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The Translator’s Bookshelf

By Elisa Wouk Almino

When you deeply love a piece of writing, you long to become a part of it—to add to it and insert your own voice into its sentences. This is an idea that Roland Barthes expressed and that the writer and translator Kate Briggs elaborates on in her recent book This Little Art. “To write is to want to rewrite,” Barthes says. The translator, Briggs asserts, does the same: she retraces another author’s words, expanding on and amplifying them.

Briggs bestows the process of translating with the same all-encompassing, inspired energy of writing. It is a physical experience, unique to each body, that depends on what moves the translator to read, write, and rewrite. Ana Iwataki, who primarily translates experimental texts from French, is one of many translators who have identified with Briggs’s book, and she takes this concept one step further: for Iwataki, truly reading a text means digesting it, letting it linger in your body and change your makeup.

Image: A portion of Ana Iwataki’s curated bookshelf at 3307 W Washington Blvd

Iwakati recently arranged a selection of the books she’s consumed on a shelf at 3307 W Washington Blvd, a project space in Los Angeles that invites artists, writers, and researchers to curate three shelves for three months at a time. Stacked beside This Little Art, Iwataki placed books on the pleasures of eating (by M.F.K. Fischer, Michael Pollan) and books on what it means to love. I picked up Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and read chapter one: love is an art, he argues, because “it requires knowledge and effort.” When we devour books and translate them, we’ve put in the work to love them. Our bookshelves, the collections of things that led us to where we are, are unique to each of us. As Briggs expresses, “[w]e are not all moved by the same poetry or prose. We do not all feel with the same spurring intensity about the same poetry or prose.” And later, “I read with my body, I read and move to translate with my body, and my body is not the same as yours.”

Rewriting the words of Brazilian poets in English springs from an impulse similar to describing a painting: I want to reproduce, re-experience a text in my own words.

During a live performance, Iwakati read aloud fragments from the books, moving swiftly from Briggs to Fischer to Fromm and focusing on the passages and sentences that have lodged in her body and that orbit in conversations in her mind. Briggs, echoing Barthes, points out that sometimes we love a book only for “one resonant paragraph that sounds across a lifetime while the rest of the book falls quietly away.”

The journey to translating involves many kinds of books, and as I listened to Iwakati, I thought about which volumes—filled with heavily annotated and underlined sentences—my bookshelf would hold. As a translator from Portuguese, my journey began with missing Brazil, which inspired me to read—and later to translate—Brazilian poetry.


The first book on my shelf would be Education by Stone, a collection by the Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, translated into English by Richard Zenith and published in a bilingual edition by Archipelago Books. I distinctly remember reading the poem “Psychology of Composition,” where he alludes to the “blank page” on which he writes, the same whiteness of paper framing the poems in both languages:

“I take refuge / on this pristine shore / where nothing exists / for night to fall on.”

This is one of the first books in which I paid close attention to the translations, growing to love them as much as the originals in a different but equal way.


But it wasn’t only Brazilian writers who led me to translation. Beside João Cabral de Melo Neto, I’d place works by Elizabeth Bishop, specifically her poem “Questions of Travel,” which she wrote while living in Brazil:

“Continent, city, country, society: / the choice is never wide and never free. / And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?”

This final stanza encompasses Bishop’s constant search to define and find a sense of home in both Brazil and the US. Bishop helped to identify this same search in me, and so began my intense interest for poetry, using it to articulate my sense of place—between Brazil and here, Portuguese and English. 


For me, rewriting the words of Brazilian poets in English springs from an impulse similar to describing a painting: I want to reproduce, re-experience a text in my own words. Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures beautifully articulates this impulse, as he imagines the inner lives of paintings. In reflecting on Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “Italian Comedians” (1720), he imagines one of the subjects as an indifferent candle:

“I resemble a candle whose flame pokes fun at itself, standing always at the same height, the same depth.”

Most of Walser’s essays are translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, with a few translated by Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton, and as I inhabit the paintings Walser describes, I love to imagine the translators living within the walls of his words, learning the twists and turns of the spaces he creates.


I started to think about inhabiting the translator’s shoes when I picked up David Bellos’s book Is That a Fish In Your Ear?. Little did I know the influence that Bellos’s essays would have over me. In chapter one, he astutely observes: 

“Give a hundred competent translators a page to translate, and the chances of any two versions being identical are close to zero.”

This book is an excellent guide to thinking about what translation means, why it matters, and all the many ways to do it. 


I’ve had the pleasure of translating authors of my choice and translator Sophie Collins has helped me to keep myself accountable in my choices. In the gorgeous poetry anthology Currently & Emotion: Translations, which Collins edited, she writes:

“Literary translation is, and always has been, a biased, inequitable exchange.”

Who we translate is, of course, political. And while there is a prevailing misconception that translators are invisible, Collins shares in her introductions to the poems how the translators deliberately selected them. 


At some point in the translation process, we become obsessive. Idra Novey’s deeply entertaining Ways to Disappear brilliantly captures for me the ways in which a translator becomes consumed by the author she translates—not just by their books, but by freakish details like the color of their bathrobes and on “which side of the sofa” they’ve “curled up to read.” The book also conveys how thankless the job can feel, particularly as a woman:

“If only she’d been born a man in Babylon when translators had been celebrated as the makers of new language.”

Finally, because my journey to translation was shaped not only by books but by music, my bookshelf would include a few albums. When I moved to the US from Brazil at the age of fourteen, I listened to Brazilian music compulsively and distributed countless mixtapes to my new friends. I wanted to share Brazilian sounds and language; sometimes I translated song lyrics. As with my relationship to Brazilian poetry today, I was figuring out how to share something that was close to me but foreign to others. Years later, while getting my journalism degree at New York University, I put together a radio show that played Brazilian music alongside American music as a way of showing their mutual influences and how the cultures have translated one another’s traditions. On my shelf, I’d place Chet Baker Sings beside João Gilberto’s Desafinado, and Caetano Veloso’s Transa beside Devendra Banhart’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.

I imagine when musicians are moved by one another’s music, they have the desire to respond to it. It’s similar to the work of a translator—all it takes is a book, a passage, or even a sentence that makes you want to pause and inhabit or rewrite it in some way, and you may find yourself on the road to translation.


Further Reading

“Tarsila do Amaral: Translating Modernism in Brazil”

“PÒTOPRENS: Translating Place at the Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince Exhibit”

“On Walser and the Visual Arts”

Published Feb 13, 2019   Copyright 2019 Elisa Wouk Almino

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