On (In)visibility

Maggie Zebracka

Artwork by Shay Xie

Translation is not an invisible act. The book does not translate itself.

See: all of my browser’s open tabs, two thesauruses, from two languages, raided for their vocabulary, two documents side-by-side, search bars leading to forums, message boards, ads, blogs, other books.

See also: my desk, my laptop, the e-books, the “Notes” folder where unruly thoughts pile up, the scattered physical books propped open by a cell phone and other, heavier books.

And: a simple question regarding a noun. Is it going to be “wilderness” or “wildness” or “desert” or “tundra” or “nature” or “country” or perhaps “wilds”? Someone makes these decisions. (I do.) Someone says it will be this and not that. (I decide.) And then this order and not that one. And then this interpretation and not another. After some time, there is a book in which every word was carefully weighed by the translator. In this sense, the translated book belongs to the translator more than the source belongs to the author, who may have been guided by instinct or genius and who will never need to defend why this and not that. Who has the agency—the translator who must justify each choice or the author whom we’re meant to interpret?

Writers, after all, have muses, while translators have dictionaries. Writers should write about what they’re afraid of, translators should be afraid of getting it wrong. Writing is what you do, translation is when you make do. Writing has tips, but translation has metaphors, which signals that writing is direct whereas translation needs a conduit just to talk about itself. When writing does turn to metaphors, they often deal with craft rather than philosophy.

Alice Munro says a story should be like a house: you first have to build it, from the foundation up, before you can even think about choosing curtains. But why is it that writers, when building their houses, can change their minds about the floorplan, experiment with staircases that lead nowhere, leave in the middle of the project, construct the same room over and over, nail the mismatched furniture to the ceiling, and then hand you the keys to the house and say, “It’s all yours. Now, figure out how to move this thing to Italy.” Should the translator—who must sometimes play the role of real estate agent—also be a housekeeper, disinfecting the counters, throwing out the excess bouquets of flowers, and sweeping up any broken glass?

If readers gash their foot on the glass, snag their clothes on a protruding nail, or get drenched because there’s a hole in the roof, can we expect them to believe it’s all part of the experience, or is the translator at fault for not doing some home improvement?

A related question: if translators and their translations make the art visible through scandal, should they embrace the scandalous? Let the reader and the critic bleed!—that’s one strategy. After all, who says art should be safe, or comfortable?

When the translation takes its first steps into the world and speaks for itself, the translator, like the writer, becomes secondary to the work. So, the most important questions are ultimately: What does my translation want to do, to be? And then, what kind of translator do I want to be?

Suppose it is career day at translation school and I have to answer the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Do I want to be a ninja?

If translation can be an invisible act, if translators can be ninjas, as Etgar Keret says they should be, then what kind of ninja are we talking about? I don’t want my translation to do violence under the cover of night. Don’t get me wrong—I hope it doesn’t stumble around oafishly, catching its toes on the carpet, but I would also hate for it to be stealthy. I don’t want to tear down the support beams or the load-bearing walls, but I do want the chance to rearrange the furniture, replace some knick-knacks, borrow other artwork from a different museum, pick out new curtains.

My translation doesn’t want to wear white to someone else’s wedding, but it does want to throw its own party, in its own house. It wants a version of linguistic hospitality, the chance to play host.