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A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan

Published in Issue 51

What is it like to live day-to-day as a translator? What are the worries and the stresses, the pleasures and the reliefs? How does a translator get by, and where do her projects fit into the rest of her life? In this new year-long feature, translator Emma Ramdan gives us some answers by keeping an open diary about a year her life.

January
I ring in the New Year with a rare feeling: relief. At the end of December I finally receive some long-awaited paychecks and finish off 2017 with money in the bank. I feel like I’m in a good place. I can pay my bills, I can buy a decent bottle of champagne for my friend’s New Year’s party, my fiancé, Tom, has a friend in town and we can go out to dinner with him without tearing our hair out.
This lasts about two days.
Then the relief of a few projects wrapping up turns into panic over not having enough new projects lined up for the year to come. At the end of 2017, I signed a contract for a project that had been a dream roughly ten years in the making. Truly—ten years! The author I first read in a high school French class, who inspired me to translate so I could one day translate her work. I was finally going to translate her work.
In 2017 I achieved a few other goals I thought it would take me another decade to achieve—translating with some of the people and for some of the presses I admire most—and yet, the amount of time I let myself appreciate and fully enjoy these accomplishments is so short, quickly flooded by the anxiety of needing to do more. I immediately set new goals, ridiculous goals, goals lofty and unattainable enough to guarantee that I won’t have to face up to this strange feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction again so soon. And then I get back to work. I spend the first few days of 2018 drawing up a list of questions to ask the author of one of the books I’m working on: Have I misunderstood this expression? What poem is being referenced here? Is this word just a word, or is there a particular significance to the choice?
This business of literary translation, so lacking in glory, for most is a labor of pure love, the benefits mainly consisting in the connections you form with the writers you translate, and the people you meet along the way. But there is also a lot of jealousy and possessiveness. Some translators seek to own “their” authors. Some try to “possess” entire regions of the world. At best it’s illogical, and at worst it’s extremely problematic. I do not understand it. But I run up against it all the time.
I’ve been bullied by other translators. When I’ve been given grants, male translators have texted not to congratulate me but to tell me all the reasons why they think they didn’t receive the grant. On top of the sexism, there are more prosaic concerns, like my pitches going unresponded to by overworked publishers. Like translators in general, I’m typically underpaid, and I’m usually not paid at all until I nudge and nudge in email after email. Yet each time I follow up on overdue payment, I feel immediate guilt and regret: I shouldn’t have sent that. They’re going to think I’m obnoxious, demanding, they’ll never work with me again. Then I seesaw back: No, screw that. They entered into a contract to pay me this money and it’s unfair that they’ve put me in a position where I have to beg for it. It’s demeaning. It’s draining.
I spent most of last year wondering why I insist on putting myself through it, frequently vowing never to pitch projects again. But to combat all that, I have a crew of female translators I can always talk to. And there are lots of other benefits beyond professional solidarity: I get to co-translate with my fiancé and some other incredible people, watch how their brains work. I’ve formed strong relationships with many of the authors I’ve translated. When I travel, there’s usually a translator I’ve met at some conference that I can grab coffee with. And that’s something not many other professions can offer.
My fiancé and I opened a bookstore and bar, Riffraff, in December. My life is chaos; I hardly sleep, I eat terribly, and I’m in a constant haze of knowing I have a million things to do without having the brainpower to actually do any of them. I spend most of my time in the store making to-do lists, and occasionally when there’s a quiet moment I’ll cross some small things off. But I can’t dip in and out of translating. It needs my full attention. And so I haven’t actually translated anything in months. One of my favorite people I’ve met through Riffraff is our coffee rep. It turns out she translates Latin in her spare time. I didn’t think it was possible for me to like her any more than I already did.
It seems there will never be an end to the ongoing Vegetarian-gate. Reviews picking apart Deborah Smith’s translation from the Korean of the novel The Vegetarian keep coming out, all saying the same thing: the translator was not true to the voice of the original, Korean readers are not happy. And then the onslaught of translators shouting down the reviewers and standing up for the translator. I’m torn on all of it. On the one hand, it’s very tiresome. Everyone has different ideas of what qualifies as a “good” translation. The point has been made. On the other hand, I find it really troubling that the second a bad review of a translation comes out, it seems everyone in the translation community rushes to condemn the reviewer. I was supposed to review a translation this month, but truly disliked the book. I thought the story was extremely dull, and the writing style wasn’t interesting enough to make up for it. Rather than negatively (read: honestly) review the book, my immediate instinct was not to review it at all, and this instinct was encouraged by others, too. And so I didn’t. But aren’t we allowed to write honest reviews without fear of translators yelling at us over social media? Without fear of burning bridges with publishing houses or other literary organizations? Why is it that anyone who dares write a negative review of a popular translation becomes a target? This is a problem. Or is it? Should we only positively review translations so that we lift the boat of translations in general? Should we all form a pact to refrain from reviewing translations we don’t like? Shouldn’t translations be able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English? To paraphrase Rafia Zakaria’s recent article in The Baffler, “In Praise of Negative Reviews,” if “everything is good… nothing at all is good.”
I tried to finish all my translation projects before we opened Riffraff because I knew I wouldn’t have any time to do them once the business was up and running. I worked my ass off during the spring and summer to finish translating and polishing everything I was working on. In December, Tom and I were both at Riffraff sixteen hours a day most days. Now in January, Tom and I start to find a balance, give each other hours off here and there. In the precious free moments I have in the morning to sleep, shower, get groceries, answer a million emails, the idea of doing any productive translation work seems impossible. Three manuscripts I submitted months earlier are all sent back to me with edits in the same week—the week Riffraff opens. The editors all want the edits back two weeks later. I have one day off a week in which to read through edits on three full-length translations (and do everything else I need to do). I spend every other day thinking about how I have one day off a week in which to read through edits on three full-length translations (and do everything else I need to do). Somehow, I do it.
A few weeks later, another round of edits comes in for the same projects.
February
For one of my translation projects, the writer has used odd, and seemingly “incorrect” punctuation throughout the book. The editor’s inclination is to fix the punctuation. I’m against it. But this is an extremely knowledgeable editor I’ve long wanted to work with, and so I feel guilty disagreeing. But I make my impassioned plea, saying that this weird punctuation is integral to the author’s style. But the author is dead, so I can’t ask him. I turn to the author’s daughter for confirmation. She has no idea whether the punctuation is purposeful or not. I feel silly. Have I been arguing for the paramount importance of missing periods when really it was just a printing error? My confidence is shattered. My impassioned plea suddenly seems shameful. I rush to doubt myself. Then his daughter finds the original manuscript. Confirmed: odd punctuation.
This was the first time I had translated a book by a dead author. In 2017 I also translated two living authors I had no contact with whatsoever. It’s a strange experience. It sucks the life out of the work in a certain way. One of the biggest benefits of translating for me is forming a connection with the author. When the author is out of the picture, it’s just me and the text (and my go-to French friends, whom I ask sometimes for help digging up expressions). It’s much more solitary. It’s not that I’m looking for validation or gratitude or even a lifelong friend as much as I’m looking for something beyond the page.
Then again, sometimes that comes in the form of the author’s daughter. Or even a really good editor. For a translation of Virginie Despentes’s Les Jolies Choses, I had the chance to work very closely with an excellent editor at Feminist Press, Lauren Hook. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book and we spoke the lines aloud to each other over the course of two long phone calls to figure out how a 20-something year old woman would say certain things. She helped turn my language grittier. She changed my hells to fucks, my butts to asses. I’m extremely grateful to have such good edits. With a translation, there’s double pressure: to do a good job for your own reputation, and, more importantly, to do justice to the author. The weight of both of those things is a constant presence.
I feel that pressure most acutely when it comes to translating wordplay. If an author has come up with an incredible feat of words in his or her text, to lose that feels more than simply disappointing or frustrating—it feels like a failure. In Les Jolies Choses, a woman watches a porno titled J’ai de la chatte, which translates literally to I’ve got (some) pussy, but is also an expression meaning I’m lucky. I made a list of relatively subpar suggestions of possible English titles, including Honey Pot, Lady Business, Getting Lucky. I had one idea that I thought was decently clever: Snatched. But the recent Amy Schumer movie of the same title took that off the table. Heroically, Lauren came up with Luck Be Two Ladies—our winner.
I’ve been on a co-translating kick lately. Tom and I are translating a book together. I thought it would be this stupidly romantic experience. The two of us sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, a lamp on somewhere, each sipping from glasses of whiskey, translating from the same book, bouncing ideas off of each other, reading sentences aloud to make sure our voices are aligned. But really it plays out like this: I do the entire first draft of the translation on my own, sweating in a plastic chair in my bedroom all day every day for three months straight in our 94-degree apartment, while Tom does basically all of the build-out of our bookstore/bar. It’s a messy first draft. I’m counting on Tom’s second draft to turn it into proper English. But turns out owning a business is hard—who knew? We barely have time to sleep and prepare meals for ourselves, let alone edit a 300-page translation. But there’s something about this book; it’s awoken something in us. The language grips you and pulls you into another world. And so despite it all, we are finding ways to give it all we’ve got.
The National Book Foundation announces a translation prize. Translation world is alight on Twitter. Hooray hooray. This is a good thing for translators and presses that publish translations—right? Right. Except, maybe not. As I learn from listening to the Three Percent Podcast, these prizes generally have entry fees that would prohibit small presses from entering more than one or two of their books, if any. If the book makes it into the finalists, the press is then generally expected to pay for the author and translator to attend the awards ceremony. Suddenly a small publisher is faced with having to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars—and the book might not even win. Unless these fees are waived, the small presses coming out with some of the most interesting books in translation might not have the means to enter, and the prize will effectively favor the bigger houses. So who’s really benefitting here? Maybe the National Book Foundation will find a way to level the playing field for the smaller presses. Time will tell.
I’ve said it before: I don’t mind a negative review of a translation. But there is such a thing as a bad review of a translation, as in, a detrimental way to review a translation. For example: saying you “forgot” you were reading a translation as if it’s the highest compliment you can give the translator or the book. This would seem to imply that there is something inherently bad about being aware that you’re reading a translation. Aren’t the slight differences in the ways various languages use words and grammar valuable, interesting, worth reflecting on? Don’t we read translations because we understand there is more to learn about writing and language than what English-language authors can offer us?
There was a lovely review this month of a book I translated, that nevertheless made me very uncomfortable in its treatment of the book as a translation. The reviewer praised the author’s writing style and gorgeous sentences, then gave the caveat that the book is in translation, and said she was comforted to see on the cover of the book that the author had played a part in the translation. I’m guessing the reviewer didn’t realize that this kind of collaboration between the translator and the author is very typical: I translated the book, and the author generously took the time to read through my translation and offer comments and suggestions, some of which were incorporated into the end product. This happens all the time, but it’s not often acknowledged on the cover. Does this mean that any book that doesn’t have an author-co-translator-credit on the cover (99.999% of translations) should be called into question? What about translations where the author is dead, or where the author and translator had no contact? Should these books be read with skepticism? I don’t think this reviewer meant to cast aspersions on my translating abilities. But it’s language like this that subtly undermines the work of translators and reinforces the idea of translation as something that distorts the reading experience, of translation as a dirty word. As translators we do everything in our power to write sentences in English that reflect the author’s style as closely as possible, to convey to readers the beauty and power in the texts that made us want to translate them in the first place. The only reason we are in this profession is because we love the works we translate. The reviewer’s words get under my skin.
I sit in a car for thirty minutes with two fellow female translators. We’re outside one of their houses and she is supposed to get out of the car and go home but we’re caught up in a moment of female solidarity and support, and we know those moments are to be seized whenever possible. They reassure me that there are other people in this profession who are in it for the same reasons I am: an honest love of translating and connecting to others. I imagine a network of lady translators swapping secrets in cars across various cities.
My one day off, a Monday. I’m trying to translate. The cats are meowing. The day slips away. The one quiet room in the house is dark and I won’t translate in the dark.
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she is the co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of an NEA translation fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and a Fulbright scholarship to Morocco. Her forthcoming translations include Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, The Shutters by Ahmed Bouanani, and Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent.
Published in Issue 51

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W. Somerset Maugham

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