“Between the Experiment and the Essence”: Emma Ramadan Talks Translation

“For those of us who can feel unsettled in terms of identity, translation can feel like home.”

Emma Ramadan, a literary translator based in Rhode Island, has produced over two dozen full-length translations from the French, including recent translations of Anne Garréta’s In Concrete and Kamel Daoud’s Zabor, or the Psalms. She holds a BA degree in comparative literature from Brown University and an MA in cultural translation from the American University of Paris. Her projects are linked by her affinity for experimental work, voice, and connections to North Africa. I spoke with her in summer 2021 to ask about her creative process and about the place of translation in both marketplaces and evolving geopolitical landscapes. For a complete overview of her work, visit her website.

Jocelyn Frelier (JF): At this point you’ve translated a wide variety of texts. How do you select what you work on? How do you think about what you’d want to translate?


Emma Ramadan (ER): The books that I work on—regardless of where they were written—share something. If someone reads a bunch of the books I’ve translated, they are going to feel a pattern.

I’m very interested in translating experimental books (usually by women-identifying authors) that tend to be on the darker side, because those are the texts I am most drawn to as a reader. I also like to translate books that are sprawling and world-building; for example, Kamel Daoud’s Zabor, or the Psalms (2021) and The Boy by Marcus Malte (2019). I think there is a strong connection between those two books. Then, writers like Abdellah Taïa (who’s Moroccan, writing from Paris) share a writerly kinship with Marguerite Duras (my favorite author) because of overlap in style. They both write in choppy, rhythmic prose.

There are some patterns in what I choose to translate: linguistically experimental works, texts that have a voice that captivates me, or books from North Africa and the Arab world. The last of these is an interest that stemmed from my Fulbright in Morocco, where I went to study Ahmed Bouanani, a poet who is no longer with us. When I went there, it was to learn about the Moroccan literary scene, and I found myself drawn to a variety of authors; my interest spiraled from there.


JF: And, practically, how do you find them?


EF: The majority of what I work on are things that I have found and pitched until a publisher acquires them. Other times, publishers will come to me and ask if I want to translate a given project.

But I came across my first published translation, Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (2015), by chance. I read about it in a book on the Oulipo; that is, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, a group of French-language authors who write using constrained techniques. While reading about Sphinx, I remember thinking that Garréta’s conceit was really interesting—there are no gender markers for the two main characters—and I wanted to see how the English-language translator had managed to translate it. But then I learned that no one had done it yet.

I got excited about it after I read it. But I did not realize how challenging it would be for a first-time translator.


JF: I read somewhere that your method has included working hand-in-hand with a novel’s author, like Garréta, or reading aloud. Would you tell me a bit about your process?


ER: The process, including whether I work with the author, depends on the book. Sometimes the author is no longer alive or is just too famous for me to have any contact. I worked on Pretty Things (2018) by Virginie Despentes. I know she had to approve my sample, but we didn’t have any contact, so that was not a close author-translator relationship. There are other authors—like Brice Matthieussent or Javad Djavahery—whose books I translated and with whom I had no contact during the translation process, but then we did a tour together after the books came out.

By far the author I’ve had the most contact with is Anne Garréta. I’ve translated three of her books, and that has helped us build a special connection. With Sphinx, we met in person a few times, because I was living in Paris and she was there part of the time. We would go to dinner and talk about the book generally. Garréta looked over the first couple of chapters, and we went over the voice, cultural references, and her overarching goals with the book. After a certain point, she didn’t read the translation. With Not One Day (2017), she read the whole thing line by line and gave me feedback. It was a book she had written more recently, and it had won a prize, so maybe she felt more comfortable sitting with the text (as opposed to Sphinx, which she had written when she was so young that maybe it was harder for her to sit with it). She was very involved in my translation of In Concrete (2021), her most recently written book. During the pandemic we had long Zoom calls, and we would compare notes about how we were each coping with the situation. She would give me advice on essentials to stock up on, and then we would dive into how to solve a particular play on words or how to make a joke funny. She has been very generous with her time across all the books I’ve worked on with her. Overall, the books are probably going to be better if they have the author’s feedback, so my relationship with Garréta has been really special and unique.

Sometimes there are differences of opinion. As a translator, that can be hard to navigate. You want for the author to be happy, but, simultaneously, you want to follow your gut as to what feels right to you in English.

In terms of my actual translating process, it’s pretty messy. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

I’ll start with a very rough first draft—I just want to get everything on the page. The draft will have multiple slash marks to indicate that a word can mean several different things and I haven’t decided what I want it to be yet.

The second draft takes me the longest. I go through it, polish it, solve linguistic puzzles, and make sure I’m consistent with certain word choices. This is when I try to make it read as smoothly as possible, and also when I will research something I don’t understand in the French.

Ideally, my third draft will be my final draft; that’s when I read out loud to myself. When I read out loud, I catch portions of the text that don’t sound fluid, or instances where I’ve used the same word too many times. That’s a really important draft for me—it’s the difference between thinking something sounds right and knowing it sounds right.


When Poetry Summons the Dead

By Brais Lamela

JF: You mentioned that you’re interested in experimental work. I’m curious to hear what challenges arise when translating experimental literature.


ER: With Sphinx there was the obvious constraint: I couldn’t reveal the gender of either of the two main love interests. I had to re-create a book using the tools of the English language (specifically, the ways that gender works in English) while telling the same story. It might be easier to tell a genderless story in English with a fresh start. But the novel is already written for you, using the exact kinds of sentence structures that would require gender in English. So it becomes much more complicated. One of the most difficult elements of that story actually didn’t relate to gender but was more about the vocabulary, voice, and register of the language. Getting each of those parts right felt much more fraught.

The essence of wordplay is that it depends on the word in a given language. And the games you can play in one language are never going to translate directly into another language.

For example, In Concrete is full of relentless jokes and wordplay. Reading it feels like Anne Garréta is showing off on the page, in the best possible way. (And good for her! She’s such a genius with language, and she has every right to show people what she can do … but it’s a nightmare for a translator.) In this book, I think the biggest challenge was figuring out how to keep the hilarity, the intricacies, and the joy while not losing sight of the story and the voice of the narrator.

I want the reader to get the same feeling, picture the same narrator, and experience the same book, but in a different language. It sounds so silly, because that’s what all translation is. But when you’re translating experimental work, sometimes the tools you might want to use to re-create an experiment can take you further from a narrator’s voice. So you have to find the balance between the experiment and the essence of the book. If all translation is constrained writing, then translating experimental work is a double constraint.


How to Read like a Translator

By Joshua Sperling

JF: When people talk about translation, they often use metaphors like bridging to describe it. COVID has given the world a new angle for discussing community, connectivity, and care work.

How do you see translation fitting in with each of those buzzwords: bridging, community, connectivity, and care work?


ER: People talk about translation as being very solitary. But it can be a very rich, friendship-building experience, whether with the author, with a cotranslator, or with peers in a workshop.

For me, translation has felt like a powerful form of community. I have always struggled a little bit, not knowing how to identify or what home is. I’m half British and half Lebanese; I grew up in America, with parents who were very much not American. They have since left and were always pushing me to leave and see what else is out there. Not knowing where I fit has been deeply confusing for me. I think translation is this beautiful space where everybody is in-between and flitting back and forth between at least two (if not more) ways of being, seeing the world, and describing the world.

For those of us who can feel unsettled in terms of identity, translation can feel like home. It’s a place where being unstable and moving between things is desirable and beneficial; it’s a positive attribute, rather than something uncomfortable.

Practically speaking, finding other people who are interested in language and writing is vital. It can feel like an industry that’s really competitive, because there aren’t that many books in translation coming out each year. But, I would say, on the whole it is a very welcoming space, because the nature of translation is trying to make things accessible to people. At the root of translation is a desire to communicate with more people and to share experiences.

In terms of translation as care work, I wonder if I could ask you to elaborate what you mean by that.


JF: I suppose I consider bringing people together or cultivating community a form of care work. In your case, it’s care work for complete strangers or for people who want to touch a piece of a world that might not otherwise be available to them, if not for your intervention creating that connection.


ER: It feels good to know that in the act of translation we can help people better understand each other or other parts of the world. They say that people who read fiction are more empathetic, and I think if you read fiction from all over the world (as opposed to just your immediate community or country), it’s only going to help increase empathy toward people that you might not encounter every day. In terms of creating a world in which people generally care about others who might need their care, fiction in translation can play a small part.

There are other kinds of translators whose work is more on the ground; for example, those who translate legal documents or testimonies of asylum seekers. That feels more directly tied to the kind of care work that I think about when people use that phrase. However, if literary translators are giving speakers of their target language more information about other areas of the world, then perhaps that can be a more abstract form of care work.


JF: The world is increasingly interconnected and globalized, and we’ve seen waves of nationalism, perhaps as a response to interconnectivity. How do you see translation fitting in with evolving geopolitical landscapes?


ER: Constantly working to push readers, publishers, and the public to remember that the United States isn’t the only place on the planet—and that Americans aren’t the only ones who deserve to live good lives—is a very small way of fighting against insidious waves of nationalism.

There’s a lot of conversation about needing to publish and translate more diverse writers (more Black writers, more native writers, more queer writers), because books should be representative of everyone. I think we can push that conversation further and say that books published here need to go beyond American borders as well.

Translation is a small part of the work that needs to be done. But when you go into a bookstore and there are books by writers from all over the world on the shelves, it can create a sense of global community. This is only going to help foster care for or understanding of other areas of the world beyond our own.


Turkish Literature at Sea

By Basak Çandar

JF: Related to representation, what’s on your mind when it comes to your position and embodied experiences when you are working on a given project?


ER: I work on pitching a diverse range of voices from various parts of the world, and also on making sure that I am prepared to render them responsibly. For example, my Fulbright to study Ahmed Bouanani’s work made all the difference in translating his work responsibly versus irresponsibly. There was so much about his world and culture that I needed to know and see to understand what he’s describing in his work. I genuinely don’t believe I could have translated his book The Shutters (2018) as well from a distance. So much of what he references requires being on the ground to understand it.

As translators, we all have a responsibility to make sure that we do the research. With how underpaid we all are, it can feel difficult to spend the time (or sometimes money) to adequately research a given reference. But it’s part of the job.

Right now, I’m working on a translation of a book that takes place in Lebanon. I have my dad a phone call away, and I can ask him what a specific event was, and he (as someone who lived through it) can convey things that I would never find on Google.

We have a responsibility to pitch voices from underrepresented groups. But we have to know our limitations, and, if we see gaps in our translation, we have to do the work to fill them in. A lot of care has to go into these books, because if you’re careless with them, then you could be doing a lot of damage, not just to the essence or style of the book but to the author and to people the book represents. If you’ve distorted the tenor of a given author’s story, then that can have an effect on how the book is perceived.

I think there’s also a certain care in treating authors as individuals with their own writing styles instead of lumping them into groups. Sometimes we talk about literature from a given country or from a certain group as if it were its own genre (like “Moroccan literature” or “queer literature” or “African literature”), and it can be very reductive. These categories don’t address the nuance within these groups. There are so few books that get translated from a specific group that, when one does get translated, it can be expected to represent all literature from that group. We need to avoid that.


JF: What advice would you share with someone who is interested in starting their first translation project?


ER: What a nice question! It makes me excited to think about myself back in the day when I was starting my first translation, even though I would soon realize how much more difficult it was going to be than what I initially imagined.

The first thing is to choose a book you really love, because otherwise you will get tired of it. If you pick a book you feel connected to, then it will be easier and more fun to work on over the course of several drafts. Nothing can zap your energy as a translator more than wrestling with sentences that don’t speak to you. Second, I would say be patient with yourself. It can take a long time for the voice to come to you or for everything to click. Keep the faith!


This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau. icon

Featured image: Emma Ramadan. Photograph courtesy of Emma Ramadan.