The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

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MAR 2016 Issue

Translating Oneself


Dear Will*,

I know already what your response to this letter will be:  that my time is too valuable to be spent speculating about the exact type of irony that is evident in my undertaking this latest translation project.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel your clear understanding of the situation I am now in will enhance our relationship both professionally and personally.  I am trying to think of an analogy between my own predicament as translator/writer and one you might experience yourself as a literary agent, but I find myself at a loss since I do not believe that the kind of impersonation—to put it more strongly, displacement of personality—that I am engaged in might ever present itself to you.  Perhaps if you were an actor and literary agent and cast in the role of literary agent (playing one of your colleagues, it is important to note, whom you personally despised) that may come close.   However, since you are neither an aspiring actor nor an actual actor—and since this analogy in itself is lacking--I find that while worth mentioning, it is probably best left merely as a weak point of reference that you may or may not find useful in your attempts at understanding the depth and complexity of my current situation.

That there may be variations of success (particularly from a financial standpoint) that I have yet to achieve as a writer of literary fiction, I am aware.  However, what is not open to debate is the fact of my success in those areas I have chosen to make priorities:  I have not only received the highest praise from critics in the albeit somewhat small circle of the “mini-novel,” or, more exactly, the “experimental mini-novel,” as well as from reviewers in many Canadian papers, but my work—whenever is it finished--is consistently published by the premier English language literary publishing house in Canada.

Translating has long been a way not only for me to earn a few extra pennies, but a subject of more than a passing theoretical interest to me.  In addition to having a knowledge of over seventeen languages—and being one of only two translators in North America working in the little known Saterland Frisian—I have written several essays on the importance of the translator in three distinct spheres:  first, making important texts available to those who are not fortunate enough to be conversant in the language in which certain works were originally written—this is the communicative function; secondly as a language artist [in his or her own right]—a concept that has now been so fully integrated into the mainstream cultural zeitgeist that I need not here provide my own thoughts on that subject at this time though I do believe this element, the inventive function some call it, really cannot be underestimated though it often is by casual readers and critics who view translators as either amanuenses, or worse, mere copyists; and, thirdly as an important and heretofore uninvestigated element in the understanding of human psychology in general.  To date unacknowledged either by cultural critics, psychologists, or most translators themselves, this would be the liminal subject position occupied by the translator, a “self,” which is not one’s self nor another person’s self but some new in-between or composite self, personality or state of person-hood made up of several different selves (both real and imagined).

Are you following me?  I mean, are you really paying attention?  I know that you sometimes like to do more than one thing at once and before I introduce the actual proposal for my next project, I will have to ask that you re-read the last sentence of the last paragraph.  N.B.:  I know I am being a tad pedantic, but humor me.  The appearance of this confrontational side of me will come as something of a surprise to you, but as you know I’m able to be much more honest in writing than in person.  Just to make sure that you have read rather than scanned the lines I’m referring to, I’ll re-transcribe them and/or slightly paraphrase them to make things even clearer:

Though it is commonly acknowledged that the translator plays two important roles—one communicative and the other inventive—I am proposing that there is a third role—I don’t yet have a succinct name for it but it is something like psycho-inventive-cloning; for now let’s just call it liminal-autono-self-building—that the translator plays.

And, my dear agent, it is exactly this third role that I hope to further investigate as part of my next project.  Having contacted researchers at Columbia University’s Psychology Department to alert them to this phenomenon, I feel confident that their research, combined with the findings from my own exploration of the self that is created when two beings “meet” —“transact” is perhaps a better word — in a language that is neither the language of one nor the other, will be ground breaking.  For example, consider if you will something as apparently simple as an act of word choice:  the writer chooses a word in one language and the translator chooses a similar word in another language, yet the writer cannot choose the translated word any more than the translator could choose the initial word, and yet complexities involved in the semantic context of the former issue are rarely commented on.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before we get to the semantic context, which opens up a whole host of possibilities that will be explored in what I foresee as the sequel to the first project, let’s talk about this one.

What if we gave the subject behind this language a name?  For, is not subjectivity dependent on language?  Or, to put it more succinctly, is not language, according to Wittgenstein, et al., creating subjectivity?   So let’s call it (I hesitate to use him or her since there very well may be more than two genders in this language and so I choose, in our language, a gender neutral name): Ted.  And Ted has a story to tell.  It is unlike any other story because Ted is unlike any other subject known to you, or the editors at Knopf, or the reading public.  It is a story that grows out of Ted’s language and is shaped by it.  If I sound a bit too excited, it is because I am.  It is not everyday that you get to discover and/or create a new being.  I feel a sudden affinity with Dr. Frankenstein, that Texan who invented the first artificial heart, and the researcher whose name I’ve forgotten who cloned Dolly.  The beauty of this creation, however, is that it is not merely a clone; it is an entirely new species.  And even I must hesitate before daring to draw the clear analogy the execution of such an act might suggest.  More to the point—and certainly more to your point—it is marketable.

Let me know when you would like to meet up to discuss this proposal further.  In the meantime, I will continue with the Swedish translation of Mr. ____’s DaVinci Code.  You have told me on more than one occasion the number of copies this book has sold in various languages and editions; however, its appeal continues to elude me.  I can only hope that after reading this letter the psychological torture that any act of translation undertaken for purely financial reasons imposes on me will be clear.

As ever,



The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

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