I’ve been dancing around this final diary because I’ve been trying to take myself out of it. But translation doesn’t just happen. It’s a ball getting tossed from person to person, it’s breathed on, dropped, stabbed, reinflated, pushed aside, rubbed in the sand. Why shouldn’t we know about the translators who put words on the pages of the books we love?
I started this translator diary almost a year ago. A year later, and the bookstore bar I opened with my then-fiancé, now-husband Tom is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary. I imagined that by this time, I would be working at Riffraff half-time and translating half-time. This is not the case. A year later, Tom and I are still working enough hours to feel worn thin. A year later and I am still unable to find the time to prepare healthy meals, to have anything resembling a work-life balance. A year later and I’ve grown to fear the under-eye circles staring back at me in the mirror are permanent.
A year later and we have regular customers! Customers whose presence immediately puts a smile on my face, lets me breathe a sigh of relief. Customers who ask questions that are far too personal, but I answer anyway because as the owner I think I’m always supposed to be polite. A customer who buys the small press book of translated poetry from Syria that I thought would never sell, but that I insisted on keeping on the shelves because it deserved to be there. Customers who now feel like friends. Customers I hang out with at the dog park. Customers who’ve met our parents. Customers who’ve been in our home. Customers who bring us honey or limes when the bar runs out on a busy night.
A year later and Tom and I finally have nights off together, so we can actually see each other outside of the store. Most nights we are too exhausted to do anything but watch the Great British Baking Show, but in the past year we’ve managed to go on a few dates. A few weeks ago I convinced Tom to go to a bowling alley that serves specialty, syrupy cocktails. I ordered one blended with whipped cream, it was a sour yellow color. He drank beer.
A year ago I was sneaking translation work in between customers, managing to translate entire chapters, entire books, in the accumulated quiet hours just after the store opened. A year later and I’m too exhausted to translate at the store. I can edit, I can identify problem areas, but I can’t translate. I can tell that I don’t have the brainpower, and that if I were to try, I would produce a first draft so lacking in feeling that the translation wouldn’t be able to recover. Now I translate on my mornings off, after the dog has had sufficient exercise. Sometimes I spend my time at the dog park thinking about how I should be translating. But then my dog comes bounding over to say hello with what I believe is a smile on her face.
A year later, I’ve switched from feeling like a translator who also owns a bookstore bar to feeling like a dishwasher who translates in her free time. A year later, I still feel like I should be doing more. I still clean the bathroom every night I close.
As a grad student, I wanted to write a paper on Translation and the Body. Eventually I was forced to abandon the topic because not enough other people had written about it. I had very little to pull from, and was supposed to base this paper on research; it was not meant to be a creative writing project. I was surprised to learn that more translators hadn’t written about their bodies’ role in their process. We use our bodies to write, to type, to think, to read aloud, to listen, to gauge by our gut whether or not a sentence is right. Why is it that theory tends to be so far removed from our physical form? At best we get a phrase here about translation as erotic, a line there about translation as cannibalistic. In a brief translator’s note at the end of Hilda Hilst’s Fluxo-Floema, Alexandra Joy Forman writes, wonderfully, “I became the 6th star in HH’s perfect pentagram, and she ate me up. Such was translating the master.”
When a sentence isn’t right, I feel it immediately in my back. I’ve said this before. Sometimes I can’t type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts and a specific word disappears from my train of thought forever. Sometimes my body has enough energy to take me to a translation workshop at a friend’s home and my translation is changed for it. Sometimes my body is tired from my day job and I work half as quickly as I used to. Sometimes my body catches cold and my brain muddles words on the page. Once I had a translation deadline to meet but I had just had my tonsils removed and could barely make out the page through the muck of medication. I realized shortly after that I had wound up with something that was half truth and half lie.
At Riffraff, we host an event to discuss my translation of Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things. I am in conversation with a local trans woman and activist, who quite fairly makes the point that while Despentes’s book has been lauded as a feminist critique of the ways in which the beauty industry corrodes our confidence and distorts our sense of self-worth, what is left out of this book and its surrounding discussion is that this lens of feminism is not universal. The beauty industry is a literal survival toolkit for many trans women. A necessary component of their ability to navigate and survive an often intolerant world. The book was written in a time period when trans activism was not at the forefront of the conversation the way it is for today’s readers in America at the end of 2018. But this is what happens when it takes a book twenty years to be translated into English. In this vein, I’ve been asked several times why, in my translator’s note to Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, I refer to the characters whose genders and sexes are not identified as “he or she” rather than using “they” to allow for the characters to be gender nonconforming. The answer is that when the book was written in 1986, Garréta was not tackling the question of gender fluidity. Garréta’s aim was to dismantle the binary between the male and female sex, to put on display the inanity of the idea of “difference” between the two sexes. But for many American readers today, that particular argument leaves a lot of people out of the conversation. Following the Despentes event at Riffraff, I wrestle with feeling that I’ve somehow betrayed the book by letting the conversation touch on its shortcomings. But why shouldn’t we be able to revel in a book, celebrate its strengths, while simultaneously acknowledging that because of its context and when it was written, there are ways in which it might fall short for today’s readership? I strive to always feel comfortable with and encourage this kind of critique, a critique which is specific to the process of translation, with books often coming out in English many years after they were first published in their original country.
A year later and I wish critiques of translations across the board more closely resembled this sort of discussion, rather than narrowly focusing on, for example, a translator’s specific word choices or mistakes. What translators have been arguing for years is that the kind of critique that focuses solely on a few word choices the reviewer thinks they would have translated in a superior way is simply unproductive and does not amount to a quality review. No one knows the book better than the translator. Perhaps what looks like an odd word choice was a decision arrived at after much back-and-forth between the translator and the author. I recently read a review of a translation in which the reviewer questioned a translator’s choice for a character’s nickname—seemingly unaware that the translator had written quite a bit in their translator’s note about how they had come to that specific decision.
In the last year, there’s been a renewal of the age-old debate over accuracy in translations, featuring a few incendiary claims that translators do not value accuracy as much as they should. If you find errors in a translation, that doesn’t mean there’s been a lack of striving for accuracy. Just imagine how hard it is to be perfectly right in every instance, for all of the many thousands of words a translator shapes into a book. Would any translator, critic, or author be willing to bet their life that there’s not a single mistake in any of their published work? The idea that there is any translation in the world that does not contain a single mistake seems ludicrous to me. We’re only human, and when editors can’t speak the language of the original text, inaccuracies are that much less likely to be caught during the publisher’s editing process.
As translators who take pride in our work, we grasp the value and necessity of accuracy in translation. As I understand it, the translation community is rightly upset over the tendency to point out one or two small mistakes a translator might have made, because this does not add anything to the critical conversation and in fact often distracts from it. In such cases, it would seem that it’s more about the critic feeling superior than any critical rationale that engages with the book itself. Of course it’s fine to make such a critique if a translator has made so many mistakes that it has changed the essence of the book, but if that is not the case, honestly, what exactly is the point of bringing up those mistakes?
I first began to see the resurgence of this idea that translators do not value accuracy a few months ago when translators pushed back against a review that grossly mischaracterized a book about translation. The book in question sought to explore the nuances of a translator’s work that had helped turn an author into a worldwide bestseller, in spite of inaccuracies that were later discovered. (I should note that this exploration made up only a small portion of the book in question, but the review did not engage with anything other than this portion.)
When some in the translation community cried foul, we were told that we couldn’t stand to see anything bad said about a translator or a book on translation, that we were policing criticism about translations. I was personally told this more than once by men who openly admitted to not having read the book in question. Our words and ideas have been so insistently distorted that these rebuttals are beginning to feel a bit like gaslighting.
When I was asked a few weeks ago to start thinking about writing this final diary, I was on my way to a talk by Édouard Louis at Brown University. His talk was called “Against Useless Literature: What Can Literature Really Do?” It focused on the idea that writers should start by asking the question, “Who is not here?” Who is not being represented? Writers must fight the state of absence. Louis’s own autobiographical books were written to drag the real bodies around him, the real bodies of his family members, those who have suffered the things his family has suffered, out of absence. He asks, How dare we write about anything else? How can we write about anything else without shame? Shame should precede every word written, he says, so that we might build a better world. Shame should constitute the invisible foundations of literature. We must use literature to spread shame over the world, to destabilize the world, to undo the social order. And as readers of this kind of literature, we will then be forced to confront an important question: What do I do? Now that I’ve discovered these bodies and what is done to them, what do I do about it? We all have the choice to do something or to do nothing. To write about those absent, or to write about what’s already been written. Rather than books as an escape from reality, reality should be shoved in our faces.
Listening to Édouard Louis’s talk is the closest I’ve ever come to understanding why I translate. There are so many absent bodies, absent books, absent stories. We desperately need those bodies, books, and stories in English, in the U.S. I believe that. This is why I translate. I feel shame on behalf of others when I hear about a book that does nothing but elevate the status quo. As a translator, I am trying to ask who is not being represented, what kind of literature is not being represented, and then I try to fight that absence. As a bookstore owner, too, I try to fill our shelves with the stories of underrepresented people.
A year ago when I wrote the first installment of this diary, I had five published translations. Now I have ten. I am working toward tipping the scale between “emerging translator” and “established translator.” I am solidly in between. I am trying to work for more houses and for more pay. I am trying to hone my skill and narrow my focus. I am trying to learn what kind of book makes me the happiest to translate, what I’m best at translating, and which books tick both boxes. I am trying to learn how to translate while also being good to my other job and to my husband and to my cats and to my dog. And to myself. And to my body, which allows me to translate.
One very exciting thing about the past year was seeing how many adventurous and exciting books have been written about the act of translation. For instance: This Little Art by Kate Briggs (Fitzcarraldo Editions), Transgressive Circulation by Johannes Göransson (Noemi Press), Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (The MIT Press), Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (Bloomsbury), and Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel and translated by Ros Schwartz (The Feminist Press). It’s wonderful to know that translators are being given more space to write freely about their craft in forms that can be brought into the classroom, balancing the strictly academic theoretical texts I was assigned as a student. And there have also been articles in mainstream publications in which translators have explored their work in utterly personal (even bodily!) ways—I greatly enjoyed Lara Vergnaud’s piece for The Paris Review on translating Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital, detailing how her own body started to mimic Bouanani’s body as she translated his work.
Clearly I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies in translation this year. Right now I’m translating a book in which one of the characters has a sex change. In the aftermath of the surgery, she is lying in bed, wondering why she isn’t feeling better following this long dreamed-about change. She is engaging in a conversation with her former self, the young boy she used to be. In French, because adjectives and verbs take on agreement with the gender of the person they apply to, this portion of the book has a lot of play with language as this character struggles internally with how to identify. As she addresses her former self, she asks at one point, Tu es sérieux ? Are you serious (masculine)? The boy replies, ‘Sérieuse,’ tu veux dire. Je suis toi—tu l’as oublié ? Serious (feminine), you mean. I am you, or did you forget? There is a confusion of agreement to mirror the confusion of identification. It’s masterfully done, and something I’m not able to replicate with the English language. I categorically refuse to do something like, Are you serious, man? Serious ma’am, you mean. That feels cheap and inelegant. And I want English readers to see, to access, this aspect of the French language. To see what French can do, how language can reflect, or fail to reflect, someone’s reality. How language can evoke an internal panic, a destabilizing effect on a person’s psyche, a specific kind of violence. I have left this part of the dialogue in French. I am not opposed to the idea of leaving foreign text in a translation. As Johannes Göransson says in Transgressive Circulation, “While there is a desire to maintain boundaries, there is also a great pleasure in flooding borders, troubling boundaries, contaminating systems.”
In the same book, one of the characters who has long lived in Paris insists she feels French, although she has no French passport. No one can take that away from her. I find myself in the opposite situation: I am a French citizen, and yet to claim to be French would be ridiculous. I’ve lived in France for an extended period, I speak the language and know a great deal about the culture. But I am not French, except by official document. I have no right to call it my own.
So what am I then? My father is Lebanese, and I look Lebanese, but I’ve never been to Lebanon. My mother is English, I’ve spent a lot of time in England, adopting many of my mother’s British habits. But I don’t feel English either. Growing up in Southern California, my parents stood out. I stood out. I knew that as soon as I turned eighteen and went to college I would leave California behind, and then after college I knew I wanted to leave the U.S. I’ve never really felt American. I’ve always been somewhere in-between. And maybe that’s why I’ve been so drawn to translation for so long. Floating between books and countries and bodies and worlds. Who am I when I am absenting myself through translation? Where do I go, what do I become?
When I translate, my self is suspended. I am trying to inhabit the voice of a character within the voice of an author. I am twice, sometimes more than twice, removed from myself. I am switching between people who are not me, between books that do not tell my own story. And it’s a somewhat electric feeling—who I could be if I were to translate myself into oblivion, if I were to fade myself away, come out the other side. I think I’m trying to get closer to something, but to what? Folie à deux as a hallucination passed back and forth between me and myself.
In one of the best books I’ve read in the last year, Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval and translated by Marjam Idriss, Johanna, a foreign exchange student from Norway living in an English-speaking country, says: “In short spurts I told them my name and where I was from, but every pause was too long and the syllables too short. The language grated on my throat… When I finished, I was almost certain that I had said something else, a different name, something wrong. I suddenly knew nothing about myself, nothing seemed right in English, nothing was true.” How to be true in translation? How to be ourselves in translation? How to find ourselves through translation when sometimes it feels as though we are doing our best to be erased? Joanna again: “Maybe it wasn’t the house, but me that was porous, I thought. Maybe I had to grow a thicker skin in this town.”
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 translations include Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, The Shutters by Ahmed Bouanani, and Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent.
Image by © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3153928
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