(London: Holland Park Press, 2019)
Life happens and then I write about it. It’s what essayists and memoirists do. We take real life stories and put them down on paper so others can read about them. However, writing non-fiction is a process, an art. When revisiting an event or occurrence, I don’t simply spit out a chain of events. That could bore the reader. As I am typing, I need to decide what is important, what the reader will find intriguing. But I’m also editing, cutting away the extra material, slicing away characters who don’t add anything special to the plot, or removing places that might simply confuse the reader. Yet, I never lie. I never make things up. My art does not permit it. I must remain faithful to the facts.
A literary translator’s job is not all that different. A translator is handed a story and asked to convert it to another language. They are constrained by the the original text. The story they convey must be the same, but just as a non-fiction writer must make the story readable — even enjoyable — for the audience, the translator must make it culturally accessible. One can’t simply plug the language into Google Translator because “words rarely have simple meanings, and often their meanings are defined by their context.” Technology does not take into consideration the various cultural elements that render the text comprehensible for readers from a different geographical location.
In the novel Life in Translation, Anthony Ferner — a former professor of international human resource management — tells the engaging story of a British translator, charting his career beginning in his twenties when he was a graduate student in Lima, Peru, and following him across the European continent to Paris, Madrid, Leiden, and London. Interwoven with his evolution as a translator are the stories of his relationships with various women.
In the opening chapter, the reader is introduced to the art of translating through the narrator’s student eyes. It is from him that the reader learns what it means to translate, and that translating — if done well — is just as much of an art as writing. Looking back at his own work from his time in university, he observes, “My translations from those days would probably embarrass me now. Technically they were just about adequate, but they always missed some subtle layer of meaning beneath the meaning, there was a lack of tradecraft, of cultural awareness.” Translating requires knowledge beyond words. To be a great translator one must be part anthropologist; translators need to be exceedingly familiar with the culture embedded in the original text.
Like an author who dreams of literary success, the narrator, who yearns to be a prestigious literary translator, must first find a day job to support his artful ambitions. However, the problem with working a full time job is that it leaves little time or energy for one’s true passion. While working an infuriating job in Paris, one that utilizes his language skills, the narrator sets out to translate a Peruvian prison novel titled El Sexto. He takes meticulous notes, but the notes never seem to evolve into anything more:
[El Sexto] held a horrid fascination for me. I had hoped my English version would be my calling card for entry into the world of literary translation. But with its claustrophobia, its litany of inhumanity and its hopelessness — no inmate escapes its confines — the novel was like the sum of all my fears. Which is why, I suppose, I never completed it. But neither was I ever able to throw away the bulging box file of notes and research, even when I’d long since given up working on it.
He invests countless hours into this project which never comes to fruition. In frustration, he eventually moves on to find another Latino author and the translation does launch his literary career. However, El Sexto continues to haunt him, and his failure to translate it mirrors his failure to find domestic contentment.
For the narrator, women prove far more challenging to decipher than the texts he must translate. He falls in love, he falls victim to infatuations, but always he struggles to maintain a relationship for any length of time. One of the brilliant aspects of this book is that as the narrator gains traction in the literary world of translation, as he gains respect, he starts to realize that when it comes to women, he is susceptible to misreadings. Toward the end of the novel, he is reminded of Gabi, his love interest in Peru. But as he contemplates the interactions, the friendship they shared, he realizes, “I succeeded in misreading things to the point where I scuppered our relationship, and it couldn’t be salvaged. These things seem so obvious looking back, but in the moment I’d been convinced I was acting reasonably at every step.” Though he states these sentiments in relation to one woman, they can easily be applied to all the women that have moved through his life.
Life in Translation is beautifully written. I enjoyed following the narrator first in Peru and then through Europe, catching glimpses of life and the energy in various cities. His failures and fumbles evoke sympathy, and though he sometimes acts foolish, one can’t help but cheer for his success both romantically and professionally.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Trash Panda Poetry, Hamline Lit Link, Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!