Voices Carry

There are few more conspicuously invisible figures than that of the translator, the enigmatic voice that speaks from the heart of two strangely allied new novels, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary ...

There are few more conspicuously invisible figures than that of the translator, the enigmatic voice that speaks from the heart of two strangely allied new novels, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Alameddine’s book, written in English but set entirely in Arabic-speaking Lebanon, presents the first-person story of the titular “unnecessary” woman, a 70-something recluse, Aaliya, who muses upon her past from amidst an apartment brimming with her life’s work: boxes upon boxes of unpublished Arabic translations of novels by authors from Tolstoy to Kiš to Sebald. Luiselli’s Spanish-language novel, in a razor-sharp translation by Christina MacSweeney, seems a world away from Alameddine’s war-torn Beirut as it shuttles seamlessly between Mexico and New York. And yet Luiselli’s tale of forgery, transnational and transtemporal melding, and betrayal and loss resonates deeply with the tone and experiences of Aaliya’s story.

Together, these novels suggest that the translator is at once absorbed into and radically separate from her work, a figure profoundly necessary in a polyglot world and yet tragically “unnecessary,” peripheral, and—to adopt Lawrence Venuti’s term—all but invisible in the grand story of artistic achievement.1Both Alameddine and Luiselli use their narratives to explore and dismantle these notions through tales of what Ortega y Gasset called “the misery and splendor of translation.”

It is telling that both Alameddine’s Aaliya and Luiselli’s unnamed protagonist are female. As such, they join a distinguished line of real-life female translators (from Elizabeth I to George Eliot to Edith Grossman) and the overwhelmingly female cast of translator/interpreter characters in novels like Christine Brooke-Rose’s Between (1968), Nicole Broussard’s Mauve Desert (Le Désert mauve, 1987), and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator (1999), to name just a few.

Why so many women? The obvious if unsatisfactory answer seems to be that translation is a secondary vocation proper to the second sex, a literary version of the “power behind the throne” (think Cersei Lannister with languages). Yet, as Alameddine, Luiselli, and their cohort show, this reasoning is far too easy, for translation also confers a shadowy power to alter, edit, and meld meaning—a power to write. That power comes dearly bought, since translation remains tightly shackled to the assumed primacy of the “original” (implicitly, male) text, laden with the impossible imperatives of equivalence and fidelity. In Between, Brooke-Rose responds to this by expunging the copula to be in all its forms from her novel, leaving her reader with a text that eschews the demands of equivalence and hence the hierarchy of “original” over “translation,” a text that is dynamic rather than definitional, emphasizing through its untethered prose the slanted movements of translation: “Every solution creates new problems not one of which deserves a flow of rash enthusiasm which looked up in the dictionary on the late Empire desk once long ago meant how long possessed by the gods.”2 Alameddine and Luiselli take up this exhilarating, painful potential of translation in their own, innovative ways.

Alameddine’s Aaliya is both a translator and a figure for translation, at once liberated and bound by her self-appropriated freedom. Divorced at an early age from her impotent husband and ostracized by her family, abandoned three decades before the present by her one intimate friend, she survives invasion and civil war, at one point trading sex with an acquaintance for an AK-47 that then becomes her bedmate. Through all this, each year, she creates a translation. Her process is peculiar: she translates into Arabic only from languages that she does not know, using English and French translations as the basis for her own work. She thus never translates from the “original,” but only at a double remove. These renderings are then filed away neatly in boxes, never to be read by another soul. Aaliya is, in this way, triply “unnecessary”: a translator rather than an author, and an unpublished, indirect translator at that.

This constant shrouding of Aaliya’s life in others’ literature allows her tale to read as both tragedy and triumph.

And yet, from the start, the attraction of Alameddine’s protagonist is that she is, very much, a writer. One of the triumphs of this remarkable novel is Aaliya’s distinctive, unwavering voice; she is a narrator so idiosyncratic, absorbing, convincing, that it seems, by the end, far more plausible to claim that she is real than to believe in the male author behind this narrative mask. And yet it’s Aaliya who proves to be the real translation (as well as the translator), for her world is colored most of all by her reading, a rich (if often recognizable) mosaic of Pessoa, Benjamin, Kafka, and Calvino. Aaliya sees—translates—her world through the lens of two hundred years of largely European, male-authored literature, a perspective that gifts her narrative with wonderfully allusive statements such as “Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (Garnett was the famously imprecise but pioneering English translator of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.)

This constant shrouding of Aaliya’s life in others’ literature allows her tale to read as both tragedy and triumph. There is profound sadness in the story of a woman who claims that “I know Lolita’s mother better than I do mine,” yet it’s impossible not to feel that Aaliya’s world (and our narrative) is richer for the literature through which she sees it, even if translucently, and to admire her commitment to translation and reading for its own sake—for her sake. Are any of us, after all, more than the sum-translation of all that we have heard and read? Aaliya revels in the lonely freedom that such a question implies.

The female narrator of Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, a young mother of two, similarly captures the reader through her confident, eminently convincing narrative voice. Like Aaliya, this is a woman that you want to listen to. Told in bite-size vignettes separated by asterisks, Luiselli’s novel oscillates between at least three different first-person narratives: the young mother’s current life with her family in Mexico, her memories of her earlier time as a translator-researcher-forger in Upper Manhattan, and the (perhaps imaginary) story of the real-life Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, who spent the early 20th century in New York and Philadelphia, in the company of such literary greats as Federico García Lorca, Nella Larsen, and Louis Zukofsky (called “Joshua Zvorsky” here, presumably to avoid his estate’s notoriously proprietary stance on the poet’s image).

The titular “faces in the crowd” are from Ezra Pound’s famous imagist poem comparing the faces of people in a Paris Métro station to “petals on a wet, black bough,” and the allusion plays out in phantom encounters between the narrating woman, Owen, and even Pound himself in passing trains and on the platforms of the New York subway. The novel’s original Spanish title, Los ingrávidos—literally, “the weightless ones”3—further illuminates the force of these fleeting confluences between different eras and stories, emulating the sense of floating timelessness as two subway trains pull alongside each other momentarily, or the intervening, unmappable space between the text and the translation that hovers just above it. There is a hint, too, of something “in-grave,” or not sufficiently serious, in a narrative that, like its forger protagonist, may not be entirely on the level.

Perhaps, like Aaliya, the female narrator is using translation—the incorporation of others’ voices—as a means of making sense of and covering over the incoherencies in her own life.

As a translator, Luiselli’s protagonist seems the opposite of Aaliya, as she not only has her translations of Owen’s poetry published but is brash enough to do so behind the claim that they are actually translations by the youthful “Zvorsky.” This is a double-edged translating trick: the protagonist passes her own work off as a great poet’s yet also hides it beneath that (male) poet’s famous name. Nevertheless, as the narrative progresses and we witness the dissolution of her marriage, the protagonist’s story begins to resemble Aaliya’s in its melding of life and narrative, story and translation. The protagonist is writing a roman à clef, and from early on it is difficult to discern where her novel ends and life begins, a collision of fact and fiction that results in comic misunderstandings when her husband reads her manuscript: “I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films? / Because. / Please, cut the zombies.” (This slippage between fiction and reality is compounded for me particularly, due to the fact that the voice of one of Luiselli’s minor characters is, ostensibly, based on my own—translated from my English into her Spanish and then back into English again.4)

This narrative ambiguity—does the husband leave the narrator in “real life”? or just in the novel-within-a-novel?—is increased by further slippage between the voice of the female narrator as she researches Owen’s life and Owen’s own voice, five decades earlier, as he comes to terms with his encroaching blindness. Before long, it becomes difficult to discern who is speaking. Perhaps, like Aaliya, the female narrator is using translation—the incorporation of others’ voices—as a means of making sense of and covering over the incoherencies in her own life.

It might seem a weakness of Luiselli’s novel that it is so difficult to distinguish between the voices of her different narrators; her female protagonist sounds virtually identical to the decades-removed, male Owen. And yet I think this is getting at something complex about translation and authorship. Whereas Alameddine’s novel seems to stress the extent to which the translator’s idiom becomes a mosaic of the literature she has encountered, Luiselli suggests that we never really get outside of our own voice, even in translation, and that her protagonist’s rendering of Owen is just as much her own story, her own words, as Owen’s. Luiselli endows her translator-forger with vast power, as the latter demonstrates by creating in Owen precisely the poet that she wishes him (or, perhaps, herself) to be.

Within the confines of this twisted narrative that resounds with the influence of Borges and Bolaño, Luiselli sketches a world as rich and enthralling as Alameddine’s Beirut, its three narratives layered on top of each other in a captivatingly polyglot mille-feuille. While Owen spends his time with the monolingual Lorca and the famous hoarder Homer Collyer, the young female protagonist inhabits a minutely observed world of jazz singers, editors, and philosophy grad students. And yet the most enthralling voice in the novel remains the simple, direct speech of the narrator’s young son, referred to simply as “the boy.” Here’s his explanation of his father’s departure: “Shall I tell you what happened, Mama? / What? / The house got bigger, and Papa got smaller, and he has to be found and put in a jar, like a spider or a cockroach.” In the midst of this complicated world, what is it about Luiselli’s delicate rendering of a child’s voice that is so magnetic? Perhaps this unadorned intrusion of the “real” serves as a telescopic eye to the poignant, ineluctable world that exists just behind the stories we tell ourselves.

Like the runny, water-soaked pages of Aaliya’s manuscripts at the end of An Unnecessary Woman, translation is fragile, and the translator inhabits a tenuous, embattled space between languages, eras, identities, and realities. Reading these translators’ tales is akin to receiving dispatches from the front lines of what it means to exist, to communicate in an ever-imperfect language. As Alameddine’s and Luiselli’s novels make plain, the task and life of the translator is often painful and remains radically uncertain, but it is, without a doubt, necessary. icon

  1. See Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (Routledge, 1995).
  2. Brooke-Rose, Between (1968), in The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus (Carcanet, 1986), p. 473.
  3. Interestingly, the German, French, and Dutch editions translate the Spanish title directly. The English, Italian, and Portuguese use versions of the more allusive Faces in the Crowd.
  4. I learned of this personal aspect of the novel from Luiselli—an acquaintance from Columbia University—via email.