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.

Category: Fiction

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: 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: 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: 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: Madeleine LaRue | Author: Peter Bichsel | Work: Der Busant | Original language: German | Genre: Fiction

Der Busant is the name of the title story in a 1985 collection by the German-speaking Swiss author Peter Bichsel. It takes its name from a medieval French romance, a sort of epic poem about two lovers who elope, become separated, and spend the rest of their lives searching for each other. The catalyst of this story, the reason for the lovers’ separation, is a hawk or buzzard — in Old French, a busart, and in medieval German, a Busant — that steals a ring off the throat of the beautiful young princess Magelone. In Bichsel’s story, the princess has been recast as a drunken waitress in the sleepy Swiss town of Solothurn; her lover is no longer a dashing prince but a homeless vagabond. Though we sense that happiness might indeed be possible for these two creatures, circumstances continually conspire to keep them apart. One such circumstance is the nostalgic aristocrat named Herr Busant, who “beautifies the town and makes it unlivable”; another is the author himself, Peter Bichsel, who, although he may wish to bring the story to completion, finds himself easily distracted and confounded by the weight of history, the expectations of narrative, and even the stubbornness of his own characters. It is this circumstance, this inescapable one, that sets the story in motion at the same time that it makes its resolution impossible. And that is the theme, more or less, of the entire collection of stories, and so its title simply had to be something like Der Busant. But The Hawk somehow sounded stupid, and had no historical resonances; The Buzzard reminded me of a cowboy murder mystery, and I couldn’t bring myself to call any character Mr. Buzzard — Herr Busant sounds elegant and wealthy, Mr. Buzzard decidedly neither. The Old English equivalent of Busant is Busard, which would mean nothing to a contemporary English reader, and the oldest form of hawk hafoc — was alarmingly, if perhaps appropriately, close to “havoc.” A solution finally presented itself — by accident, as they so often do — and I ended up translating both the story and the collection as The Goshawk. A goshawk is, scientifically, similar to a buzzard, being a member of the Accipitridae family and enjoying wide distribution across northern Eurasia. The most common variety of goshawk (the Northern Goshawk) is even conveniently called Accipiter gentilis, or the gentle or noble hawk: an aristocratic enough name for Herr Busant. The Goshawk, moreover, is already a literary bird: Chaucer mentions it in The Canterbury Tales, which, though not necessarily analogous to the Alsatian tale of Der Busant, is at least roughly contemporary with it, and suggests some of the appropriate literary and historical references to anglophone readers.

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

Translator: Olivia Baes | Author: Marguerite Duras | Work: L’homme atlantique | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

Vous penserez que le miracle n’est pas dans l’apparente similitude entre chaque particule de ces milliards du déferlement continu, mais dans la difference irréductible qui les sépare, qui sépare les hommes des chiens, les chiens du cinéma, le sable de la mer, Dieu de ce chien ou de cette mouette tenace face au vent, du cristal liquide de vos yeux de celui blessant des sables, de la touffeur irrespirable du hall de cet hôtel passé de l’éblouissante clarté égale de la plage, de chaque mot de chaque phrase, de chaque ligne de chaque livre, de chaque jour et de chaque siècle et de chaque éternité passée ou à venir et de vous et de moi.

You will think that the miracle is not in the apparent similarity of every one of the billions of particles of this continuously breaking wave, but in the irreducible difference which separates them, which separates men and dogs, dogs and film, the sand and the sea, God and this dog or this seagull clinging to the wind, and the liquid crystal of your eyes from the painful crystal of the sands, from the unbearable stuffiness in the lobby of this passé hotel from the even dazzling clarity of the beach, from each word in each sentence, from each line in each book, from each day and from each century and from each eternity past or to come and from you and from me.

Duras’ prose is mystery. When you read it as a writer, you want to believe that there is a formula. That if you had this formula, your writing would be as good as hers. You must translate her to realize the formula is not there. The author did not revise her prose; rather, she allowed it to blaze forth without respite. This lack of rest and revision is one that is difficult to retrace while translating her. In any case, with Duras, retracing of any kind would be a mistake. One of the phrases that caused me the most trouble while translating L’homme atlantique was: “cette mouette tenace face au vent”, which I eventually translated as “this seagull clinging to the wind”. L’homme atlantique is the transcribed voiceover to Duras’ eponymous film, and it reads as a series of instructions given by Duras, director, to Yann Andrea, her then-partner and actor. In this passage, the reader is confronted with life’s differences in the form of a list of the many components that make up the movie and book. The recurring seagull (la mouette) may be representative of Duras in that it struggles against the wind, but does not ever give in to it, and, in fact, acquires its grace from the struggle. In my first draft, I stumbled over this seemingly simple phrase, but one which, in French, is subtly beautiful for both its internal rhyme and the overall ease with which it rolls off the tongue. Perhaps more than any of her other texts, L’homme atlantique begs to be read aloud. My initial translation of “this tenacious seagull facing the wind” did not work. Something about ‘tenacious’ in English lacks the oral softness of ‘tenace’ in French. No other adjectives seemed to work either: persistent, stubborn, tireless. All of them felt forced, and none of them played off of any other word in the phrase like “te-nace” and “face” in the original. Yes, “tenace face au vent” glides gracefully like the seagull, and yet, when reading it aloud, I encounter the wind’s resistance in the staccato of the short syllables. I have to use a verb rather than an adjective to keep the seagull closer to the wind, so to speak. When I come up with “this seagull clinging to the wind” I have to read it aloud to be sure. It turns out that my voice as translator can weave together mystery too. It takes one read for me to understand that ‘clinging’ and ‘wind’ work together in quite the same way that ‘tenace’ and ‘face’ do. The gliding of ‘clinging’ and ‘wind’ is met with the resistance of ‘to the’, two short syllables that serve to remind the reader that the wind is a force to be reckoned with, and also the very force that engenders the grace of the seagull’s flight. Perhaps the key to Durassian prose lies in this mystery of the seagull’s flight, smooth against the choppy Atlantic winds.

Olivia Baes holds a BA in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Cultural Translation from The American University of Paris. For her masters thesis, she is exploring the role of creative writing in translation as she translates Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’ particular form of French in his novel Jean-Luc persécuté.

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.