WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
For April’s installment, Jennifer Croft passed the baton to Corine Tachtiris.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I translate from French and Czech. Through most of my undergraduate and graduate studies, I studied almost exclusively Francophone literature, especially from the Caribbean. This was just after the height of Créolité, a movement where Creole is fused within the French language in innovative ways. That kind of originality was what kept me studying French past the language requirement, but funnily enough, it also meant that I couldn’t always put my finger on the deviations from “standard” French since most literature I’d read was from the Caribbean, and it had become the norm to me. It wasn’t until I later lived a few years in France and then taught in French departments that I got a good sense of metropolitan French.
I came to Czech much later, in the second year of my MFA. It was a very traditional Slavic style of learning, memorizing grammar and somewhat pedantic conversations. When I moved to Prague after that, my Czech teacher was confused that I could decline just about any noun, pronoun, or adjective but didn’t know the word for “milk.” The second time I lived in Prague, I had a Czech roommate and brought my dog with me, both of which helped my spoken Czech enormously. When you have a dog in Prague, everyone wants to chat with you. Now that I’m in the States, my dog’s the only one I speak Czech to, unfortunately.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
I don’t believe anything is untranslatable. I’m amused by the blog posts going around right now with “twelve untranslatable words” or whatever, because they give a word in a foreign language and then say what it means in English, which is essentially a translation, even if not the most elegant one.
But I can speak to one of the challenges I’m facing now in translating a Czech experimental novella called Dark Love by Alexandra Berková. It’s from the perspective of a woman speaking to a psychoanalyst to work through an abusive childhood and marriage, and her trauma manifests itself as a mania with language. Certain words or constructions are repeated obsessively, so one of the puzzles has been finding a word in English that fits nicely—both in terms of meaning as well as rhythm and sound—into every context in which the Czech word reappears. I’m also trying to make clear etymological and grammatical relationships, for example between adverbs with regular endings, not unlike –ly in English, as opposed to irregular adverbs. The process of translating Dark Love has resulted in my own obsession with language, and I’ve had to start a log of my choices to keep track of them.
Do you have any translating rituals?
I still prefer to use my old, taped-up print dictionaries rather than online ones. Partly I just enjoy the tactile nature of it, thumbing through the pages, seeing the smudges where my fingers have run repeatedly over the leaves. But I also find that it helps me to contextualize words etymologically. I can scan up and down the page to see related words and also skim through all the usages and idioms. Dictionaries are happy rabbit holes for getting lost in a language.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
While I’ve found that metaphors can be a useful tool for thinking through translation, I also believe that they often obscure the translation process or render it somehow mystical. It’s always been important to me to bring theory and practice together to develop a clear articulation of the translation process. This means that when I teach translation workshops, my students are never allowed to use those traditional metaphors of remaining “faithful” to the “spirit” of the text without saying exactly to what in the text they are claiming allegiance or identifying exactly how they think the “spirit” of the text functions. And please, let’s just have a ten-year moratorium on saying “lost” or “found” in translation.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
Thanks to a PEN/Heim Grant and starting a stable job, I’m finally able to devote myself to Dark Love. I’m also working on some of Berková’s short stories, which run the gamut from absurdist political satire to bittersweet tales of puppy love to experimental Decameron-inspired meditations on a world gone mad. In Dark Love, that kind of range happens in the course of one page. Berková’s writing is so rich and varied, I never get bored.
(Jennifer Crofts’s question for you) To what extent is translation a political act for you, and how does this impact your translation practice?
This is an excellent question that has been preoccupying me more and more. I see any creative cultural production as inherently political in that it reinforces or resists unequal power structures to varying degrees, consciously or not. So I try to be as conscious and conscientious as I can in making ethical political choices in my translation practice.
This is why I focus on women authors, who we know are sorely underrepresented in translation, as well as Haitian literature, to provide narratives that counter negative stereotypes. I’m interested in Berková as one of the few Czech authors to consider herself a feminist, but it’s more nuanced than that, because her feminism is not the same as American feminism, and so I try to be careful not to insert my ideas about what a feminist stance means into her texts.
My main interest right now is around translating race. Looking back at old translations I had done, I noticed how I had often undermined the political project of authors of color by opting for more politically correct race words, what I call “the timidity of the white translator,” the same way that whites are often timid about entering into real and uncomfortable dialogue around race. I’m trying to push against that now in my practice, and I’m doing research for a book that brings together translation studies with critical race studies, which is surprisingly uncommon. Years ago, my professor Frieda Ekotto proposed we work on a retranslation of Jean Genet’s play Les Nègres, and I also think the time is right to take up that project. I would love to get it staged.
Corine Tachtiris is Assistant Professor of World/Non-Western Literature at Antioch College and previously taught translation theory and practice at Hampshire College, Kalamazoo College, and the Université Paris Diderot. She holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan. She translates mainly contemporary women authors from the Czech Republic, Haiti, and Francophone Africa. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Matter, B O D Y, The Stockholm Review, Metamorphoses, and Transference, among others.