Wake up to the sound of an alarm clock you didn’t really need to set. Remember the day that lies ahead of you, and drift off again for a few minutes. Repeat. Slide your feet into a pair of slippers, or don’t, and shuffle to the kitchen to make coffee. Still in your pajamas, drink this coffee at your desk while looking over your work from the day before. Remove a comma from the last sentence you translated before going to bed. Put it back. Remember that you haven’t brushed your teeth yet. Read the next paragraph in the book you’re translating, twice. Just as the right phrase begins to take shape in your mind, go brush your teeth. Forget the phrase you’d come up with and abandon hope of recovering it. Let the caffeine kick in. Ride this momentum until you reach a difficult sentence, then rise mindlessly in search of a snack. Google the etymology of “secretion” and observe a shift in your targeted ads. Remove a comma from the first sentence you translated after lunch. Put it back. Make a pot of tea. Re-read yesterday’s work again; depending on the barometric pressure, the alignment of Mercury, or the last song you heard on the radio, you will either find it brilliant or horrifying. Studiously avoid calculating the hourly rate of your labor. Remove a comma.
And that’s how the magic gets made! Now, in the spirit of all the extra introspection that quarantine has brought us, here are a few writer-translators who’ve written about what it’s like to be a translator.
Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent, trans. Emma Ramadan
Deep Vellum (September 2018)
Before we even begin this wild jaunt of a novel, we’re confronted by a translator’s note that floats free in the middle of a blank page. “Even when I don’t dilate the prose as I please,” it reads, “I am an indelicate transporter, a clumsy mover, a seedy trafficker.” Far from a confession, this note is a battle cry: as the novel goes on, the translator who wrote it (fittingly named Trad) will not only break through the line at the bottom of the page that traditionally separates the text from its commentary, he will also become part of the narrative he has been charged with translating into French. Which—did I mention?—is about a translator named David Grey who is translating a novel about a translator from French into English? Confused? So are all these characters, whose lives increasingly intermingle and are subject to mutual subterfuges and seductions. The fact that translation is not depicted here as a “cultural bridge,” but rather a tunnel where doubles, disguises and erotic encounters proliferate is a fitting distillation of Matthieussent’s formulation of translation as both subterranean and, well, sexy. Coupling a healthy dose of literary in-jokes and translational metaphorics with and all the explosions, intrigue, chauvinism, and hidden lairs of a James Bond movie, this one will appeal to supernerds and civilian readers alike.
Double take: Arshy Azizi for LARB on Ramadan’s translation as “gendered revenge.”
The Literary Conference by César Aira, trans. Katherine Silver
New Directions (May 2010)
If you’ve read César Aira before, you know that you can expect some pretty crazy stuff to come from his patented “flight forward” technique, according to which he writes for a few hours each day and never revises what he’s done. This novel is definitely no exception: its narrator boasts a dual career as a translator and mad scientist (yes, you read that right) who finances his experiments with a treasure he discovered thanks to his perfectly unique brain. He decides that his great project will be to clone a genius, because he’d rather have an army of geniuses to follow than have an army of dolts following him. He sets his sights on Carlos Fuentes and engineers a tiny wasp to extract the eminent Mexican writer’s DNA. Things go downhill from there. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say some giant blue worms aaaaaalmost destroy a coastal city. Also, Adam and Eve have a cameo. It’s all very zany. And very much what translation is like around my house, idk about you.
Double take: a whirlwind tour over at The Mookse and the Gripes.
The Translator’s Bride by João Reis, trans. by the author
Open Letter Books (August 2019)
We meet the narrator of João Reis’s The Translator’s Bride shortly after he is abandoned by the titular character, who is on her way across the ocean to start a new life. Fuming his way through the unnamed Portuguese city where he lives, he slips further and further into a madness that will seem either delightfully far-fetched or uncomfortably familiar, depending on how intimately you know the miseries and splendors of translation. He fixates on a single word from his latest project that he can’t resolve until it seems so vile—and so violent—he uses it like a blunt object to bludgeon anyone who gets too close to him. (This word, Kartofler, certainly has the heft for it.) He tries and fails to avoid his landlady, to whom he owes money. He argues with his editor about the payment of long-overdue translation fees. Through all this, he pines for the object of his affection and tries to scrape together enough to buy a little house that he hopes will lure her back. There’s also a quest for a missing hat. If you like Thomas Bernhard but find yourself wishing he were just a bit more misanthropic, or have been searching for all the dizzy Weltschmertz of Crime and Punishment in a bite-sized morsel, you’re going to love this one.
Double take: here’s the whole battery, courtesy of BookMarks.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, trans. Misha Hoekstra
Graywolf Press (June 2018)
Like many of the writers on this list, Nors draws on her own experience to paint a vivid—though in this case rather bleak—portrait of Sonja, a middle-aged translator without children who is gazing over the precipice of her erasure by society and wondering if her entire legacy will really be the popular but misogynist crime novels that have put food on her table for years. As if that weren’t stressful enough, she’s decided to finally take driving lessons; from an instructor who infantilizes her, to another who directs her further and further into the countryside without ever disclosing where she’s headed, Sonja’s driving lessons eloquently synthesize the lack of control she feels in her personal and professional life. Of all the books on this list, this is the one that relies least on stylistic or conceptual pyrotechnics, focusing instead on psychological depth and the occasional twinge of identification. Trigger warning: may be unsuitable for readers who learned to drive as adults.
Double take: Parul Sehgal on this “darkly comic novel” for The New York Times. And a great interview with Nors in The Paris Review that offers a glimpse, in the side mirror, of what’s going on in this book.
BONUS TRACKS: a few other books about translators and/or translation available in English:
Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo, trans. Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions 2004) is an “authentic whodunit as well as a loving homage to its eponymous detective and a serious meditation on the truths that Borges himself lived to reveal, intuit and invent,” according to Melvin J. Bukiet for The Washington Post
The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy 2018). Okay, I already wrote about this one. But it’s worth revisiting! Especially for its reflections on language and translation and the utter strangeness of both. And I love this interview with CRG.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, trans. Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press 2014). Did you know that Luiselli’s first novel features a forger of translations? Well, it does! Plus some very lively scenes of the New York City streets and subways that combine to create what Hector Tobar calls a “highly original” and “hauntingly strange” novel.
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (Little, Brown & Co. 2016). Described by Jeva Lange as “supercharged and perfectly-timed,” Novey’s debut novel is about a Brazilian writer who vanishes into thin air, and the translator who tries to locate her. (Novey happens to be the extraordinarily talented translator of Clarice Lispector, among many others.)
The Translator by Leila Aboulela (Grove Press 2006) a “sensitive portrayal of love and faith,” says Kaiama L. Glover in The New York Times, in which Sammar, a Sudanese widow working as a translator at a university in Scotland, allows herself to rewrite her story long after she thought it had ended.