Lessons in Slowness

Susanna Basso

Illustration by Naï Zakharia

Translating is beautiful in autumn, when the days are short and I need to turn my desk lamp on earlier. Natural light distracts me a little; it lights up the room, all of the other books, the furniture, the curtains . . . Here, in this circle of white light that isolates me, we are truly alone, the sentences and I. For every book I have translated, I could tell you what was happening inside this room and in the outside world. This would, I imagine, be anything but interesting, and yet my life has accompanied the life of the words I have looked up, and it has, for me, not been easy to keep them in check.

As a young woman I translated while in a little white room with no wardrobe, on a bare table, and near a phone that kept interrupting me, that kept dragging me outside to the thousands of things that I had asked others to expect of me. I had yet to come to terms with the slowness translation imposes; I remember trying to invent ways to go faster. I was convinced that experience would make me faster. I would often get frustrated. I would find almost every text repetitive, almost every author a little bit wordy.

Then I discovered that experience does not, in any way, make translation faster, but it does heal impatience and our need for the phone to ring.

At the time, I remember, I was fresh out of university and full of literary enthusiasm, and I swathed the words of the Brontë sisters in my own voice. I experienced the difficulty of having to combine the spontaneity of the simple letters between the sisters and their friends, and the intense richness of those extraordinarily captive and yet free women.

Mine bonnie love, I was as glad of your letter as tongue can express: it is a real, genuine pleasure to hear from home; a thing to be saved till bed-time, when one has a moment’s quiet and rest to enjoy it thoroughly. Write whenever you can. I could like to be at home. I could like to work in a mill. I could like to feel some mental liberty. I could like this weight of restraint to be taken off. But the holidays will come.

Little by little, I learned that working with a phrase is difficult; we have to learn to listen to it, respect it, and try our best not to envy it. I experimented with writing passionately, maybe too passionately, looking back on it today.

I once heard an author—someone I met after translating his beautiful novel—talking about his own experience as a translator from Russian into English. When carrying out the translation, he felt like a surgeon forced to operate wearing garden gloves. Needing to perform, that is, with the utmost precision, while using tools that guarantee anything but accuracy. The author was Michael Frayn, and he was talking about translating Chekov’s plays. At the time I thought—and still think—that those clumsy garden gloves definitely get in the way of fluency and agility, but to slip them off carelessly—convinced that, all of a sudden, we are surgeons—is even worse. It’s important to keep in mind that we need a bit of uncertainty when faced with someone else’s text. But cautious uncertainty, too, is a gift that comes with time.

First of all, we must work with passion, intuition, and exuberance. And, if we’re lucky, with the guidance of generous teachers. This is how I translated the disenchanted and bold voice of Ambrose Bierce in his little pamphlet on the dangers of the waltz entitled The Dance of Death. I remember how I would sit at my desk and, perfectly still, dance his lascivious waltz with intense pleasure; I was enchanted by his cutting, sumptuous writing, and I would follow his long sentences filled with subordinate clauses, which reminded me of the prose of Edgar Allan Poe.

I had been watching him while he waltzed with a young and beautiful lady, also of my acquaintance, and had been filled with wonder at the way he had folded her in his arms—literally fondling her upon his breast, and blending her delicate melting form into his ample embrace in a manner that was marvelous to behold. They had whirled and writhed in a corner for fully ten minutes—the fury of lust in his eyes, the languor of lust in hers—until gradually she seemed to lose her senses entirely, and must have slipped down upon the floor when he finally released her from his embrace had it not been for the support of his arm and shoulder . . .

I would get carried away looking for synonyms, often convinced that sumptuousness lay in linguistic richness. Luckily every piece of writing has its own specific weight, which almost always imposes itself on the inexperienced translator’s senseless fluttering. While I concentrated on the adjectives and the adverbial phrases, it was the concessive, the consecutive and the conditional clauses that led me, unwittingly, through the steps of Bierce’s waltz.

It was Wilma Stockenström who gave me my first great lesson in translation. I was entrusted with her novel, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, in 1987. I translated it without knowing I was translating a translation, without knowing I was working on the words of a female poet, a white Afrikaner who had, in fact, written in Afrikaans. And without knowing that the person who had translated her words into English was J. M. Coetzee, not yet famous in Italy. The book was and is beautiful. These are the words of Maria Antonietta Saracino, editor of the 2004 edition:

[ . . . ] from the desire to pose resistance to life, her life as a slave, stems the intense, poetic monologue of the first-person narrator of the book, a female character whose name, throughout the text, we do not learn, or if she even has one, because as she herself states: “I say my own name aloud and my own name means nothing. But I still am.”

A voice without a name, therefore. But so rich in tones and registers that I was forced to tread lightly, to focus differently. The pages became hourglasses with words that marked their own time, making it impossible for me to predict when I would finish my translation—it was useless to plan or try to respect my own personal deadlines. It was the writing that set the pace, not the translation. That fact, which may seem like an obvious truth, was a revelation to me. I was discovering the power of poetry in the prosody of Stockenström’s musical prose. The first hurdle I had to overcome was that while it was possible to understand the sense of a text from outside, this does not hold true for the rhythm of the language or the grain of the author’s voice.

To translate Wilma Stockenström’s novel, I had to draw upon something deeper than my more or less consolidated ability to understand and restore language. The journey to these new depths was almost always an unconscious one, manifesting itself in tempo. It would simply take more hours, more days, more rereadings. It would take patience. And the courage to wait for more than a minute for the right word to come, or not come at all, and then to leave it, for later, for tomorrow maybe. It was only within that great tree, which represents the narrative backbone of the novel, that I first experienced the fascination of the refuge that my métier could provide. Translating was becoming an expedient for privileged isolation; and what could be wrong with that? What I got from it, first and foremost, was pleasure. A secret.

Right at the beginning was no time, for there was no time to devote [ . . . ] Now I can permit myself the luxury of classification, as well as a judicious application of old and newly acquired knowledge. I can even reflect on what I am doing. I can let my thoughts run consecutively and regularly, without waves or ripples, I can form my thinking round as a clay pot and set it down cool and precise as water, I can make the mouth of the clay pot stand out like a spout against the uncertainty of blue and of black air that penetrates me and fills me completely if I am not careful. And I fill my thoughts with all sorts of objects, endless row upon row, not to be counted, I thank providence, I can think of enough objects to obliterate everything, and in addition I can make up objects if the remembered ones run out. I have good remedies against being empty.

A side effect of translation (probably unmentionable, and due to this, I believe, even more interesting to analyze) is that the text often ends up giving translators the impression they’re expressing their own state. To be clear, this is nothing like how readers identify with the text. It is rather something that appears somewhere between the lines of the original and the future of the translation. Even if we try not to give particular importance to it, even if we force ourselves to think about the role each word has, it is difficult to resist the pleasure of that attraction.

In the end, what are we risking? What is there to be afraid of? Confusion? Hardly. Because, as I have already stated, the text is not about me, but about my state, about my condition as a translator. The text reminds me of this, and continuously confronts me with new metaphors. Thanks to Wilma Stockenström, I began to wonder if translation was, in fact, a waiting game.

Even my relationship with dictionaries changed thanks to The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, and that was years before the revolutions of the web. Translators, obviously, look for words they don’t know in dictionaries, and, more often than not, they look for words they do know but that they just can’t decide how to translate. They look in those great books of language, therefore, in the hope of an idea that will arrive and solve that particular passage, that interjection, and so on and so forth.

Dictionaries were, for me, the rafts to which I could, for a moment, fasten a mental silence, in the hope of replacing it, as quickly as possible, with a word. I would barricade myself, sometimes physically, behind their solid paper towers to protect myself from an insidious army of doubts. I would go from dictionary to dictionary—from the bilingual to the monolingual to the Italian to the thesaurus—to enjoy the reassurance those brief paragraphs full of nuances gave me. A comforting break: my word was in there somewhere, among those authoritative proposals put forth by Aldo Gabrielli.

In fact, I would stop trying to entrust the solution to my problem to the usual word associations I would make. Which usually meant choosing the word that sounded best to me. It is so easy to fall in love with words, with the strangest words, the most colorful, the most literary, or the most common. It is so easy to forget that, paradoxically, no dictionary actually contains the word translators are looking for, but at most, at times, and almost by chance, it can suggest it.

The physical action of looking for a word—turning to one side, identifying the letter (there was a time when I secretly prided myself on being able to open the dictionary at almost exactly the right page) and scrolling down a compact list of new and precious, memorable and instantly forgettable wonders—was, in fact, a sort of break, the equivalent of lighting a cigarette to take my mind off the text for a moment, and give myself the chance to return to it a minute later, now more focused.

The dictionary favors and supports the weariness of translators without promising anything; unfortunately, the solutions we find when we are tired usually betray the text. After we have spent numerous hours on a translation, two things can happen: fatigue can push us to disregard accuracy, or it can encourage us to put too much trust in the dictionary.

Translators know that both are unfruitful. In the first case, it is obvious that our work lacks both time and the desire to ask ourselves if we were really able to translate the voice of the text, the color of an adjective. We very probably fished from our more or less vast “menu of correspondence,” so to speak, making each word correspond to its most commonly translated equivalent, and doing the same thing with idiomatic expressions, interjections, and maybe even brief syntactic constructions. This sort of linguistic prêt-à-porter is not necessarily wrong, but constitutionally inadequate when translating literature.

The alternative, after all—which can seem overly scrupulous—does not necessarily promise anything better, because exhaustion can push us to break the text down into a string of independent terms. When they are positioned side by side on the page, all the words we “found in the dictionary” stand alone, without creating prose.

This is how I learned to wait; this is how I learned that waiting is perhaps the best method, or the most conclusive one, to use when translating. Without, however, excluding other methods.

What does it mean, therefore, to wait for the word? Obviously, it means taking our time when searching for a corresponding term, but also trusting to a special kind of memory that helps us remember things that we, personally, don’t know. Words in sentences, sentences in paragraphs, paragraphs in pages, pages in chapters, chapters in novels. Novels carved out by the writing of a particular author.

Even from a distance, memory can help us choose the right word, or, at least, exclude the wrong one. Sometimes I’ll reread a sentence I translated, and it’s not that I think something is wrong, I just remember. Translating is a bit like having entire novels on the tip of our tongues, like having some awful form of amnesia where the only thing we actually remember is that we can’t remember. In which case the dictionary is almost always useless, because it isn’t a question of lexical forms, but of absorbing something until we remember how to translate it.

There is, however, another method, unfortunately rare, that might be of use. It’s not something we can do often, because it’s a game that leads far away, burrowing passageways into the heart of the text and coming up with loads of unnecessary information.

In June 2008, for example, a wonderful story by Alice Munro came out in The New Yorker. The story, called Deep-Holes, deals with a theme that the author had already dealt with twice: children who abandon their families.

Alice Munro opens with a backstory which, like in so many of her stories, stays with the reader throughout the rest of the narrative.

In Deep-Holes, a family—a mother, father, and three children: two boys and a baby girl—are picnicking at Osler Bluff, Ontario. They go there because the father, who is a geologist, wants to show his wife and children a site that is especially important for his scientific research. The geomorphological peculiarity of Osler Bluff is that it looks like thick caprock and yet just underneath it is “shale, clay turned into rock, very fine, fine-grained. Water works through the dolostone and when it gets to the shale it just lies there; it can’t get through the thin layers. So the erosion—that’s the destruction of the dolostone—is caused as the water works its way back to its source, eats a channel back, and the caprock develops vertical joints.” And so the story gets its title: “deep holes.” It’s evident that such a place has numerous dangers, particularly for two curious children possibly in need of a bit of attention, especially after the birth of their baby sister. The older child, in fact, falls into one of the underground crevasses and, although badly hurt, is saved by his father. Thus, the backstory.

The narrative moves quickly forwards in time, because what is important to the story is that the son voluntarily and definitively abandons his home, and that he falls into a hole from which he will never be able to crawl out. Deep-Holes tells the story of a son who is lost twice, and of the painful mesh of facts and thoughts that his disappearance has on others.

Readers are unable to put the episode that took place years earlier at the picnic out of their minds, and it, therefore, will represent a powerful and highly allusive foreshadowing. The child who falls into the crevasse is called Kent; he is the young man who, during his first year of university, decides to disappear, joining a sort of cult and changing his name to Jonah after deciding against the name Lazarus.

Setting out in search of the history of these three names means moving along a fascinating yet useless path. It means learning the story of Jonah, the man who ignores the Lord’s command to go to Nineveh. Jonah not only flees in the opposite direction, but boards the first ship out, and when a violent storm breaks, he convinces the other sailors to throw him overboard to calm the seas and is swallowed by a big fish which, after three days, abandons him on the shore. Jonah decides to obey the Lord and goes to Nineveh to preach against the corruption there; but when they repent and the Lord does not carry out his threat to destroy the city, he becomes angry. Here the Lord answers his protests with the divine response: “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah, therefore, is not only the man who escapes the belly of the great fish and is reborn, like the character that is extracted from the recesses of the earth, but also the inflexible rebel who is disobedient first, and outraged later. His name is perfect for the protagonist of the story, who, in fact, chooses it over the more obvious Lazarus, the resurrected friend of Christ.

But Kent, too, has a history behind it. In King Lear, in fact, Kent is the most loyal of the King’s subjects, a male counterpart to the honest Cordelia. Kent is trustworthy and honest; and when Kent tells the King he is wrong to treat his daughter badly, he is banished. Kent is like the loving son who, convinced his father has driven him out, assumes a false identity.

This fact also gives insight into the characters; it sets the names in the history of histories, offering readers the possibility to draw from stored memories. And what does all this have to do with translation? In the end, very little; because of the many obstacles a text can present, the names are hardly ever one of them. Those are the names and that’s all there is to it; if we translate them it’s only because they are part of the literary heritage of both languages, the source language and the target language. (For this reason Jonah becomes Giona, and Lazarus, Lazzaro.) What do translators do with all these wonderful stories that are hidden behind the words and the names? Nothing. We lose them. So what is the sense of the exercise?

Overall, I would say it is the opposite of looking up words in the dictionary. Because if by doing this the text appears flattened into a sort of a bi-dimensionality in which each word corresponds to another word, we sink into the “deep holes” of writing; and we understand things through what is lost, and not what is found.

translated from the Italian by Matilda Colarossi

An excerpt from Sul tradurre. Esperienze e divagazioni militanti by Susanna Basso (Bruno Mondadori, 2010).

Click here to read an exerpt from Wilma Stockenström's The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, translated by J. M. Coetzee.