Translation is a curious craft. You must capture the voice of an author writing in one language and bear it into another, yet leave faint trace that the transfer ever took place. (The translator extraordinaire Charlotte Mandell calls this transformation “Something Else but Still the Same.”) Though spared the anguish of writer’s block, the translator nonetheless has to confront the white page and fill it. The fear: being so immersed in the source text, adhering so closely to the source language, that the resulting prose is affected and awkward—or worse, unreadable. Yet immersion is inevitable. In fact, it’s required.
Like the ghostwriter, the translator must slip on a second skin. Sometimes this transition is gentle, unobtrusive, without violence. But sometimes the settling in is abrupt, loud, and even disagreeable. For me, “plunge deep” tactics that go beyond the mechanics of translation help: coaxing out references to reconstruct the author’s cultural touchstones (books, film, music); reading passages aloud, first in the original and then in translation, until hoarseness sets in; animating the author’s story through my senses, using my nose, my ears, my eyes, and my fingers; devouring every clue to imprint the range of the author’s voice (humor, anger, grief, detachment) on my translation.
The first literary work I translated, France, Story of a Childhood, was my initiation into immersive translation. In this autobiographical novel, the Algerian-born author Zahia Rahmani recounts her turbulent childhood growing up in rural France during the 1960s. Her narrative is episodically interrupted by jumps forward to 2005, when her mother lies dying and race riots engulf Paris and other French cities. The tone of the book is alternately angry and sorrowful, poetic and explosive. The first time I read France, I was living in France, alone and far from home, increasingly aware of my own parents’ mortality and the limitations of time and place. The author’s mother’s accounts of Algeria made me homesick for my North African homeland, Tunisia, which I had also left at a young age.
I dedicated hours to the technical aspects of the translation: mirroring Rahmani’s seamless shifts between verb tenses, making delineations between dialogue and stream of consciousness, reining in the prepositional confusion French often yields in English. But I wanted to go even deeper. Like Pierre Menard, Borges’s overzealous translator, I was convinced I could create a literary symbiosis if I just delved far enough. I listened to the Doors and Patti Smith on a “Zahia” Spotify playlist because the artists played an important role in the author’s adolescence. I read all the many books referenced in France. The novel includes passages in Kabyle, the Berber dialect spoken by the narrator’s mother, so I listened to audio clips of the language and consulted linguistic experts. I recited the entire text aloud a dozen times to ensure that the sonority of my translation echoed the original.
I met Rahmani about a year after I began to translate her book. Here was a writer—an imposing, theatrical woman who towered over me in a black caftan—whose most intimate moments I had not only read but studied. A suicide attempt, first love and lust, grief over a deceased parent. I had absorbed her language and all the emotions it encompassed with such devotion and intensity that to have her before me was unsettling. I listened and didn’t say much.
More recently, I translated a novel set in Morocco. The Hospital was written in 1989 by the writer and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani, now deceased. The novel, inspired by Bouanani’s confinement in a tuberculosis sanatorium, unfolds in a hospital where patients languish in madness, resignation, and chaos. As the narrator of the novel steps over the hospital threshold, the entrance disappears, and he loses all sense of time and space: “The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination. At all hours I am caught between vertigo and delirium.”
I was immediately seduced by Bouanani’s voice—acerbic, at times crass, his irreverence underlaid with nostalgia and sadness. Though his writing is more direct than Rahmani’s (no shifting tenses or competing narratives to unwind), assuming his voice proved more difficult. I had to navigate new linguistic challenges—Bouanani reveled in slipping expressions from the Moroccan dialect Darija into standard French. Midway through my translation, resentful of a full-time job that detracted from my craft, frustrated in my search for a publisher willing to publish this mad little gem, I got off track. The connection was lost.
How could I reimmerse myself in Bouanani’s universe? I started with simple things. The cyclamen flower: What does it look like? What does it smell like? The task was complicated by the narrator’s faulty remembrances—his cyclamen is based on “imagined memories of something close to an ivy or poppy or maybe also a rhododendron.” I could conjure Bouanani’s literary influences—Borges, Buzzati, Cendrars—but accessing his filmography was more difficult. And then—ironically, considering the subtext of The Hospital—I got sick. I suffered from a myriad of symptoms for a condition that took months to diagnose and more to resolve: debilitating vertigo.
Like the anonymous narrator of The Hospital, I found myself “pitching like a drunken boat,” navigating the muddled boundaries between up and down, left and right—dizzy all the time, whether sitting or standing, often falling. At times, the vertigo was so intense that I would lie down on the floor of my home office for a minute or five or thirty. Flat on my back, I would think of Bouanani’s narrator, lying in his hospital cot, overtaken by vertigo and delirium, mushrooms sprouting in his brain, floating above his bed and watching his body below. Eventually, unable to walk unassisted, I ended up in the hospital.
My hospital, of course, differed vastly from Bouanani’s. Foremost, it had clearly marked exits. I had entered of my own volition and could leave when I wanted. But amid the incessant hospital noises, the boredom and fear, the niggling IV in my arm, I couldn’t help but think of Bouanani, confined in a mysterious institution, breathing “murderous hospital air,” with undiagnosed afflictions and inadequate care.
I was more fortunate than the patients in Bouanani’s hospital: my stay was short, and my recovery was straightforward. I got better, finished my translation, and found an interested publisher in New Directions. My months-long physical deterioration had been unexpected and undesired, but it brought me close to an author distant from me in age, gender, situation, and time. The sheer physicality of my experience—an obsessional awareness of my orientation in space—distracted me from the linguistic preoccupations (e.g., language, syntax, vocabulary) that can paradoxically both guarantee and hinder a good translation. Instead, I found myself existing alongside Bouanani, my own vivid sensations coloring how I translated his words. I wonder how I’ll read my translation in five or ten years. Will my own experience peek through? Despite my meticulous editing, did I leave something of my own on the page? (And if I did, is that really so bad?)
I repeat: translation is a curious craft. The translator is both invisible and visible everywhere. The translator accesses a character’s life and memories, fictional or real, in an all-absorbing act, seeking to re-create sensations evoked by one language into another. Spending hours reading, researching, analyzing, and finally translating can foster a connection that is both comforting and deceptive. At times, a line or word from Rahmani’s or Bouanani’s novel unexpectedly pops into my head. It takes me a second to place it and shake it off as not my own.
I’m translating another novel set in the medical universe, about a young woman afflicted with a mysterious ailment—she experiences excruciating pain when anyone or anything touches her arms. The novel centers on her quest to find a diagnosis and a cure. Here’s hoping that the act of translation, while still immersive, will be gentler this time around.
Lara Vergnaud is a translator and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Asymptote, the Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.