In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator.

Our latest Asymptote Book Club selection, Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, depicts a terrifying scenario for many authors. According to its translator, the main character is “an author’s worst nightmare”: a translator with their own ulterior motives.

In the latest installment of the Book Club interview series, Emma Ramadan (herself one of numerous characters in the multi-layered English translation of Matthieussent’s novel) speaks to Mallory Truckenmiller. Read on to find out more Ramadan’s unique experience translating Revenge of the Translator — a text that offers us a glimpse into “some of our darkest fantasies as translators.”

Follow up this conversation’s insights into the art of translation with our #30issues30days program, celebrating 7 years of Asymptote.

Mallory Truckenmiller (MT): One defining quality of Revenge of the Translator is its translation within a translation structure, with the translator actually entering the plot of the novel. As the English translator, your role adds yet another layer to the work. How did you approach this position? Did you find ways to insert yourself as a new voice or character within your translation?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Because the French novel Vengeance du traducteur is framed as a French translation of a (non-existent) English original titled Translator’s Revenge, creating my own English translation got a bit complicated. I couldn’t use Translator’s Revenge as the title of my translation, and at the end, when the narrator mentions a supposed “American translator” of Vengeance du traducteur currently undertaking the translation of the book into English in their city, that translator had to be me, that city had to be Providence. It had to come full circle and the reader of the English translation had to understand that this was an explicit reference to the book they were currently holding in their hands, a reference to my work, otherwise, the whole conceit falls apart. Which, in turn, adds extra layers: how faithful is this translation I’ve been reading? How much has this book I’m currently holding in my hands about a rogue translator been messed with in turn by its own translator? I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator, to do justice to Matthieussent’s multi-layered work and keep it from veering into total insanity.

MT: In your essay “A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan”, you mention that there is “a lot of jealousy and possessiveness” involved in translation, where “Some translators seek to own ‘their’ authors.” To me, this speaks to Matthieussent’s idea of a translator’s revenge, or even the invasion of the translator into the text. Do you ever find that your own views clash with Matthieussent’s? How much ownership does a translator have over their translation? How free are they to “invade the text”?

ER: When I wrote that in the diary, I was referring more to a weird sort of competition among translators — as in, not wanting another translator to translate the same author as you, rather than seeking to “own” a particular author by making their text conform to your sensibilities.

But to answer your question: I think Matthieussent’s book is meant to play devil’s advocate to this idea of a translator’s “invisibility,” the idea that a good translation is equated with one in which we don’t detect the translator’s work at all, that a translator should be neither seen nor heard nor even sensed, and the tendency some have to gloss right over the fact that a book being read or reviewed has been brought into English through someone’s painstaking work. In presenting an incredibly invasive translator who entirely changes the work he’s translating, Matthieussent is not showing us who he is as a translator, Matthieussent is not positing any of Trad’s interferences with the text as something to emulate, he’s not condoning Trad’s actions. But maybe he’s giving us a look into some of our darkest fantasies as translators — fantasies we know we can never act on. And through the wit and the exaggeration we’re shown some truths: how in fact every single word passes through a translator’s hand, how translators are often the ones who catch the author’s mistakes and misquotations and silently correct them, how translators are real people with real lives and emotions that can become caught up in our work of translating a text.

I won’t speak for Matthieussent, but I don’t feel as though I have any ownership over the original text. I feel very much that my job as a translator is to create an English text that produces the same effect for the English reader as the original did for the French reader. If the original is smooth and easy to read, my translation should be too. If the original is confusing and jarring, my translation should be too. If I see a mistake, I’ll fix it or ask the author about it, but whether or not I like the author’s writing style has no bearing on my work. I do my best to render it as is without making it “cleave” to my own sensibilities, to borrow a word from Kate Briggs’ This Little Art. Is it possible, and likely, that my own sensibilities as a writer and reader creep into my translations? Absolutely. But I feel like I’ve done my job as a translator if I can hear the author, and not myself, when I read.

MT: Coming back to your Quarterly Conversation essay, you also comment on the bullying of male translators and the apparent sexism in the world of translation. I felt Revenge of the Translator sketched interesting portraits of gender ideals in translation. For example, Prote suggests translation contains “implicit eroticism” in its penetration of the unknown. How does this image reflect on the location of women in translation?

ER: I think Matthieussent plays around with these ideas in purposefully over-the-top ways: for example, one of the characters tells her lover to “translate” her while they’re having sex. Matthieussent touches on all of the various stereotypes and ideas about translation. Translation as erotic because you’re getting inside the author’s psyche, recreating their words—it’s incredibly intimate, it’s intellectually stimulating, it’s sexy. Matthieussent takes these various ideas and has his characters embody them, act them out, exaggerating and pushing these ideas to their extremes. Seeing these two male translators duking it out over the book, trying to one-up the other, trading Doris, the love interest, back and forth almost as a stand-in for the book and their desire to exert control over it, speaks to this idea of ownership or possession over authors or books—an idea that should always be questioned and challenged. In this instance, I think, as a woman translating a book about two male translators, written by a male translator, it’s a fun little injection of the feminine into this otherwise very masculine universe of the book, and to change the supposed male American translator’s name at the end of the book to my own name attests to the fact that translation is a space that allows for, and at times even calls for, such subversion.

MT: One thing I admired about your translation was your ability to maintain clarity of language and structure, despite the complexity of the original text. How did you balance the twists and turns of the plot, the shifts between satire and authentic refection? Were there are any sections of Revenge of the Translator that you found particularly demanding to translate?

ER: I was taking my lead from Matthieussent: the language of his novel keeps calm and collected even as events are spiraling out of control. The book suddenly goes from a translator calmly issuing rhetoric to his audience to characters running back and forth through a secret passageway in Paris, putting on costumes, imagining themselves in paintings, shape-shifting constantly, and it was hard to pin down this narrative glide. There’s a lot of shifting between characters’ psyches, between layers of the text, between voices. Keeping track of these voices, making them sound distinct from each other, keeping David apart from the author he’s translating even as they seem to resemble each other more and more, keeping Doris separate from Dolores even though they’re meant to mimic each other, keeping up with the characters as they develop over the course of the book… All this made for a very different translating experience than with any other book I’ve worked on so far.

MT: Trad is something of an iconoclast when it comes to traditional notions such as fidelity or respecting the original text. His decisions to insert his own style and even change certain parts of the novel might be considered heretical by some translation theorists (such as Professor Eugene Eoyang, who regards any alteration of the text as “the preening of a peacock”).  Do you think Matthieussent’s novel offers any fresh insights into the role of a translator?

ER: I think we can all agree that Trad is an author’s worst nightmare, and a scapegoat for how some suspicious readers and reviewers might view us. For us translators, Trad might be the embodiment of a fantasy or two… I know I’ve been translating books before and thought “oh I so wish I could make this x instead of y,” or “gosh I hate this metaphor, I wish I could delete it,” and had to stop myself. But I think what Matthieussent’s novel shows us is the amount of work that goes into translating. We have to handle every single verb, every single adjective, we have to research every citation, every reference, sometimes the authors we’re translating ask us to accommodate bizarre or incredibly time-consuming whims, as Prote here asks David to transpose his book from Paris to New York City, sometimes we grow attached to certain characters and come to see them as different from what’s been written. And through it all, unlike Trad, we don’t argue, we don’t intervene, we don’t change (for the most part), we don’t ask for the credit, we take a back seat to the author, we remain below the black line that separates text from footnote. The irony of Matthieussent’s novel is that by giving this translator the ultimate power to do as he likes with the book, deleting words, inserting chapters, becoming romantically involved with the characters, we are reminded just how opposite the actual experience of translating is. Just how limiting. We hover in that in-between space: we don’t want to be a Trad, but why does it seem like the only other option is remaining invisible?

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).

Mallory Truckenmiller is an undergraduate student of English, Spanish, and literary translation at Saint Vincent College. She also serves as the social media intern at Eulalia Books, an independent publisher of literary translations. She is a translator of Latin American and Iberian literature.


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