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The Daily Alchemy of Translation

Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
Nancy Cadogan: Fragile Possibilities: Prelude, William Wordsworth, 2017

When we were little, my sister Anne Marie and I were so inseparable we were almost one. We grew up on a seven-acre property outside Stillwater, Oklahoma, and spent our days running around in tiny cowboy boots and barely any clothing, chasing ducks and other birds, pestering the family horse and playing ring around the rosy.

Then one fall we moved to Tulsa, started school. We no longer spent all day together; we no longer got to roam. But it wasn’t only city life or growing up that separated Anne Marie and me.

My sister had her first seizure in kindergarten. At five, she was undergoing tests and procedures, while all I could do was look on, hold her bruised clenched fists in my not-much-larger hands. She had her first brain surgery at six. By then, her life had ceased to bear any resemblance to mine, although I couldn’t accept it.

Over the next two decades, things kept going wrong for Anne Marie. Her brain tumor grew back. She developed more symptoms, got diagnosed: rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, hemochromatosis, more. She dated men who beat her. She dated a man who dragged her into the nightmare world of drugs like crack and PCP. There was always a way for Anne Marie to reach the hospital.

I never stopped missing my sister. I didn’t know how else to reach her, so I made myself sick. It was instant: from a friendly, hardy caterpillar of a kid I turned into a forlorn, brittle-winged creature condemned to flee an omnipresent winter. I was depressed, sometimes severely so. By the time I got to college, I was suicidal. That got me into the hospital, but it didn’t get me any closer to my sister.

When I turned eighteen, I was able to start migrating for real. Distrustful of others, I would alight only briefly in the places I got scholarships to go: Swansea, Moscow, Iowa City, Warsaw, Kraków, Chicago, Paris, Berlin. I loved language, and I loved languages, but nothing was ever enough to make me stay. Until finally, in Buenos Aires, something did.

*

In some languages, like Polish, the word for share is the same as the word for divide. It took some time, but finally this did make sense to me. If there is an unlimited quantity of anything, I don’t know what it is. To share is always to give something up: to divide.

*

At around the same time I moved to Buenos Aires, in Warsaw, Sylwia Siedlecka published her first short story collection, Szczeniaki (Pups). Its epigram, from Heraclitus, reads: “Souls in Hades conserve their sense of smell.” It’s an apt start to a slew of brilliant, unexpected works of fiction, all poised on the fine thread between wit and devastation, most sampling the grotesque, that hallowed European tradition that is always, in the words of literary historian Rémi Astruc, “tragic and comic, sad and gay, absurd and meaningful, realistic and fantastic, in the same way that it unites life and death.”

I admired her prose style, but it was all those ands that made me sure I needed to translate Szczeniaki into English. I wanted Sylwia Siedlecka—whose circumstances seemed so near my own: she was about my age, also a linguist and an academic—to teach me the balancing act she had already mastered, wanted to get inside her defter imagination to plumb my own heartbreak. I decided to translate her book.

I began with a story titled “Wodny motyl.” I called it “Water Butterfly.”

*

“Water Butterfly” is a story about conjoined twins Benyamin and Oli. The narration alternates between the two. Benyamin opens, recounting the scene of his and Oli’s birth (as passed down to him), already intimating a lurking loss. He tells us that in the beginning, he was the weaker twin by far. “I looked like a piece of Oli that had found its way onto his back, a sort of ghastly hump with the face of a baby,” he explains.

And Oli, taking up his part of the duet, is quick to concur. The imbalance of power between the siblings continues in this way for several pages, tantamount to several years. Oli is the strong one, bullying the brother he cannot escape. But Benyamin hangs on, and soon Oli describes the first time that his brother, always eating, always growing, overpowered him:

There would have been nothing wrong with Benyamin getting big and strong if I hadn’t started to weaken right around the same time. My skin, which had always been rosy, started to get pale and thin as tissue paper. When the sun was shining, I could see a network of thin blue veins underneath. Was it really possible that over the course of a couple of months I had gone from being a hale and hardy kid to a completely translucent one? I asked Mom why you could seem to see right through me, but she couldn’t say. And she kept on peeling oranges for our afternoon snack, six sections for Benyamin, six for Oli. Benyamin devoured the fruit like he did everything. While more and more I had to force myself to eat. Who knows, maybe because I saw that my body had started to betray me, and that everything I ate and drank was being secretly smuggled over to my brother, in the blood, in the oxygen—you could even see it in our hair, his thick, mine sparse and ugly. Benyamin was thus becoming a healthy and attractive boy, or at least so they all said. I never saw Benyamin myself, nor he me.

This slow absorption by Benyamin of everything, and his improvement—and Oli’s decline—begins to get faster, more extreme. “Our parents had to lean over Oli’s pale face just to hear what he was saying,” says Benyamin. “And then one day Oli just fell completely silent. That morning winter came. And then I felt like I was winning.”

*

In her most recent novel in English (in the marvelous translation of Deborah Smith), The White Book, Han Kang writes:

It was on the outskirts of this city that she saw the butterfly. A single white butterfly, wings folded on a reed bed, one November morning. No butterflies had been seen since summer; where could this one have been hiding? The air temperature had plummeted in the previous week, and it was perhaps on account of its wings frequently freezing that the white color had leached from them, leaving certain parts close to transparent. So clear, they shimmer with the black earth’s reflection. Only a little time is needed now and the whiteness will leave those wings completely. They will become something other, no longer wings, and the butterfly will be something that is no longer butterfly.

The city, though never named in the book, is Warsaw. A vast chasm separates the work of Kang and Siedlecka: inheritors of radically different cultural and literary traditions, speakers of languages that have essentially nothing in common, Kang’s style is bare, as though expertly distilled, while Siedlecka’s tends toward the baroque. Yet The White Book does connect them, in its setting and its principal thematic concern. In the story, Kang’s narrator walks Siedlecka’s hometown’s icy streets remembering the older sister she never got to meet, who died just hours after being born. She knows that it is only thanks to that loss that her parents tried again with her: that her life is only possible because her sister isn’t there.

Jennifer Croft
Warsaw, Poland, 2019

What is translation if not an intimate act between two people, away from the eyes of the world? It might be the mirth of two sisters, suppressed at table: a mutual tautening, hands flitting to faces until the effect of the secret subsides. It might be an embrace. It might even be an angry struggle. The nature of the relationship between translator and writer depends on the text. But it is always a close one.

*

At first, my English was no match for Sylwia Siedlecka’s Polish. After the title, I ventured a first sentence. But to borrow Benyamin’s words, my translation looked like a measly misplaced piece of the original, “a sort of ghastly hump with the face of a baby.” My translation and Siedlecka’s original were conjoined, but my words were tiny, seemed unsustainable in the face of hers. Nevertheless, I hazarded a second sentence.

When Benyamin is born, he stuns everyone by screaming—almost as loud as Oli. “My body was such that it might not have lasted the night,” he says, “but in the meantime, I saw no reason to relinquish my right to shriek. Who knows, maybe that was what kept me alive.” 

Even though it seemed to be in vain, I continued my translation. I, too, saw no reason to relinquish my right.

*

Pure chance had led me to Buenos Aires, but there I fell in love. At first, I knew no Spanish. But what I did know by then was how to learn.

My first words were place names: Congreso, Lavalle, Palermo. Down Corrientes, wild tangles of names up the storefronts, te amos loping up where you could see the buildings’ sides. Next I studied tango, which taught me to understand non-verbal cues. I went to bars, where I learned to make small talk. I took more walks. I thought of ways to depart from the small talk I had learned.

Sometimes, in the beginning, I felt wildly, and terribly, alone. I pictured myself at the very edge of the world map my sister and I had studied so often when we were small. I pictured myself now tumbling off into the furrowed, faded blue.

The more time I spent in Buenos Aires, however, the more my loneliness turned into something else.

*

One day, the twin boys’ father catches a beautiful butterfly in the park and brings it home. It flutters in the boys’ hands and dazzles them when they release it into their room. Concerned about what might happen next, their dad takes the butterfly into his own hands. Then he “extracted a long pin out of somewhere, and drove it into the middle of the insect’s body. By the next day the butterfly was hanging in our room, in a glass case, which Dad had spent all night making because he thought it would make us happy.”

From the hospital bed he shares with Benyamin in the days leading up to their surgery, Oli writes: “I’ll never see that butterfly again because I’ll never go back to our room again. The only trace of me that will be left will be a red scar on my brother’s back, straight and even like a zipper because these doctors are supposed to be the best.”

*

I kept finding new ways to immerse myself in Buenos Aires culture. I went out with a wonderful Argentine man whose family welcomed me as a member. I tried playing polo and thought of our old family horse in Oklahoma as I was struggling to stay aloft.

I tried psychoanalysis in Spanish. Buenos Aires has the highest density of psychoanalysts of any city in the world. The division between physical health and mental health was not nearly so marked here as I had found it elsewhere. Nearly everyone I knew regaled me with tales of analytic revelations that had helped heal sore backs, terrible headaches, intimacy issues, persistent exhaustion. Their faith in the connection between mind and body was firm, and it tended to be founded in personal experience.

I spent six months in therapy with an old man, a friend’s therapist, then three with a raucous, avian woman I had found online. Then a year with a woman named María, who did help me feel even more at home in Buenos Aires, but who also accomplished more than that.

The main thing I learned from my therapy was how to be selfish. Not selfishness as a virtue, exactly, but selfishness as not a flaw. Self as sole possession, self as life.

I broke up with the wonderful Argentine man but remained a member of his family. It was my first successful separation. When María became possessive, erratic and rude, I cut off our sessions, polite but firm, just like she herself had taught me. But not before we talked about “Water Butterfly.”

Did I feel guilty as my words consumed Siedlecka’s? I can’t remember now. But if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think so.

*

“The difficulty in translating the incomprehensible lies in letting it remain incomprehensible,” writes translator Emily Banwell, “in allowing it to retain its gaps, layers and ambiguous meanings.”

When I read my translation now, a couple of years later, I see a million things I would do differently. Even the choices I would keep I can’t explain, in the same way that I can’t always understand why I write an essay the way I do. Writing is intuitive, a process that involves too many moving parts for the conscious mind to comprehend, and translation is writing, too.

“We were connected by a thick cord,” I read, “a knotted spine”—words that both are and aren’t my words, or words that are but that belong at the same time to Sylwia Siedlecka—“we were like one, inseparable.” The splayed pages of my printout flutter, and I picture my translation as a butterfly whose transformative chrysalis I’d been. But what would Siedlecka make of the suggestion that her story had been mere caterpillar to my sumptuous and soaring creature?

“To the cold dry world we responded with a shriek.” I recalled that sentence like the original was still there underneath the English, as if it were erased and written-over pencil—or like a scar. In Polish: “Na suchy i zimny świat odpowiedzieliśmy wrzaskiem.” A word-for-word translation might read, “To dry and cold world answered cry.”

But there are no articles—definite or indefinite—in the Slavic languages, so the translator adds them almost automatically when working into English. The way the verb is conjugated implies the pronoun “we,” and the noun “cry” is marked in such a way as to suggest the preposition “with,” so in those both go, too.

But there were other things I had done, like changing the order of the adjectives “dry” and “cold.” Why had I done that? It had also felt automatic at the time, and rereading it now, “cold dry world” still sounds much more natural to me than “dry cold world.” I had deleted the “and” between the adjectives to make it punchier, since I’d had to add so many little words already—“the,” “we,” “with,” and “a.” Why had I said “shriek,” though, instead of “cry”? “Wrzask” could mean either, or it could mean “ruckus,” “hullaballoo.” Instead of saying “with,” I could also have transformed the noun into a gerund: “to the cold dry world we responded shrieking,” or “in shrieks.” “Shriek” sounds more violent than “cry,” which I wanted. I had maintained the syntax of the sentence, instead of reversing it, as I often did—word order being much freer in Polish—in which case it would have read, “We responded with a shriek to the cold dry world.”

*

Why does a person fall in love with a place? It isn’t all a mystery. So much of it has to do with what you can afford and how people look at you. I was the right kind of foreigner in Buenos Aires—a blonde person of letters—and I profited off the value of the Argentine peso, which plummeted steadily in comparison with the currencies I earned—dollars and zlotys—through translation.

In Spanish, the word for destination is the same as the word for destiny: destino. I believe in chance—splendid and bizarre and horrifically indifferent chance—and became interested in tracing words for fate. In Polish it’s los, as it is in German, where it’s more versatile, also meaning Go!; wrong, as in the question Was ist los (What is wrong)?; and free, or separate. In both languages, and in some others, too, los also means lottery. The English word lot, as in the expression “lot in life,” comes from the same source.

Of course the theory goes that all the European languages were once just one. In this guessed-at earlier language, both los and lot refer to dissolution, like the English word loss (old Norse los meant a breaking up of the ranks of an army). The same source also results in let, meaning release and neglect, as well as set free.

*

One March day I sat at my computer chatting with my sister as the pink lapacho tree outside my window released its blooms. Its flowers were so fragile they seemed to wilt before they ever even hit the ground. I never picked them up because I didn’t want to be the one to crumble them completely.

Lately Anne Marie had been having terrible seizures. They had been happening for months. So she’d decided to go back to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to undergo a battery of tests.

The problem was that once she was back in the hospital, she’d felt too relaxed. She’d found it wonderful to simply lie in bed, order room service (with Jello!), watch TV and GChat with her sister. The seizures had stopped. And now the doctors couldn’t detect any underlying cause because they couldn’t even see the symptoms.

Una Mae Barr
The author and her sister Anne Marie at their childhood home in Oklahoma, circa 1991

So I offered to stress her out. I asked her questions about her latest ex-boyfriend, whose whereabouts were then unknown. I made her justify her answers.

Why do you keep getting yourself into these awful situations? I asked her. Why? Why do you insist on doing this to us?

In all the years we had been sisters, it had never occurred to me to confront Anne Marie before that afternoon. As a strategy for inducing seizures, it worked faster than I could have hoped. They came in waves, inexorably rising to a tsunami pitch, as she told me over GChat. I told her to call in the nurse.

*

The following morning, I sat down again at my table, looking out the window at the pink lapacho tree, awaiting Anne Marie’s results.

They came in definitive. There were no signs of any irregular activity—such as seizures—in her brain. There wasn’t really anything the doctors could say to explain away this gap between my sister’s body and her mind. Perhaps her own mind had turned against her, rebelling at the stressors that surrounded her; perhaps it craved a return to the consistent care of a medical environment; perhaps it’s nothing I will ever understand. But Anne Marie’s seizures this time were psychosomatic, and there was no medical intervention that could treat them that would not begin by addressing her sadness.

Not long after my sister’s stay at the Mayo Clinic, I finished my translation and sent it to a magazine. The magazine accepted it for publication, and I began to check the proofs.

Siedlecka’s story had always sent chills down my spine. Now it haunted me more. Just shy of publication, I sent it to my therapist for her to read. While she liked the work itself, what she wanted to talk about was family tethers and my sister, sick and powerful at once. At some point, we fell silent, both of us lost in separate thoughts. When she looked up at me again, María’s eyes got wide.

“You’re stroking the back of your neck,” she said in Spanish. “You keep rubbing your neck, and I don’t think you’re aware of it. But it’s like something, or someone, has been severed. Like you might finally be free to live your life.”

Anne Marie had always understood what took so many years to be revealed to me: the indissoluble bond between parting ways and liberation. In my case, it took turning my life upside down, migrating as far south as I could possibly imagine, for me to finally acquire the superpower of letting go.

But it was also something I’d been working up to since I first left home. Without realizing it, as a translator, I had been acting as an agent of transformation, performing that daily alchemy that has long made the world a world, rather than a jumble of isolated hubs—but that also relies on loss for its free function, for the emergence of something beautiful and new.

*

My sister came to visit me in Buenos Aires. She found it dirty, noisy. Weird. But then again, she didn’t have any major seizures while she was there.


Sylwia Siedlecka’s story “Wodny motyl,” translated by Jennifer Croft as “Water Butterfly,” is published by Guernica. Croft’s translation has since been slightly revised.