September 17th, 2018

these things that changed my life // pt. 1

Do you ever look back at your life from a year ago, two, five, and realize you don’t quite recognize yourself — but in the best way? I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, that introspective burrowing that comes from a place of contentment. How could I have ever been anything but this? So, I decided to write about it.

Three years ago, I couldn’t land on a certainty regarding my career. I felt stifled. Uncreative. Languishing. So, I started researching publishing jobs. I applied to be a publishing assistant at a center for translation, focusing on translated fiction and memoir. In the end, I didn’t get the job (I did get one at a different high school, a job I deeply love), but the literary research involved during the application process had led me into a rich and previously undiscovered world.

In college, I’d read Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, Candide — and I never really thought about the fact that what I was reading wasn’t the original version as opposed to my slogging through Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales with an old English guide. What I was reading was in fact a hybrid, something else, words passed through a human sieve. In that whole year of lingering uncertainty, I read and I realized that I’d been missing the point of translation entirely.

Usually, when I begin to talk translation, someone will say that to read a translated book is to miss the point, to lose something. I tend to disagree. To read a book in translation is to read a collaboration, a carefully choreographed dance performed between two artists. It’s accepting that what you’re reading is something new. Are you reading Madame Bovary as Flaubert precisely intended it? Probably not. You’re reading a classic piece of literature filtered through Lydia Davis’ lens.

Translation is a glass refraction, a prism. And, monolinguist that I am, I find myself reading side-by-side new / old translations, abridged versions, even making small attempts at my own understanding in the intended tongue (though this usually only happens successfully with poetry), and it has changed my understanding and appreciation of literature as a whole. Translation has exposed me to writers I never would have experienced (Natsume Soseki, Kim Thuy, Herta Muller, Clarice Lispector, Elena Ferrante, Han Kang, Valeria Luiselli) and worldviews I could not have accessed had I only read the Anglocentric fiction pushed on me as a literature major (and public school teacher, for that matter).

So, I read. My mind expanded, pulled like taffy, for the first time in what seemed like a long time. I became a student again, led only by the pointed interest of my own inquiry rather than any set curriculum. I learned. I extrapolated what I had previously understood as the single narrative of a culture. Now, I find myself seeking translations before anything else. Judging a bookstore by its Japanese fiction section. “Only Murakami? What a shame.”

This year, I set a goal to read Japanese authors in June, to read female translations in August and, now, I am seeking more Icelandic and Norwegian fiction for my burgeoning collection. I follow other Goodreads and Instagram users who read translations and glean suggestions from them, but Boxwalla also helps with my intense curiosity — it’s a subscription service that sends a curated book box of translations every other month, sometimes from countries I would have never thought to research on my own simply because I was unaware of the author or title. For example, this month included Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, an author from Azerbaijan. Additionally, Kurban Said is a pseudonym and the real identity of the novelist still remains a mystery. Fascinating!

With translated fiction, I feel as though the entire world is opened up to me and I will never lack for adventure. Who knew I would wind up feeling so incredibly passionate about an art that so many forget even exists?