In Translation, Fidelity is Infidelity

Oct. 1, 2019, 10:55 p.m.

Around a year ago, I suddenly became interested in a field called “Literary Translation.” It was around the time I was applying to the Columbia School of the Arts. I had noticed their fiction MFA had an optional literary translation concentration, and though I never took up the offer to attend the SoA, my interest in Literary Translation lingered.

Now, I am enrolled in the Journalism program, but find myself stealing over to the SoA building like a fugitive.

Recently I visited award-winning Danish translator Katrine Jensen in her office to ask her how one might get started. Luckily, we are both into journalism, translation, and fiction, and got on like fast friends.

I learned from Katrine that Literary Translation is an unbelievably complex process where you get started publishing short translated works in literary magazines. You then scout authors whose work you are interested in, figure out who has the rights to the piece and ask whoever that is if you have permission to translate. You approach a publisher with a translated sample et voilà: book deal.

We discussed the art of translation, and how a translated work is really the combined from two authors. It ends up being two distinct pieces, she said.

One mistake her students make is sticking too closely to the text. “Here, fidelity is infidelity.” She suggested that I translate short works at first, short stories or flash fiction, and bring them to her for assessment. I couldn’t believe that she had offered to mentor me, because I am not technically enrolled in the SoA.

“I don’t think of it as an obligation, I think of it as paying it forward,” she said. “When I was new to the industry, that’s what so many people did for me.”

We talk salaries, solicitation, getting out from under the dreaded ‘slush’ pile. The importance of having an “in,” an editor on the inside. She said, “Translation is a good way to gain a foothold in the literary world.

“You can highlight works from the African diaspora… highlight promising new literary voices. You make sure diverse voices are heard.”

This caught my interest. “When I was in Europe I always felt that English carried with it a sort of privilege. I would walk into a room of international students, and all of a sudden, we were speaking in English, just because I was there. Translation would be a good way to use this privilege for good, I guess.”

“I think of translation as activism,” she affirmed.

I left her office feeling light. I felt as though a door somewhere had been flung wide open.

MC

 

 

You Would Have Had to See His Face

Sept. 27, 2019, 10:41 a.m.

On the train today, a man asked the passengers, “Do you have any food or change that you can spare,” which made me look up. The ask was normally for change. To date, I had never heard any mention of food.

“Do you have any food or change that you can spare,” he said again. I was struck by the simplicity of the request. He was hungry. The people in the car looked at their phones. I stared at my empty hands.

“Do you have any food or change that you can spare.” He shuffled through the train car, plastic bags hanging from his wrists. I will never forget his face, which was red with shame, eyes downcast.

“Do you have any food or change that you can spare.” I bit my lip because I didn’t have anything: no food, no cash. I had started leaving my wallet, which was bulky and heavy, at home. In the moment, it seemed like a pitiful excuse.

“Do you have any food or change that you can spare.” Normally there was a story. Something to do with illness or children. But this man was too tired even to elaborate.

“Do you have any food or change that you can spare.” He arrived the other side of the train car and looked out at the people. The people did not look back at him. His hair was bizarrely patchy, made completely bald in some places from circumstances I could not imagine.

“Do you have any food—” He said it slowly this time. He was testing the waters, watching for a reaction, checking to see whether or not he existed—“or change that you can spare.”

He waited a beat, then stepped out of the train car. Not a single person looked up, making me the sole witness to the death of humanity.

I stepped off the train and walked quickly to my apartment. Once there, I sat on the edge of my bed and wept—actually wept—into a tissue. I can’t explain why. You would have had to have been there. You would have had to see his face.

In Reporting class, we’ve been practicing mock interviews. The interviewer asks difficult questions like, “What was the saddest thing you’ve ever seen?” As a rule, I hate these questions, because I can never pinpoint anything specific. Life is so expansive. If I am ever asked that question, at least I now have an answer.

MC

 

 

Small Stories Everywhere

It starts off as hail. By the time I get home, fat white flakes billow down.

“Isn’t it nice?” my roommate says. “I just love the beginning of winter.” She dances around the kitchen, singing a rendition of It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas.

I make chai tea on the stove, boiling water and milk and whisking in cinnamon, sugar, and ginger. It’s a recipe I learned from some Indian family friends with whom my sister and I grew up in Scarborough.

My eyes droop with fatigue. I think of the assignments I should be doing, the standardized test I have elected to take for grad school, the too-many extracurriculars I have taken on.

I look out the window and drink my tea. It’s been a year and a half since I saw snow like this. “Nous ne sommes plus au Sud de la France,” I think. We are no longer in the South of France.

The snow slows the city to a crawl. It takes one of my roommates an hour to get to campus, while the other one gives up waiting for the bus and leaves, choosing instead to walk home. Needless to say, it’s a bad day for travel.

I board a greyhound bus bound for Toronto that takes four hours instead of the usual two. I cycle through my playlists, my taste growing stranger and more eclectic as time winds on. I listen to indie, then ABBA, then classic rock, then movie soundtracks, then Disney ballads, then movie soundtracks again. The condensation on my window blurs the light from the streetlamps, haloing them in yellow and orange like watercolour paint.

All around me, small stories take place. The girls in the row ahead of me are discussing their boyfriends. The woman in the aisle across from mine says, “Hey Bonnie, it’s Sharon, I guess you called me, so I thought I’d call you, so you can call me back.”

I arrive at the train station and wait forty minutes for another train home. This one will take an hour. I buy a tuna sandwich cut into two halves. While I eat, I watch.

Not far from me, a woman asks a man, maybe her boyfriend, what she’s “supposed to do.” She looks a little concerned, out of place. He moves away from her, lips moving, and she holds his gaze. Maybe he’s saying he’ll be right back. A man across from me in a suit runs a hand down his face, hangs his head. Distracted by these people in this train station and by my own thoughts, I drop one half of my tuna sandwich on the floor.

*

Once on the train, I open my laptop to try and get some work done, and immediately freeze. There is a female voice, crying, somewhere in the train car. I catch only snippets of her garbled voice. “And I, I just don’t, understand.” I look around but can’t find the person in distress. The crying continues, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.

I don’t worry for this faceless girl on the train. There’s a strength, I think, in being able to cry on public transit. To really cry. (It’s the ones who want to cry, but do not, who I worry for.)

I close my laptop. I don’t know how anyone can get any work done with small stories happening everywhere.

MC

A Little Less Young

There are three days left of my latest communications internship.

I’ve always sat in the wrong department, so it’s the Portfolio Management team that

buzzes around my desk.

Today, they are all talking at once, all around me,

their voices interspersed by the gentle classical music that comes in through my earbuds,

which creates an interesting effect:

Dawn by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, overlaid by older

male voices

passionately discussing concepts I don’t understand.

I become briefly melancholic, the music and voices growing quiet. I think about how with every internship,

with every day, I become a little

less

young.

I Guess I’ll Write About the Little Things

I.

At my new job downtown, people speak only in buzz words.

I start to keep a list. I quickly discover that their favourite expression is “high-level overview.” As in: “Marisa, we’re going to give you a tour of the office. Sort of a high-level overview.” This is funny: any sort of overview is – by nature of it being an overview –  high-level.

When I get home after my first day, my mother bursts into the room like sunshine. If you don’t know my mother, she is: a grin that takes up a good portion of her face, freckles, hair caught in a bun. She is: eyebrows set high on her face like everything is interesting. She is: a tinge of an accent, and a habit of referring to every man as “fella”.

“How was your first day?” she asks.

“Would you like a high-level overview?” I say.

“Of course.”

I consider this, placing a finger on my chin. “I did nothing and nothing happened.”

“Sounds like a low-level overview to me.”

“Katya,” I say, turning to my sister. “Give me a high-level overview of that sandwich you’re eating. And a bite.”

 

II.

What there is left to write about, when the exchange is over? When life is predictable and there are no longer surprises at every turn?

Let me tell you! There is a beauty in familiarity. In the noncommittal rain that falls over the Toronto streets. Outside the train, I watch the overcast skies turn the foliage a deep green. Small lavender flowers peek out through the brush.

I’ll write about the little things; about the man who greeted his wife and small daughter at the train station. He crouched down, hugged her and chatted to her animatedly. She was wearing sunglasses too big for her face and a pink sunhat. He then kissed her on the cheek, and kissed his wife, and then kissed her pregnant, bulging belly, and the whole group sought cover under the shelter, so the little girl could press her nose against the glass and watch the train whisk by.

I’ll write about the little things.

 

III.

After living in Europe, all prices seem deceptively low. I have developed the nasty habit of flinging my money at things: shoes, subway sandwich, phone case.

Compared to my life abroad, I feel like a princess. There is never any urgency to ensure my own survival. When I was away, if I didn’t take steps to go to the grocery store and cook something I would likely die.

But at home, barbecue chicken is always made à la Daddy, and Those Bagels I Like are bought consistently. My sister need only breathe the word cheeto and a bag will miraculously appear in the cupboard.

My fridge in France was almost always empty, with only Camembert, a single egg (rotten, probably) and an industrial-sized bottle of iced tea. The fridge at my parents’ house is so full to the brim I saw the cream cheese exactly once and never again. I suspect it is lost to the world.

Things have back to normal and life has resumed its ambling pace. I no longer have to jump through hoops to do anything administrative. Stores are open for twice as long as they were in France, with no endless midday lunch break. Sending a letter is no longer a spectacle. And by the grace of God I am able to order hawaiian pizza.

But things have changed while I was away. Minimum wage jumped to a whopping $14 an hour, and the prices of everyday goods rose as well. Recently, the family purchased a black lab-border collie cross that likes to use the furniture like a chew toy. He probably thinks his name is “no, no, no,” or “sit, sit, sit,” or “please stop biting me,” because that’s all we seem to say to him. (The puppy’s name, in reality, is Ziggy.)

At work, I am only one of two people in the office who speak French, and in short order, am given the opportunity to translate into French for the company. That was quick, I think, but the need for the language is palpable. I suppose this bodes well for me.

I am a newly-minted bilingual, eager to speak and write. Sometimes I forget the whole thing, the whole exchange. I open my mouth and am stunned all over again that it’s French that comes out.

 

IV.

Working downtown is an exercise in anonymity. I often feel as though I leave my identity at the train station and recover it at the end of the day.

I am almost embarrassed by how little people seem to care about one another on the train. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the book’s pivotal moment is one where Briony, the main character, realizes that everyone is living a life just a complex and as vivid as hers: “…the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense…”

I wonder what the People On The Train would think of this.

At the office, I once caught my fingers in the hinge of one of the heavy doors. Be careful, my mother would have said. Those are your piano fingers. But when I look up, I realize no one has seen this small tragedy. No one here knows that I play the piano, either. I run my fingers under cold water in the staff bathroom and feel inexplicably lonely.

 

V.

The exchange is not “over”. The whole thing was so vivid that at times I feel I am still living it. I suppose it has to be that way. The drawback (or upside, you choose) of travel is that you leave little pieces of yourself everywhere. At the back of my mind I think about how I have spread my life across Europe, Canada and Jamaica, like peanut butter on toast. Spread it too thin it won’t taste like anything.

Or maybe life is not peanut butter. Maybe peanut butter is peanut butter and life is life.

I will always be stunned by the difference between my parents’ lives and mine. Their friends, family, and nearly everyone they had ever known – was limited to a single island with roughly the population of Toronto. I’m not sure what that’d be like.

 

VI.

I step out of my office building and the sun hits me, hard. I am in dress pants with a key card clipped to the waistline, masquerading as an adult. I don’t know what worries me more: the possibility that this fools no one, or that it fools everyone. Downtown bustles around me, always busy, always late for something.

The smell of food hangs in the air like a good idea.

MC