I was pretty sure it was going to be fine. They’d warned me that it could be intense, uncomfortable, revealing. But I’m enough of an egotist to think that I’d enjoy having my work pored over, analysed, being asked what exactly I meant with this word or that. So I was pretty sure it was going to be fine.
And it was fine, the first day. When they wrote up my “themes” on the whiteboard in the translation room, I felt revealed but also understood, wonderful. When they asked me, on the second day, why I’d chosen this tense, this sentence structure, this verb, I felt cross-examined but also taken seriously. My respect for myself grew. I wrote, in that translation room, voluminously. Almost 8,000 words of my new novel that week, under the incubating heat-lamp of careful attention.
And then there was the third night.
The third day had been intense but beautiful, that same sense that my work was important, worth taking seriously. That same sudden, consistent understanding that yes, there was a reason I’d chosen one word not another, how fascinating and unexpected. Each unconscious choice was a real choice. Each one exposed. Well, we expose the unconscious at our peril.
And then the third night, I dreamed a dream. In my dream I was lost, wandering in the forest of stories with another writer (a shadow, a doppelganger), looking for a man who is lost in story. The mood was eerie, the place was strange. There was a man with only one eye in the centre of his forehead, and a curtain covering the moon – yes, the land of story indeed. And then, in the land of story, we entered the Translation Chamber. There, a man was slicing something on a prosciutto-slicer. He looked up at me. “Sto facendo”, he said (“I’m doing it”, in Italian – that language my work was being translated into). And I looked to see what he was slicing. It was a celeriac. Look at a picture of a celeriac. If it doesn’t look like a brain to you, I don’t know what would.
And I woke up gasping for air.
The subconscious is the seat of stories. And it does not like to give away its truths except allusively, mysteriously. This dream is as close as a subconscious comes to saying “Stop. Help me. Don’t.” The image of a brain being sliced thinly.
So what was happening there, in that Translation Chamber, in that perfectly pleasant room with a group of lovely Italian translators taking my work very seriously and asking me why I’d chosen this word or that in a story I’d written for them? Something like this, I think: an examination of the gaps in language, those gaps which we try to conceal so carefully in our work.
Language, said Flaubert, is a cracked kettle, on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity. Well, he didn’t quite say that. He said, “La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.” Not quite the same. Why did he say “la parole humaine”? Can we get that sense of “human” into the sentence? Not really, because English isn’t quite the same. Because there is no perfect translation of the pure glistening thought which gave rise to that sentence in French. Because even the French is an imperfect translation of it. Because on some level all language fails to get at what we really mean, and we try to cover up the cracks with our skill. Because language is a cracked kettle. But the only one we have.
Do we choose a form, or does it choose us? I don’t have the fitness for dance or the eye for painting or the ear for music. Writing is what’s left to me absent all those other talents, and with a need to express myself so deep it goes down to the very celeriac root of myself. But perhaps there’s also something in that artistry and broken-ness. In the way that language always seems to be saying something, but how malleable it is, how much it can conceal. There’s nothing behind the curtain, says language. I always seem to be revealing something, but I always keep something back; the act of translation lays it bare. What exactly does this mean? But what exactly? The exactness is precisely the thing that we can fudge with a few deftly chosen words. I think I write because I want to be known, but perhaps I do not want to be known too clearly.
I have had to be nagged and nagged to write this piece. I think my subconscious is not overfond of too much revelation.
Naomi Alderman was a writer in residence at the BCLT International Literary Translation Summer School in 2011. She spent the week with a group of English to Italian translators, translating into Italian a short story she’d written specially for the occasion.
This piece was originally published in Issue 39 of the BCLT journal In Other Words.