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The Translator Relay: Robyn Creswell

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 January’s installment, Peter Cole passed the baton to critic, scholar, and translator Robyn Creswell.

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

When I was eighteen years old, I spent a summer in Morocco on a chantier—volunteer work for young people traveling on the cheap and trying to improve their French. I helped build roads in a mountain village called Chefchouen, one of the prettier places I’ve ever been. My French got a little better, but more important was my first encounter with Arabic (and also hashish). Later on I studied both languages at school and lived for a few years in Beirut and Cairo. People often found it interesting that I spoke Arabic—a blue-eyed, blond-haired kid from the Lower East Side—and that’s probably one of the reasons I stuck with it. Also because Arabic combines structure and acrobatics in a way that is, for me, endlessly beguiling.

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

I think the problem of untranslatables is a false problem (it so happens that I recently wrote an essay called “Is Arabic Untranslatable?” The short answer to which is “No”). There are words in every language that defy easy transposition into another. Borges’s short story “Averroës’ Search” is a parable about this. It tells the story of the medieval philosopher’s search for Arabic words that would translate the Greek for tragedy and comedy. (There are no such words, since classical Arabic culture had no theory of drama.) It’s a great story, but it doesn’t touch on the actual work of translation. The problem of untranslatables only arises if you think that translation means something like word-for-word substitution. No translator really thinks this however, because translation deals in patterns rather than units of language. If you’re stumped by a tricky word or phrase, try translating the sentence (or line). If that doesn’t work, try the paragraph (or stanza).

Do you have any translating rituals? 

If I did, it would be to chant the maxims of Eliot Weinberger’s “Notes on Translation” until my mind was clear and receptive to the Muse. Instead, I usually make tea and keep my favorite dictionaries handy.

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?

A translator with only one metaphor is lost—he or she needs three, four, dozens! One of the great things about Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator”— a thrillingly unfathomable essay for me—is the number of metaphors he gives us for translation, without settling on any one of them. He says translation is like a royal robe that amply enfolds the original; or else it is a series of vessel fragments which one pieces together with those of the original; or else it is like a tangent line that touches the sense of the original fleetingly at one point (which makes all the difference). He also says it’s like a transparency that lets the light of pure language shine upon the original. All of these analogies have appealed to me at one time or another and I don’t feel compelled to decide between them. Translation is most fun when it is ad hoc. I use whatever I have to hand. Sometimes a royal robe, sometimes a transparency.

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

On and off for the last few years, I’ve been translating poems by the Egyptian poet Iman Mersal. Her poems are smart, lyrical, politically risky, emotionally fearless, and very often funny. She’s also very patient with me. I hope that someday soon I’ll be able to put together a collection of her work.    

(Peter Cole’s question for you) People are always droning on about the problem, or problems, of translation. Much less attention is paid to its pleasures, which are, it seems to me, what motivates and sustains most translators. I’m wondering where you’d locate the pleasures that feed you as a translator from French and Arabic, and as a reader of translations generally.

The feeling of having got one’s translation right, when the words click satisfyingly into place like pieces in a puzzle (another metaphor), is not really distinct in my experience from the feeling of getting a line right in a piece of criticism or a poem or a piece of fiction. They’re distinct activities, of course, but the pleasure of that click is oddly similar. “Creative writing” is a mode of transmission too, in more ways than one can count.

But there are many pleasure to be had from translation that have little to do with the discovery of verbal equivalents: the discovery of the text (a readerly pleasure); the intellectual satisfaction of knowing inside out a piece of writing that matters to you; the collaborative work that goes on with the author (when they’re alive and willing to help); the challenge of framing the text for a new readership (through an introduction or afterword or footnotes); the community one gets from publishing anything; the pleasure of reading reviewers grapple with an author you value. Not all of these pleasures will come your way every time, but they’re part of what keeps me going.   

Read an excerpt of Robyn Creswell’s translation of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam

Robyn Creswell’s translations of Abdelfattah Kilito and Sonallah Ibrahim are published by New Directions. His essays on contemporary poetry and fiction have appeared in The New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksHarper’s and other magazines. He is currently the poetry editor of The Paris Review and Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University.

Published Jan 26, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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