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.

Month: November, 2014

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.