When we speak of translation in these end-of-days, it is often in the loftiest of tones, as though it were a sacred duty undertaken by devoted adepts prostrating themselves before the altar of language. The self is renounced, the greed for authorship forsworn in service of a greater calling, which is no less than bridging the gaps between the peoples and cultures of the world.
This is certainly true if you’re translating, say, Don Quixote, or Heian-period Japanese poetry, or a new novel by Senegal’s latest rising star. But only a small minority of translators have the skill, opportunity, and financial security required to take on such labors of love. The rest of us, to earn a living wage, will have to make do with whatever garbage we can get. By garbage I mean any or all of the following: corporate-speak, brand manifestos, NGO reports, think tank reports, letters from government agencies replying to American oil companies, letters from government agencies replying to human rights organizations, prose written by self-professed wunderkinds whose trust funds and unearned self-confidence are paying for the translation, and that vilest genre of all, the art text.
I never set out to become a translator. It’s just that, as a writer, I needed an actual source of income in order to keep a roof over my head, and it had to align with my extremely narrow skill set. After stints in both copywriting and teaching, I stumbled upon freelance translation almost by accident, and for a while I thought I’d figured out the magic formula, that I’d found the ideal side gig for a writer.
The pitch sounds great: you get to work in the medium you love, your time is your own to divide up as you see fit (mornings for writing, afternoons for translation jobs), the commute is as long as it takes to get from your bed to your desk, and coffee and snack breaks can be had as often as you damn well please.
But it turns out that none of this is exactly true (except for the snack breaks part, which comes to prove less a perk and more an occupational hazard). Because the horrible indignity of freelance work is this: your time is yours in theory alone. In reality, every minute of it now belongs to the client. The client whose perpetually super-urgent job has to be finished in a span of time that would make Google Translate weep. The client who is also often quick to remind you that in this merchant city of Beirut, being multilingual is no special thing, and that there are hordes of people waiting in the wings to perform the same job in less time and for less money. Thus you are always engaged in cruel calculations, trying to estimate whether this job, given the deadline and level of difficulty and/or research required to familiarize yourself with the jargon it entails, might allow you to afford to buy a small measure of your own time back from yourself, even just a couple of mornings a week, to put down on a page some words that won’t make you want to rip your hair out in agony (or at least not in the same way and for the same reasons).
And, to add existential insult to material injury, what you often end up having to translate is writing that makes you hate writing, that bears no resemblance to “the medium you love.”
I said garbage and I mean garbage; I mean trash piles of words arranged in a sequence that follows no syntactical or logical order. I mean sorting through the offal of language, with endless entrails of run-on sentences, adjectives and adverbs that multiply like spores, paragraphs that are dumping grounds of useless information, crawling with disease-carrying vermin quick to infect you and turn your own writing into a diarrhea of undigested thoughts, sometimes leaving you so addled you forget the basic rules of grammar and have to google which prepositions go with which words.
Regardless, the choices you have to make with awful texts are no less delicate or complicated than with the best. If anything, they are fraught with even more dangers and temptations: the temptation of changing what is before you to make it less awful; the danger of producing something that is less a translation and more a hybrid, a collaboration with someone you’d rather not be in collusion with. For example, when a ministry of interior is answering to charges of abuse of detainees and the violent coercion of confessions, it is imperative to preserve the doublespeak faithfully. “Our laws forbid the mistreatment”—here a distinction is made from the harsher abuse—“of detainees, and therefore it is impossible that we are engaging in such practices as they are forbidden by law.” I might be tempted to omit that final clause, repetitive as it is, and yet that empty insistence is in fact the crux of what is being expressed. Sometimes I am tempted to editorialize, as when another ministry replied to a human rights organization: “Honorable Sirs, you are perhaps aware of the fact that we have been devastated by war and sanctions as of late, and therefore it pains us to point out that the Ministry has jurisdiction in name only and it is in fact the militias who are responsible for the torture of refugees.” I pictured an exhausted bureaucrat sitting in one of those bare, tiled offices with peeling walls, a metal desk, and an ancient desktop computer, a city in ruins around him, and I wanted to add, because he didn’t: “Surely you’ve been reading the news? Surely, even if I’m passing the buck, you understand the futility of this entire effort on your part?”
These texts are frustrating to be sure, but they are more or less straightforward. See, every translator of garbage ends up with their particular niche, and mine is the art text. Literature-adjacent, one might say, but only in the sense that the majority of such texts ooze with the self-satisfaction of the worst literature. They put on airs, use words they don’t seem to fully understand, name-drop incessantly, and try to gaslight you at every turn of phrase into thinking that your inability to grasp their point is due to some lack on your part instead of theirs.
Nothing drives home the vacuousness of an art text like having to dissect its every hollow carapace of a sentence. I once translated nearly thirty pages of an artist’s manifesto and still for the life of me was unable to picture not only what his work looked like but of what it consisted. Was it a video? An installation? Fluxus performance? (It ended up being found-object sculpture.) The text was so far up its own abstract ass it had entirely lost sight of the actual work (which I have come to understand is the entire point of an art text).
The experience of translating such texts is best described as an attempt to delicately transpose the impossibly thin veneer of a nothing-sentence into something that reads like a real sentence while preserving the crinkly emptiness it is wrapped around. Like picking up a snakeskin without crushing or bending it. At first glance, it looks like a snake, it preserves the anatomy of a snake: head, scales, and tail are all in the right place and in the right order. But it is a thing that will collapse under the weight of the merest scrutiny. For example, behold: “Most of my works have rolling, undulating surfaces, in an attempt to divest the material of its transparency and present it in dramatic visual form, an enticing satire that then finally appears as copious numbers of ‘non-coercive’ surfaces and forms.” I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes in ecstasy after laying that one to rest on the page. And in those moments, when I’m able to work things out just so, I can almost convince myself that I sort of, if not love, then at least like the text. It’s not so bad; I just have to understand it on its own terms.
But then I encounter metaphors so mixed I can hardly make heads or bees out of them. I once had an artist’s color choices soar through the skies of imagination on me, and then suddenly they were diving through the depths of the subconscious, and then before I knew it they were riding a wild horse into the unknown realms of the soul. (This from an impassioned description by an art critic.)
The way I work is this: I first put the mostly raw translation down on the page, setting down the parameters within which I can move. I leave only some choices open, to be made/decided upon/resolved during the final reading, out of the desire, perhaps, to give myself some sense of control/agency/the illusion that I am worthier of this job than Google. I try to be as efficient as possible during this phase, keeping the shudders and eye-rolling to a minimum, trying not to wear myself out before I have to really take in the full horror of what has been wrought.
It is not unusual with art texts, however, to encounter such a roadblock of a sentence that I am forced to ask some questions, to communicate with the author who wrote said text or, worse, with the curator who commissioned it. Curators are often just as protective of an author’s “vision” as the author themselves—sometimes more so, for it is they, after all, who set the parameters for the type of unintelligibility encouraged by their institutions. I cannot tell, as they praise the author’s manifesto, or treatise, or dreamscape, or whatever fancy synonym they’re using for this noxious pile of words, whether this is an emperor’s-new-clothes-type situation, where we are both loath to say the obvious, or whether they truly believe that the beans being peddled here are in fact magic. And so I find that my skills must extend to translating disdain or outrage or bafflement or sometimes all three into impeccable politesse. “What the fuck does ‘the house does not emerge from the house’ even mean?” becomes “I’m not entirely sure of the nuance in this sentence.” And “the constitutional structure of my pieces is characterized by ‘rapid fluctuation’ and ‘compounded suspicion’—this can’t be fucking serious, right?” is better worded as “I’m not entirely sure that ‘suspicion’ can characterize a structure—is there perhaps another phrase that fits better here that I’m not reaching for?” Luckily, unlike my male peers who also do this type of work, I am able to draw on a woman’s entire lifetime’s experience of compressing outraged impatience into a sweet little bonbon of personal incomprehension.
I find myself consistently in a moral quandary: is my responsibility to the translation or to language itself? This is not an altogether altruistic concern, because beneath it there is the fear that the reader might decide I am the terrible translator and not the author who is a terrible writer. For example, the author will use the same verb or the same modifier over and over within a single paragraph, often within a single sentence. The translator either has to go on a mission to discover synonyms, or simply accept that her job is to translate the words as she discovers them and make peace with the fact that if her author didn’t take the time to crack open a goddamned thesaurus then by God, neither will she.
It has happened more than once, however, that after submitting a translation, I’ve received an unhappy email from an author insisting that it is imprecise, that I was unable to fully “penetrate the poetics” of the text, and that they couldn’t possibly have written what I’m claiming they’ve written. When presented with detailed evidence to support the choices that were made, more than one has relented by conceding that indeed, English is a dry, corporate language, incapable of French’s playful intellectualism or Arabic’s grandiloquence. Terrible writing, I wish to fire back, by any other language would read as putrid.
If I could do this work dispassionately it wouldn’t be quite as bad. But faced with the audacity of terrible writing I have the reaction of any conservative forced to encounter a blatant flouting of the mores by which they have defined and policed their lives. Rage. Blustering, spitting, middle-age-ruddy-faced-white-man rage, the sort of fire one banks and feeds to keep the snarling wolves of envy at bay. “How dare they,” I think, “How dare they?”—but I myself do not dare finish the thought. “How dare they permit themselves the freedom and authority to write when I have kept myself in check for so many years, producing writing by drips and drops, terrified of being thought lacking, or of awakening the same disdain I feel when reading a text such as this?”
But that rage is also the most convenient translation of the sense of powerlessness this work often makes me feel. Powerlessness over my own time, which I can never reclaim enough of; powerlessness over my financial situation, which remains steadily bad; and the powerlessness of being a cog in this great economic machine powered by words that are making a lot of people a lot of money somewhere but ultimately empowering nothing. All that funding funneled into various institutions and think tanks to produce antiseptic reports, all those words used to bulk up the feeblest artworks, trying to give them a chance to compete in the colosseum of an art market that is brutal and brutalizing at once.
Because when I say garbage, I mean garbage. I mean a sheer waste of words, so many reports, so much information, so much copy generated and then regurgitated in another language, only, I imagine, to sit moldering on some desk somewhere, or to bloom blackly on a gallery wall. The best thing I can say about it is that wading through the trash heap of language is often quite a revealing process, just like rifling through the neighbor’s garbage can give you insight into the inner workings of their lives.
I have learned, for example, that the most bloated and moneyed institutions are the ones that will haggle most insistently over actual cents. (Recently, someone from the procurement office of no less than the country’s premier private university called me after receiving my email to ask, in a wheedling tone: “Can’t you give us a discount, like un geste, just for us?” as though they were a down-and-out family member asking for just a little something to tide them over until the next paycheck.) I have learned that international NGOs, when mobilizing to provide relief and aid in an emergency crisis situation will rarely, if ever, take into consideration the demands of local organizations working on the ground to find out precisely what sort of relief and aid are actually needed (despite being sent letter upon translated letter to detail exactly that). That think tanks will hire the most corrupt and entrenched apparatchiks to write reports about corruption and nepotism. That some writers, seeking to validate a point or two, will make up quotes wholesale and ascribe them to various famous people, so that you have to read entire essays by Kazimir Malevich (after spending hours tracking down free English translations of them) to realize that no, he likely never said that he “longed for exile from the sea” (though interestingly, he did say that “aestheticism is the garbage of intuitive feeling”). That some artists, forced to speak a language they don’t fully understand, will often undercut, misrepresent, or overburden work that would have been better left to stand on its own, and, conversely, that other work has no leg to stand on without the crutch of discourse. That, forced to speak the same homogeneous language, local artists are continuously encouraged to turn the volume up on their own “otherness,” whatever it may be, to crow it from the rooftops in the hopes of being heard above the cacophony, thus further exoticizing/centering that otherness. That many artists (especially the foreign ones), seeking perhaps to justify aestheticizing poverty, war, displacement, and other experiences they have not taken the time to consider fully, will often declaim some grander idea of moral purpose. I have certainly learned to be mistrustful of any piece of art that pretends, in any which way, at moral purpose. That moral purpose is to art what eggs are to a cake. If you can taste them or smell them or see little scrambly bits of them infiltrating the sponge, then this is a failed cake, and eating it is not treat but punishment.
Above all, there has been one overarching lesson, harder to abbreviate. It is that, no matter the language from which I’m translating, Arabic or French, there is only ever a single type or style of language employed, strictly beholden to the category to which it adheres. Bureaucratic non sequiturs issuing from official bodies. Dispassionate sentences full of institutional jargon from researchers, followed by hollow, conservative recommendations delivered in the same cautiously optimistic tone. The interchangeable, fill-in-the-blanks paragraphs of press releases about human rights violations. The high-minded aims of institutions big and small, who always inevitably “seek,” “attempt to,” and “intend” the same things. The frenzied Mad Libs of art texts.
Trends abound, in the way that institutions (cultural, academic, et cetera) consciously and unconsciously dictate the nouns through which issues be examined (the archive; memory; entropy; exile; the imaginary), the verbs we use to examine them (confront; problematize; impact; agitate; disrupt; blur), and the objects worthy of examination at all (move over Syria/migrants/postcolonialism, it’s time for climate change/late capitalism/trauma). It is this, above all, that causes despair. Not the content of the trends, but the fact that they function as such; the whiplash speed at which they move; the uniformity of their rise and fall. How even interventions that seem or feel worthwhile are rendered dissonant by the white noise of repeating words, or repeating ideas, or repeating conclusions.
Start to notice trends and you start to see them everywhere: in the cadence of poetry and essays, the voices of stories and novels, in the tenor of our debates, online and otherwise, in what stories, essays, poems, and debates we are exposed to and directed to read. Hard not to think about how our streams of consciousness are directed by the flow of currency (money; attention; cultural capital); harder to resist being swept along by the all-powerful and invisible undertow.
How do I even know whether I’m speaking in my own voice, or acting as a ventriloquist for the monoculture at large? Why do I even want to write? In what tawdry or exalted place does this ambition reside? I am given no answers; only the questions remain, and perhaps this is important. Perhaps it is also important to remember that one of the means to find purpose in/take solace from/derive any sense out of any act, any work, is to find some way to take pleasure from it, no matter how small. In my own writing, in other people’s writing, this translates into the pleasure that arises from the unknowable, from being trusted with questions that are in themselves answers. Bad writing intensifies the pleasure I get from good writing. Makes good writing easier to recognize, because I get to keep refining my own definition of what it is not. It is a pleasure that is modest, simple, private. Above all, subjective. Hence it feels both autonomous and communitarian at once.
As for the pleasure that can be derived from translating garbage, it is, fittingly, a little trashier in nature. Sitting over coffee with a friend one day, I tried to describe the feeling of doing work you love in principle but often find impossible to love in the moment. Of getting intimate with a text you have nothing but disdain for, but having it get under your skin nevertheless, so that little snatches of it keep flashing into your head all day, long after you’ve walked away.
“Like a hate-fuck?” he said.
“Yes!” I said. “Exactly like a hate-fuck.”
It is commonly held that the pleasure of a hate-fuck lies in the heights of feeling the passion of hate allows you to attain. Orgiastic loathing gives meaning to an ultimately meaningless encounter, empowering you with the sense that you can just take what you need and then walk away to do your own thing on your own time.
But nothing compares to the true pleasure of trash-talking the hate-fuck in question to your friends later. Breezily shitting on that partner as though they had no control over your life, as though you could quit them whenever you wanted, as though you weren’t desperately anxious all the time that they’d leave you high and dry, as though you had the power and freedom to not say, “Yes, of course, right away, anything you want” the next time they call.
Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Bidoun, Warscapes, and The Berlin Quarterly. She has contributed long-form features on Middle Eastern literature, TV, and music to AramcoWorld Magazine, Brownbook ME, and Middle East Eye, and she has translated, with pleasure, work by the Lebanese authors Chaza Charafeddine, Hassan Daoud, and Hazem Saghieh.