Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 8 September 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
with Ellen Elias-Bursac, Aaron Robertson and Julia Sanches, moderated by Queenie Sukhadia
PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented Translating Trauma livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 8 September 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
Join us for Week 18 of Translating the Future as we continue our series of conversations between translators with Translating Trauma with Ellen Elias-Bursac, Aaron Robertson and Julia Sanches, moderated by Queenie Sukhadia.
Authors bear witness to trauma as a means of reckoning with it. And translations of such texts bring atrocities to light for readers in other languages. Choosing to translate this work is vital, but it can also take a toll on the body and mind of the translator. Hear three acclaimed translators talk about their experiences with narratives of conflict from recent history and the strategies they have used to bring these stories to us.
Ellen Elias-Bursac has translated over twenty-five novels and books of non-fiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers. ALTA's National Translation Award was given to her translation of David Albahari's novel Götz and Meyer in 2006. Her book Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War was given the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015. She is the president of the American Literary Translators Association.
Aaron Robertson is a writer, editor, and translator. His translation of Igiaba Scego's novel Beyond Babylon (Two Lines Press, 2019) was shortlisted for the 2020 PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. He has written for The New York Times, The Nation, Foreign Policy, The Point, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @augiewatts.
Julia Sanches is a translator of Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan. She has translated works by Susana Moreira Marques, Noemi Jaffe, Daniel Galera, and Geovani Martins, among others. Her shorter translations have appeared in various magazines and periodicals, including Words without Borders, Granta, Tin House, and Guernica. A founding member of Cedilla & Co., Julia sits on the Council of the Authors Guild.
Queenie Sukhadia is a student in the English PhD program. Her research is focused on the act of secondary witness—how we receive the narratives of those testifying to atrocities—in global human rights literature. Through her scholarship, she explores how we can read testimonial narratives in more equitable, empowering ways - outside of the frames made common-sense by structures such as the courtroom. Apart from being a scholar, she is also a creative writer and published a collection of short stories, A City of Sungazers, in 2017. Queenie is also Managing Editor of the Graduate Center newspaper, the Advocate, and works with the PublicsLab as a Mellon Humanities Public Scholar. She is passionate about making humanities scholarship & research available in the public sphere, and her Instagram project at @academiaforall is one way this commitment has taken shape. She holds a BA (with high honors) from Dartmouth College and an MA in English (with distinction) from Georgetown University.
Esther Allen: Welcome, I'm Esther Allen, a professor at City University of New York, and here with me is Alison Markin Powell who translates Japanese literature and works with the PEN Translation Committee. She and I are co-organizers of Translating the Future, the conference you are attending.
Allison Markin Powell: Thank you, Esther, and thank you all for joining us for Week 18 of Translating the Future. Today's conversation on translating trauma features Ellen Elias-Bursac, translator and author of a book on her work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, writer and editor Aaron Robertson, who translates from Italian, and Julia Sanches, who translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French and Catalan. Our moderator, Queenie Sukhadia, is a scholar of global human rights literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. You can learn more about all of our, all of today's highly accomplished speakers by reading their full bios on the Center for the Humanities site.
Esther: In her extraordinary 2016 essay, "War in Translation," Lina Mounzer, who participated in Week 2 of this conference, describes her experience translating Syrian women's accounts of their lives under war and siege. Stories so harrowing, that to translate them was itself a trauma. "There is a violence in undoing someone's words "and reconstituting them in a vocabulary foreign to them. "A vocabulary of your own choosing." Mounzer writes. "There is a violence too, "in the way you are, for long moments, "annihilated by the other; undone in return. "Neither the translator nor the text "emerges from the act unscathed.
Allison: Today’s guests, believers in the powers of documentation, will talk about how they have risked that violence, that annihilation by the trauma of the other, to become part of an act of bearing witness. Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of PEn America's mission, and I'd like to point out that the works that Aaron and Julia will be discussing today, Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego, and Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández we're both awarded grants from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund. It's so important to see work such as these supported by the publishing community here. As usual, please email your questions for Ellen, Aaron, Julia and Queenie to email@example.com. We'll keep questions anonymous, unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name.
Esther: Translating the Future will continue in its current form for one more week. Beginning September 22, the conference finale, in Week 20, will feature a number of evening events with speakers to include Kate Briggs, Tracy K. Smith, Natalie Diaz, Ken Liu, Jenifer Croft and a host of others. You can find out more on the Center for the Humanities website. We'll be back again on September 15, next week, with Week 19 of our hour-long Tuesday events. Please join us then at noon, Eastern Standard Time, for a conversation on activist translation with Anton Hur, Zooming in from Seoul, J.D. Pluecker, and Sevinç Turkkan.
Allison: Translating the future is convened by PEN America's Translation Committee, which advocates on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers, and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Larissa Kyzer. For more information, look for translation resources at pen.org.
Esther: If you know anyone who was unable to join us for today's live stream, a recording will be available afterward on the Howlround and Center for the Humanities sites. Before we turn it over to Queenie and the others, we'd like to offer our utmost gratitude to our partners at the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers at the New York Public Library, and PEN America. And to the masters of dark Zoom magic at Howlround who made this livestream possible.
Allison: And now, over to Queenie.
Queen Sukhadia: Hi everyone. So before we begin, I'd just like to take a moment to thank all of you for tuning in to what I expect to be a very gendered conversation today. Thank you to our participants, Ellen, Julia, and Aaron for speaking with us today, and a big thank you to Allison and Esther, as well as our sponsors for creating a space for us to have these rich hour-long conversations. So, to kick off today's discussion, I'd like to ask you Ellen, Aaron and Julia, to situate us with respect to your work. Can you tell us a little bit about your projects themselves and then also your journeys, be they intellectual, biographical or linguistic that led you to undertake this work of translating trauma. So Aaron, why don't you start us off?
Aaron Robertson: Yeah, sure. So I am talking about Igiaba Scego's novel, Beyond Babylon, and she, Igiaba is a Somali/Italian writer, she's writing in Italian. And this is a novel that is set in multiple nations. So Italy, Argentina, Somalia and Tunisia. And it's essentially about the legacies of Italian colonialism throughout all of these nations. And so, the novel kind of tracks, the stories of five characters. The two main protagonists are half sisters who go to Tunis to participate in an Arabic language program. So it's a novel about kind of intergenerational migrations. It's about language learning and the actual process of translation. And in many ways that we'll probably talk about here, it is about the traumas that are sustained on both an individual and national scale.
Queenie: Julia, how about you?
Julia Sanches: I’ll be talking about Slash and Burn, which hasn't been published in English yet. I have the Spanish copy here. It's by Claudia Hernandez, who is a Salvadorian, a contemporary Salvadorian writer. This is her first novel, she's mostly written short stories until now, and it follows several characters. There's one sort of main woman that it revolves around. She is unnamed, and she lives in an unnamed country during a civil war and also in the aftermath of the war. And it also tells a story of her daughters, and essentially how she's trying to bring up her daughters to have a respectable, well, not respectful, but just like a happy, not happy, fulfilled, something life. I'm trying to not like project all these Western concepts of productivity to these people. But, and I remember speaking to Claudia a while ago, and she apparently had thought of it as a film. She'd been interested in writing screenplays and had wanted to make a movie about this, more in the vein of a documentary, and it hadn't quite worked for her. And so what we have is a very oral history of the civil war period and the postwar period of a place that would be assumed as El Salvador, but could be any other place in Latin America where a proxy war was fought.
Ellen Elias-Bursac: Well, I lived in what was then Yugoslavia for a long time. I come from the States, but I married there, had my kids there, worked as a community translator for a total of some 18 years, and then, why is it echoing all of a sudden? And then moved back to my local, to my, where I'm from, which is Boston in 1990, and then the war broke out, and here I was. So ever since then, since really 1990, I've been translating people's writing about those wars that went on in what became all the successor countries after Yugoslavia had broke up. And so, in terms of trauma and translation, almost everything I've translated has had some resonance with that, except the most recent writing, or the very early things I did before the war began. But I chose for today, this Snowman, by David Albahari, which shows a glass of orange juice on the cover. And that's his one comfort, as he's in this strange city in Canada, he clings to his glasses of orange juice that will somehow get him through the worst of times. And it's an amazing book, and probably of all the ones that I, the novels that I've translated about war, it goes the most deeply into personal trauma and loss. Just directly into it, just to, and so I thought of it as what to share with Julia and Aaron before, and Queenie before we started. And then just briefly, the other thing that I've done that has to do with trauma and translation, is I worked at the war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, for six years in the translation unit, and then wrote a book about that and was able to survey my colleagues about their experiences of trauma and bias and all those things we talk about. And so, that helped me articulate some of my own thinking about translators and how they relate to those things.
Queenie: Thank you so much, that's really fascinating. So personally, I've always kind of been interested in thinking about how we receive narratives of trauma, and then also how we transmit them forward, which is why each one of you seems to be doing through the act of translation. So I'm curious about how you position yourselves with respect to these texts that you were working with, as both individuals who are receiving these narratives, and then also stepping into the shoes of these writers to do this work of translation. And I'm particularly thinking about the risk of appropriation that kind of attends this work of translation, but I'd also like to hear you speak more generally to any of the ethical dilemmas that you may have faced in kind of doing this work of translation and how you've worked through them. Julia, can you start us off?
Julia: I spend a lot of time thinking about my position as a translator with respect to any texts that I translate. I think it's very helpful to imagine the translator as a close reader, rather than as a proxy for the author. Because at the end of the day, what you have to work with is the texts that they have produced, you don't have the background information, you don't have their research, you don't have whatever context that they were in when they were working on that. So I found out, again, after translating this book from someone else who had met the author, that she based this book on like a decade's worth of interviews. I don't have access to these interviews, I don't know how she ended up bringing them together to create this narrative. If there was one person whose story she followed, or if the protagonist is actually a mix of all these different narratives. I was also hesitant to ask too much of the author, because I know that she wrote this during a period of exile. She was born in 1974, so she would have, and the war, the civil war in El Salvador started in 1979 and ended in 1992. So she would have been four years old to 15, 16, I don't, I can't math, but something around that. And I didn't feel it was my place to make her bring up any possible trauma that she might've experienced. So, as I said, I think in an email, I read around, I read around this book, which is what I always try to do when there's time, for some of the vocabulary that has to do with like the guerillas and some of the politics, because there are very specific terms that have been used internationally. But otherwise, I just sort of wrestled very closely with the information I had. I tried to identify the mood of the writing, like what it was trying to convey through it's word choice. It sits at this very interesting intersection between an oral mode, and also, you know, this is gonna sound obvious, but prose like literature. So, the grammar is always correct, but it's always very plainly styled, and it feels like someone could be saying these things the whole time. So, yeah, I guess that's where I positioned myself. Don't know if that,
Queenie: Glad to hear it. Yeah, that's really helpful to hear. Aaron or Ellen, whoever thinks…
Aaron: So this was a book that I translated in 2017, and this was something like that, I came to during college. So it was my first translation project, I had no kind of, no plans of becoming an actual translator, but I had learned of Igiaba's nonfiction and, in journalism. And she wrote a lot about, you know, racism in modern day Italy, and kind of how you could trace that to a certain extent back to, you know, Italy's colonial projects in North Africa and the horn of Africa. So, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya. So one quality of this book, which focuses on five separate narratives, is that you always have characters who are leaving a place, and then reflecting on what it means to leave and to arrive. In 2016, one of the reasons I wanted to study abroad, in Italy, but frankly, you know, anywhere, was that I was still thinking of Michael Brown and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, and I was trying to get a sense of my own place, like in this movement, what did I want to contribute? What did I think I could contribute? I didn't know the answer really, but kind of inspired by James Baldwin, you know, who went to France, and was always kind of thinking about, well, what does the, you know, situation in Algiers have to say about what's happening in Harlem? I wondered what in Bologna or Rome or Florence could I learn about what's happening in the US, you know? And so, I encountered this book, somewhat randomly in a library. I knew her name, like I said, but I didn't know much about her fiction. So I read this book, and I hear all these echoes of Toni Morrison in it, and she is very explicitly engaging with Toni Morrison. And so you have all this crosstalk across boundaries already, across, you know, literary texts. And when I saw the ways in which she was engaging with trauma itself, with the use of the color red, like in this book, I said, well, that's my permission maybe, that's my way in, because Igiaba is very conscious of the kind of, you know, African American literary tradition too. And so, I saw it not as a way to stake a claim on the text, but to engage like in an actual conversation with Igiaba, and nowadays I'm fortunate enough to actually talk to her about what's going on in Italy, what's going on here in the States. So, that's how I came to her work.
Queenie: Excellent, thank you.
Ellen: As far as I'm concerned, when I was leaving Yugoslavia in the late '80s, I got in touch with David Albahari, because I was really interested in his distinctive post-modern approach to literature, and I really liked his stories and I ended up translating a collection of them for Northwestern University Press in the early '90s. And then he moved to Canada in the, in about '93 or '94, and started writing. He left, that was right in the middle of the war going on, the war went on for the, the greatest intensity of the ground fighting was between '91 and '95. And so he left right in the middle of that and went to Canada as a writer in residence and various other capacities there. And when he first sent me Snowman, he wanted me to translate it, and I read it and I was so devastated by it. It was so painful, and I was still so much in my own losses that came out of the war, that it was very hard for me. And I wrote back and said, I just don't think I have the courage and the strength to translate this, it's too hard. And he wrote back and said, "Oh, try, please try." And when I sat down and started, to my surprise, which I hadn't even, it's not that I hadn't noticed it, but it's so different when you start to translate, you get so much deeper into a text, that this whole novel is just completely full of this bizarre manic humor that he uses, he kind of, he builds the humor and the despair, sort of running along in parallel, and he's dipping back and forth between them in this very intense, very compelling way. And that's, I was only able to translate it because I sort of attached myself to the humor and the humor took me through it, and made it possible to face and deal with some of the other parts that were harder, the sense of loss, to deal with in the novel. And what I've found in general in translating, and I thought about a lot when I was reading Julia's and Aaron's translations, is that when a novel grapples directly with deeply traumatic subject matter, it's never superficial. It's always very intense. And the intensity may manifest itself in all sorts of different ways, but I find that no matter how difficult it is, if I can connect to that intensity, I can translate it. So that, to respond to your.
Queenie: Yeah, that's really helpful to think about kind of narratives of trauma, thank you. And kind of pivot to thinking about the concept of translation more broadly, and I think Aaron, you touched on this a little bit in your response, I'm wondering about kind of translation across time and space, right? And how do you think, all of you, right? How do you think kind of trauma gets translated across generational and geographic boundaries in each of your texts, but even beyond them, or do you think that trauma, that traumatic experiences are kind of so localized and specific that they kind of resist translation across contexts? So do you think that trauma can be translated in these ways? So Ellen, can you start us off?
Ellen: Oh yes, I think so. I mean, I think any huge emotions come across, I find when I'm translating, that once a text becomes deeply emotional, that it moves me along. I don't, obviously there's work to be done with revising and thinking about holding the work of literature together, but the sort of moments, the motor of the emotional content is always, you know, all of us have experienced trauma at one level or another, we can recognize that, even if it's, what it was like when you started 1st grade. I mean, everybody has some kind of, has some kind of experience like that. I think it's universal. That's my, anyway, that's the way I see it.
Queenie: Yeah, absolutely. Aaron do you have any input on this?
Aaron: Yeah, yeah, of course. So like I said, like this is a book that deals with multiple kind of manifestations of colonial violence. And so, one character, like in the book, her name is Miranda, and she is a poet from Argentina and her work is almost, is pretty much like all about the kind of, you know, military dictatorship that Argentina experienced, like in the 1970s. She is one of the lucky ones, and she's able to actually leave the country, relocate to Rome, but she's always thinking about "los desaparecidos" you know, those who were you know, disappeared as a result, you know, often of state violence. And so, Miranda arrives in Italy, this country that has deep, you know, cultural historical ties to Argentina, and what's fascinating, like one thing that is not mentioned explicitly like in the text, but is, which kind of, you know, underwrites this whole project, is that Mussolini, you know, saw Argentina as a possible, you know, bastion of fascism like in South America, right? And so, you have these ideologies, that really do, you know, transcend place and transcend time too. And the characters throughout this book, they are constantly reflecting on the kind of scars, mostly that the mothers inherit, because four of the five main characters are women, two daughters, their mothers and their father. And so, families are kind of always reflecting on how their past has kind of informed their own, you know, messy interactions often, and something that, you know, that I think Igiaba does, which Claudia does too, translated so well by Julia, is she really hones in on the kind of complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. Like at a certain point, you don't really forget about the wars, like and the violence, but you have to focus on your own life and maintaining your own household, right? You can look at your scars and you can blame them, but at the end of the day, your daughter needs needs you as a mother, right? She doesn't want kind of this weight of you know, history bearing down on her. So that, I think, is one of the really interesting dynamics of both Igiaba and Claudia's novels.
Julia: So I think this applies less to Snowman, though, of course, the experience of that, you know, that post-war, maybe possibly even a shell shock that the protagonist is experiencing when he goes to Canada can apply to a lot of different European countries. You know, since Europe has been like carved up in the last 150 years, but I think there's a, there's a stronger connection between Beyond Babylon and Slash and Burn, in the sense that the two books, well, Beyond Babylon talks about colonialism, and it's hard to find a nation on this planet that hasn't experienced some form of colonialism. So like that in a way, is a narrative that, I don't like the expression travels well, but it's one that is easy to relate to across borders. And so, Slash and Burn is, I've already said this, but I'll repeat it. None of the characters are named, there's only one place that's named, the name is Paris, France. And it looms like very large in the protagonist's imagination because during the civil war, she gets pregnant, and her child is taken from her and sold for "the cause" by some nuns, to a family in France. So right there, you're already extending the web of the aftermath of this experience of war. And then you also have characters who flee for that Northern country that doesn't get named, which is obviously the United States. And one of the reasons why I believe she doesn't name anyone, is because it universalizes the experience more. The book was first published in Colombia, and, which is almost perfect, because there's a similar experience, of you know, neighbors fighting each other, and that ended much more recently. And also there's the sexual violence that a lot of the characters encounter from childhood onward. And that is also sadly the kind of trauma that translates across humanity. I kept seeing so many parallels between Beyond Babylon and Slash and Burn because of this, you know, passing down the story. The protagonist in Slash and Burn tells her daughters about her experiences over and over, to the point that the daughters are like, "Ugh, I'm telling, I'm sick of hearing about the war." But one of the things you learn at the end of the book is that for her, the war never ended. She's still in a constant state of crisis, even if it's quite muted.
Aaron: Yeah, and can I add that, you know what's, so one part about Slash and Burn, there's one line and I'm, you know, badly paraphrasing here, but Claudia writes about names, and she basically says that names are, you know, for the dead, so what's the point really? Right? And this idea that naming makes it easier to kind of identify and, you know, fix one person, almost one identity, but obviously when you sustain some horrible trauma, that becomes troubled, and that's something that you also see in Snowman too. You have this really neurotic, you know, narrator who constantly is like, I feel like I'm living multiple lives, almost, or like there are multiple selves here, and he, you know, keeps saying that, like here in Canada, I'm gonna grow old, but I heard someone say that, and then, you know, a few pages down, once again, he says, I feel like I'm going to grow old here, but he doesn't really have a sense that it's just this one person saying this, right? And so the way that that trauma I think troubles a sense of location, not only, you know, geographically and temporally, but for the, like for the individual, it's hard to, to really take stock of yourself to kind of contain yourself in one place in time.
Ellen: Also, there's an interesting connection between Slash and Burn, and a very striking connection between Slash and Burn and Snowman, which is that, the lack of names. I mean, there isn't, he never even says where he's surviving, and he doesn't say what, the protagonist doesn't give a name. The only name that's offered to us is a dog named Freddy, and he then says that he always calls dogs Freddy. So it doesn't even make specific that one dog, but again, it's a universalizing moment, as you said, Julia, that having, people are named by their categories, like the professor of political science or the secretary or whatever, but never named. And it's interesting, I just found that very interesting, that comparison. And also with Beyond Babylon, at the beginning, even though there are the five narrators, I had to spend some time to sort of work out, and some of them have similar names, and that got confusing Miriam and whatever, all the different names. So I was kind of working on names there as well. It was interesting. And also the geography, is all three books are all about geography. And again, it's movement and people who are refugees or displaced, and Beyond Babylon's astonishing, the way it moves among three continents, and then as you said, between Paris and Salvador and the United States. And in my case, the protagonist gets into this kind of a wrestling match with all these maps that he's hung on the wall, and he's thinking about borders and drawing them in on the maps, and it becomes this huge obsession with borders and geography and places, and so...
Queenie: Yeah, absolutely. And also, I'm also kind of curious about what you think about the relationship between language and trauma, because so many people talk about how trauma is essentially unrepresentable, but we find the representations of trauma, like proliferating and all kinds of art, right? So, how do you kind of make sense of this seeming paradox? Do you think that trauma, like what do you think are the strategies writers often rely on to make kind of trauma, which is so unrepresentable, representable?
Aaron: Well, I can start.
Aaron: So like I, I kind of mentioned earlier that one of the tools Igiaba uses to kind of, you know, trace the, trace different manifestations of trauma is color. So, you know, in the beginning of the book, one of the main characters describes her rape as a child. She was in school and the school janitor assaulted her. And as a result, like over time, she begins to lose the ability to actually see colors, right? So, at the start of the book, there's this really, you know, beautiful, moving scene where the character is retracing her steps through Rome, to kind of regain colors. But the only one that she can't get back is the color red. So, throughout this book she's constantly searching for it, and red is not only like, there's the kind of, you know, the obvious like connotation of blood that is spilled like as a result of war and violence, but one important thing to note about Beyond Babylon in particular, is kind of like Ellen was saying, the use of humor is like is a key component of the book. There are multiple sides to your experience, life is not only trauma. So the color red in the book, is not only your cue of some kind of pain here, but it's also, so Igiaba is very concerned with the body. This is a very kind of physical book, so not only what damage is done to it, but how it is a, you know, a conduit of pleasure and joy too, and of kind of self understanding. And so, so soon after you have this scene, like where she's lost, where one of the characters has lost her colors, there's also this scene where she's talking about her period, right? And, this is something that comes up at multiple points throughout this book, is trying to understand what this means to her, you know, as a woman, and this is not, like I don't want to spoil the book, but this, the meaning of blood and pain and pleasure, they all kind of have, you know, similar visual cues. So that is one way that Igiaba kind of moves around language to really capture what it means to undergo these experiences.
Queenie: Ellen, Julia?
Julia: Okay. So, the language in Slash and Burn is very straightforward and not often symbolic. And it might be worth mentioning that the word trauma is never used at any point in the book. Like I'm assuming trauma. And the assumption comes from one scene that's almost at the very end, where the protagonist's mother is dying, and they've always had this tension over the daughter that the protagonist lost, who's now in France, and that relationship has never mended. And her mother is dying and she decides, the protagonist, I got no names, so it makes it difficult to talk about, but the protagonist decides to go find her mother's wedding ring that she'd taken off during the war. And she, this is sort of a journey through all of these sites of trauma, like all of these sites of actual physical battle. And that is the only moment when the language starts becoming a bit more metaphoric. Like she goes to the site where there used to be a doctor who would give the women abortions, because they didn't want women pregnant during the war, they wanted them fighting. And the doctor, when she, when he found out that she was pregnant, it was too late to do anything about it, and he helped her bring this baby into the world, and she always feels grateful, and she imagines his body in the earth, feeding the trees. And she goes, this protagonist goes, you follow her throughout the book, and at no point does she really talk about pain or, you know, how it had affected her that she had almost been raped as a young girl. It's only at the very end when she was talking to one of her friends who had also fought in the war. I think the term is "compañera" in battle, is what I went for, where she doesn't have a mirror, so her friend serves as a mirror, and she starts listing off every single one of her battle scars, and starts for my, and like reminds her of the fact that she can, can't hear anything very well because she had been very close to an explosive going off, and reminds her that she wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. And she had been so centered, the protections that had been so centered on helping her daughters get ahead and recovering her lost daughter, that she had completely blanked on any of the physical and emotional trauma that she herself had suffered throughout the war. But when I think of language specifically, I'm always reminded of Paul Celan, and the way that he sort of deconstructed the German, and chose to write in German to start, and then deconstructed the language and did something on the level of like the syllabic components of the words. So I guess it's not that trauma can't be expressed through language, it's just that you have to maybe shake up the container, and, yes.
Ellen: Well, it's interesting this question of language, and particularly in Snowman, because just as he clings to glasses of orange juice to salvage him in difficult situations, he also clings to words. And he writes about that. I've actually quickly found a place where he says, I was thinking trap, deception, loss, and quickly everything I saw, became one of these words without resistance, without effort, and then I remembered the atlas. It appeared like a fourth word, as atlas, at a moment when the others had replaced the world. And then he anchors himself in the word "atlas" and its like he's clinging to these words to save him. It's, so in a way, he's showing us by doing that, what the trauma, what the wordless part of trauma is like, that he's reaching for words to pull him out of it.
Aaron: Yeah, and—oh, I'm sorry, please.
Julia: He’s also obsessed with precision. At the very beginning, the word precise is all over the place. And then it sort of fades away and then you start getting back. He's like craving precision, wondering if precision is even possible anymore. And I think that has to also do with the loss of language.
Ellen: Yes, yes.
Aaron: Yeah, and this is true for, for many, you know, cultures and locations, but the Italian language is, you know, it is a fundamental part of the way that Italians, you know, view themselves, right? And historically it has been used in some cases like as a way to distinguish between who was Italian and who was not Italian, right? And so, if you go over to Italy now, actually like you, and like walk into a Black Lives Matter movement, that is probably the led by a Black Italian woman, there are some efforts to kind of look at language, to look at the Italian language and see, all right, how do we, like what words do we use to start talking about, you know, Blackness and about White privilege? How do we translate that, right? And these activists are looking to, to the Black Lives Matter movement here in the US, to kind of see what terminology is being used, and what's, like what's incredible about Italian is that, the word for race, "razza," when you use that, many people will think that you're talking about these, you know, laws that the fascists passed like in the 1930s to talk about, you know, Jewish people and the kind of, you know, prohibitions that were placed or that were imposed on Jews in Italy, because of Mussolini, like and the fascists, right? So now in 2020, when you're talking about race in Italy, do you use "razza" or do you use like some other word to describe, like what you're talking about, right? So, the fact that language is often like it's, I mean, it holds, you know, decades and kind a century's worth of meaning, of connotations and experience, that is something that even today is being negotiated, not only within literature, but like on the streets too.
Queenie: So since we're, I mean, we might just have time for one more question, but since we're talking so much about representation and I, like some of you brought up, like, for example, Aaron, you talked about red, or Ellen, you talked about the glass of orange juice. I'm just really interested in kind of asking you about the relationship between the visual and the textual, and kind of to what extent does, you know, a discussion of trauma rely on images. And do you think trauma kind of needs to be expressed in a way that relies on the visual, or do you think that it's even possible, or is it possible to like completely separate from the visual, or that the visual offers something that the textural representation can not offer? So kind of just thinking about the relationship between those two.
Ellen: Well, certainly the visual, as it pertains to place, is really important. I think that even if we don't know what the place is, still that sense of place is very powerful in all three of these books, not necessarily a country as place, but just the physical surrounding of the characters. And that, it's a good question, but I'm not sure that any one thing that would apply to all three of these beyond that.
Aaron: Well, one thing that I'll mention is the kind of the, you know, the visual power of like images of a protest, the way that that actually translates across time is fascinating. So, when I was working on Beyond Babylon, like I was aware of the scenes in Argentina, where you had, you know, mothers and grandmothers who would go to, you know, Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, and they would protest the state violence against those who were lost, against the disappeared, right? And there is something extremely potent about, well, nowadays too, about, you know, the images of mothers protesting and the kind of, the violence that they are always forced to talk about, right? And so, you see this image of, of Argentinian mothers, like in the 1970s, going to the Plaza, and you look at mothers today, like in the States, we're losing, you know, their kids, right? That, like that image, I think, translates really well, and that's something that you see, not only like in the US now, but all over the world. So there is a way to communicate like, to other people, to other nations that you understand what tactics they are using. There's this kind of, you know, visual grammar that is being shared across boundaries, which I think is incredibly moving.
Julia: I think this is a half-formed thought, but I wonder if, I mean, I wonder what the purpose of, I guess one question is, what is the purpose of communicating the trauma? So, in what way can the visual be more effective? Are we trying to get people to do something, are we trying to get people to understand? If it's the latter, I keep thinking about a phrase and Beyond Babylon where, I can't remember who was one with the character as it is, it might be Miriam, essentially talking about how you, how these things can never entirely be understood. Like, if we, if we're talking about, you know, literature is a creator of empathy, maybe the empathy is only very superficial. None of this will ever entirely be understood, but we can pass down the knowledge. And what literature can do is give people a glimpse of the interiority, in a way that the visual can't. And especially now, when the visual images are all over the place, we're saturated with images, that maybe that space of quiet interiority that literature provides can actually be a more effective way of communicating. I mean, I knew about the civil war in El Salvador before I started translating this book because I'm South American, and so, I knew what the CIA got up to in Latin America. I'd made it a point to know about that, but I will never entirely understand what I translated, not in a visceral way, if that makes sense. I'm not sure that's an insert, half formed-thought.
Queenie: Excellent. So thank you, Ellen, Aaron and Julia, for the fascinating discussion. It was truly an honor and privilege for me to be able to moderate this conversation, and I think I'm gonna hand it over to Alison and Esther, who I see have appeared on the screen now.
Allison: Thank you so much Queenie. This was, this is just such an important conversation to be having right now, and I can't think of other people who I would rather hear and listen to right now, and to hear talk about this topic and your work with it. So we do have some questions for you. Some of them are our own, I think, but the first question actually comes in from Lara Vanyo, who herself wrote a really, an excellent essay on the experience of translating trauma, which has recently appeared on Words Without Borders. Her question is, can the panelists discuss mechanisms of self care as they translate these difficult texts, in terms of how their own mood or et cetera, is effected by immersion in dark themes, and I think this is a really important question, and this is also Lena Mounzer, who's essay Esther referred to in the introduction, also sort of refers to that. And that was sort of one of the inspirations for the work that we're doing, and talking about this work that we're doing. Did any of you have strategies for that?
Ellen: Well, it's hard, there are many strategies. Taking a break, telling somebody about it, coming back to it, taking a deep breath, having a glass of wine, many, many, many strategies.
Allison: Were you even, I mean, were you aware of it, I guess, that's my question. I mean, as you're translating it, are you aware even, of how you yourself are sort of embodying the work that you're doing? The descriptions, the witness, the testimony?
Ellen: Well, if you're crying, for example, that's a hint.
Allison: That’s a great… yeah.
Ellen: But just physical tension. I just, sometimes I'll just like jump out of my chair and go do the laundry or something, because I just need to do something to loosen up a little bit from the intensity.
Aaron: With this story, with Beyond Babylon, so I, you know, what's funny is that, I can't exactly recall the, like all of the emotions that I felt, like when I first was translating the book, partly because I was a college senior, and I had a deadline, and I was like, I need to actually like do the work. But when I returned to it, there are really, really harrowing scenes in the book that are, like, I mean of, you know, of awful things like that these characters experienced, but the reason that I love the book so much is that I know, so the, there are like multiple, you know, sections of the book that switch between characters. With the last, you know, section, each time a character's thread is over, it is so, I mean, it's so beautiful and often quite hopeful. And so, knowing that these scenes are coming, it kind of makes the process a little easier, because I know what end I'm translating to. That's, that won't be the case for all books, and I, I have worked on stories and books, where that's not the case, and to kind of take care of myself, I, you know, I'll translate a bit, and then I'll put it away for maybe a week or two, like do something else, and then I'll come back to it. So,
Julia: I’m not very good at the self care. I don't think, I'm like the protagonist in the book. I don't really notice what's wrong until my body feels very, very heavy and I need more sleep than usual. But also this book, I also, by sticking my head in the sand, I mean that I just like get really deep into the words and I maybe just focus more on the materiality of the words than I do about the bigger picture, that sometimes helps, but this one, it felt long and laborious, but it didn't, it's the kind of book that sort of simmers, but doesn't boil over that much. During the pandemic, I was translating a book that was truly harrowing. And my self care was to ask for like several extensions, just so that I could get some space away from it, because it was, the pandemic, I was translating a book, another book about trauma, and I was like, "Ooh, damn."
Esther: I have a question actually, specifically for Ellen, because you've also had this experience of interpreting, which is so...
Ellen: I didn't interpret, I worked with interpreters, but I worked on translation of documents, not interpreting.
Esther: But you've also written a lot about interpreting and worked with interpreting, and I think that that must be a unique form of exposure to trauma, because you're there, you know, with the person. Do you wanna say anything about that?
Ellen: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because at the War Crimes Tribunal where we worked, we had 150 people in the language unit. Half of them were interpreters, half of them were translators like me, working on documentary translation for the documents tendered as evidence, and lots of people had issues with trauma in that work. But we had a really great psychologist who was there to help people deal with these things. And one of the things that he said, was that although interpreters are in the booth hearing everything live and speaking it, they speak it to other people. So even though it's difficult, they have the option of being heard, and there's a direct communication between them and the people in the courtroom, whereas, and this relates to something Queenie had raised with us before, before this, the secondary trauma, translators just sit with a document, and then it just sits in you. There's nowhere to go with it, and even at the tribunal, there were confidentiality issues. We weren't allowed to speak about the documents we were working on with anyone, except I was in charge of revising documents, editing and proofreading and so forth, that other people had translated, and I'd sort of go over to the translator, and put my arm around them and say, well, that was, that was a rough one. But there was no other way for us to deal with it, and it does, it is difficult to deal with. And it's certainly, I think early on in the years of the tribunal, when it was first starting, and people were coming in with raw experience that hadn't had the benefit of some years between them and the events, that was also very difficult for the interpreters in the booth, obviously.
Allison: Yeah, I think this is an important issue for translators. I mean, I guess one of the reasons that I thought Lara's question was important, and this other question about interpreting too, I mean, I think because I, I myself happened to be working on a memoir that is traumatic, and I'm finding, you know, and I'm working with the author and, you know, and this is her story, and I'm finding that I need to like, sort of think of it as a vortex that, you know, that there's a vortex of her, you know, her trauma and the story, and I can step into it, and then I can step out of it when I need to sort of make dinner or walk the dog or something like that, so that I'm not necessarily like carrying this trauma in my own body all the time. But I think there, there was another question that, Esther like, well, the group, when we were planning this conference, this subject, this topic was sort of always, always something that we wanted to highlight. And one of the things that came up as we were thinking about whom we might invite, is like the idea of trauma, the gender, with regard to trauma and testimony, and thinking about it, and there was a point at which we wanted to make sure that it wasn't all women telling women's stories about trauma. And I'm not sure if this is really a fully formed question, but I didn't know if any of you, Queenie you included, if you wanted to sort of respond, because we, you can see, we have men telling, you know, translating women's narratives, and women translating male narratives here. And so I think, would any of you have anything to speak to about gender and trauma?
Julia: I think what drew me to Slash and Burn was the fact that it was a narrative of war told from the perspective of women, which I don't think is very common. As background reading, I read Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War, which is the only other thing that I could find that talked about how women also participate in these very violent spaces. I don't know if there's particularly, I mean, there's the possibility of sexual violence that comes up several times. I think those were the bits that I found most difficult to translate, because I can relate more to the idea of sexual violence than I can relate to the idea of war, fortunately or no. But it also, it felt very comforting to be in a space that was predominantly female. Like it's mostly daughters. There are very few male characters, mostly they're fleeting and it somehow felt safer.
Ellen: Well, it's interesting that question, because in the literatures that I work with, there were very few prominent women writers before this round of wars in the 1990s. Just a few cases of strong women writers, and then suddenly in 1990, just as the war was breaking out, a whole generation came forward. And so I've been really translating those women mostly. I didn't choose to bring their work to this, just because this particular novel seemed so well suited to the discussion, but it is, now none of them were actually like Julia's characters, describing being in a war, they were commentators, sociocultural commentators writing from a distanced position, but still, women have been the most important voices that have come out of Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, I think, in the last 20 years. It's interesting.
Aaron: Yeah, like, I never wanted to, to like overstate my own role really, like, but I think in translating Igiaba's work, I've always viewed that as an act of solidarity, like, which I, and it's because, you know, frankly, Black women everywhere have been seen as an underclass, the kind of last people to be considered in a kind of cultural imagination too, and even today, because of the kind of long legacy of, you know, of sexual violence against Black women in Italy, and also in the colonies, like in the worst instances, you will have racist people come up to Black Italian women and assume that they must be, you know, prostitutes from Nigeria, right? Like it, this kind of lack of imagination as to the key role that Black women have played in Italy's history, like that is something that Igiaba and other writers like her are always addressing. And so, I saw, if there was a way that I could bring like these stories, you know, into English for a wider audience, that I think was my like small way of saying, I recognize like what you all are doing, I see it and I am so grateful for it.
Esther: Thank you. I think we're out of time. This is, I wish we could, honestly, I wish we could go on another hour. This has been so fascinating, but thank you all so much and Queenie, wonderful job.
Queenie: Thank you.
Ellen: Thank you.
Esther: Allison, do you wanna say a final thank you to our sponsors?
Allison: We would once again, like to thank our partners, Howlround, PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. We look forward to seeing you again next week, and then for our big finale week of events, so please keep watching. Thank you.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
The conversations are hosted by Esther Allen & Allison Markin Powell.
About HowlRound TV
HowlRound TV is a global, commons-based peer produced, open access livestreaming and video archive project stewarded by the nonprofit HowlRound. HowlRound TV is a free and shared resource for live conversations and performances relevant to the world's performing arts and cultural fields. Its mission is to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively. Participate in a community of peer organizations revolutionizing the flow of information, knowledge, and access in our field by becoming a producer and co-producing with us. Learn more by going to our participate page. For any other queries, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.