My grandmother, my mother, myself—we are a daisy chain of readers, a coil of translators, a broken chain of writers.
My grandmother, Margherita, would pounce on the romances published serially in Il Progresso. She would clip each installment, and, one by one, sew the pages together to make a scroll. She would not read a single episode until she possessed the entire story. Once she did, she would gather up her scroll and head to the home of an elderly Sicilian neighbor whose eyesight was failing. He and his wife would be ready and waiting, the round wooden dining table laid with bowls of fruit, plates of provolone, and little glasses of red wine. Margherita would unfurl her pages, and read aloud through the whole afternoon.
Carmella, my mother’s sister, also loves romances and also has failing eyesight. But no matter: she is constantly attached to her Books for the Blind; at the age of 95, she cooks and cleans and does the laundry with a story literally lodged in her ear.
In my own first memories of books, my mother and I are physically joined by reading. I have only to think of it, and my back slightly prickles at the sense memory of being nestled against my mother’s chest, her cheek near my cheek, my arms on her arms, helping to steady the book. She had a nimble and musical way of reading, which I’m told I would imitate, when she left me to “read,” and turn the pages, which I did perfectly, on my own.
I wonder if that exquisite closeness—that sharing of words and incident, of music and movement, of hands pointing together on a page, isn’t part of the reason I became a translator. As my mother would later demonstrate, there was adventure galore in the enterprise. A family’s well-being could hang on a particular string of words, a sentence whose clauses are slippery, whose knots could be used for a noose. What is accuracy? What most needs to come across, and for whose benefit? What do we mean when we say, Original? Respectful? Slavish? Can wrong be an honest mistake, causing little or no harm, or is it always treacherous? Long before I turned my hand to translating literature, I was embroiled in these questions.
I was a child when I first witnessed the artful braiding of lies and loyalties in an act of translation. It was days after the death of my maternal grandfather, whose second marriage was so unhappy his daughters believed it hastened his end. At issue was Margherita’s sewing machine, with which Anna, Pop’s widow, had made, or repaired, clothing for all of us. When she announced that she’d be taking the sewing machine (a holy family relic) back with her to Sicily, my mother erupted in a volcano of moral rage. Ah, so Judas wants his piece of the cross! Anna and my mother spewed dialect that was sharp as broken glass. I listened, with utter shock, then fascination, as my mother mistranslated their conversation for my father, giving herself a moral edge a mile wide. She didn’t completely lie; more often, she made a subtler shift—of emphasis, detail, tone. I saw her string tightly the words in a sentence, when Anna had actually loosened the thread of the argument, using an ornamental verbal clasp. I couldn’t say whether my mother was wrong or right: the sewing machine was rightfully hers; yet the words she rendered as Anna’s were not. My mother’s own speech was baroque, ceremonial, and legalistic; I wonder still if it was the blistering occasion, the grief beyond words, the fact that Italian wasn’t her first language (on this she insisted: she was born here), though she was mighty fluent, or because she was having a greatly terrible (or terribly great) time. My father was dazzled by her performance. We all were. Everyone got what they legally deserved, and some got more—I, for instance, got a translator’s motherlode. And the sewing machine stayed with us.
Literary translation came to me as a series of gifts, beginning with a revered college professor who suggested I “English” T.S. Eliot’s little French poems. The Waste Land, they certainement are not, but the exercise got me hooked. Once I got to France for my junior year abroad, I started translating every French poem I was attracted to. I did so out of sheer seduction, confusion (what do these lines want to say?), intoxicated ignorance (I want to learn more!)—a kind of hunger. I wanted both shelter and catapault—French words as a welcoming nest, French meanings to send me flying. Soon enough, I started in with Catalan, then Spanish and Ladino. For me, as a young person living and traveling abroad, translation was part of a grand adventure. Just ask Keats about “first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Without leaving my desk, or setting out beyond the stacks of a library, I could explore places and epochs, forms and sonorities that were, at least to me, all but undiscovered. In these “realms of gold,” words, precious words, were the shining currency.
More often than not, I was introduced, or led to texts and writers, by mentors and friends: by an expat Egyptologist then living in Barcelona; by my first Catalan boyfriend who gifted me with a leather-bound volume of Antonio Machado and took me to Collioure to meet the family in whose house the poet and his ancient mother had died, after their long march into France from civil war-torn Spain; by a language teacher at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans who sent me to Perpignan (under Franco, it was the capital of Catalan publishing) to meet the poet Pere Verdaguer and carry back—as contraband, on the overnight bus—the massive Catalan poetry anthology he had just edited. For the whole of that dark, bumpy ride through the province of Llerida and into Barcelona, I sat holding one bookbag in my lap, another between my ankles, and a third propped up in the adjacent seat by the window, as though it might like to look out at the night.
My first professional translation likewise came to me through friendship, generosity, and a blind wager on my skills. I was working for James Leverett at Theater Communications Group, when the scholar Elinor Fuchs came to visit her dear friend, and to ask if he knew of anyone who might be able to translate a French play for the first international anthology of Holocaust drama, which, as he knew, she was in the process of putting together.
He pointed to me, and she said, Great!
The play in question was Liliane Atlan’s Monsieur Fugue, which had won a number of awards in Europe and Israel. A surreal, poetic Artaudian drama inspired by Janosh Korczak, (a teacher in the Warsaw ghetto, who forewent the chance to save himself in order to accompany 200 children on their journey to Treblinka), it was an exciting challenge. Atlan, a Parisian descended of Jews from Salonika, was hidden during the war by employees of her industrialist father; she wrote French infused with the resonances of Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish. Her other plays (two of which I also translated for publication) arose from Liliane’s immersion in the study of Kabbala, Talmud, the Prophets, and the Pentateuch. My guide was the late Bettina Knapp, a prolific scholar of 20th century French theatre and literature, the first, and still most formidable, critic to write about Atlan. Several mornings a week, I would walk over to the Knapp’s beautiful, art-filled apartment, where I would read my pages out loud. Bettiina would ply me with warm bread and pastries, berries and coffee, then listen like the sage she truly was—now praising, now scolding, now squinting, even pinching my arm when something really pleased her. Bettina wrote the extended introduction to our volume of three of Liliane’s plays (which included The Messiahs and The Carriage of Flames and Voices); Fuchs also published Mister Fugue in her anthology. This was all quite heady, especially since Liliane, seizing the occasion of U.S. publication, revised parts of The Messiahs, which, like the other plays, was originally published by Gallimard. “Your translations will be definitive!” she announced. Every few days, I would get an airmail envelope with marked-up xeroxes from the Gallimard volumes, and entirely new manuscript pages. Every time I thought we were “finished,” she would suddenly have a whole new thought—one which might involve something as small as a comma, or as a long as an entire passage. It was thrilling.
There was something maternal about this enterprise—but motherly in a way I’d never conceived. Well acquainted I certainly was with high-strung, unrelenting encouragement to “do your best, then better than your best,” as my mother used to say. But these women, Liliane and Bettina had something else: internationally recognized brilliance; avant-garde predilections; learned immersion in ancient civilizations; and long lists of publications (Bettina would write over fifty books). They were worldly and well-traveled (especially Bettina, who knew India, Japan, Borneo, and Sumatra); they looked far out into the world and wrote about issues of profound importance.
My relationship with Liliane became very complicated. She was about my mother’s age; she too was small, dark, intense, and exotic. She was surprising and seductive (it was she who first took me to the punk rock club CBGB); she showered me with praise and affection, but she was also possessive (“For your own good,” she would tell me, “you don’t understand the importance of your talent.”) In a myriad of subtle ways, I confessed that I myself was writing, and could not spend the rest of my life exclusively translating her work. Things came to a head when she brought me her massive opera, conceived to be performed simultaneously at sites around the world, with technology that was as yet untried in the theatre. As a concept, it was amazing—practically, I couldn’t get my head around it. If the text had been shorter by, say, 600 pages, I might have stayed on. But I couldn’t. And she, in the face of producers who were impressed but ultimately resistant, became almost messianic about the production, whose coming, as the ancient sages put it, “tarried.”
When, finally, she realized I was serious about bowing out, she tried to bury me with guilt, resentment, and encoded rage. After a particularly difficult evening, Liliane phoned early the next morning to say, “I’ve been wrong all along! You aren’t made for the literary life—you were born to be a wife and mother, to stay home with your dear little chickens. Ma petite chérie, she crooned, pardonne-moi, je te prie, pardonne-moi, ma chérie. That, needless to say, marked the sad end of our friendship. We both felt wounded, even betrayed, at the hands of the other; even then, I knew that neither of us had intended any harm. I did indeed feel guilty—compared with Liliane, I was a cosseted, fledgling writer; who was I to assert myself? My self? What self? Explore my history? What history?
That my father’s cousin, a beloved touchstone in my life, had been saved from certain death in Nazi-Occupied Paris by a Catholic family in Perigueux had undergirded the intensity of my work on Liliane’s plays—but still, at that young age, I was haunted: What kind of future could I expect to have, if I cut myself off from my betters? The question ricocheted in my head in Liliane’s many voices. It all felt too familiar. I had to flee—the only way I could quiet those voices in my head was to write. Liliane would eventually move to Israel, where she was active, esteemed, and productive. The poems she wrote in the final years of her life are profoundly beautiful. I was gratified to translate and publish them. But it was only because I’d separated from Liliane that I could do so. And I’ve been happy to collaborate with her son and daughter who are doing a beautiful job in assembling the complete record of her publications, productions, talks, and activities.
Most of the writers I’ve translated have been women. And, in every case, we were introduced by mutual female colleagues and friends. The connections were sometimes far-flung—Buenos Aires, for instance, by way of Paris, Rosario by way of the Upper East Side. It has not been lost on me that the writers with whom I’ve had major involvements have all been about the same age as my mother, and also been dark-haired, dark-eyed, and determined, to put it mildly. In every case, I have had eventually to curb, or even curtail, the intense friendship that developed—friendship based, I later realized, on the expectation that my life’s work would be the translation of their life’s work. Oddly enough, years later another writer whose work for a limited time I translated, also taunted me with domesticity—Have kids! All my young writer friends are having babies! You should too, you’ll be happier. She herself had three grown children. Did she suspect that I’d been struggling with infertility? That biology had doomed my chances of being a mother? For a time, and probably unfairly, I resented her, as though she’d known.
Even after I’d established myself as a writer, I was beset by conflict. Who was I, gifted with the confidence of a South American writer whose work was, in the true sense, prophetic, and whose conduct was impeccable during the kind of repression that breeds treachery, to turn away for the sake of a book project inspired by my exposure to her texts and example? The only way I could possibly justify myself was to allow my obsession with Argentina to take over my life, and to write the deepest, most thorough and articulate book I could (A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture). And though the long hiatus in my being her translator caused real tension, neither of us withdrew from our friendship.
Although I’d translated numerous literary works forged from horror, I had never before directly translated traumatic testimony. Even after years of doing primary research with former captives and relatives of desaparecidos, I was unprepared for the ordeal of listening back to my recordings of our meetings, of intimate accounts of torture playing literally in my ear. I had to take those words into my own body, let them into my mind and heart and spirit, and then translate them—carry them over—to readers who never « knew » that person, but who, I hoped against hope, would never forget them.
I’ve come to know that, in the practice of this art, I have been “carried over.: Carried over to new places, not just beyond myself, but within. Je est un autre, says Rimbaud, referring to the narrative I. We also have a readerly Je, or I, who is an other—multiple others invited to the surface by the power of the text before our eyes. I’ve often felt that, as a writer, I’m “just me;” translating, I get to be many writers, with recourse to histories, voices, forms, vocabularies, allusions, and styles I don’t have on my own. I get to do things that wouldn’t otherwise occur to me. The tension between originality and indebtedness can be exquisite, but is, I think, overstressed. We are formed by what and how we read, by how deeply we take in the words and thoughts of others. Translating is wondrous: in writing someone else’s text, you write something original. The texts—and sometimes the authors–are at once joined and separate, contending and cooperating in the agon toward mutual illumination.
Translation creates readers and learners, witnesses, writers and teachers. When things are really cooking, we get to be all these things at once. I half knew this when I started translating, but I really know it now, and it’s one of the sustaining joys of my life.
Marguerite Feitlowitz translates from French and Spanish. Original fiction appears in the current PANK; her new translations of poetry by Ennio Moltedo were featured in the January 2019 issues of World Literature Today and Asymptote; recent essays & interviews on teaching translation are found at Words Without Borders and Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. She is at work on Moments of Return: Collected Stories of Luisa Valenzuela and As One Would Chisel Diamonds: Collected Poems of Liliane Atlan. Feitlowitz teaches Literature and Literary Translation at Bennington College where she’s the Founding Director of Bennington Translates.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.