The Unbearable Lightness of Being Translated


I know how terrible it is to see yourself rewritten, and so differently. But it’s inevitable. It’s like when a child grows up and moves away, and he’s no longer the way he was when he was a baby, and what you feel is a kind of mourning. But maybe he’s handsome and capable anyway, even if he’s different from the way he used to be and from how you were hoping he’d turn out. – Giovanna Zunica

Actually, seeing yourself translated is an indescribable pleasure.

When you write, all along you secretly wonder if what you’re saying actually means anything. Beyond you, that is. Half the time, you’re convinced it doesn’t.

But then if someone translates something you’ve written, you have proof: Not only was there enough meaning in it for English, there was enough for what you wrote to “mean” in another language as well. It’s a surprise. It’s a shock. If you read the language into which you’ve been translated, you may even discover things in what you’ve written and what the translator has written that you didn’t know were there.

You feel honored—and at the same time, embarrassed. The translator knows all your little tricks. She’s seen you naked. She’s shoved a finger down into the guts of what you wrote and grubbed around.

You know this because you translate: In any given text, it isn’t precisely necessary for the reader to grasp every word, every nuance, the referent of every pronoun, every allusion. It all works out in the end.

But that’s not the way it is for the translator. The translator has to understand everything. Every single thing.

The text is demolished and then built up again, one numbered brick at a time, like moving the London Bridge to Arizona. Your original text is both there and not there, just the sort of thing that so tickled Borges.

And when it works it’s beautiful. To wit:

  • Giovanna Zunica’s translation of my short story, “Yard Ball” (“Due Tiri in Cortile”), which appears in the current online issue of the lit ‘zine, Sagarana, No. 31. For those interested in such things, I wrote “Yard Ball” back in 1998-1999 when I worked as part of a legal team, touring Texas prisons and interviewing prisoners. I’d have thought it was an impossible story to translate, not only because it’s full of prison slang but because it’s set inside a Texas prison, which is a planet only vaguely similar to this one. And yet….

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I can’t thank Isa and Giovanna enough.


Posted on 15 April 2008, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. >And, I suppose you have already thanked them yourself? An unsolicited thank you is pretty rare these days. Thanks for the tip re. your short stories, too!Kate

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