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The Translator Relay: Emma Ramadan

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 February’s installment, Robyn Creswell passed the baton to Emma Ramadan, guest editor of WWB’s May 2016 issue: Crossing Boundaries: Morocco’s Many Voices.  

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

Growing up, my parents spoke French but chose not to teach me, instead using it when they wanted to say things they didn’t want me to understand. So from the start I was determined to learn French. I took classes in high school and college, where I encountered the book Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras, which first sparked my interest in translation, because I loved the book so much. Then I lived in Paris for a year to do my master’s. I’ve been translating writers from France ever since. I thought I’d stay in France for a long time, but I received a Fulbright fellowship to live in Marrakech and study and translate the work of Ahmed Bouanani. It wasn’t until I lived in Morocco for a year that I really felt fluent in French—I had no choice but to speak it all the time, day and night, even in my apartment, even in my sleep. Since then I’ve continued reading and translating work by Moroccan writers as well.

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

One of the most challenging translations I’ve ever done was of Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets (published in English by Mindmade Books). A member of the Oulipo, a group known for its constraint-based writing, Forte wrote a book of, literally, thirty-three flat sonnets, or sonnets displayed horizontally instead of vertically on the page, with symbols standing in for line breaks and slashes standing in for stanza breaks. It enabled him to create wordplay and interesting rhymes between words that ordinarily would have been separated by a large gap, but which are in these poems separated by only a symbol. The whole thing is very playful, and follows a strict, though irregular, rhyme scheme throughout. Keeping his playful tone and his plays on words while also keeping the rhyme was really difficult.

An example of an “untranslatable” part of the book:

/ ou bien inversement · changer de méthode en courant · ouvrir un compte- / à-rebours à rebours · quelque chose qui monte · et descend et qui vaut le détour

A “compte à rebours” is a countdown, and “à rebours” on its own means “backward.” I ended up translating this section as:

/ or else the opposite impact · to change method just like that · to take back / words backwards · something that rises then detracts · that’s worth working towards

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I always do a quick, messy first draft. On my second draft I clean it up as much as possible, solve any wordplay issues, and clear up any language questions I may have with the help of either the Internet, the author, or a French friend. Then on the third draft I read the whole thing out loud to myself, to make sure it all reads smoothly. If I have time, and think the work needs another go, I’ll do a fourth draft, also reading aloud, and by the end I never want to hear the sound of my voice again. Also, I never translate at night.

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?

No description of translation has ever resonated with me more than Anne Carson’s in Nox: “I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends . . . Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.”

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

I’ve just started translating a book called Vengeance du traducteur (Revenge of the Translator) by Brice Matthieussent, forthcoming from Deep Vellum. It’s a French novel posing as a translation of an English-language novel about an American translator translating a French author’s novel called N.d.T (Note de traducteur, or Translator’s Note). Confused yet? The first few chapters are written as translator’s notes, criticizing the novel and explaining why the translator felt obliged to make so many changes to the original text. The rest of the book is the translator’s own chapters he inserts into the novel, in which he starts interacting with the characters. It’s hilarious, absurd, and really clever. The author, Brice Matthieussent, is himself a translator of over 100 English-language works, and it’s both a mockery of every cliché or metaphor used to describe translators, as well as a great story of its own merit, where translators and authors set traps for, and even delete, each other.

(Robyn Creswell’s question for you) Emma, you translated a book of poems by Frederic Forté and a novel by Anne Garréta, both members of the Oulipo movement. What is the attraction for you of translating works born out of formal constraints? Do you think translation itself is a kind of constrained writing?  

I think the attraction lies for the most part in sheer wonder and admiration, being completely baffled by what the author has done (both the conception of the constraint and the execution of it) and wanting more people to be able to share in my awe. It’s also, obviously, really fun to try to translate constraints.

I’m not sure I buy into the idea of translation as constrained writing. I have the entire English language to work with! For every construction or play on words French has, I believe English always contains somewhere inside of it a construction or play on words that will have a similar effect on the reader. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to translate anything. In fact I usually feel like I have too many options in English, and the hardest part can be picking which one to use. Yes, what I write in English has to match the author’s voice, has to remain true to the author’s intention, but in that sense wasn’t the original piece of writing also crafted under the same parameters?

Read Emma Ramadan’s translations of excerpts from Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers and Ahmed Bouanani’s Photograms in the March 2016 issue: Crossing Boundaries: Morocco’s Many Voices

Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is also the co-owner of Riffraff, a bookstore and bar. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (Deep Vellum), Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine's Trousers (Deep Vellum), Anne Parian’s Monospace (La Presse/Fence Books), and Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets (Mindmade Books). Her forthcoming translations include Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator (Deep Vellum) and Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things (Feminist Press).

Published Feb 22, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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