Emma Ramadan has earned acclaim for her translations from the French of such diverse works as Morrocan Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Oulipian Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and more. Her second Anne Garréta translation, Not One Day, recently won the 2018 Albertine Prize. Her forthcoming novel, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, is due for publication by the Feminist Press on August 15th. Together with her partner, Tom Roberge, Ramadan opened the bookshop-bar Riffraff in December, where she promotes her favorite texts and discovers what a sustainable life for a young female translator might look like. Here, Ramadan speaks with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal, Lindsay Semel, about French slang, gender in life and art, and what makes her love a text enough to translate it.
Lindsay Semel (LS): I’d like to start by talking about Riffraff. What inspired you to open the place?
Emma Ramadan (ER): Well, I always had this idea in my head that I wanted to do a bookstore-bar. There’s a couple of bookstore bars spread around the country and it just seemed like a really vibrant gathering spot and something that was working both financially and for customers. It felt like this distant, far-off project until I met my co-owner and partner Tom, who was also involved in the translation world. Providence came up almost immediately. There is a welcoming literary community because of the universities, but there is also a really great local business community. The west side of Providence, which is where we are, is basically all independent businesses. There aren’t any chains, there aren’t any giant stores, it’s kind of just this really lovely haven of local people fulfilling their passions and trying to make it work and it seemed like we would fit right in here.
LS: You’ve written about the importance for you as a female translator of having a strong network of female colleagues. Does the bookstore serve as a site for collaboration and support? Can you elaborate more generally on this idea and how it functions in your life and work?
ER: Well starting with the bookstore—what’s so lovely about bookselling is that it’s so honest. We own the store, so we only have to stock and display books that we believe in and feel comfortable selling and encouraging others to read. So it fills me with immense joy when female colleagues or fellow female translators have books out that I love and can put on a table and sell to customers.
On the more general side, I’ve found that a lot of my female translator friends have become my confidantes. There’s this sentiment of solidarity among us—reading each other’s work, promoting it, lifting each other up, encouraging each other, reminding each other that we’re sane when other people do weird things.
LS: And alongside the solidarity, is there also competition?
ER: Oh absolutely. We’re all competing with each other because there isn’t that much translated literature being published, so if we’re both pitching the same small press then it’s possible one of our projects will be chosen over the other’s. Or if a friend is also translating from French, we’re both looking for the new book that’s going to blow people away. And I’m guilty of feeling slightly jealous of friends’ projects and accomplishments here and there. But at the end of the day, my friendships with other translators and sharing advice and supporting their work is what fulfills me and makes this whole translation world enjoyable. The feelings of competition or jealousy just fade away in comparison.
LS: Given this approach to personal and professional relationships between women in your own life, how did you relate to, embody, and find voice for the characters in Pretty Things? In a way, it’s through their competition, jealousy, and commodification of each other and themselves that they come to recognize and appreciate their own humanity and each other’s.
ER: The great thing about Virginie Despentes’s books is that the voices of her characters are extremely strong, in your face. And also often similar across books. These are young, rebellious women who have something to say, who are trying to figure themselves out, who are trying to figure out how to be in the world as a woman. These are all things I am currently grappling with, so on a conceptual level these characters just make sense to me. I can see them clearly in my mind and imagine them talking and imagine their facial expressions and their inner confusion.
LS: One of your previous translations, Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, contains this particular constraint that the characters are genderless. While it’s easy to imagine Despentes’ almost aggressive lack of constraint in the way she writes about gender as a sort of freedom in comparison, perhaps this isn’t the case… Can you compare these two experiences exploring gender in translation?
ER: Oh man. Sphinx and Pretty Things couldn’t be any more different in a lot of ways. Sphinx is written in this very intellectual, high-register style with outmoded vocabulary and no gender markers, and Pretty Things is written in a very colloquial, accessible language, lots of slang and swear words, very in-the-moment vocabulary, and is all about the way gender plays into the characters’ interactions and lives and experiences in the world. And yet both books are about the exact same thing: gender is a performance of a social construct, and the pervading binary of gender in our society wreaks havoc on our relationships and our ideas of love.
Every translation comes with its difficulties. The constraint of Sphinx, figuring out how to avoid using any gender markers for the characters, was difficult. But maybe the most difficult part was training myself not to project gender onto these characters. The difficulty of Pretty Things was crafting a realistic character who is realistic because she is caught in this web of femininity, the drag of womanhood. She’s realistic because of this struggle to come to terms with what society imposes on us as women and how to endure that without succumbing to it entirely.
Crafting a character is crafting a character—neither was easier than the other. There’s a fluidity to the characters in both books, an awareness of the workings of society. Commentary on the rules of society and how ridiculous they are. Garréta’s DJ talks about rich people in clubs and how they expect to be treated. Despentes’ Pauline talks about advertising and its effect on women, namely her sister. They could almost be characters in the same book if we ignore the writing style. So in both cases, it was just about listening to what exactly the author was trying to communicate, and making sure the characters could accurately and realistically convey that commentary.
LS: I love this idea of listening to what exactly the author was trying to communicate. So then where do you think Pretty Things comes down on the issue of love? Pauline, Claudine, Sebastian, and Nicolas . . . where they expect to find love, instead they find themselves entangled in conventions and expectations that they can only choose whether and how to accept or reject… is there space for something like love in a framework like this?
ER: Oooh that’s so tough. It’s more complicated than this, but it’s easy to read the book as: Pauline and Claudine can’t find love because they get in their own way, they get too caught up in society’s ideas of womanhood and how they’re supposed to be and act. Claudine is beautiful, knows how to play up her beauty, knows how to seduce men. So she seduces men and then tosses them aside once she’s gotten validation. It gives her momentary relief, but then she’s left feeling empty. What she wants is a real connection with someone, but when she finds it, she doesn’t actually let it turn into anything, maybe because it would mean losing the control she thinks she has through using her femininity on the men around her. She uses her looks as a weapon against men, and so to let someone in would mean giving up her arms. The idea is too much to bear, because how can we exist as women in this world without armor?
Pauline seems to have love, seems to have won over her beloved by not playing into the rules of femininity. But then it turns out she was missing that after all. And it throws her into a spiral of confusion. She warps and metamorphoses into what she thinks men want and isn’t able to realize the love right in front of her until she settles back into herself.
Without giving too much away, the characters in this book that do find love in the end seem to only be able to find it when they’re secluded from the rest of the world, indoors, alone, no pressure to be anything but themselves. In that environment, society and gender and rules and constructions and expectations have no place and can dissipate, leaving space for love. (Again, echoes of Sphinx.)
LS: You wrote in an essay for The Quarterly Conversation about anxiety and self-doubt in your choices as a translator and in your professional life. Can you tell me about a challenge you had in translating Pretty Things that caused you anxiety and how you dealt with it?
ER: There are so many to choose from. One that comes to mind is the slang. A lot of books that incorporate colloquial dialogue among young people, and especially that incorporate slang, are meticulously picked apart by reviewers for not sounding natural or accurate. I’ve read books before translated by older, well-established translators where I thought the dialogue was so cringe-worthy and unnatural. I would think to myself “This translator is really not in touch with what young people sound like.” But then I tried to translate Pretty Things and I realized, despite being a twenty-something woman with twenty-something friends, I have no idea how young people talk either. It took a lot of reading out loud to nail down a voice that I hope in the end came through as realistic. My Feminist Press editor, Lauren Hook, took the time to talk with me over the phone and we spoke a lot of the lines aloud to each other.
LS: You say you’ve read most of Despentes’ books, that Marguerite Duras inspired you to translate, that you translate because some books just beg you to. You translate even though you barely have time for it and it’s often thankless. Is it possible for you to characterize what it is about a text that inspires this drive in you?
ER: Ooh, that’s an excellent question. I tend to translate two different kinds of books. The first is the kind of book that is doing something formally interesting that doesn’t exist in English, that I think would be hugely difficult and therefore exciting to translate, and also would bring something new to English-language readers, a new way of thinking about language and writing. Sphinx, and Oulipian books in general, would fall into this category.
The second is books that speak directly to me on a personal level and completely shock me in their ability to teach me about myself. Every book by Marguerite Duras falls into this category. Her way of thinking about love and passion feels so completely true to me, and I don’t think anyone else talks about love the way she does. Other books that fall into this category—anything by Marie NDiaye translated by Jordan Stump, Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. These are books by women and about women that just open up new areas in writing. These writers’ views of the world, it’s like they see something none of us do, but as soon as they tell us, we understand it. They get at something that’s always been looming just out of reach. Despentes falls into this category, though in a very different way than Duras or NDiaye or Léger, for the way she is able to so accessibly put words to the incredibly complicated chaos of society. Her books are fun to read, like a pulpy romance novel, but she’s actually hammering through searing commentary with every page. Books like that are so exciting.
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she also co-owns Riffraff bookstore and bar. Her recent or forthcoming translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Not One Day (Deep Vellum), Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things (Feminist Press), Ahmed Bouanani’s The Shutters (New Directions), and Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator (Deep Vellum).
Lindsay Semel is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.
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