My Women in Translation Month

For the seventh year running – thanks to the wonderful founder Meytal Radzinski – this August saw another ‘Women in Translation Month’, a whole month dedicated to promoting and celebrating female writers in translation. Like many, I devoted my entire month to reading only translated works from women, and like many, I attempted to reach out to many corners of the world. Although I read many women in translation all year round, I always seem to unintentionally have a very euro-centric focus to my reading. Perhaps this is partly thanks to what is available to me in popular book stores, or what mainstream publishers draw my attention to. Whilst five out of the eight of the books on this list do hail from outside of Europe, what I did read unfortunately did not stray too far from European languages – with four of these five being written in the colonial languages of French and Spanish. So, despite enjoying every book on this list, what this ‘Women in Translation Month’ has taught me is that I need to stretch my reading even further, venturing outside of languages that saturate the market for translated literature such as French and Spanish. By the time August has crept back up on us in 2021, I want to have expanded my reading experiences even further, and hope to have read many women in translation from lesser represented languages outside of Europe.

Wild Woman

The first book I had the pleasure of reading this month was Wild Woman, by Marina Šur Puhlovski, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books. Wild Woman is an ‘anti-love story’ written from the perspective of a young woman in 1970s Croatia. The narrative follows the evolution of the narrator’s relationship with a misogynistic and toxic man – a relationship that is built on lies, false hope, and fairytale fantasies. Marina’s writing is certainly brimming with countless intricate details, something that although at times was hard to keep up with, offers an insight into the narrator’s mind – a mind overwhelmed with fairytale love stories, literature and questionable notions of what love and life should be. This strong, yet very naive voice really drew me in to this very insular and personal story.

Translation as Transhumance

The next book I read was Translation as Transhumance, by Mirielle Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz and published by Les Fugitives. This short memoir/essay collection offers an absolutely wonderful and personal exposition on translation and the translator’s experiences. Gansel shares her relationship with languages that have spanned lives and generations, and moved across nations. This exploration of her relationship with languages then evolves into an insight on her journey as a translator. As a translator myself, I devoured this book, finding Gansel’s musings on translation absolutely brilliant.

“Translating [is] about opening up a mysterious dictionary from which to extract something bold, it [is] about reaching the limits of understanding, risking going beyond the literal meanings of the words in order to access their deep meanings.”

mirielle gansel, trans. Ros Schwartz

The Remainder

The next book had been on my list for a long time: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by And Other Stories. Set in Chile, this novel brings together three characters, all linked by their parents’ elusive militant past during Chile’s former dictatorship. The shadowy and simplistic prose burns slowly, not giving too much away, and acting as a reflection of the trio’s parents mysterious past. Whilst the narrative appears to not say a lot at all, there are layers and layers of meaning behind every sentence. Hidden behind descriptions of persistent heat and overbearing dust lie ideas of collective memory, trauma and forgotten bodies. A striking and unnerving read.

The Wind That Lays Waste

The next book on my list was another from South America – this time Argentina. The Wind That Lays Waste, by Selva Almada, translated by Chris Andrews and published by Charco Press was one of my favourite reads from this month. The novella takes place all in the space of one day, and brings together four unlikely characters: a priest and his daughter, and a mechanic and his apprentice. I absolutely flew through this novella that offers a beautiful reflection on parent-child relationships, belief, and what could have been. The “storm” and its aftermath acts as an allegory for much larger issues in the novel, issues that Almada handles with a precise, yet descriptive writing style.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Granta Books has to be my favourite book from this month. Convenience Store Woman is a brilliantly hilarious criticism of the expectations that are placed on women in modern Japan. A number of times I laughed (and sometimes grimaced) out loud at this wonderful book that offers a striking and humourous commentary on common societal views of women in Japan. Punchy and to the point, it certainly doesn’t skirt around certain issues.

Eve out of Her Ruins

My next read was Eve Out of Her Ruins, by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Les Fugitives. This very short novella brought me straight back down to earth after the joy that was Convenience Store Woman. Whilst I absolutely loved the beautifully poetic language in Eve Out of Her Ruins, the forceful and extremely hard-hitting story was at times hard to read. It was heart-wrenching, and despite being at times difficult to digest, its juxtaposition with beautifully eloquent – almost poetic – prose, makes the tough narrative somewhat easier to face. An extremely difficult and jarring subject matter handled beautifully with wonderful prose.

Fish Soup

My next read was Fish Soup, written by Margarita García Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Charco Press. This wonderful collection of short stories explores the lives of those people in the ‘middle’, those for whom life is not terrible, yet not so great either. In each story, we meet a character or characters from a part of society that is often overlooked – purely because it has nothing ‘interesting’ to offer. Robayo subverts this, proving to us that sometimes the mundane, the ‘average’ can also be interesting. Realistic and eye-opening, Fish Soup contains a myriad of bizarre stories about ‘normal’ people.

Winter in Sokcho

My final read for Women in Translation Month was Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published by Daunt Books. This subtle and slow-paced narrative crept up on me, and its well-thought-out prose left me feeling somewhat uneasy. Throughout the novel, Dusapin sets the scene in such a way that the reader thinks something dramatic or disastrous is always just about to happen. This is due to the fact that Winter in Sokcho is filled with a number of underlying narratives such as the whereabouts of the narrator’s father, and the fragility of living so close to the border that separates North and South Korea.

What a wonderful reading month ‘Women in Translation Month’ was! The novels that stood out most to me out of this collection have to be Convenience Store Woman and Eve Out of Her Ruins – albeit for very different reasons! As I discussed in the introduction to this post, my aim now is to continue reading more women in translation with a focus on finding great books written from outside of Europe, and in typically overlooked, or lesser-represented languages.

Translation and Voice

Voice is something that we often hear being discussed when it comes to writing, with a writer’s voice perhaps being described as strong or unique, and conversations on how to find one’s voice as a writer. But is it possible for a translator too to have a voice, and if so, is it possible for them to put forth that voice in their work?

First of all, we must consider exactly what voice is. According to Amanda Boutler,

“Our particular configuration of experience and words, knowledge and imagination gives a particular resonance to our voice. […] All language has already been spoken, and all language belongs to other people.”

Amanda Boutler, Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, 2007

Voice then, comes from the writer’s previous experiences with words, words they have read, heard and spoken, words that they have experienced. All of these words will culminate in order to produce a unique voice which the writer can then put forth in their work. This means that whilst each individual voice may be unique, there are echoes of other voices within. Boutler continues her discussion on voice by stating that the written voice is then manipulated by and conforms to what the writer is writing:

“Voice is not simply created by the author. It is produced by a cacophony of voices: the author’s, the character’s, the narrator’s, and the reader’s.”

Amanda Boutler, Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, 2007

A writer’s voice then contains an innumerable amount of other voices, culminating from previous voices they have heard or read, then manifesting within or conforming to voices that the writer purposefully writes within their text, for example, a character’s voice. So voice is not singular, but plural. In order to find one’s voice then, a writer must mimic other voices that have come before, using these to inspire and create their own voice, a voice that then warps to new, perhaps fictional voices within the text.

So whilst we can see how a writer ‘finds’ their voice and puts this forth in their writing, how apt is the phrase ‘finding a voice’ for the translation process? Can a translator have a voice, and if so, how do they ‘find’ it? Like Boutler asserts, a writer’s voice is an amalgamation of voices and experiences that have come before, combining in order to create a new, unique voice. We could consider then, that the translator simply adds to this amalgamation of voices, simply adding another layer, a voice now in a new language. The translator renders a combination of their reader’s voice and the source text original author’s voice into a new voice.

As well as their readerly voice and the source text’s original author’s voice, the translator too has a unique voice, one that is also influenced by the voices that surround them in their daily life. Just like a writer’s voice is made up of voices that are before theirs, so is a translator’s. In fact, perhaps even more so, translators need to be surrounded by literature, words that they can see, hear and touch. This is in the way in which they can find voices to match that of the source text author’s, or the character’s within the source text, and allow them to add a little of their voice that will inevitably appear. Edith Grossman has stated that when she cannot capture the words for a translation, she takes a walk in the city and waits for the words to ‘slip off the tongue’ of a stranger, a passerby. She ‘hears’ her translation in the voices of the city. It is possible then, that a translator’s world harbours the voices they need in order to render the source text into the target text, voices that balance between the original writer’s voice and the translator’s own.

So, it is possible for a translator to have a voice, and it is possible for that voice to be apparent in translation. However, the translator’s voice is unique, as it is a voice that must be balanced and mediated with the original author’s. The translator then, has to go beyond his/her individuality to form a ‘dual individuality’, a dual voice.

Gender in Translation (3): Translating Gendered Constraints

A few posts back, in Gender in Translation (2): Translating Grammatical Gender, I discussed the difficulties of translating between different languages with different grammatical rules concerning gender. Translating grammatical gender is something that a translator normally doesn’t have to think twice about, as in most cases, the straightforward translation of ‘la’ and ‘le’ into ‘the’ for example, is all that is required. However, as explored in the aforementioned post, sometimes these definite articles mean much more. This is definitely the case in translating texts with gendered constraints, such as the Oulipo text Sphinx, written in 1986 by Anne Garréta.

The Oulipo is a group of French writers who wrote works according to constrictive rules or techniques, its most notable members include Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. Garréta’s rule when creating Sphinx was to write without assigning either the protagonist or antagonist a gender, giving the translator of the novel into the English, Emma Ramadan, a great task.

The opening passages of the book describe the first encounters the narrator has with a romantic interest, A***, exploring the beginning of the relationship, whilst not assigning the main characters a gender. As Jakobson states:

“Grammatical gender colours a speaker’s perception of objects and idea.”

Roman Jakobson, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation

In avoiding assigning the two main characters a gender, Garréta removes the possibility of the readers’ assumptions or biases towards a character based on their gender. In her translator’s note, Ramadan considers Garréta’s reasons behind placing a constraint on gender:

“By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression, demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationships or our identities, but it is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social.”

Emma Ramadan’s translator’s note in, Sphinx, Anne Garréta

In not allowing either of the characters’ genders to be revealed, Garréta omits the possibility of bias and gendered perceptions and proves that the question of gender in romantic relationships should not matter.

The French and English languages use gender very differently therefore, translation for Ramadan would have been challenging. French uses grammatical gender, meaning that nouns are assigned either a masculine or feminine gender, with pronouns and adjectives then agreeing with the gender of the noun. Garréta used this to her advantage. French possessive adjectives refer to the gender of the noun described, using ‘sa’ or ‘son’, depending on whether the noun described is masculine or feminine, therefore, Garréta was able to describe a character’s body, appearance or possessions without ever revealing their gender. On the other hand, English has semantic gender, meaning that inanimate objects are not gendered, but people are referred to as masculine or feminine. This means that in English possessive adjectives agree with the gender of the person. This would be an issue in translation as where Garréta used the possessive adjective to avoid gender, in English translation, this would have the opposite effect, revealing gender. For example, on page twelve of Sphinx, Garréta begins a sentence: ‘Ses bras, douceur intense […]’, here she avoids assigning A*** a gender, as the possessive adjective refers to the gender of the masculine plural noun ‘arms’. In English, this is not possible as in translation it would have to be ‘her/his arms’ depending on the gender of the person described. To tackle this problem, Ramadan translated it as: ‘Those arms, the intense sweetness […]’. Whilst it is still clear that Ramadan is referring to A***’s arms, the gender of the character is avoided. 

Garréta’s use of the French possessive adjective would have consistently caused problems in Ramadan’s translation, another example is on page twenty-one of the source text: ‘J’entrai dans sa loge […], once again, Garréta uses the possessive adjective in order to avoid gendering this character. Here, Ramadan uses the character’s name to avoid gender: ‘I would follow A*** into the dressing room […]’. Another example appears on page twenty-two of Sphinx: “[…] j’écoutais les détails de sa journée, les anecdotes de son dîner.” Here Garréta uses the possessive adjective twice, once to describe the character’s day, a feminine noun, therefore using the feminine possessive adjective ‘sa’, and a second time to describe the character’s dinner, a masculine noun, therefore using the masculine possessive adjective, ‘son’. To retain the Oulipo constraint in translation Ramadan rendered this sentence into English as: ‘I would listen to the details of A***’s day’, she has used A***’s name once again in place of a possessive adjective, however, to avoid gender when describing the characters dinner, she has simply omitted this part of the text.

In her translator’s note, Emma Ramadan discusses her techniques for avoiding gender as follows: 

“Using a demonstrative, dropping the article altogether, pluralising, or repeating A***’s name, [re-writing] certain [passages] to avoid personal pronouns, or [applying] adjectives directly to the subject rather than to something possessed by the subject.”

Emma Ramadan’s translator’s note in, Sphinx, Anne Garréta

These methods are all great solutions to avoiding the use of gender in the text.

Translating this text with a restriction on gender would have been extremely challenging, but this is not a new concept, and gender in translation has long been a discussion:

“The focus on gender, and more recently, on its diversification or pluralization, may be attractive and stimulating for some; for others, it threatens unity, tradition, belief systems, and power structures. Predict­ably, there are attempts to control the contexts in which certain texts are translated.”

Luise von Flotow, Tracing the Context of Translation

In this article, Flotow discusses the restrictions that the Vatican imposed on the translation of the Bible. Unlike Garréta’s restrictions that aimed to eliminate gender bias, these restrictions were an attempt to control translation and avoid ‘gender-neutral, inclusive liturgy’. According to Flotow:

“[In recognising] the fact that gender has become an important cat­egory according to which people identify and live [the Vatican has imposed many rules on translating gendered language. This includes the condemnation of] translations that might have Jesus telling his disciples to become ‘fishers of people’ rather than ‘fishers of men’.” 

Luise von Flotow, Tracing the Context of Translation

Modern translators of the Bible, wishing to render passages gender-neutral, promoting equality, had a vast number of restraints posed on them in order to stop them from doing so. Garréta’s text enforces a gender constraint on the translator that is very different from the norm.

In translating a text with gendered restraints such as Sphinx, it becomes clear that a translator’s decision can have huge effects on the target text, for example, any translator could have made the bold decision to ignore the restraint, although this would of course completely miss the point entirely. In deviating from the norm when it comes to gendered constraints, Sphinx invites the reader to narrate the romantic text without even considering gender, not only does each reader then write their ‘own’ reading of this text, but they also encounter an approach to writing that welcomes gender positive discussions, a text that does not feel the need to place a gender on love.

 

Translation and Image

As of late, I have been delving into the possibilities found in translating word into image, and vice versa. I think the fact that two creative forces such as writing and painting can correlate in a host of different ways and collide through the act of translation is very exciting and is something I aim to explore further in the coming months. As Horace states…

“as is painting, so is poetry.”

Horace

One of the first ‘translating from image’ tasks I completed was only a few months ago, where I decided to take a photograph and ‘re-write’, or ‘tell the tale of’ the image. The photo I selected was the following:

Robert Doisneau, 1950

I simply took in the image and wrote what came to my mind as I explored the different elements of the photograph. It is a very striking image that poses several questions, for example, who are the bride and groom in the photograph, and why are they here, in this place at this time? These are questions that I attempted to explore within my writing, creating a ‘story’ from my own reading or interpretation of the image. 

Following on from this, I visited the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in order to write from a painting. For this, I chose Three Quarter Head by John Davies. For this exercise I decided to incorporate this current writing from painting, into the writing I previously did based on the photograph, creating a palimpsest of writings from different sources. Like the above photograph, this portrait of a woman could be placed anywhere spatially or temporally, it all depends on the audiences reading of the painting. The woman’s gaze is directed towards something in particular, and her reaction to whatever it is she is looking at seems to be concern or worry, yet her eyes still appear to be slightly passive, almost separated from her emotions. I placed the woman spatially into the cafe pictured in front of the bride and groom who appear in the photograph I previously ‘translated’ by Doisneau, therefore, temporally into my story. In doing so, I intertwined my readings of these pieces of art together to create a new piece of art, using a new medium. 

In the past, there have been a number of debates on whether the artistic forms of poetry or prose and painting or photography can be compared or translated intersemiotically. I believe the two can absolutely be compared and as a result translated between. The way in which a reader experiences a text is very similar to the way in which a spectator views an image or painting. This quote from Gilman sums it up perfectly…

“Much is lost if we refuse on principle to consider the activity of reading, the process of interacting with a book. The experience of painting is in an important sense the same. The witness sees the painting as a pattern but does not understand it fully until he ‘reads’ it. The ‘reading’ is not primarily the interpretation of iconic imagery, though that act is often part of the experience […], but rather the general process of moving from one detail to another overtime – of perceiving the interrelationships of light, colour, form, gesture, surface, space, point of view, and so on. The order of experience in painting (seeing first, then ‘reading’) is superficially the reverse of literary experience, except that the final painting, which, having been seen and ‘read’ is finally known, is no longer identical with the square of the canvas we happened to notice as we first walked into the room. It is seen again, inwardly revised. Like the literary dianoia, this painting occupies a portion of our mental space and contains not only a visual memory of the canvas, but an understanding of its significance. That understanding will be formed in part by each person’s needs and desires, rechanneled through the convolutions of an individual consciousness that projects its own identity into a work of art and extracts from its own psychic urgencies and comforts.” Ernest Gilman, The Curious Perspective

Just like a painting offers its spectator only a snapshot of what the painter wishes to portray, a text offers its reader only a part of what the writer wishes to portray, the rest of the story behind the painting or writing is up to the spectator or the reader to paint or write. The space around a painting or text is space in which the spectator or reader is free to explore and interpret bringing their own ‘reading’ to the art. One can certainly say that just as we can identify patterns, lines, and movement in images, we can also do so in a literary text.

… after all, as is painting, so is poetry.

Translation as Palimpsest

Every piece of writing is inevitably influenced by writings that have come before. As we write, we sub-consciously awaken texts we have previously read, undoubtedly bringing these texts, into the new text we are now writing. Furthermore, the world surrounding us will influence our writing, thus making our writing “a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture”, a palimpsest…

“We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”

Genette, Palimpsests.

Our words, sentences, ideas, are undoubtedly influenced by what we read, see, and hear in the world around us. The idea that our surroundings don’t influence our writing is practically unthinkable. We ‘borrow’ words, phrases, ideas that have come before us in order to create our palimpsest of writing.

So what happens when we translate a text? Of course, in the first instance, it is undeniable that we create more of a physical palimpsest, a combination of the original text and the new translation. Whilst the act of writing can be considered a creation of palimpsest, the act of translation is even more so as this palimpsest of writing is so physical, so literal. Not only is the translated text a palimpsest of writing and ideas, but it is also a palimpsest of languages. In many translations, there will be echoes of the source culture, and potentially the source language, adding only another layer to the piece. So, a translation is a piece that consists of many layers, the layers that the original author created, followed by the layers that the translator adds, almost forming a palimpsest upon a palimpsest.

Experimenting with these ideas of palimpsest really opens up one’s eyes to just how much our writing is influenced by texts, words, etc that have come before. Taking a source text, reading it, and making notes over the writing of works, words or instances that parts of the text remind us of, even creating drawings over the source text of images the writing brings to mind, shows us just how much writing, and therefore translation is influenced by layers and layers of reading, listening, and experiencing.

Gender in Translation (2): Translating Grammatical Gender

Translating grammatical gender is something that a translator normally doesn’t have to think twice about. In most cases, the straightforward translation of ‘la’ and ‘le’ into ‘the’ is all that is required. But what about when these definite articles mean something much more?

In his essay, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, Roman Jakobson discusses the idea of the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. In brief, Jakobson believes that meaning lies in the signifier (the word) and not in the signified (what the word presents). According to Jakobson, interpretation of the signifier can occur in three ways, intralingual translation (translation within the same language), interlingual translation (translation between different languages), and intersemiotic translation (translation between different media). So what about signifiers as trivial as ‘la’ and ‘le’ in French? Is it simply a question of translating them into ‘the’? Or as Jakobson suggests, do they signify something more? According to Jakobson, interlingual translation is ‘translation proper’, however, he also discusses that there are many problems in interlingual translation as some languages have grammatical categories that are not found in other languages, for example, gendered definite articles. Here the translator has to make a choice, and sometimes translating from another language into English requires supplementary information surrounding gender. It is a fact that grammatical gender colours a speaker’s perception of objects and ideas, so how can we render this perception into English, where grammatical gender does not exist? Some solutions would be to gender nouns in English that are otherwise not, or to ‘give’ nouns ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ features.

In many cases, it is straightforward enough to translate a ‘la’ or ‘le’ into a ‘the’, as most of the time, these signifiers do mean simply ‘the’. However, in particular cases, the signifier can mean a whole lot more. For example, in one of my classes, I translated an extract from Garçon Manqué, an auto-fiction novel by Nina Bouraoui. In translating this passage, I realised that the ‘elle’ signified much more than simply ‘it’. Although in French the pronoun ‘elle’ can mean either ‘it’ or ‘she’, throughout the text Bouraoui gives the sea human-like qualities, often describing it as violent or angry, and as able to negotiate and pacify Nina’s conflicting identities (French and Algerian). The sea is almost like another character in the novel that Nina can share her problems with, the sea is the ‘person’ that keeps Nina connected with both of her cultures at the same time.

“La mer me porte. Elle prend tout. Elle m’obsède. Elle est avant le rêve de la France. Elle est avant le voyage. Elle est avant la peur.”

Garçon Manqué, Nina Bouraoui

I decided that the descriptions and the personification of the sea made extremely important significations within the novel and therefore, should remain as important and as prominent in the target text. Bouraoui uses this personification to represent the sea as an entity that Nina trusts and considers human-like, the sea makes her feel peaceful and cares for her.  As a result, in the target text, I decided to refer to the sea as ‘she’ rather than ‘it’.

“The sea carries me. She takes everything. She possesses me. She lies before the dream of France. She is before the journey. She is before fear.”

My translation

This translation carries the personification of the sea, through to the English translation, and the metaphor of the signifier is retained. When translating signifiers, one has to consider whether their “metaphor is a purely linguistic or even an ‘ornamental’ figure, or whether it constitutes thought on a much deeper level, [and how this effects] translation. If [the translator translates] with a different metaphor, the way the speaker thinks [is changed] and therefore the cognitive domains which the reader will relate to one and other [are changed].” (Roman Jakobson in, Stylistic Approaches to Translation, by Jean Boase-Beier, 2006, p.33) It is important to carry the signifier over both with regards to its meaning, and with regards to the level of interaction that the reader has with its metaphor. In this case, the signifier is a metonym, the sea is not overtly pronounced as being human-like, or a ‘friend’ of Nina’s, this is simply suggested through the use of pronouns and adjectives. Therefore, it is important to keep the subject of this metaphor (the sea) the same, and its cognitive values (as a metonym) the same. To change the source of the signifier to something else, or to change the type of metaphor, for example to a simile, means that the stylistic feature would lose both its signification and its cognitive qualities.

In many cases, a signifier such as ‘la’ or ‘le’, means simply ‘the’, however, as a translator, it is essential to be aware when these words hold so much more signifcance and to work closely with the text to carry the significations across language.

Translation as Reading

“A text’s unity lies not in its origins, or in its creator, but in its destination, or audience.”

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

This famous quote from Barthes The Death of the Author, states that what makes a text is its reader, its audience. Barthes discusses the idea that a text comes alive, is ‘activated’ not through its creator, the writer, but through its destination, the reader. For Barthes, this is when the text’s true meaning and purpose comes to life. And in order to do this – to bring the text to life – the author must ‘die’…

“We know that in order to restore writing to its future, we must reverse the myth: the birth of reader must be requited by the death of the author.”

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

In effect, the reader takes the words from the page, and ‘translates’ them into their own text, their own story. The reader writes the text, the writer simply provides them with the means to do so. The role of the text is not to offer the reader a word by word account of everything which is possible within it, instead it offers just a part, a frame. It is up to the reader then, to paint the rest of the picture, to fill the frame in whichever way they see fit. The reader is the true creator, with the writer only providing the tools needed to ‘write’ the story.

If this is how we consider the reader of a text (as its creator) then what does this mean for translation? A translator’s task is to put their reading, their ‘painting’, into words on a page. A translator provides their reading of the source text, in a new language for another reader to then ‘write’ themselves.

“We are then, translating a reading, but a reading is not just a sequence of language on a page. We are translating also a set of textual possibilites. And we are translating reading as a particular kind of duration.”

Clive Scott, Translation and the Spaces of Reading

A translator writes only one possible reading, many others exist, because a text is read, and ‘written’ by a variety of readers. A translator writes only ‘one textual possibility’. Through the act of translating, the translator becomes a reader/writer hybrid, creating a palimpsest consisting of the source text, their reading of it, and finally, their ‘re-writing’. Is it then possible that a translated text’s unity can override Barthes’ call for the ‘Death of the Author’? Through translation, a reading of the source text is produced and put into words, does this then mean that the unity of a translated text can lie with both it’s origins (the translator who is ‘writing’ their reading) and with its destination (the new reader)? Or, could we consider the act of translation in a different way, with the author not only dying with the translator’s reading, but also being further buried under their new re-writing? Some food for thought…

Translation, Emotion, and Embodiment

“I read with my body, I read and move to translate with my body, and my body is not the same as yours.”

Kate Briggs, This Little Art (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)

When we read a text, the first voice we hear is our own. This is because when we read a text we are reading through our own bodies and our own experiences, in reading a text, we embody it. The same, of course goes for writing, we write with our bodies, putting our own bodily experiences, our bodily encounters into the text we are writing.

First and foremost, a translator is reader, then a writer or ‘re-writer’, with each of these actions being closely linked to the body. Unlike a person who reads a text, embodies, experiences and activates it only for this purpose, to understand or enjoy it, a translator takes this embodiment one step further. Like a reader, they embody the text as they read the words on the page, in their head, in their voice, the text is activated, yet unlike the reader, the translator continues this embodiment by becoming the writer or ‘re-writer’ of the text, they continue their bodily experience of the text, re-writing it in their own voice. The translator embodies both the old text and the new.

Taking this idea of reading as an embodiment, it can be said that one does not translate a text, but one’s interaction with a text, one’s embodiment of it, the translation therefore becomes a writing or re-writing of each individual’s personal reading experience and the emotions they bring to the text in order to activate it. When one reads a text, one is reading it through their own body, their own experiences influencing the reading and re-activating the text in a different way to everyone else. These differing reading experiences will in turn influence writing, and each re-writing or translation of a text will vary vastly from person to person. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, in reading a text through one’s body, the reader brings to it their own experiences, using these to activate their reading of the text. A translator will take their personal reading experience of the text, transforming this reading into their re-writing, in turn bringing their experiences and emotions that helped them activate the original text, in order to write the new text.

I wanted to experiement with just how much of this emotion and experience a translator can bring into their re-writing of a text. In recording my readings of texts, and the processes in which I then use to re-write these texts, I can also discover and harbour new ways of writing and translating that I may not have otherwise found. In intertwining the acts of creative writing and translation and realising and recording the different processes with which I read and re-write, I am opened up to a whole new world of possibilities in my writing and translation. In the following passages I will discuss my reading and re-writings of a text, the ways in which I personally activated the text, and how this effected my re-activation through re-writings. 

The text I will be working with is Claire-Louise Bennet’s ‘Voyage in the Dark’, a short story that appears in her collection, Pond….

“First of all, it seemed to us that you were very handsome. And the principal windows of your house were perfectly positioned to display a blazing reflection at sunset. One evening while walking back from the fields this effect was so dramatic we thought your rooms were burning. We liked nothing better than to rake the tinkling gravel on your drive, then to climb an impeccable tree along its passage and wait. We would hear the engine loud in the valley, followed by a thrilling silence within which we would wave our boots and imagine the leather grip of your hands upon the steering wheel, left and right. Oh, but we were only little girls, little girls, there on the cusp of female individuation, not little girls for long. The other two hung back by the brook with cups on sticks while I made my way over the wall into your ornamental garden, laid down upon the unfeasible grass and fell to sleep wrapped about a lilac seashell, which was of course my most cherished possession.” – Claire Louise Bennet, ‘A Voyage in the Dark’ in Pond (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017).

When embodying this text through my reading, I activated a sense of nostalgia. I beleive that this is because Bennet uses the short story to explore ideas of sexual awakening and coming of age. As a result, in my re-writing, whilst still following Bennet’s gaze, I created a similar metaphor in my writing, however, I also invloved my own emotions. As a child, I had a fear of growing older, of becoming an ‘adult’, my reading of this text resurfaced those feelings. This fear or hesitance, was captured as through my re-activation of the text that drew on my readerly and bodily experience, as a result, however consciously, I worked the emotions that I myself felt in the ‘coming of age years’ into my ‘re-writing’ …

Its presence was always felt. Even if we could not see it, we could hear it, its current flowing dangerously fast, sometimes gushing over the sides of the bank. I would watch it, overwhelmed by how much power it held over everything surrounding it. Alongside it, the flowering, leafy tree that we precariously swung from now appeared frail, almost lifeless. The once sweet birdsong now shrill and anxious. I returned to that spot only recently, that spot that held so many wonderful memories. Grazed knees, muddy fingernails, grass intertwined with hair. Now, under the dappled rays of sunlight fighting their way through the canopy of our tree, it seems so calm, inviting even. Why was I ever so scared of its waters? 

Whilst I enjoyed creating this re-writing of Bennet’s ‘Voyage in the Dark’, it was quite safe, and not very experimental. A few weeks later, I revisited this text, and, putting the source text aside, moved onto a re-writing of my re-writing. As stated, I wanted to make this re-creation a little more experimental and had the idea to work with a different medium. When reading and embodying my re-writing, my head was filled with images of the personal space and time that I was describing, therefore, I had the idea to translate these fleeting images in my memory into something physical. This thought led to me videocalling my Mum back home in Shropshire and asking her to sift through the many photographs she has from the weekends and summers myself, my brother, and my cousins had spent at our Grandparent’s home (the space within which my original re-writing is situated). After I had selected a few of the photographs through the pixelated screen of my laptop, she sent them onto me. I then made a piece with a collection of these photos. This collage encapsulates entirely the feelings and images that the source text originally surfaced when I activated the text, yet it was only through re-writing Bennet’s piece and reflecting on this process that I was able to actually bring these images to life and create this second piece. Without considering my process, and reflecting on the memories and feelings that came to the surface in my embodiment of Bennet’s text, I don’t believe that I would have had this idea for my second ‘re-writing’. This is only proof that exploring and discussing processes as a translator is extremely beneficial. 

Something that emerged heavily though this process were ideas of emotion. Each individual’s readerly and bodily experiences will heavily influence the emotion they feel when reading a text, everyone’s experiences making for a different reading, and therefore a different translation. Images were also a big part of my process, I had never thought of incorporating images into my translation practice, but this is something I found incredibly productive and will definitely think about doing again. This experimentation with images led me to think more in depth about my process as a translator, and just how much images and readings that I have already experienced before, will always affect my reading of a new text, and therefore also influence my writing and translation. As Peter Bush states:

“Translator’s readings of literature provoke the otherness within the subject of the translator, work at a level not entirely under the control of the rationalising discourse of the mind, release ingredients from the subconscious magma of languages and experience, shoot off in many directions, provoked by the necessity of the creation of new writing.”

Peter Bush, The Translator as Writer (London: Continuum, 2007)

Through embodying a new text, I will inevitably awaken old texts, experiences, images, and language, that now lie in a dormant place within my mind, they re-activate themselves in order to help me re-activate and re-write the text with which I am engaging.

Japan Now East: Reading and Workshop with Hiromi Itō and Jeffrey Angles

This week I was lucky enough to attend a discussion and reading with renowned Japanese poet and writer, Hiromi Itō, and her friend and translator into the English, Jeffrey Angles. The following day, I also attended the workshop ‘Translating Cultures’, which focused on the difficulties of translating Japanese culture and language specifities into English culture and langauge.

The reading and subsequent workshop took place at the astoundingly beautiful Dragon Hall, part of the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. Upon arriving, I had no idea what to expect, having heard very little about Hiromi Itō, and simply buying a ticket for the event with an interest from the perspective of a translator. It is safe to say that I am very glad I decided to buy the ticket, as I have now discovered a new favourite poet in Hiromi Itō, and an awe at the lovely poet-translator relationship Hiromi Itō and Jeffrey Angles have formed.

The evening of the reading began with a brief discussion on Hiromi Itō’s and Jeffery Angles respective works, and their collaboration in translation. Hiromi Itō is a notorious figure in Japan, writing poetry on provocative subjects that in Japanese culture are often considered taboo, and Jeffery, her long term translator into English, and a poet in his own right. The evening then drew towards the main focus, a bilingual reading of the new volume of Hiromi Itō’s poetry collections ‘Killing Kanoko’ and ‘The Wild Grass on the Riverbank’, just published by Titled Axis Press.

The first collection in the volume, ‘Killing Kanoko’ covers topics such as sex, abortion, and post-partum depression. This was met with a sort of horror, and whole heap of critisicm in Japan, in particular from male critics. For this, Hiromi Itō became notorious, and somewhat of a feminist icon in Japan. The language is harsh, yet sad, troubling and unnerving. The second collection deals with a different theme, over the past twenty years, Hiromi Itō has divided her time between Japan and Southern California, and therefore, the second collection in the volume explores the ideas of discriminiation and immigration. Wild Grass on the Riverbank is written from the point of view of a narrator shuttled between the Riverbank (Japan) and the Wasteland/Wild Grass (Southern California). Hiromi Itō explores this through the weaving of weeds and plants into her langauge, the plants coming to life and experiencing trauma just like the narrator. The bilingual reading of excerpts from these two volumes was simply astounding. Hiromi Itō’s improv performance could almost be described as erratic, but resulting in a real, passionate, and striking reading that was utterly mesmerising and deeply moving. The poet and translator bounced off of each other, reading each other, and proving that this was more of a friendship than simply a poet-translator relationship, they had a deep understanding of each others art.

The next day, at the workshop ‘Translating Cultures’ the pair discussed the difficulties of translating between two such vastly differing cultures and languages as Japanese and English along with translator and writer Polly Barton. The workshop was chaired by Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned translator of contemporary American literature into Japanese, and current writer in residence at the National Centre for Writing. The group discussed the difficulties of translating elements of a text such as gender, and the need to be careful not to apply anglocentric gender norms to works in translation. For example, the Japanese language can tell an entire story about someone without revealing the characters gender until the very end of the text – something almost impossible to render into English – however something that for many texts may be essential to the meaning, and therefore, should somehow be worked into the English. Jeffery Angles also discussed how translating Hiromi Itō was particularly difficult as she often uses non-standard Japanese in her writing, and this unusual language is very difficult to work with in translation.

The afternoon came to a close with another reading from Hiromi Itō and Jeffery Angles that was as brilliant as the previous nights. For this reading Hiromi Itō took her older translation of the Sutra and retranslated it, proving, as Jeffery Angles stated that…

“A translation is never a completed process.”

I left both the reading and the workshop with a new found desire to read more Japanese literarture (in particular poetry) in translation, and with my own ideas of the difficulties in translating elements such as gender from French into English. And of course… I also left with the new book, an absolute must!

Translated Fiction, a barrier?

Not so long ago I was at a translation event where a book publisher explained during a panel that the words ‘translated fiction’ or the appearance of a ‘translated by …’ on the front matter of a book have a significant effect on sales. Sadly, it seems that these words often scare people away and create a barrier that makes the book appear inaccessible. Why is this? In this post, I am going to discuss the potential reasons for negative effects on sales thanks to the appearance of words such as ‘translated fiction’  or ‘translated by …’ on book covers, and what we can do to dispell the myth that this renders a book inaccessible.

The first prejudice that these words have the potential to create, is one that translated fiction is worse than fiction in its source language, with the idea that a translation can never be as good as the original. Translation theorist, Schleiermacher stated that a translator either brings the text towards the reader, leaving the reader in peace and disrupting the source text, thus making the translation ‘fluent’ and therefore not loyal to the original. Or, on the other hand, he suggests that the translator brings the reader towards the text, leaving the text in peace and disrupting the reader, meaning that the translation is more faithful but sounds awkward in the target language. The idea that either way, something is ‘disturbed’ (the reader or the text) by the act of translation, creates a negative connotation. If we were to follow Schleiermacher’s theory, this means that a translation can never be ‘good’, as it is always either ‘unfaithful’ to the original, or ‘un-fluent’ in the target language. Schleiermacher’s theory considers that something is always disturbed or disrupted within the translation, with either the reader or the text having to become up-rooted and uncomfortable. Ideas such as this, contribute to the idea that translated fiction is second class to fiction in its original language, either not being close enough to the original for want of fluency, or being incorrect or ‘unreadable’ in the target language, through an attempt to remain close to the source text. According to this theory, something, either the reader or the source text, is always ‘disturbed’. However, this is more often than not, not the case. Novels are consistently translated within a happy medium, disturbing neither the reader, nor the source text, and offering a new audience a wonderful translation into a new language that does justice to the original.

Another prejudice that can arise from the discussion surrounding translated fiction is the Anglo-centric idea that English literature alone is enough. This comes from the long issue of Anglo-centrism that exists in the Anglophone sphere, with ideas such as the ‘literary canon’ and the unwillingness to learn about new cultures at the forefront. Many Anglophone nations are not often open to new cultures, yet continue to impose an Anglophone culture and Anglophone literature onto others. This is reflected in the reaction to translation, it is something ‘secondary’ because it is not ‘original’ English literature. In her essay on literary translation, Kate Briggs says: 

“Writing a translation can be a means to interrupt, to stall and expose the small-mindedness of the [idea that the English speaking world is the world]. It doesn’t stand in for and is not equal to the world; its literature is not literature, its philosophy is not philosophy. The translations we do read are their own necessary reminder of this – of everything we are not reading, and has yet been written and is being read by so many others, vast populations of other readers and writers, all the time and everywhere else.”

Translation reminds us that a world exists outside of English literature. The words ‘translated fiction’ or ‘translated by…’ should not appear as a barrier, but as a door, a door to those other works of literature, those other readers and those other writers.

In bringing up the discussion of the words ‘translated by’ on book covers, we can’t help but consider the implications of naming a translator vs not naming a translator on the front of a book. Knowing that the appearance of the words ‘translated by’ on book covers makes them appear undesirable and inaccessible, many publishers choose not to name translators on the front matter of their books. As a result of this general negative reaction to the idea of translated fiction, translators are being hidden, being made invisible, in order to actually sell the books. It is of my opinion that translators should always be named on the front cover. Always. Translators work laboriously to take a book that they loved reading in one of their languages, rendering it available in another of their languages, so that others can enjoy the book as they did. Literary translators are working hard at eliminating this Anglo-centric idea surrounding literature and the English literature canon, bringing new cultures, different ways of writing and fresh ideas into the English literary world. They work hard to do this and deserve to be credited. But how do we tackle the stigmas and stereotypes that surround translated fiction? We can only continue to promote translated literature as important and as valid as literature. 

 #translatedliteratureisliterature