Brouillon – the French word for draft – is a place for translators of all languages to explore and examine those endlessly fascinating and infinitely frustrating words, phrases, and motifs that seem impossible to translate. Brouillon is a collection of these moments. Comments and discussion are encouraged.

Translator: Mary Frank | Author: Ottokar Domma | Work: Der brave Schüler Ottokar | Original Language: German | Genre: Fiction

Als die Mädchen alle wieder angekleckert kamen, befanden wir uns schon in einem Raum mit einem älteren freundlichen Fräulein, welches zum Museum gehört. Sie sprach: Liebe Kinder, wir stehen hier in der Abteilung des Altertums. Und dann zeigte sie mit einem dünnen Finger auf alte Töpfe und Scherben. Manche waren mit Mustern bekritzelt, manche auch nicht, und man fand sie in einem Hühnergrab.

By the time all the girls came trotting back, we had already got to a room where there was a friendly old lady who belonged to the museum. She declared: dear children, here we’re in the antiquities section. And then she pointed with a thin finger to old jars and broken bits. Some had patterns scratched on them, others didn’t, and they were found in a mega triffic grave.

Der brave Schüler Ottokar (1967) contains 29 stories about mischievous 12-year-old Ottokar’s life at home, at school and in his village in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). On the surface it is a work of children’s fiction. Yet the stories first appeared in satirical magazine Eulenspiegel, where they formed part of the magazine’s critique of those who failed to properly align with the principles of socialism. Their themes and linguistic features thus contain clear messages for adults.

The story Ein Besuch im Museum [A Visit to the Museum], from which this passage is taken, is typical of all the stories in its exploitation of language. Ottokar’s malapropisms, muddled-up proverbs, aphorisms, neologisms, mis-spelled and misunderstood foreignisms, markedly formal register and other linguistic ‘trickery’ appear on the surface to simply be typical of a rather precocious child’s emerging exploitation of language. They are in fact the veil under which Domma presents his critique. Ottokar’s use of language is anything but innocent. Instead, it is intended to satirise those who blindly repeat the formulaic and empty structures of official discourse. Ottokar’s ‘accidental’ linguistic trickery is a comedic replication of the very intentional linguistic trickery practised in all official contexts in the GDR, and thus a satirical comment on the malign effect of that trickery.

The exploitation of language is so central to the Ottokar stories that failing to render it is not an option. There are some occurrences where, serendipitously, German lexis and grammatical forms are sufficiently close to English for a relatively smooth rendering to take place. In another story, for example, Ottokar refers to a Hämorrhoidenschwarm [haemorrhoid shower]’ rather than an Asteroidenschwarm [asteroid shower]. The malapropism highlighted above is definitely not one of these cases. Here, Ottokar ‘accidentally’ confuses Hüne [megalithic] with Hühner [chickens]. My first instinct was to try to retain some connection with Ottokar’s misunderstood picture of an animal grave, but – unlike German – there seemed to be no term for an animal in English that had any lexical or aural connections with megalithic. Casting the net more widely, I was struck by the potential of mega to be (mis)understood in the mind of a 12-year- old in its figurative sense as big or really. And if Ottokar is ‘hearing’ a modern slang word in mega, might he also do so for lithic? This morpheme might perhaps sound to him like triffic, the slang for terrific. So a megalithic grave mutates in his mind into one that is mega triffic, slang for really, really good. As well as being (I hope) a humorous solution in its own right, humour is added by this phrase being incongruously uttered (in Ottokar’s understanding) by an elderly museum guide.

Mary Frank is a practising translator from German and French into English. She has an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Bristol and is currently undertaking PhD research into (un)translatability, using Ottokar Domma’s Ottokar stories as a case study.

Translator: Anna-Louise Milne | Author: Patrick Chamoiseau | Work: Texaco | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

un là gai de combat…

un là gai de combat…

… is what happened some time back in the days before 1848 in Martinique when slave labourers would sally down to the local water pump with their pitchers and bowls. But that’s not all. Not according to Patrick Chamoiseau: la moindre fontaine publique devenait un là gai de combatde récipients nerveux, d’éclaboussures, de toilettes, de contentements canailles répercutées sans fin par des mèches négrillonnesThe licentiousness of the language is in full, disruptive display, like the bodies rubbing up against one another, elbowing one another, jostling and jesting in the muddy space around the pump. The water runs over, spills no doubt, and sometimes pitchers smash against one another; the trails of water, footsteps, the pressure of a hand, of a smile, dribble back away to the confinement of the nègreries, the slave quarters. Surely there is something of all of that in mèches négrillonnes, touch and suggestion and unruliness. But how to translate under the sign of unruliness? The slow published version, by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, has some nice jittery vessels, but it loses the emphatic shifter to a circumscribed place of battle and an overly ostentatious public fountain, while the slippery mèches become black girls’ locks, all the more fashioned into form by the fact that giddy pleasures bounce off them. We decided to try again, in a seminar situation, just quickly, five minutes or so of individual thinking and then twenty minutes of discussion. Fisty fraternizing, roughhouse, scrum, rammy: our attempts veered towards lexical license. We ventured a there of gay combat, and wondered about the word gai, how it seems to make the of clause dative. So we worked away a bit at the un là, came up with a go gay set-to…, and then shoved it to one side. Team translation: un là gai de combat.

Anna-Louise Milne is Director of Graduate Studies and Research at the University of London Institute in Paris, where she is developing the Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression ( She also runs translation workshops for the Masters in Cultural Translation at the American University in Paris. Her new book entitled 75 will be out in French in the autumn.

Translator: Jason Grunebaum | Author: Uday Prakash | Work: Judge Sa’b | Original Language: Hindi | Genre: Fiction

जज सा’ब तो सबसे ज्यादा हंसते थे. ठहाका लगा कर. कई बार, जब उनका मुंह पान से भरा रहता था और सुनील गालियां देने लगता था, जिसे सुन कर सब हंसते थे और जज सा’ब ठहाका मारते थे, तो पान की पीक उनके कपड़ों पर गिर जाती थी और तब वे भी बहुत गाली देते थे और फिर सुनील से चूना मांग कर पान की पीक के ऊपर रगड़ते थे क्योंकि इससे दाग छूट जाता था.

Judge Sa’b laughed the loudest, from the innermost gut of his belly, and it wasn’t uncommon for his mouth to be full of paan: Sunil began swearing up a blue streak, everyone loved it, Judge Sa’b couldn’t control himself, and dribbled red paan juice onto his clothing, cursing like hell and asking Sunil for a dab of slaked lime chuna to rub on the stains so they wouldn’t set.

Everyone likes a good laugh or hearing a funny joke. People can be funny and writing can be funny. But what happens when we read about people having a laugh?

For some time now, I’ve been mildly disdainful when reading about people laugh in English prose writing. (He tells a joke. She laughs. She says something funny. He laughs.) I may have learned this dislike in fiction workshops where maybe it was presented as species of transgression against the imperative to show rather than tell. Or, maybe I simply dislike the expectation that if someone laughs in a story then I’d better laugh too. Whatever the case, it’s a reading tic of mine that bugs me almost as much as expository laughter itself. The thing is, when I read reported laughter in Hindi, it doesn’t stick out in the same way as it does in English—even as described chortles and guffaws accrue and repeat. I feel Hindi prose tolerates more described laughter than English. Yet, as I’m bringing funny into English, I often feel it’s necessary and justified to sometimes modify laughter to, say, a smile.
There are fourteen instances of laughter or laughing in the Hindi original of Uday Prakash’s “Judge Sa’b” that I recently translated (is that a lot?)—a story about the changing times in the Delhi of today, a pitiable ex-judge who goes missing, and the interdiction in Hindi letters against writing using authentic, gritty, lovely, profanity-laced language. Most reported fun in the story is had standing around the paan shop of Sunil, whose off-color Hindi rants lead to hysterics among the regular crowd of paan chewers. (A related but separate issue was how to render the many occasions of “to swear” or “swearing” with some needed variety in English.) This laughter isn’t all idle fun. A refrain that’s repeated four times in the story, with a slight variation in each instance, contrasts paanwallah Sunil’s freewheeling language with the restrictions the others feel—in particular the narrator, whose writing life is regularly ruined when he uses “enchanting” Sunil-like language to paint a blue streak into his prose. This laughter for the men is like a practiced artifice that conceals both pleasure and unease, a protective proxy for what they are not permitted to utter. In these four instances, I decided to leave the laughter as laughter, both to tie the four refrains together, and because the word served a more important purpose in the story than simply showing glee. Four other laughs made it into English as-is. The others were rendered as a “smile,” a “mirthy reaction,” and “delight.” As for the act of laughing, “people loved it,” or “everyone [was] in stiches,” “a funny bone was tickled,” and one person “…laughed, as everyone else did.” In the end, I felt I was able to find enough English variations on laughing and laughter, while letting simple laughter just be itself when necessary. And the lesson I learned was to try and be a bit kinder to described laughter in English prose.

Jason Grunebaum is a writer and Hindi translator whose book-length translations include Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Yale University Press) and The Walls of Delhi (Seven Stories Press). He has received an NEA Literature Fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and his work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature.

Translator: Adrian Nathan West | Author: Pere Gimferrer | Work: Fortuny | Original Language: Catalan | Genre: Fiction

Valentino és una vànova vana i un ventall de vainilla i un envà. Rodolfo Valentino, a l’ascensor de l’estudi, mira els ulls de maragda d’un noi irlandès. Les mans es toquen; només la punta dels dits. A les quatre de la matinada, Paris és nu; al Boulevard des Italiens, Valentino veu la cara de Valentino en un pasquí que el vent ungleja amb llum de porcellana. L’Opéra, en la peixera de la matinada, és una cabellera de cascada corrupta en or petrificat. Valentino camina pels carrers buits, sota una lluna de seda. La porta del carrer s’obre i es torna a tancar ràpidament; tot just tancada, Valentino i el noi francès es besen a l’escala. Els cossos, en l’albada, tenen lluor de tigres.

Valentino is a vain vauntmure, a vane of vanilla in veils. Rudolph Valentino, in the studio’s elevator, looks in an Irish boy’s emerald eyes. The hands touch; only the fingertips. At four in the morning, Paris is nude: on the Boulevard des Italiens, Valentino sees the face of Valentino on a poster that the wind frays to ribbons in the porcelain light. The Opéra, in the fishbowl of morning, is a cascading coiffure corrupted in petrified gold. Valentino walks through the empty streets beneath a moon of silk. The gate to the street opens and closes again quickly; as it does, Valentino and the French boy kiss on the stairway. The bodies, in the aube, have a tiger-like shimmer.

Fortuny, like many of its modernist counterparts, is only a novel faute de mieux: there is no plot, no intrigue, no “character development,” as the acolytes of workshops term it; rather than souls, what characters there are might best be described as phenomena of sound, color, light, and darkness. The names and toponyms scattered through the text are like the foundation of a tapestry atop which the verbal pattern is woven. In translation, then, the pattern is paramount, and the more usual questions of register and voice fall away.

The present passage, with its abundant alliteration, well illustrates the kind of games Gimferrer plays. A failure to replicate them would render translation of his work pointless. As on so many occasions, the translator into English must be grateful: its Saxon and Norman parentage offer a cornucopia of synonyms, and often foreign rhymes and alliteration can be reproduced without sacrificing meaning. Still, there are limits, particularly with Gimferrer, whose Catalan can hardly be called idiomatic, relying as it does on an apparently limitless knowledge of etymology that frequently sent me on hour-long goose chases to nail down what a given word might mean. For the five words beginning with V in the first sentence of this passage, these were my solutions: A vànova is a coverlet, and this I just couldn’t make happen; the veil that comes at the end of the sentence is nowhere in the original, but it does serve a function of covering, so I didn’t see it as totally unjustified. Vana is already vain, so no great stretch of the imagination there; a ventall is a fan, and a vane is at least moved by the wind; vainilla, again, mutatis mutandis, is the same word in English. Vauntmure, a beautiful, obsolete word that I found thanks to my reading of nearly all the V entries in my OED, is the outer wall of a fortress, and hence nearly works for envà (an old spelling of embà), which can mean, variously, a cornice, a wall, a wall-like structure made of bars, and so on. As the chapter deals subtly with Rudolph Valentino’s hidden sexuality, a vauntmure or fore-wall was a lovely little find; and besides, it begins with a V whereas envà merely contains one.

Adrian Nathan West is a writer and translator who lives between Spain and the United States with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco. His book-length translations include Josef Winkler’s When the Time Comes, Pere Gimferrer’s Alma Venus, and Antonio Altarriba’s The Art of Flying. His novel The Aesthetics of Degradation is forthcoming from Repeater Books, and his translation of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny will be released in 2015 by David R. Godine.

Translator: Mui Poopoksakul | Author: Prabda Yoon | Work: Kwam Na Ja Pen | Original Language: Thai | Genre: Short story

… ฉันนั่งเฉยๆอยู่ได้ไม่กี่เดือน ดั้งจมูกของฉันก็ต้องทำหน้าที่รองรับแว่นกรอบดำ เพิ่มความมั่นใจให้ฉันเป็นกอง ใครถาม ฉันก็บอกว่าจู่ๆสายตาของฉันมันก็เล่นตลก เกิดผิดปกติขึ้นมาเองโดยไม่คาดฝัน ไม่รู้เหมือนกันว่ามันสั้น หรือยาว หรือเอียง แต่ที่แน่ๆคือมันมองอะไรไม่ค่อยชัด ยิ่งเวลาต้องมองผลิตภัณฑ์สินค้าที่ฉันมีหน้าที่ต้องขาย สภาพสายตายิ่งขุ่นมัวอย่างไรชอบกล ไม่ได้ไปถามความเห็นจากจักษุแพทย์ที่ไหนหรอก ตัดสินใจซื้อแว่นใส่เองเลย ถือเป็นเรื่องของจิตวิทยามากกว่า ใส่แล้วโลกทัศน์ชัดเจนขึ้น ทำงานสะดวก ขายของเก่ง เจอใครๆก็เรียกพี่ ฉันเพิ่งรู้สึกถึงรสชาติของการได้เป็นพี่ของคนที่ไม่ได้เกี่ยวดองปรองญาติ ช่างเป็นความรู้สึกที่สร้างพลังลึกลับมหาศาลระหว่างทรวงอก ช่วยเพิ่มเติมความฮึกเหิมให้กับชีวิตประจำวัน แต่บางทีฉันก็ต้องระงับความรู้สึกนั้นเอาไว้ ไม่ให้ประเจิดประเจ้อจนออกนอกหน้า ฉันต้องแกล้งบอกไปว่า ไม่ต้องมาเรียกพี่หรอก อายุก็ไล่เลี่ยกัน แต่ในใจของฉันบอกว่า ถ้าเจอกันคราวหน้าแล้วมึงไม่เรียกกูว่าพี่ละก็ กูจะไม่คบกับมึงอีก …

… I sat there for no more than a few months before the bridge of my nose acquired the job of holding black-rimmed glasses. They gave me loads of confidence. Whenever anybody asked, I said my eyes suddenly started playing tricks on me. They went bad out of nowhere. I didn’t know if I was nearsighted or farsighted, but I knew for sure that I couldn’t see very clearly. My eyes were suspiciously blurry in particular when I had to stare at the products that I had to promote. I didn’t consult any doctors. I just decided to buy my own glasses. It was more of a psychological matter. When I wore them, my view of the world was clearer. It was easier to work with them on. I was better at selling. People showed respect and called me pi as if I was their big brother. For the first time, I experienced the taste of people addressing me as pi despite a lack of actual relation. It put me on a high horse. My chest was mysteriously pumped up. But sometimes I had to hold those feelings in and not flaunt them in people’s faces. I had to pretend to say, There’s no need to call me pi. We’re not far off in age. But in my head I’d be saying, If you don’t fucking call me pi next time we run into each other, I’m done with you…

In Thai, forms of address and pronouns are extremely nuanced. There are more ways to say “you” or “I” than one could productively count, especially since a person, in specific circumstances, could use his or her own first name to mean “I” without creating the effect of referring to oneself in the third person as would happen in English. To give a very general flavor, when not using the formal form of address, which is khun (roughly equivalent to Mr. or Ms.), Thais often address others using words that indicate familial relationships such as older or younger sibling, aunt, uncle, grandma, etc., depending on the addressee’s age relative to the addressor’s, and the addressee’s gender. It would be uncommon and impolite not to use these honorifics before a person’s first name when addressing an older person. I am grouping pronouns and forms of address as constituting the same problem because in Thai, a particular form of address usually comes with a specific set of pronouns. For example, if someone addresses you as khun, you would use the (more) formal pronoun for “I” depending on your gender, and khun also becomes the term for “you.”

In contemporary Thai author Prabda Yoon’s short story “Kwam Na Ja Pen” (which I have translated as “Pen in Parentheses”), the narrator revels in the fact that people at his office start calling him pi (meaning older sibling) after he starts wearing glasses. The use of pi often connotes seniority and respect which can somewhat be detached from age, and so the narrator starts gloating after he earns the honorific, as relatively young people sometimes do when being addressed as pi for the first time outside of family relationships. Since this specific concept does not exist in English, it was a difficult point in the translation to choose the appropriate solution. I toyed with the idea of using a footnote to explain the concept, and I then thought about eliminating the Thai word altogether and using a different narrative gesture. In the end, for the version that ran in Asymptote, I kept the Thai word but put in a few in-text explanatory words in hopes of maintaining a Thai flavor in a non-didactic manner. Still, because there is no perfect solution, there is not one “right” answer (but perhaps better or worse ones depending on the text being translated and the translator’s aim).

Mui Poopoksakul is a lawyer-turned-translator promoting Thai literature through translation and writing. She is currently wrapping up an M.A. in cultural translation at the American University of Paris and previously studied literature as an undergraduate at Harvard College.

Translator: Lara Vergnaud | Author: Ahmed Bouanani | Work: L’Hôpital | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

Et même lorsque le miracle s’opère, qu’une faible lueur déchire le rideau de la chambre et que je me revois prostré sur une peau de mouton tachée de henné, mimant une des cinq prières quotidiennes avec la ferveur d’un être craintif, mes yeux clignent, tout à coup embués; le reflet de mon image encadrée dans le rectangle ovale du miroir se dilue alors dans la chaleur du mirage. L’enfant interrompt sa prière, redresse la tête. Des plis brisent la sérénité de son front. Pendant un moment – ce laps de temps perpétue le vol d’une mouche – il s’interroge, un goût de sel sous la langue. Quelque chose s’est rompu dans le silence, avec une brutalité immobile.

And even when the miracle works, when a faint glow pierces the bedroom curtains and I see myself prostrate on a sheepskin stained with henna, miming one of the five daily prayers with a frightened fervor, my eyes blink, suddenly damp; the reflection of my image framed in the rounded rectangle of the mirror then softens in the heat of the mirage. The child stops his prayer, lifts his head. Lines interrupt the serenity of his forehead. For a moment—an interlude that prolongs the flight of a fly—he searches himself, the taste of salt under his tongue. Something gave way in the silence, with a motionless brutality.

This passage isn’t the most difficult to translate in The Hospital. Bouanani revels in long, winding sentences that can stretch for well over a page to describe the contained and claustrophobic universe of an unnamed hospital on the outskirts of an unnamed city. These challenging segments, used to mark the narrator’s frequent descents into hallucinations and dreams, are often stocked with obscure references to Moroccan history and culture. Yet the more concise, poetic sections that reflect the narrator’s lucid states, easier to digest at first glance, proved just as tricky to translate. The excerpt cited above was one of many shorter fragments to trip me up. The passage comes early in the work, when the narrator is recounting a decisive moment in his childhood: his younger self is kneeling on a rug, in the middle of performing his daily prayers, when he questions his Islamic faith, and sees “God’s grand stature fissure, crack without majesty.” This scene is critical to understanding the narrator’s strained faith. And yet this important moment is described in a mere five lines – brevity which makes each word especially dense. Take the clause in bold. What the narrator is really saying is something like this: this revelation occurred to the child in a split second, the time it takes for a fly to flap its wings, but seemed to stretch on for an eternity, that’s how mind blowing it was, thus freezing or immortalizing that fly’s flight. A beautiful image, but quite a mouthful. After testing several iterations, I settled upon: “the flight of a fly captured in time.” (Actually, my first attempt was “the flight of a moth captured in time,” so initially bothered was I by the alliteration of the “flight of a fly.”) But when I began writing this blog post, I decided my translation was all wrong. First off, while I liked the sound of “the flight of a moth,” the figure of the fly is too important in this work, and crops up later as a metaphor for the patients in the hospital waiting for death to “gobble” them up. Furthermore, I had transformed the clause from active to passive – the fly was frozen now, instead of fluttering its wings in constant flight – diluting its impact in the process. I had also removed the parallel to a contradiction in the next line: “Something gave way in the silence, with a motionless brutality.” So, again, all wrong. I started over, playing with verbs that could convey the idea of perpetuity: carry on/make last/perpetuate/prolong/immortalize/eternalize. I liked the sonority of that last option, and the links to the larger themes of time, memory, and eternity in the book, but I decided against it. If Bouanani had wanted, he could have used the verb immortalizer for the same reasons. I ended by choosing “prolong” and, following a suggestion from a translator friend, “interlude.” In so doing, I inched back towards Bouanani’s original phrasing. Author knows best, right?

Lara Vergnaud has a BA in French and History from the College of William and Mary and a MA in French-English Literary Translation from New York University. Her co-translation of Marie Monique-Robin’s Our Daily Poison is forthcoming from the New Press, and her translation of Zahia Rahmani’s France, story of a childhood is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

Translator: Vanessa Weller | Author: Julia Franck | Work: Der Hausfreund | Original language: German | Genre: Short story

…Am Alex steigen wir um. Hanna und ich würden gerne dableiben. In dem Brunnen baden Kinder, und wir wollen auch baden. Aber unsere Mutter sagt, wir würden erst zu Thorsten gehen, da gebe es auch den Stabilbaukasten, den wir so mögen. Wir wollen lieber mit unseren Fahnen zu der Musik und da sein, wo alle anderen Menschen sind. Unsere Mutter verspricht uns, dass Thorsten bunten Puffreis zu Hause hat. […] Thorstens Wohnung ist klein, und es riecht. Das sind die Mülltonnen, erklärt Thorsten und zeigt nach unten in den Hof. Ich glaube, es ist Thorstens Fellweste, aber das will er natürlich nicht zugeben. Hanna und ich bekommen eine Schale mit Puffreis auf den Küchentisch gestellt. Wir teilen sie nach Farben auf. Rot ist meine Lieblingsfarbe, Grün ihre. Thorsten nimmt meine Mutter an die Hand und zieht sie in sein großes Zimmer und schließt die Tür…Wir können hören, wie meine Mutter und Thorsten kichern. Da hätten sie gar nicht die Tür zumachen müssen. Hanna ist langweilig, sie hat keine Lust zu spielen. Wir wollen endlich los. Ich gehe zu der Tür, hinter der Thorsten und meine Mutter Verschwunden sind. Sie klemmt, ich versuche mehrmals die Klinke, aber die Tür will nicht aufgehen.

…At Alexanderplatz we change trains. Hanna and I want to stay there. Children are swimming in the fountain, and we also want to swim. But our mother says we have to go to Thorsten’s first, where there is the Stabil construction set we like so much. We would rather be here with our flags and the music, where all the other people are. Our mother promises us that Thorsten has colored Puffreis at home. […] Thorsten’s apartment is small and it smells. Those are the rubbish bins, Thorsten explains and shows us in the back of the courtyard. I think it is Thorsten’s fur vest, but of course he would never admit that. Hanna and I take the bowl of Puffreis placed on the kitchen table. We sort it by color. Red is my favorite color, green is hers. Thorsten takes my mother by the hand and leads her into his big bedroom and closes the door […] We can hear my mother and Thorsten giggling. They definitely should not have closed the door. Hanna is boring, she doesn’t want to play. At last we want to go. I go to the door, where Thorsten and my mother disappeared. It sticks. I try the handle many times, but the door will not budge.

Nostalgic and bitterly ironic, Julia Franck’s short story of a child forced by her mother to confront an adult world is charming, shocking, and utterly 20th century. In German, the title is a double entendre, meaning both the obvious and platonic “family friend” and the more secretive lover of the mother. This relationship between the mother and Thorsten, seen through the eyes of the young narrator, deals with the necessity to confront her allegiances: both to her father and to her Fatherland. “The ‘Family Friend’” is a story about innocence and betrayal. A German reader would immediately identify that the action takes place in East Berlin, with the mother and her lover trying to escape with the children to the West. Certain markers, such as the flags the children pasted in school, Erich Hoenecker, and the layout of Berlin’s public transportation, are all too obvious. How do these nuances that need no explanation in the original remain without hitting the reader over the head with a footnote or other heavy-handed articulation, especially for an English-speaking audience with few contemporary clues to the Cold War and the GDR? I chose to keep as many words as I could to squarely root the story in 1970s East Berlin. Although the theme is universal, the story must be represented as it was intended. The mother and her lover would speak Russian, not French or another Western language, to keep secrets. The girls would play with a Stabil rather than an ERECTOR set. They would eat Puffreis, not Rice Krispies. Even Thorsten’s dreaded fur vest is a men’s sartorial habit from the 1970s that arguably should have stayed there. The little girl has a command of her words that seemingly derives from her emulation of her mother. Of course, she is precocious, but parroting her mother—and her father—gives her a certain edge, a wisdom beyond her years that almost guesses what her mother and Thorsten are really up to. The subtlety of language in the German forces us to question just how much the girls really know. Metonymically associating Thorsten’s ugly vest with his character, and the knowledge that a secret is being kept from our narrator by her mother illustrates an instance of precociousness, but also of learned behavior, of playing the adult to shield the child from the necessity of seeing what the mother really is. Grammatically, the subjunctive case is far more common in German than in English, for example in: Da hätten sie gar nicht die Tür zumachen müssen. Readers of both will notice that I favored the indicative in English to realistically portray the narrator’s precociousness. My aim in translating was to keep the essence of the story’s time and place, and of the narrator’s character by retaining the elements of simplicity and sophistication which Julia Franck has powerfully established in her German prose.

Vanessa Weller earned her Bachelor’s degree in French and German from Lawrence University in 2009 and is currently a candidate in the Master’s program in Cultural Translation at The American University of Paris. She has been writing creatively for several years, receiving honorable mentions for her poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Young Writers contest in 2004 and for her creative nonfiction in the Columbia College-Chicago’s Young Writers Workshop in 2005.

Translator: Derek Gromadzki | Author: Gozo Yoshimasu | Work: Alice, Iris, Red Horse: Selected Poems of Gozo Yoshimasu: A Book in and on Translation | Original language: Japanese | Genre: Poetry

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When I began working with Forrest Gander on his selection of Gozo Yoshimasu’s poetry, Alice, Iris, Red Horse, I confronted what I thought were two very different, even conflicting, translator’s tasks. First, I was asked to edit and reformat the translators’ notes for each poem included in the manuscript. Yoshimasu had requested that the notes drafted to accompany his poems not appear as the traditional notational apologia for texts and their translations. The single guideline he spooled out was that they should better approximate the modality of the poems they glossed. Second, and a bit later into the project, I received an invitation to collaborate with the Japanese translator Sayuri Okamoto in co-translating a long excerpt from Yoshimasu’s Naked Memos, which would be incorporated into the selection Forrest had made.
As I wondered how to impart poetry to the notes without irreparably eschewing their function as notes, it occurred to me that Yoshimasu’s Japanese tategaki texts had been wrenched out of verticality and subjected to horizontal conformity in translation. In somewhat playful recompense, I decided to align the text of the notes in vertical columns. Still, the change was not a sufficient match for the spatial, the typographic variability of the poems. Then, looking at the columnar notes alongside the poems, I realized that I could start breaking them apart and moving them around as if they were a construction material to be salvaged and repurposed according to Yoshimasu’s singular blueprint for the poetic page. A striking feature of his poetry is what it does physically, materially, before or as it succumbs to reading for content. Hints of strange visual and, out of these, cognitive-acoustic patterns emerge then slip away. Moving forward on the assertion of space as the fundamental sensory datum and that from the inference of matter in it, its observation and grammatization, duration follows, I tried to achieve a level of spatial heterogeneity in the notes tantamount to what existed in the poems. Doing so, I thought, would incite a reader to more actively participate in the otherwise unnoticed mechanisms of duration – to puzzle out, to read with a more individual or diachronic time signature unique to her or his experience with Yoshimasu’s writing than the homogeneity of standard notes would have allowed.
This decision of course proved subversive to traditional notions of translation. But more interestingly it also subverted, in tandem with the text and in however minute a measure, the growing, globally socialized construction of time as one homogeneous present wherein the tripartite temporal paradigm of past, present, and future, dissolves. The more closely we hew to vectors of technicization bent on turning time into an infinitesimal interval, the more rapidly our individual procedures for constructing duration recede from us. This recession runs apace with the technological apparatus enabling global sociability, which remove matter – so necessary for constructing duration – from physical space and replace it with immediate, virtual omnipresence.
Meanwhile the devilish irony looming over this whole enterprise is that my collaboration with Sayuri depended on devices conducive to just this distortion. Our communication often skipped instantaneously back and fourth between different parts of the United States, Europe, and Japan, but we did not once meet in person while working on the translation; our schedules simply prevented all such encounters. Our means of interaction could scarcely have been at greater odds with the theoretical conventions I had devised to solve the problem of the notes. Without the support of integrated, digital communication networks, our work would likely have foundered.
Do the circumstances under which Sayuri and I translated together undermine the credibility of how I spatially translated the notes and why I chose to translate them the way I did? I do not think so; not quite. Sayuri and I communicated via e-mail daily, sometimes once or twice hourly within the span of a day, at which point the pace of our exchanges grew so rapid that we both found it more productive to withdraw from the immediate, integrated present. Why? What became apparent was our desire for actual rather than virtual space and for presence within that space, diachronically cordoned off outside of global synchrony, where we could feel our own time pass at the pace of gesture observed, of spatially and materially present conversation as we traded ideas and suggestions. The Internet was and continues to be a means of overdetermining the present, and also of mitigating distance, but not of obliterating it. For us it was always a second choice even if, practically, the only choice. And inasmuch as it continues to neglect certain necessities of human interaction, it turns our attention, through their absence, to a reconsideration of just what those necessities may be. If I were to begin compiling a list, near its top would be, as it were, a time apart.

Derek Gromadzki received his MFA in poetry from the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, where he held the Peter Kaplan Memorial Fellowship, and is currently a Presidential Graduate Fellow in Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. His poems have appeared in a variety of publications, including American Letters & Commentary, Colorado Review, Drunken Boat, The Journal, the PEN Poetry Series, Seneca Review, Wave Composition, and Web Conjunctions.

Translator: Timothy Nassau | Author: Léo Malet | Work: Il fait toujours nuit / La vie est dégueulasse | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

J’étais comme Marcel, en ce qui concernait cette môme. J’aurais aimé contempler sa photo, savoir qu’elle était belle. Elle devait être belle, il le fallait. Avec sa pauvre petite robe, sa pauvre petite robe de pauvre, décorée de jolies taches de sang, elle était étendue, les jambes écartées, sur un tas de charbon, des scories dans ses cheveux blonds, son ventre de vierge pénétré d’une semence de mort, chaude et coupante, lancée par des trouffions gorgés de gnôle. Elle avait dix ans. J’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. La vie était dégueulasse. Ça se confirmait chaque jour. J’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais j’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. Un immense désir d’avoir dix ans. La vie était dégueulasse, c’était un ignoble et affreux engrenage, et nous contribuions tous à en perpétuer la dégueulasserie.

I was with Marcel, when it came to the kid. I would’ve liked to have seen her picture, to have known that she was pretty. She needed to be pretty, she had to be. In her poor little dress, her poor little poor girl’s dress, adorned with lovely bloodstains, she lay stretched out, her legs spread apart, on a pile of coal, slag in her blond hair, the seed of death planted in her virgin belly, hot and stinging, by a group of yardbirds stiff on swill. She was ten. I would have loved to be ten. Life made me sick. Each day proved it anew. I would have loved to be ten. I don’t know why, but I would have loved to be ten. An overwhelming desire to be ten. Life made me sick, it was a loathsome dirty gristmill, and all of us made it sicker.

A sentence like “La vie était dégueulasse” is usually a translation softball: a noun is an adjective–pick up your dictionary, fill in the blanks, and move on. So, “Life was disgusting.” That could work in the passage above, as the conclusion of thoughts that make clear the kind of disgust the narrator Jean is feeling, that this is nihilism in the face of a child’s death at a miners’ strike. But the phrase needs to stand alone. In the present tense, “La vie est dégueulasse” is the byword of the novel. It was the title when the book was published in 1948, and though the 1980 edition went under the almost as dark “Il fait toujours nuit,” newer printings have returned to the original title that Malet chose “as a provocation.” This was his attempt to write a hard-boiled American-style noir in French, and it is très noir. Malet was at the end of a long engagement with the Surrealists, and the hero he created is a disillusioned anarchist, more interested in violence than ideology and plagued by deviant dreams. “Life is disgusting” is the right idea, but without quite enough sneer; “dégueulasse” is, after all, a somewhat offensive term (one suggested translation I found was “bloody disgusting”). I wanted something that sounded more colloquial, something you could find scratched on the wall of a bathroom stall. For a few months I would run the phrase by any French speaker I ran into. I went through a list of adjectives that could mean “dégueulasse”–rotten, revolting, filthy, vile, dirty, rank, shitty, and, further afield–disturbing, loathsome, abhorrent, offensive, hateful… They were too specific, or too forced, like something no one would reasonably say. And they further highlighted the specificity problem of “disgusting,” that it didn’t have the nuance of “dégueulasse” and risked being taken as “gross,” as in life is disgusting because we’re all a bunch of holes with flesh in between. I didn’t solve this problem myself; after having lunch with a friend and raising the issue, he texted me “life makes me sick.” Such was my attachment to the noun-is-adjective construction that it took me an hour to realize he wasn’t telling me he was in crisis mode. “Dégueulasse” comes from the verb “dégueuler” and the suffix “-asse,” which creates pejoratives (like “connasse” or “pétasse”). “Dégueuler” comes from “gueule,” slang for mouth or face, and “dé-” makes it negative, so that verb means to un-mouth or, as most people call it, to vomit. Neither my friend nor I knew that at the time, but his instinct created a basically literal translation, from an etymological viewpoint. Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless has a famous exchange near the end that starts with a hero similar to Malet’s saying, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.” Early subtitles had “It’s disgusting, really,” but the 2007 Criterion Collection edition changed that to “Makes me want to puke.” “Life makes me puke” might be a more faithful option in my case, too, but then it sounds a bit too much like the title of an existential Goosebumps book.

Timothy Nassau has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University. He is currently a middle school English teacher in Japan.

Translator: Taylor Barrett Gaines | Author: Christine de Pizan | Work: Ballad XXXIX | Original Language: French | Genre: Poetry

On cognoist bien qui se faint;
Car qui grant griefté reçoipt,
Le visage en a destaint.
Se le cuer est fort destroit,
Et pour ce mes griefs anuis
Amenrissent ma vigour,
Car repos n’ay jour ne nuys ;
Il en pert a ma coulour.


We know well the ones who languish
Those who have felt great grief
The face pales at it.
The heart is utterly destroyed
And for that my griefs lurk behind me
And wait to starve my strength
No respite in day nor in night
It drains me of the color in my cheeks.

We all know grieving people lie
in bed, and think no one can see.
And yet the cheeks, the mouth, the eye,
show the shattered heart’s debris.
Grief taunts my strength with his single aim:
to murder with a highwayman’s grace.
I keep my eyes open the day and the night;
it drains the color from my face.

This is a verse from a ballad by medieval poet Christine de Pizan. She wrote in Middle French, and in traditional ballad form, ababcdcD, with the capital D indicating a refrain. At first glance, I expected comprehension of the Middle French to be my biggest challenge in effective translation, but sounding out the Middle French phonetically yields comprehensible modern French. Where I faced the biggest challenge, not just in the completion of this translation, but to my larger ideas about translation (both the best and the scariest kind of challenge), was putting it into rhyme. Above you’ll see the original verse, followed by my literal, prose translation. Here I was able to hew closely to the original images, which are haunting in how personal and poignant they are (something I never expected from medieval poetry). But how to maintain these gorgeous images in the rhyme scheme? I was especially concerned with keeping the idea of “anuis”, which I understood to be the past participle of “anuiter”, an old, now little-used verb meaning to surprise someone on the road in the night (though in later French it would be “anuité”). What a cool, specific, luscious verb…unlike anything we have in English. “Lurk” worked well enough for my more literal prose translation, but I wanted that image to really sing in my final ballad: grief, personified, draining the strength from our narrator as one assaulted in the night. I eventually settled on the image of a graceful, murderous highwayman, which calls up images of being caught in the night, without even the chance to defend oneself, with the threat of one’s throat being slit so as to drain one’s lifeblood away, the degree of torment that drains the color from the narrator’s face. I initially felt like I was being extremely disloyal to the text, calling up images that had never appeared in the original. But, I wondered, disloyal in the service of what? I was trying to communicate the text as loyally, truthfully, as possible, and realizing that the text is not just the words, but equally the associations, the impressions, the desired, realized, and lasting effects. I am a young translator, just beginning to understand that a translation cannot be a twin, but must be contented with being a sibling, having arrived in the world in different ways, but sharing the same genes and the same potential.

Taylor Barrett Gaines received a BA in Drama and French from the University of Virginia, and is currently working towards an MA in Cultural Translation from The American University of Paris.