Writers are sexy figures. Until recently, we tended to imagine them as drunk and glamorous, Hemingway at the bar in Cuba or Frank O’Hara partying with artists. Now that pop culture has become health-obsessed, the internet is saturated with writers’ daily routines and snacking habits. But what about translators? What do they—or rather, we—do all day? Online, we’re nearly invisible.
Some translators would tell me this is as it should be. The translator’s role is to disappear, to create a text so seamless it seems like she was never there. The purpose of this essay is not to debunk that idea, but to complicate it. I will argue for the translator’s place in the literary imagination, not as a ghost but as a fully realized public figure. This argument is in part political: Who bridges cultural divides more visibly than translators? What greater act of collaboration and welcome could the literary world offer? But my argument is artistic, too. As a translator, I consider translation an act of great hubris. It’s an art form that requires both talent and ego. It takes confidence to claim you can write somebody else’s book. This essay is an ode to some translators’ confidence, and an effort to boost others’ egos. Put it like this: I’d like to make translators famous.
I understand that fame is a flawed literary metric. But what metric truly works? Not even readership, sometimes. The title essay in the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s collection Not to Read begins with the joys of refusing to read. Zambra worked as a literary critic for years, and in “Not to Read,” he rejoices in skipping the books he’s told are great. He makes sure to point out that he’s not alone: Jorge Edwards once told a crowd at the Madrid Book Fair that he intended to raffle off his many unread copies of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and Rafael Gumucio once handed Zambra himself a book, claiming, “‘I haven’t read it and I don’t plan to read it, but it’s very good. I don’t need to read it to know it’s very good, better than Cheever, better than Carver, better than everyone.”1
That dryly repeated line is characteristic of Zambra’s writing. In both fiction and criticism, he works through flat detail, brutal observation, and deadpan wit. In “National Institute,” one of Zambra’s most overtly political stories, he follows the first scene that mentions the dictator Augusto Pinochet with this standalone paragraph: “I remember the cramp in my right hand, after history class, because Godoy dictated for the entire two hours. He taught us Athenic democracy by dictating the way you dictate in a dictatorship.”2 I love that paragraph. Had Megan McDowell not beaten me to it, I would have wanted to write it in English myself.
In the most literal sense, that’s what a translation is: a book that two (or occasionally three) people wrote. When I read “National Institute,” I am reading both Zambra and McDowell, but we rarely talk about literary translations this way. We talk about the author, the author’s work, and the author’s choices, much more rarely about the translator or her work and choices. We tend not to romanticize translators, or treat them like intellectual or artistic figures in their own right, or pay much attention to them at all. In this essay, I will take the opposite approach. In this essay, I will pay attention only to the translators.
I. What Is a Translation, Anyway?
It’s easy to think about the author. It’s much more difficult to tell when to think about the translator, let alone what to think. Do I laugh when Alejandro Zambra is funny, or when Megan McDowell is? Am I moved by Zambra’s restraint, or by McDowell’s, or by both? A few translations make it easy to tell. In Antigonick, Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’s Antigone, the chorus’s first line is, “The glories of the world come sharking in all red and gold.”3 Anybody who has read Carson’s poetry will know that the particular beauty of that line belongs to Carson. The same will be true for anyone who’s read a more traditional Antigone, such as Elizabeth Wyckoff’s translation, in which the chorus’s first line is, “Sun’s own radiance, fairest light ever shone on the gate of Thebes / then did you shine …”4 There are no glories, let alone sharking ones, here. Clearly, Carson has struck out on her own.
Not many translators have this option. Carson’s poetic voice is well known, as is the story of Antigone. Readers have access to many versions of the play, from Wyckoff’s 1954 rendering to Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 retelling, Home Fire. Carson’s Antigonick is not solely responsible for shaping her readers’ ideas about Sophocles, or about Antigone. In her poetic introduction to the text, Carson tells Antigone, “My problem is to get you and your problem / across.”5 She’s lucky. Most translators have far more problems than that.
I recently interviewed the Japanese-English translator Asa Yoneda, who is the first to translate Japanese fiction writer and playwright Yukiko Motoya’s prose into English. In an email about Bakkhai, another one of Carson’s ancient Greek translations, Yoneda told me that the play “is in conversation with itself in its many translations, versions, and adaptations, and its readers bring that awareness and experience to their reading.” On the other hand, when Yoneda was working on Motoya’s story collection The Lonesome Bodybuilder, she had to assume her readers would have no experience of Motoya’s work at all, and likely not much awareness, either. If she didn’t create an English facsimile of Motoya’s voice, that voice would never be heard. As a result, Yoneda had to make her own style covert. In the English text, Yoneda’s voice is present—impossible to fully banish, or force fully underground—but it functions solely in Motoya’s service.
McDowell makes her voice covert, too: she’s a chameleon, her style completely obscured by the styles of the many writers she works with. For Zambra, her prose is light and conversational. For the latter-day Argentine gothic writers Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enríquez, her tone becomes darker, her diction more ornate. For Costa Rican novelist Carlos Fonseca, she makes her writing twisty and academic, far from the tabloid-ready style she uses for Virginia Vallejo, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s longtime lover. A reader attuned to McDowell’s talent will notice how skillful she is, but it’s impossible to describe her voice.
Received wisdom is that the translator should have no emotional connection. She should be pure, detached intellect. This is why I care about the translator’s right to love her project.
In This Little Art, the translator Kate Briggs argues that we shouldn’t try. To Briggs, translation “complicates the authorial position: sharing it, usurping it, sort of dislocating it.” When we think about this too much, she goes on, we get nervous, and so most translators ask readers to suspend disbelief. Essentially, Briggs considers translation an act of fiction: the translator, and her readers, pretend the teacher in “National Institute” taught in English, as we pretend he lived and taught at all.
This fictional stance is equal and opposite to what I might call Carson’s poetic stance. One asks the reader to ignore the translator; the other won’t permit it. In his pro-translator manifesto Sympathy for the Traitor, Mark Polizzotti offers a third way. He asks readers to turn toward “what the translator’s literary skills bring to the mix. To present a work as aptly as possible … takes sensitivity, empathy, flexibility, attentiveness, and tact. And, perhaps most of all, it takes respect for one’s own work.” To Polizzotti, a translator deserves notice as an artist, no matter how hidden her art may be. The ability to hide one’s voice is an art, and it’s one readers should learn to look for. In other words, Polizzotti asks readers not to suspend belief, but to catch ourselves in the act of believing. Often, readers don’t have the tools, knowledge, or context to admire a translator’s particular word choices, but any reader can admire McDowell for making her briefly believe that Rafael Gumucio described a book as better than Cheever, not mejor que.
Douglas Robinson’s The Translator’s Turn takes Polizzotti’s third way of approaching translation much further. If Polizzotti reminds us that translators are artists, then Robinson reminds us that translators are human. The Translator’s Turn is a plea to remember that a translator is “a person, with personal experiences, personal desires, personal preferences.” The plea is addressed to readers, but I suspect his true audience is translators. I hope so. Robinson’s right: translators, like writers, should allow their experiences, desires, and preferences to inform and enrich their art.
Unlike Polizzotti and Briggs, Robinson writes in scholarly language, and often he explicitly addresses his fellow academics. Here, I’d like to take his ideas outside the university. It’s hard to argue that all readers should care about translators’ physical responses to a text, since they vary so widely and are so often inaccessible. But any reader can try to imagine translators’ emotions, particularly their emotional attachments to source languages and source texts. It only takes empathy for readers to learn (or remember) not only that translation is an art, but also that translation frequently springs from love.
II. Who Do You Love?
“If all writers were solipsists,” Roberto Bolaño wrote, “literature would cease to exist.”6 Maybe. If all translators were solipsists, though, there would be no translation at all. By definition, a translator must devote herself to another person’s work, and often, she does so for terrible pay. It would be unreasonable to discuss literary translation without addressing this issue. David Bellos repeatedly notes in Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything that most translators for the past few centuries have been, as he puts it, “amateurs.” For a translator, Bellos’s choice of words is a bit sloppy here: amateur could easily be used to denigrate translators and their work, and, as Kate Briggs points out in This Little Art, female translators are derided as dilettantes often enough already.
But the fact remains: outside the academy, translation doesn’t pay the bills. Anne Carson, as she often points out in her author bios, “teaches ancient Greek for a living.” I have no idea whether Carson would translate for a living if she could, but I do know the industry rarely offers that option. It would be both disingenuous and disrespectful to pretend that literary translators like the ones discussed here are motivated by money, and not by a complex mix of art, ambition, talent, creativity, and love.
But many critics pretend exactly that. Once feelings enter translation, Robinson writes, theorists tend to claim there’s “something wrong, something fishy: you are not translating, then, you are creating, projecting, emoting.” Briggs illustrates this point through a more gender-conscious lens, describing a conference at which a roomful of translators laughed heartily at the idea that Thomas Mann’s now controversial translator Helen Lowe-Porter would “never dispatch a translation unless she had the feeling she had [written] it herself.” There are two problems here: emotions and ownership. Feeling and done it herself. Love and ambition. Lowe-Porter was meant to keep her ego, her subjectivity, and her attachments away from what was, literally, her text.
How? Translators aren’t robots. They aren’t clear windows between writer and reader. Translators can’t be solipsists (professionally, anyway), but they can’t be selfless, either. It takes ego to ask a writer to trust you with her work, and it takes ego to put your own work in the public eye. Robinson rejects the expectation that, though neither is possible, translators should “long for a time when translation will either succeed perfectly or be unnecessary.” Which is crueler, to demand that translators be perfect or to demand that translators wish to be unnecessary? To attempt the former requires an unbearable amount of ego, to aspire to the latter none at all. Better, I think, for translators to be content with a regular amount. Better to accept what Briggs calls the “peculiar hubris of wanting to rewrite sentences that you didn’t write, [which] seems in the first instance to be a matter of intensely felt identification.”
Love, like translation, is a matter of both intense hubris and intense identification. It takes ego to ask a person to love you. It takes ego to ask a person to choose you, whether as translator or partner, above all others. In the case of love, we tend to agree that this ego is good. We tend to accept that love, in the long term, is imperfect, but still desirable, even necessary. Why not extend the same generosity to translation? Lowe-Porter, Briggs writes, felt inadequate next to The Magic Mountain, and yet she believed—insisted—that she could rise above herself in order to do the novel justice. She begged Mann not to let another translator take her place. Is that not like falling in love?
Bellos agrees with me, though not happily. “Translators, whose working lives are not sexy in the least, use the language of love to talk about their work. How strange!” Take out “sexy,” though, and translators’ love-talk is not strange at all. Translation is a form of love that requires distance. This is true during the translation process—even writers and translators who collaborate closely must be separated by some language gap, or why bother with the translator at all?—and true of its end result. There will always be space between a text and its translations. Some translators and readers are attracted to that space, others to the dream of closing it. I belong to the first category.
The gaps between languages contain the threat, or promise, of the untranslatable. Some translators and scholars celebrate the idea of untranslatability. Others, like Bellos, reject it out of hand. To Robinson, the likes of Bellos are trapped in “the masterful web of perfectionist appeal and inevitable frustration in which Christian ideology has wrapped translation.” Notice that he says “Christian,” not “Judeo-Christian.” Untranslatability is at the core of the Jewish religious worldview. In Jewish tradition, no one is allowed to know the name of God. It appears in the Torah as four vowelless, unreadable characters—יהוה—and is pronounced Adonai, which means “lord” or “lords.” Saying Adonai is a workaround, like “the artist formerly known as Prince.”
Carson would call יהוה “a word that stops itself.” In her monograph Nay Rather, she writes about môlu, the plant with which Odysseus shields himself from Circe’s magic. Môlu is a word from the gods’ language. “When he invokes the language of gods,” Carson begins, “Homer usually tells you the earthly translation also. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them. You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to gods, the word stops itself.”7
To tell a translator to ignore her body, her history, and her non-logical mind will lead to worse translations.
Not all silences within translation are sacred. Some are political, or existential. The Bolaño line I quoted earlier comes from The Secret of Evil, a collection of fragments found on the author’s hard drive after he died and co-translated by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer. Many of the pieces in The Secret of Evil are unfinished, but written with such mastery that when they end, it’s like getting kicked out of a packed bar. The action is there, but the reader has suddenly, definitively lost access.
Confronted with silences like death or God, it’s easy to see that writer and translator are equal. Wimmer cannot bring Bolaño back from the grave. Carson cannot buy môlu seeds. In that regard, she’s equal to Homer. In most regards, though, we are unwilling to consider writers and translators equal. Remember Briggs’s story about the translation conference attendees laughing at Lowe-Porter. Why should it be ridiculous for Lowe-Porter to consider a translation complete only when she felt she had written the book herself? Translating is writing a book yourself. But the assembled translators found it ridiculous that Lowe-Porter felt ownership, or admitted to it. Received wisdom is that the translator should have no emotional connection. She should be pure, detached intellect. This is why I care about the translator’s right to love her project. Love is not intellectual. Unlike art, it comes nowhere near the intellectual realm. There are no love critics, or endowed chairs in love theory. If we can admit that love is a part of translation, we can admit that translators are not brains in jars.
This paves the way for many other admissions. The translator has an ego, as I mentioned. She has an id, too, and like any other person’s, her id is piled with junk. Biases, superstitions, cultural and personal baggage. On a conscious level, she has politics, aesthetics, a religion or lack thereof. On a physical level, as Robinson argues, she has somatic responses to particular sounds and words. To tell a translator to dismiss all these factors—to ignore her body, her history, and her non-logical mind—will lead to worse translations. A translator who won’t acknowledge her biases is more likely to translate right into them. A translator who can’t question her stale, inherited knowledge will use stale, inherited language. And a translator who is too ashamed to admit that some words are untranslatable will replace the sacred with the mundane.
III. “Most of Us, Given a Choice Between Chaos and Naming, Choose Naming”
My favorite essay in Not to Read is about Daniel Alarcón’s novel Lost City Radio, a book that both Alejandro Zambra and I love. “For Alarcón,” Zambra writes, “telling a story well does not mean making it understandable, but rather respecting the empty zones it is made of.” The same is true for any translator. Words like יהוה and môlu can be empty zones. So can plot holes, inconsistent characters, and baffling sentences or images. Sometimes, a translator’s best choice, her most ethical choice, or her only choice can be to let an empty zone stay empty.
In Nay Rather, Anne Carson writes, “Most of us, given a choice between chaos and naming … would choose naming. Most of us see this as a zero-sum game—as if there were no third place to be: something without a name is commonly thought not to exist.”8 Translators know better. We know how few things are nameless in all languages. Translation teaches us respect for the unnamed, and it can teach readers that same respect.
Translation can also serve as a reminder, even a celebration, of the distance between writers and readers. Yoneda told me she wanted readers to approach her translations of Motoya’s fiction “with some of whatever awareness they might bring to an encounter with someone who speaks another language. I hope there’s some appreciation for the two of you sharing space and time, respect for mutual differences … and more than anything, a wonder that any of this came to pass at all.”
This is the unique vision translation has to offer. A translation comes from elsewhere. A translation is a stranger in our land. Without putting too fine a point on it, love for the stranger often seems to be in short supply lately, but not in the world of translation. The boom in translation presses, the popularity of translated authors like Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the new National Book Award for Translated Literature are all indicators that many Americans, or American readers, love the strangers on their bookshelves. My great hope is that this spike in translated literature will produce more translators. After all, that’s how I started. I loved Megan McDowell’s Zambra translations so much that I aspired to them. She introduced me to the idea that I could translate.
My translations will never be perfect. I will always make mistakes, pick the wrong word, arrange a sentence poorly. I am not saying this to be modest. The more we translators admit our imperfections, the more possible translation will seem. (This, too, might be a parallel to love.) We—translators and writers, critics and readers—need to admit that sometimes, the best translation is not the one we have. Sometimes, the best choice is not to translate at all, but who cares? We translate anyway. Joyfully, anxiously, wrongly. Not to Read might not be as good as No Leer, but I’ve still read it twice. Antigonick might sound different than Antigone, but I like how it sounds. Not to translate produces, well, nothing. To translate produces new books, new readers, new translators, new ideas. “They say that there are only three or four or five topics for literature,” Zambra writes, “but maybe there’s just one: belonging.” Translation is the literature of belonging. It’s the literature of welcome. Let’s welcome the translator, too.
- Alejandro Zambra, Not to Read, translated from the Spanish and edited by Megan McDowell (Fitzcarraldo, 2018), p. 79. ↩
- Alejandro Zambra, “National Institute,” in My Documents, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (McSweeney’s, 2015), p. 123. ↩
- Sophokles, Antigonick, translated by Anne Carson (New Directions, 2012), p. 12. ↩
- Elizabeth Wyckoff, Antigone, in The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1954), p. 163. ↩
- Antigonick, p. 4. ↩
- Roberto Bolaño, “The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” in The Secret of Evil, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2012), p. 72. ↩
- Anne Carson, Nay Rather (Sylph, 2014), p. 6. ↩
- Ibid., p. 26. ↩