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The Writer–Translator Equation

I have been dividing my working day between writing in the morning and translating in the afternoon. Maybe comparing the two activities would be a good way to test the writer–translator equation.

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Jan Ekels (II): A Writer Trimming his Pen, 1784

The translator is a writer. The writer is a translator. How many times have I run up against these assertions?—in a chat between translators protesting because they are not listed in a publisher’s index of authors; or in the work of literary theorists, even poets (“Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text,” observed Octavio Paz). Others claim that because language is referential, any written text is a translation of the world referred to.

In recent months, I have been dividing my working day between writing in the morning and translating in the afternoon. Maybe comparing the two activities would be a good way to test this writer–translator equation.

I’m writing a novel. It began to present itself as a possibility perhaps a year before I started work on it. Two vague ideas that had been bumping around for a while came together and took on a little form. One: an older man, once prominent in cultural circles, has withdrawn from all contact with his peers and stopped following news or media in any form; he lives as a kind of urban hermit, an acute observer but, as it were, uninformed. Two: someone receives, out of the blue, an invitation to attend the funeral, in a foreign country, of an extremely distinguished colleague, friend, and rival of many years ago.

Making my aging hermit the recipient of that invitation seemed interesting, but insufficient. Something to sniff around. Then, some time into the Covid-19 lockdown, it occurred to me: What if the funeral were to coincide with a crisis in the foreign country that our elderly hero, scrupulously avoiding all news, knew nothing about? This seemed encouraging. I sensed there was a body of experience to be unpacked and some fun to be had—and set a tentative pen to paper.

Meanwhile, I am translating from the Italian a work by Roberto Calasso called Il libro di tutti i libri (The book of all books). This project started rather differently. There was a phone call urging me to undertake the job. There was a period of reflection, since it is 473 pages long and Calasso’s prose is not easy. I had translated books by him years ago and struggled.

Did I have the energy? Did I really want to use my time this way? I read the first hundred pages or so; since the book involves a fascinating retelling of the Old Testament, and since I was brought up in an intensely religious family where the Bible was read morning, noon, and night, it seemed something that might mesh fruitfully with my past and my resources. After which, there was a long negotiation over terms, until at last a contract was signed. I now know exactly how much text I have to translate every week to meet my deadline, and how much money I will be paid and when. It’s reassuring.

I have no contract for the novel. No deadline. No certainty I will finish it or that it will be published. No idea how much I will be paid if it is published. No clear sense of what will be in it, or how long it will be. Everything is exploration, risk. Which is exciting, but not reassuring. There are days when you fear you’ll lose your nerve.

If I don’t write this novel, no one else will. No one will know what hasn’t been written. If I don’t translate Calasso, someone else will quickly replace me.

When I translate, I sit across a big table from my Italian partner, who is also working on a translation. We work on our computers, occasionally asking each other a question about words in our respective languages, making a coffee or a tea, sharing a joke. There’s a pleasant intimacy that gets us through the hours. But to write, I withdraw to our spare room, away from phone or Internet, and write by hand in an exercise book. This creates an atmosphere of silent urgency. There is the possibility of deep absorption, when I might write very fast, but also of emptiness and frustration, when nothing works. There is even boredom.

Calasso also writes by hand, in a near-indecipherable calligraphy. Chapter by chapter, he comments on my translation, in handwriting, in the margins of printed pages that his secretary emails to me as PDFs. It’s a good arrangement; Calasso knows English well, he can distinguish a semantic slip from a question of style, and his notes, when I’ve managed to puzzle them out, help me with the work ahead. There are issues with biblical references and also with tone and register, since Calasso has a strong, distinctive voice, and I have to find my version of that in English: intellectual without being pompous, with the inflections of speech but not colloquial. I have to find a way to deploy a sophisticated vocabulary in a reader-friendly way. With occasional exceptions, he defers to me on stylistic choices, I to him on all semantic questions.

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Nobody will see my novel chapter by chapter. I could send samples to friends, as I do when writing nonfiction. But I feel it would be a mistake. I do not want input or feedback. Only I know the potential I saw in those first few ideas. I must make the thing myself.

Speaking of references, Calasso has stipulated which English translation of the Bible I should use for proper names and place names. I have that text open on my computer in background, together with a bilingual dictionary, an Italian monolingual dictionary, and an English thesaurus. Beside me is a stack of perhaps three hundred photocopied pages of texts that Calasso quotes from. I have everything I need.

For my novel, I occasionally go to the Internet for research—images of the décor of a luxury hotel, say, that I flick through looking for some detail I might use, without having the slightest idea of what that might be. Then is it really possible, I wonder one morning, to take a flight from this airport to that one, so late in the evening? Google says not. But does it matter? This is a novel, isn’t it? I muse and play. I waste a lot of time.

None is wasted translating. First, I open Calasso’s original in PDF. I copy and paste a couple of paragraphs, then start to compose my English version immediately above his Italian, flicking back and forth between all my various reference texts and cancelling out his sentences as I replace them with my own. It’s painstaking work, testing both my Italian and my English to the limit. I must keep a peremptory flourish and freshness to the voice, despite constantly checking the spelling of such names as Ahijah the Shilonite, or Rabbah bar Abuha, or King Manasseh and his grandson Josiah. And I have to get the nuance exactly right. This is Calasso’s take on the Bible, not mine. He has done a lot of thinking about it and developed precise and challenging reflections. “Let’s avoid the word ‘opinion,’” he comments in the margin of the chapter I sent him. He’s right: pharaohs don’t have opinions.

And I don’t have the energy for more than a couple of hours of this work at a time. It’s like giving blood. On the other hand, I can always do those two hours’ translation; in fact, I have to do them to meet my deadline. A publication date is fixed; an editorial machine is waiting.

Writing my novel, I sometimes give up after half an hour. It’s going nowhere; it’s too frustrating. Or I press on for three, four, five hours, until my partner comes to ask when I’m planning to eat. I hadn’t realized how the time had flown by.

Often, it will be only after I stop writing—whether in desperation, or because recalled to reality, perhaps in line at the supermarket, or reversing the car out of the garage—that the most important breakthroughs come: What if that colleague whose funeral he’s going to had been his ex-wife’s lover? Or wrongly suspected of such? Is that the way to go? Is it a novel about rivalry?

When I stop translating, I simply stop. Job done. But the translation can feed into the novel. Calasso points out that Abraham and Moses did not begin their patriarchal careers until they were seventy-five and eighty years old, respectively. Before that, we know very little about them. My hero is in his seventies. Could it be that the key phase of his life is just beginning?

Nothing feeds from the novel to the translation.

I write in the morning because the first hours after breakfast offer a sense of potential and openness. The day is up for grabs. Anything could happen. My mind is not encumbered with mail or phone calls or the like. The page before me is empty, the way forward elusive, and it would be all too easy to be distracted by something engagingly concrete: a letter to write or a form to fill, some activity that would confer an easy sense of mastery and accomplishment. I need these unencumbered hours.

Translation, however challenging, is not so precarious. Indeed, translation is precisely the kind of concrete problem that easily seizes hold of my mind. This alliteration, that premodifier. As I read through the paragraph I have just translated, my self-esteem soars. Calasso is such a fine storyteller, his ideas and observations so pungent. Put together a halfway decent translation and you feel you’ve done something brilliant. Done it, what’s more, after the gloom and doom of the one o’clock news, after pasta and piselli, espresso and savoiardi.

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When I translate, I am laboring primarily over expression, style. The content is already there. When I write, I am thinking what to write, and it comes out in the style it does.

Then comes the revision. At the end of each afternoon, I read through what I’ve translated and make a few corrections. At the end of each chapter (each about fifty pages), I put up my version on the left of the screen and his original on the right and go through the two together, word by word, line by line, to check that I’ve missed nothing and got the sense right throughout. I always find an adverb I’d skipped, a subjunctive I failed to grasp. Then I put the original aside and read through my version again for style, shifting some of the syntax around, the rhythms, the sounds, the register.

Every few pages of the novel—a scene, a narrative phase (I haven’t settled on chapters yet)—I transfer what I’ve written from paper to computer. Sort of. I’ll leave out bits I don’t like. Introduce new bits, cutting, changing, rewriting. Sometimes, I’ll be typing out stuff that isn’t like my first version at all. A sort of parallel text. Dialogues take different tacks. Other times, I just throw it all away. Or keep it exactly as it was. The following morning, before starting to write, I’ll reread what I put on the computer the day before, immersing myself in the rhythm and feeling of it all, looking for the momentum that will launch me into the unknown pages ahead. Maybe while I’m doing that, I’ll make a change that alters everything.

So, if my novel, as Paz claims, will inevitably be a translation of other texts or, as others would have it, a translation of the world, I have no idea as I produce it what those texts are or what that world is going to be. James Joyce claimed that he had created nothing in his writing, taken it all from life; yet even those who shared his world and life could never have predicted the extraordinary creation that was Ulysses. In contrast, it’s fairly clear what will be in my translation of Il libro di tutti i libri. However well or badly I do the job.

At the halfway point, I email Calasso’s publisher to assure his editor that I am on schedule. That same evening, sitting at a canal-side café in Milan drinking an Aperol spritz, I see, walking side by side, pushing a stroller, the young couple and sickly child who are going to change my hero’s life.

Got it! Maybe.

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