Skip to content

The Translator Relay: Steve Savage

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For November’s installment, Daniel Canty passed the baton to Steve Savage.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

Fittingly, this question puts me in an awkward position, an uneasy place. Am I really a translator? Have I ever translated? All the same, for the last twenty years, languages and interplay have been at the heart of my practice. In regard to literary translation (i.e., literature), I have devised a purpose: I counterbalance. I go against an idée reçue. My role is to misplace, to displace.

To avert being put in my place, let me use, in lieu of “place,” the word “space”—the meaning of “play” in interplay. A margin maybe. A spacing. A space that allows for movement. My space is undefined, unstable. Its borders are blurred. I trouble. My place is at the border. Where people cross, and do not necessarily come back. Where things and ideas and feelings, formally and informally, change hands. Exchange: this is my object. Translation is movement. Translation has to be moving. It is the only notion to which I am faithful.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English/French?

I am a translator (of English to French) . . . Really . . . Translating is my job. I have been in the milieu for twenty years. First as a copy editor (un relecteur, one more concerned with target quality than source fidelity—in short, a glorified spell-checker), but the job literally disappeared. I have become a “language technician” par la force des choses, by necessity, and have learned to translate “on site,” by doing it, getting my hands dirty. This translator has his work-environment untranslatables—like “insight,” “humbled,” “shortchange,” and “corporate,” for which there are workarounds and relatives. But we are not talking about this translator, are we? The other translator, the one that does not really exist, the invisible one, is immersed in the untranslatable, confers in the impossible.

Exhibit A: Erín Moure wrote of “Grief, or Sweetness” in a beloved poem where there are fourteen descriptions of trees. These emotions are read as “douleur, douceur” in a poem of mine where there are fourteen trees described. In a single switch, Caesar cipher, opposites attract, almost turn to one.

Exhibit B: Mina Pam Dick wrote Delinquent, an amazing book that I oh so wanted to translate. I did. And did not. The translation that was and was not was titled Mésadaptée, which manages to evoke the original while revealing my contrivances and, yes, my shortcomings. One step removed from translation, I found adaptation. One step removed from adaptation, I found misadaptation, lost my footing, stumbled and fell to face a void, a voice, ma voix maybe. This voice seems to rise from failed experiments, from a turning (frequently used for “translation”) that turns, from a place where things go wrong (où les choses tournent mal), where things go to go wrong. This, to me, is a good place. My place, maybe.


Do you have any translating rituals?

Imagine the scene. Maybe you have seen it. It comes after a ritual:

Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame, sweaty and amazed): Master . . . I did it! I summoned you!

Dracula (Christopher Lee, in a disdainful smirk): It was my will.

(Dracula A.D. 1972)

If a ritual is a set of sacred rules, with a defined practice, I think I deal in malpractice!

(Sweaty and amazed—Is it not at least conceivable as a faithful description of the prototypical translator?)


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Here, I feel I am quite close to my friend Daniel Canty (see his own fourth response). He talks of things and thinks. Me, I think and I tinker. I fiddle with the infeasible. I thinker.


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

Let me think . . . I would like to translate something improbable, something impossible . . . Naked Lunch, maybe? Some say it is unreadable. To me, it certainly is. That is: in English, I find it succulent; in French, it now kind of tastes funny . . . It would be a challenge to give it a new life. And it would be useful.

“I know this one pusher walks around humming a tune and everybody he passes takes it up. He is so gray and spectral and anonymous they don’t see him and think it is their own mind humming the tune.”
(William S. Burroughs)

That excites me: exposing the gray.


(Daniel Canty’s question for you) Your translations are often the result of procedures that displace and transform the original text. Could you give us an overview of some of the methods you have deployed to effect such metamorphoses?

I did the following: I read dictionaries en langues étrangères (six of them) for words that coexist in English or French, identical à la lettre only. (I found hundreds. “Pain” is French for “bread,” for example.) I created sequences with Google Translate from fragments of English or French, letting them degenerate-regenerate from tongue to tongue. (After a hundred passes or so, “The whole truth and nothing but the truth” becomes “Because not everyone is all.”) I used speech-to-text recognition to generate stories, places-characters-events. At the heart of this expansion or spawning—from “épandre,” to spread, to expand—only a name, repeated over and over again. (“Jacques Lacan” becomes “Chocolate,” etc.)

I also created the following, with Jean-Sébastien Baillat, a graphic designer, for an exhibition that used the work of the Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos as a catalyst for an experimental multidisciplinary exercise:

About a year ago, I finished a project started around 2001 (I am pretty sure you do not know about this one, Daniel), a kind of unplayable play titled Une dent (Chambre de Fédor Dostoïevski); A Tooth (Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Room). At the onset of the work, I had one idea in mind: align, sentence by sentence, all the translations of Notes from the Underground I could get my hands on. I did this, but then condensed and rewrote the whole thing in such a way that there are now but remnants of the originals.

I used the following sources:
- Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский, Записки из подполья (Zapiski iz podpol’ya), 1864
- Le Sous-sol, Gallimard (Folio Classique), 1956. Translation: Pierre Pascal and Boris de Schloezer
- Notes from the Underground, Oxford University Press, 1991. Translation: Jane Kentish
- Notes d’un souterrain, Flammarion, 1992. Translation: Lily Denis
- Les Carnets du sous-sol, Actes Sud, 1992. Translation: André Markowicz
- Notes de métro, Google Translate (from the Russian original), April 2016

Here are the first few lines of Une dent translated in English:
I’m sick . . . [He moans.] [He coughs.] I’m s-sick . . . [He moans.] [He touches his jaw.] My t-tooth! . . . I’m . . . [He breathes by the mouth.] I’m . . . [He laughs.] sick . . . [He coughs.] That’s it . . . [He swallows.] That’s good . . . [He swallows.] That’s f-fitting . . . [He coughs.] Nothing to change . . . [He breathes by the mouth.] [He sniffs.] Nothing to . . . [He moans.] to . . . c-correct . . . [He swallows.] Nothing . . . [He clears his throat.] That’s good . . . [He coughs.] That’s quite fitting . . . [He coughs.] Nothing to . . . to . . . add . . . [He coughs.] [He coughs.] N-nothing more to say . . . [He moans.] . . .  I’m . . . si . . . [He breathes by the mouth.] [He touches his jaw.] s . . . [He swallows.] I’m . . . I’m . . . [He coughs.] I’m ill . . .

And I did a lot more, and a lot worse . . .


Steve Savage is a translator who lives in Montreal. His latest book is titled Mina Pam Dick, Traver Pam Dick, Nico Pam Dick et Gregoire Pam Dick (Le Quartanier, 2016). In a recent issue of Watts, you can see, hear, and read his misuse of voice-to-text translation.

Published Nov 16, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.