Translator: Emma Ramadan | Author: Anne F. Garréta | Work: Sphinx | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction
Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. Dans la confusion nous nous endormîmes.
Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.
While translating Anne F. Garréta’s novel Sphinx, a genderless love story about je and A*** that uses Oulipian constraint to raise questions about societal perceptions and constructions of gender, I spent weeks agonizing over how to translate the phrase Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. This phrase comes after je and A*** have sex for the first time, after a very long courtship process. The phrase is the most explicit sentence we are given in the entire novel. I had to find a way to keep the explicit within the ambiguous, the clarity in the confusion. Also important is that in French the word sexes can mean both genitalia and genders (see what she did there?). The problem is that in English we don’t have many pleasant, discreet words for reproductive organs; they’re all a bit crude or sound like a magic spell. My initial brainstorming yielded: ‘Genitalia/privities/private parts/reproductive organs mingled, I wasn’t able to distinguish anything anymore.’ What about pudenda? That sounds rather elegant. Pudenda: a person’s external genitals, especially for a woman—that won’t work. What about thighs intertwined? Not explicit enough. Thighs, sticky, intertwined? Yuck. What about loins? Not specific enough. What about crotches? Not elegant enough. Crotches conjoined? Crotches crossed? Still not quite right. Genitalia jumbled? Too much alliteration. Genitalia interlaced? What does that even mean? Genitalia indistinguishable? That makes it sound like it’s just too dark in the room. And none of these solve the problem of keeping the double meaning of the word in French. What about using the word that’s been staring me in the face this entire time, the English word sexes? Getting closer. Sexes intertwined? Sexes mixed up? Sexes mixed? Combine it with “crotches crossed” to make it less abstract and bingo! I finally settled on this translation after sending an enormous list of options (quite possibly the smuttiest e-mail to ever travel through cyberspace) to my friend and occasional co-translator Olivia Baes, and after receiving some suggestions about sound from my college professor Cole Swensen. Translating this phrase, and translating Sphinx as a whole, really forced me to find ways to privilege the power of the writing within, and often despite, the linguistic constraint.
Emma Ramadan has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University and a Masters in Cultural Translation from the American University of Paris. Her translation of Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx was published by Deep Vellum and her translation of Anne Parian’s book of prose poetry Monospace is forthcoming from La Presse.