strong at the broken places
Read this post in Italian.
This morning I stayed home from yoga class. I stayed home to watch the sun spread slowly across a scant third of our courtyard where, for no more than these last few weeks, it has begun to arrive, the sign that the earth truly is shifting in its orbit, and touch the fragile, red-tipped leaves sprouting on the roses. I stayed home because I couldn’t move, because I stood, fully dressed, in the open doorway and couldn’t cross the threshold, walk to the gate, see another person. I stayed home to do nothing. Because I am exhausted.
Not physically exhausted. Not exhausted the way my mother was after nine hours of standing on her feet, serving drinks and washing the same highball glasses and beer mugs over and over and carrying the gray-plastic bins full of wet napkins and cigarette butts and chewed-on orange slices out to the dumpster in the back. Not exhausted like my stepfather, who woke up at 3:30 a.m. four mornings a week to deliver newspapers, as if he were some kid in junior-high, before he went to his regular job, because the extra 200 bucks a month made all the difference to us.
So to say I’m exhausted strikes me as shameful. My work looks like this: I sit and I type. Ninety-five percent of the time, there’s nothing to watch. There’s no time clock, no supervisor to make sure I’m working, no dress code. Most nights, I get a full eight hours of sleep. No one else depends on me for food or clothes or rent.
But in one way my exhaustion resembles theirs, or theirs as I imagine it, now, as I recall their faces, gray and used up, and the sag in their voices, and the way they sometimes came home at night and sat in the car for fifteen minutes with their heads down over the steering wheel. They never talked about what weighed on their minds, on their bodies, but I think I know what it was: the exhaustion of doing the same thing every single day, of worrying whether the money would ever be enough, of wondering whether the sacrifice was justified because one thing would eventually build on another and conditions were bound to improve, overall. Of thinking that, for you, they very likely wouldn’t.
Here’s the reality of being a translator. For me. Today. Translation is factory work. Half-built widgets roll by on the conveyor belt; you make the necessary adjustments and send them on their way. You work overtime, if the boss wants it. If the boss demands that the widgets be painted green, you paint them, even though that’s really the painter’s job and not yours and up until now it’s always been black widgets. If the wrong widgets come and the boss only figures that out after you’ve finished the entire batch, you re-do them. You have to beg to be paid, three, four, five months later. Every single time. You virtually never see the finished product.
There’s no “nice job”; there’s almost never even “thank you.” A friend says: “Being a translator is like being a bricklayer. If the wall stands up like it should and it’s straight like it should be, no one says anything. But let there be a chip out of one of the bricks….”
They tell you constantly that you’re overpaid for what you do, and, to prove it, they talk to you about other translators who are willing to work for less, who’ll sign contracts that systematically rob them of every right and recognition, who’ll accept nearly any indignity in order to put something on their résumés.
It’s true, in fact: You’re surrounded by them. In other industries, they’d be called scabs, but in translation work you have to call them colleagues. Many of them are young, arrogant, unspeakably dull, and unshakably stupid. Poetry has no home in them.
But what they have going for them is the instinct of the shark: no scruples, a knack for survival, and an imperviousness both to shame and to the more common forms of pain. And then the few in that horde who stand out as human beings, who are young, creative, sensitive, brimming over with native intelligence—they break your heart because, in this Italy, they so rarely catch a break.
Okay. Being a translator is what I chose to do, so I’m not expecting pity. In fact, pity would be of no use; what I need is space. To say how it is. For me. Today.
And how it is, is like this: You spend a little of your spirit on it, in return for money. You shave off a few nanometers of soul, every day, and sprinkle them on your work like black truffle on scrambled eggs. You pay out your creative energy, your intelligence, your imagination. You have no workmates, except for virtual ones, and you begin to think in terms of yourself and the “outside world,” the way prisoners do. Email becomes the literal conduit through which a semblance of human contact flows, even though you’re aware there’s something not entirely healthy about the process or about your dependence on it. When we do meet each other in person—at conferences, at occasional group suppers—we’re often awkward and strange, overly jovial and violently outgoing or visibly depressive and complex-ridden. Everyone is competition. Everyone—including you—is bitterly critical. Perspective is one of the first things to go.
You have circulation problems in your legs, and your back is a misery (which is why you need yoga in the first place); there’s an unmistakable ache of arthritis in your right hand that aspirin doesn’t touch. But your body is your work tool and you’re only getting older, and if it should cease to function … well, that’s something you can’t think about, unless it’s when the hours double their length after midnight and the full moon tugs at you through the window and you have no strength left to try to marshal evidence against the proposition that no one whose life evaporates or implodes or runs off the tracks ever intends it to be so. It just happens.
So I stayed home this morning to follow the all-too-brief course of the sun across the roses and to occupy this specific emotional space and to put my head down for a few minutes over the steering wheel and to say: this hurts.
And now I have to get back to work.