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Translating (in) Darkness

By Lara Vergnaud

How do we translate trauma? In this essay, Lara Vergnaud reflects on her experience translating scenes of graphic violence and abuse, and shares strategies that may be useful to other translators.

I almost turned this translation down. The book was too dark, too violent, too graphic. And yet, I kept reading. It’s set in rural France, sometime in the nineteenth century. Rose is fourteen when she is sold by her father to a rich landowner. She is raped, repeatedly, and gets pregnant; her child is taken from her seven days after he is born. After comes more violence, other kinds of violence.

I got halfway through and decided, no, it’s too much. I got three-fourths through and thought, maybe. By the end, yes. It was a yes because the book is beautifully written, its horrors interspersed with long, Faulkneresque respites. One night, late, after putting my resistant toddler back to bed, I read a passage that prompted a sudden intake of air—a small gasp. Something about men being the only true terrestrial creatures, and women and children more akin to birds. I thought, I have to be the one to translate this. Though, of course, that meant translating the rest too.

In considering Of No Woman Born, a novel penned by French writer Franck Bouysse, I worried about playing a role in perpetuating the narrative of violence against women as entertainment. On a more immediate level, I worried about how spending months translating such a grim narrative would affect my emotional health. But my counterargument was the book’s literary merit. The violence at the novel’s core is part of a larger and astute examination of how humans react to and cope with trauma. And for all that the novel is set nearly two centuries ago, the casualness with which its male characters abuse women remains infuriatingly relevant. As does the notion of complicity through inaction. In Bouysse’s novel, there is always someone watching and doing nothing.

There was also this: Of No Woman Born doesn’t read like it was written by a man. And by that, I mean it doesn’t read like a novel written about how a woman is believed or expected to feel. Bouysse’s depictions of physical and sexual violence are raw and unsettling but never gratuitous or reductive. The scene in which Rose is first assaulted, in particular, is mirrored by an equally vivid birth scene rendered in such convincing prose that I, as a mother, wondered: how did he know?

The act of literary translation may be the closest reading one can offer a text and its author. For a translator to bring prose from one language into another, nothing can remain ambiguous. Every semantic and orthographic element must be weighed; even punctuation takes on maddening importance. You can’t get into the author’s head, but almost. And for the best translation—finding not the most precise, most equivalent words, but the emotional resonance of a text—you have to feel it. And sometimes you don’t want to.

When I recall the most disturbing novels in translation I’ve read, Christine Angot’s Incest and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones come to mind first. Both happen to be French novels translated by women, Tess Lewis and Charlotte Mandell, respectively. The first deals with sexual trauma, and the second with, well, just about every form of trauma there is. (The nearly 1,000-page opus is a fictionalized memoir of a former SS officer.) Leafing through these works again, I wonder how the translators fared. So I ask. Over email, Mandell tells me that she was haunted by intense, graphic dreams; she began to “inhabit” Max Aue, the remorseless and sadistic protagonist of The Kindly Ones. The metamorphosis was such that, after finishing the translation, a mental reversal was necessary—in Mandell’s words, a “de-Kindly Ones process.” She adds that a friend translating the same book into another language had to stop, the mental strain too much.

Tess’s translation was a different beast. Incest belongs to that amorphous, oh-so-French genre of autofiction, the lines between fiction and autobiography blurred. The result: a troubling proximity to real life. Tess explains that her difficulty came less “because the material was explicit or graphic but because what Angot does well is create for the reader the claustrophobic psychological experience of a sexual assault/incest survivor. [. . .] There is no way out.”

My fellow translators’ responses are especially valuable to me because I find few personal accounts (in English) of translating trauma in literature. More common are articles and studies about translating or interpreting historical or collective trauma, namely testimonials by Holocaust survivors and other accounts by victims of genocide. I unearth one scholarly work about translation that, though unrelated to trauma, captures the emotional/technical seesaw I’m attempting to articulate:

. . . successful production in translation does not rise from correspondence finding of individual words or sentences, but is procured by means of a mentally formulated image gestalt, an integrated entity of both linguistic organization and visualized scene.1

In other words, lexiconic equivalency between two languages is not enough. You have to visualize and recreate what you read as you translate it.

Normally I translate from a PDF, eyes glued to my computer screen. This time, with Of No Woman Born, I’ve been relying on the paper version, underlining and circling in pencil, creasing pages—different creases with different meanings—rubbing my finger along a line of black text, then back again, as if touching the words will make them easier to translate. Having the book within reach also means I’m constantly glimpsing the cover: a sepia photo of a mother breastfeeding her child, exposed breasts, muscled arms, unwavering. And that too does something to me.

I started translating in January. Much of Bouysse’s novel is written in Rose’s voice, her torment captured in diary entries. Those chapters were especially difficult. My plan was simple and perhaps dumb: slide index cards over the most traumatic scenes—rape, murder, torture. Translate around the covered pages. Procrastination as a defense mechanism.

But in February, frustrated at translating out of order, at skipping crucial scenes, I plowed through the flagged chapters. One rainy afternoon, the day before Valentine’s, my husband called from work to make plans. I told him I was busy translating and burst into tears. Then I hung up, irrationally angry at him, at Harvey Weinstein, and really, at all the men in the world.

For nearly that whole month, I was plagued by daylong migraines that blurred my vision, disrupting my concentration. Coincidental, maybe? They struck me as a fitting manifestation of my emotional state.

I’ve written elsewhere about the physicality of literary translation, what I call immersive translation—connecting with a text on a sensory level. Often, as is surely the case for other translators, I find myself unconsciously moving my hands, arms, legs, and head when translating. With this book, I would hunch my shoulder, mimicking a mother pushing her arm through the neck of a nightgown to breastfeed her child; tap one finger in the air, imagining myself a smoker sending a rain of cigarette ashes into his palm. Movement as a vehicle to find language.

The first rape scene was the hardest. Rose doesn’t know what’s coming, she understands only too late. As I read, and then as I translated, I twisted my body along with hers. Flinch, crouch, tense, huddle. To get the words right you have to see them. How did that study put it? “An integrated entity of both linguistic organization and visualized scene.”

I doubt readers realize how many times a single sentence is translated, or more aptly, rewritten. A dozen times? At least. When the sentence is dark and requires protracted consideration of how to translate, say, “penetrate,” for example, the translator’s mood can only darken as well.

Of course, writing a thing, or translating it, isn’t the same as living it. Empathy, yes, equivalence, no.

I have never been assaulted. Or rather, I have never been assaulted because two young men stopped another young man during “a situation.” I don’t like writing this, but I do because I wonder if it influences my translation. This reflection brings me to another quandary: how to stay invisible. A translator has two jobs, in essence—get it right and get out of the way. But it’s not so easy to divorce yourself from your own experiences. Can I, a woman and a mother, leave no trace of myself in the English version of a novel so concerned with what it is to be a woman and a mother? Of course not.

Perhaps the important thing to remember, especially now, is that while the human condition may be sprawling, it is shared. It’s not difficult to imagine a body weighing heavy on your own, a strength that outmatches yours, an unfamiliar, unwelcome odor. We can all imagine it, though we’d prefer not to.

I finished my first draft of Of No Woman Born in late March, a few weeks after the start of social distancing. The book will be published next fall by the Other Press. With several months of editing ahead of me, I am again resorting to a material solution for an emotional obstacle: marking the upsetting sections with jumbo paper clips and editing around them, fortifications until I feel mentally prepared to go back. Never have twists of metal seemed so foreboding.

My intent here was to write about mechanisms of self-care for the translator, practical tips about boundaries between life and work, the importance of switching between texts of varying intensity, taking breaks, etc. But then the world slipped like a tortoise into its shell. Now I’m operating, like everyone else, amid anxiety, fear, and ever-growing isolation.

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, before the threat became real, a joke circulated on Twitter about how translators are naturally equipped for social distancing. We are, no doubt. You most likely don’t become a translator if you’re not comfortable spending long stretches alone, in silence or reading aloud softly. But how do you go about translating dark literature in this new, denser silence?

The grim truth is that translating the pain and terror on the page may be preferable to what’s out in the world. The page, at least, gives us space to prepare, to delay as long as needed. And so, my recommended mechanism is this: amid the darkness, try to stay, if not in the light, then at least in shadow.


“Aesthetic Progression in Literary Translation” by Qiuxia Jiang, in Meta (Dec. 2008), vol. 53, no. 4, pp. 860-871. 


Related Reading:

Lara Vergnaud on Translating Zahia Rahmani's Invisible Tongues

Man Booker International Prize Q&A: Charlotte Mandell

The Translator Relay: Tess Lewis

Published Jun 10, 2020   Copyright 2020 Lara Vergnaud

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