Early in Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Al-Jalid (Ice), set in Moscow, the Egyptian narrator is taking the metro home from a concert with his beautiful Russian dorm mate Zoya. The train is loud and his Russian is not great, but he gathers that things are not going well with Hans, her handsome East German boyfriend. Zoya makes several remarks that cry out for affection: she always thought she was ugly; her friends used to call her Skeleton; and so forth. His (non)response is أوشكت أن أحتضنها, awshaktu an aHtaDinuha. I was on the verge of embracing her. Or: I was dying to embrace her. Or: I nearly hugged her. Or: I was about to take her in my arms.
Precisely what happened, or rather failed to happen, on that metro ride? Why did the narrator fail to translate his feelings into action? The three-word sentence poses no special translation problems: no meter or rhyme, no historical reconstruction (set in 1973, published in 2011), no issues of linguistic register (it uses a denatured register of Modern Standard Arabic that lacks both the exquisite traditional flourishes of classical Arabic and the earthy colloquialism of Egyptian). There is no interesting choice of readership communities. No wordplay. Not even a cultural gap. You, my dear reader, have probably experienced the infuriating interpersonal situation Ibrahim describes.
It is painfully simple—much simpler than the problems I regularly pose to my students. But it encapsulates my basic approach to translation, the fundamentally unliterary technique I repeat to students in my literary translation class. First, figure out the underlying situation. What happened? Who did what to whom? Get a picture in your mind. Then, make it speak, or make it sing.
For the past two springs at Boston University, I was fortunate to teach the Seminar in Literary Translation, a landmark seminar founded and nurtured for three decades by Rosanna Warren. Formally called “The Practice and Theory of Literary Translation,” this project has a lot of moving parts. The base is a three-hour weekly course for undergrad seniors and MFA students. Practice comes before theory. We work through exercises, discuss readings, and workshop each student’s substantial final project. Students have worked with Spanish, French, Japanese, German, Chinese, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Biblical Hebrew, and Louisiana Cajun.
Meanwhile, every Friday, in a lecture series open to the public, we welcome a guest for two full hours of lecture and discussion. The series gives the instructor an astonishing chance to invite working literary translators, friends and lifelong heroes from the Boston area and beyond. Sometimes it gets heated, sometimes quite textually detailed. Inevitably, those Friday sessions filter into the course, illustrating or complicating the theoretical works we read. The audiences at each talk also flavor the course— friends of my students, local friends of the speaker, colleagues, specialists in the source language, literary journalists, Boston-area poets and writers, translators and teachers of translation from as far as Connecticut. Two talks drew recording technicians from the radio station WBUR. Guest speaker Ammiel Alcalay brought his mother to his talk.
Even in the schematic course description above, the word “friends” already occurs three times. No accident, because friendship is the ethico-emotional core of translation. I mean it strongly: sympathetic understanding, respect, shared humor, some indulgence of eccentricity, the Steinerian first hermeneutic step of élancement into the Other with the basic assumption that a valid interlocutor is present, that the Other makes sense. Between translator and author, between love and justice: friendship may be the best that we human beings, each blinkered in our own cultural-historical and emotional circumstances, can offer each other.
You can’t escape ethics. Whatever else translation theory pretends to be about—the feminist and postcolonial waves, the cultural turn, the Venuti-driven attempts to foreignize, the ethnography of translation and conflict, the effort to recover and valorize non-Western and non-modern theories of translation—boils down to ethics. What does one human being, one gender, one culture, or one time period owe to another? And incidentally, what do publishers owe to translators, and what do both owe to readers? Even self-proclaimed “posthumanist” thinking has not succeeded in eliminating the assumption that there is some cultural “Other” or personal “Thou” to whom a debt is owed—and I believe it is misguided to try.
Metaphors for translation could form a whole subfield of translation studies. The concepts are kin, of course: trans/lation is meta/phor, carried across from Greek to Latin. John Dryden, for instance, uses an amazing range of imagery in his translator’s prefaces. In class, our blackboard filled up with stick-figure sketches of debts and gifts, counterfeit coins, borrowed robes, spirits evaporating in transfusion, painters drawing from life, and, famously, an overliteral formal verse translator tightrope-dancing “with fettered legs.”
Others use a different figurative palette. In the first year I taught the seminar, the images that predominated were of grisly crime. Ortega y Gasset, in his classic essay “On the Misery and Splendor of Translation,” set the tone; in an essay based on a dialogue from an academic colloquium, he describes his “disguised monologue” to a French audience as “something like a rape.” Why should a conversation about people trying to understand each other be a rape? Other violent imagery followed. Diana Der Hovanessian, translating the murdered Armenian poet Daniel Varoujian, spoke movingly of the triple “debtor’s prison” of obligations to the author, the poem, and the reader. Vladimir Nabokov demeaned both himself and his translator colleagues in pigeonshit deference to Pushkin:
What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head.
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter
and profanation of the dead. (etc.)
Nabokov attacked his predecessors, notably Walter Arndt’s successful verse translation: “‘Rhyme’ rhymes with ‘crime,’ when Homer or Hamlet are rhymed.” Arndt in turn charged Nabokov with “sad ritual murder performed for the purposes of an ever more insatiable lexical necrophilia.” As my students played with their own bridge translations of one Onegin stanza, trying to replicate the dancing tetrameter and intricate rhymes (abab, ccdd, effe, and, snap!, gg) and figure out what to do with the French inside Pushkin’s Russian, we paused to puzzle over all this violence. What was at stake?
The second year, for whatever reason, the violence receded. Instead, the guiding metaphor was love. Novelist and translator Sinan Antoon, lecturing on translation as elegy, spoke of the need to mourn a beloved author even while inhabiting and reviving a widowed text. Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet who has translated Mahmoud Darwish’s late work and Ramallah-based poet Ghassan Zaqtan, described trying to silence his own ego to hear another poet’s voice. Harvard undergraduate senior Aisha Down recalled long days at the kitchen table of Cambodian poet Tararith Kho, eating Khmer food and asking questions about the nuances of Kho’s Buddhist-inflected protest poems before re-presenting them for her American audience: “If you say the word suffering too many times, people will stop listening. It’s like Kenneth Rexroth said, you translate through your own heart.” George Kalogeris, in a deeply humane if controversial response to an earlier poet, smuggled some anachronistic “aunts/ carrying their trays of pastry covered in tinfoil”—Kalogeris’s own bustling Greek-American aunts!—into Pessoa’s reminiscences of a big-house childhood. Finally, the renowned Shahnameh translator Dick Davis, defending his choice to tackle the lively female-dominated Vis and Ramin ahead of weightier Persian classics, figured translation as a ventriloquist’s act (“you have to try to make your own voice disappear as much as possible – it will come through anyway!”) but also confessed: “I translate the things I love, not the things I admire. Otherwise . . . it’s like making love to a woman you don’t like. It’s just — ‘No, this is not going to work.’”
Even as sharp a critic as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was suddenly seen writing of love, advising the “earned intimacy” of surrender. Her ethics of translation became an erotics, describing translation (in a much-quoted but oft-misunderstood essay) as “the most intimate act of reading”:
The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.
For my class, half of them undergraduate seniors born the very year Spivak’s essay was published (1992), the cultural studies argument about non-European women seems dated. In my students’ world (at least for the more sophisticated!) the postcolonial outlook is a fait accompli. Important concepts are always already plural (cultures, canons, meanings) and usually also in scare quotes. They are ready for headier postcolonial puzzles, such as Jason Grunebaum poses in his lively essay, “Which English for Hindi?” What is new and challenging about Spivak’s essay, for them, is not the claim that non-Western women have truly creative selves, but the (perhaps politically conservative) psychoanalytic claim that there is a self at all, and it has edges; this grounds Spivak’s demand that a would-be translator “earn that right of friendship, of surrender of identity” necessary for an effective translation of minority texts.
Minority status may be a red herring. Thinking people are in a minority always and everywhere; every true intellectual is, in some sense, a culture of one. Hans Erich Nossack, in a brief and moving essay that closed our semester, pointed to a secret brotherhood, a “feeling of citizenship in literature as a supranational and antinational and, one might add, ahistorical community.” True, writers from certain gender backgrounds or geographies or literary cultures face a steeper road to be recognized as artists, sovereign users and re-molders of their language, not battlefield rapporteurs but full brothers or sisters in the community of literature. That is a problem, but not the deepest.
The real difficulty is how to surrender. Love, unless guided by proper technique, can lead to terrible injustice. Think of another failed relationship: Shakespeare’s Othello. Was it an intercultural misunderstanding that divided Othello from his wife and ultimately his own reason? A supersubtle Venetian translation error? Or was it just as much an interpersonal error, a misconstruction born of loving “not wisely but too well”?
Love may be the best motive for translation, but as a technique it will not suffice. The better guide is tact. For the student adrift between narcissism (everything should be “relatable”) and stamp-collecting (each thing is particular), a translation assignment is a rare opportunity to silence your ego for a while and practice the ethics of an interpersonal craft. Treat your source text respectfully, as you would introduce an international friend to your parents or friends at home. Playfully, yes, but also acknowledging some distances and silences, refusing to occlude the source text or pretend to understand all its games. It may not click. The magical connection—that elusive embrace on the metro—may never happen. But at least you will loosen your own blinkers for a moment, and come out with a story to tell.