I can’t resist noting that I’m writing this essay about translating a text that takes place on board an American Airlines flight—while on board an American Airlines flight. Which feels right, given that Francis Nenik writes fiction that often heightens, deepens, mocks, outdoes, and overdoes its own real-world inspiration. Those who’ve read Nenik’s Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping, for example, are already familiar with his practice of developing dramatic voice-driven pieces of fiction based closely on nonfiction sources. But when I first read “In Praise of an American Egg Wholesaler,” I thought that it was simply some bombastic absurdist fun. As I initially imagined it:
“Now Nemik.” Mr Petersime would say.
“Nenik. Francis.” Francis, of course.
“Francis. This time you’ve taken it too far!”
“You said it!”
Given what I know about Francis, it should have come as no surprise when he then sent me photocopies of historical poultry-industry publications more or less outlining the major plot points, setting, and characters of this presumed flight of fancy:
Click the image above to read the full article.
Here you have the challenge of translating Francis’s work laid out clearly before you: you must recreate utterly realistic, utterly outrageous voices that are by turn grave and hilarious, but always unquestionably authentic. While their grounding may be in fact, Francis’s pieces often unfurl in what turn out to be alternate worlds that share certain historical characteristics with our own, parallel worlds, fraternal worlds born of the same egg (or 55,800 of them). It is not always easy to be sure precisely which reality it is that you are trying to stay true to.
The answer is ultimately: the reality of the voice. Francis will make you hear voices, that’s for sure. You could call it the voice(s) of god, creating worlds. Normally that particular analogy would be a bit patriarchal for my tastes, but the alternate universe we find ourselves in is a hypermasculine one. And indeed, performing hypermasculinity is another of the many challenges given to any translator of Francis Nenik. The typical Nenikian character is a failed, potential, or wannabe hero; his role in the story represents neither a celebration nor evisceration of his masculinity, rather something more of a fond but knowing send-up. The lady-translator clears her throat and straightens her tie:
Translation-as-acting is a tired trope, but I have found translation-as-drag to be a useful analogy when creating these voices. A drag performer’s character is hyperbolically gendered, to the point of grotesqueness; a drag queen is as glamorous as a supermodel, but she also highlights the repulsive falseness of mainstream conceptions of female beauty. Similarly, the translator-king must swagger through this story with an unflagging self-assuredness, while winking at the egomaniacal violence of his posture. It takes heuvos. (There are certainly reams of commentary to be written about the idea of manly mid-century Americans more or less inseminating Europe with eggs. But that’s another essay.)
Oddly enough, what didn’t present any difficulty in translating this piece was its humor, which functions, nearly down to the word, precisely in German as it does in English (with the notable exception of a certain palabra). As long as I focused on staying in character, the comedic aspects survived the transfer unadulterated, which, in the world of the piece, we can consider a happy exception.