallucination back and forth?
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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