My best friend told me you should never walk so far away from your village that you can no longer see the church clock tower, without a pack of sandwiches in your bag. That was on the day we walked so far from her village that the clock tower was soon lost in the folding hills. I can remember sun, yes, sun through deep piney forest, sun on the walls of a small castle that might have been old, sun on my friend’s smooth face as she posed on an incongruous stage in the castle’s roofless banqueting hall. Was that yesterday? I still see it, see it all. But no, it can’t have been yesterday because it’s been months since I saw her, years since we walked in the sun together. Since we floated between villages in a no-woman’s-land. In sight of no clock tower. Only sun and sandwiches.
(‘Between Villages’ inspired by ‘The Next Village’ by Franz Kafka)
Based on a personal memory, writing this piece became an exercise in exploring my own position as a writer-translator. Barthes says that ‘it is not that the Author cannot “return” in the Text…but he does so…as a guest…drawn as a figure in the carpet…a paper author’ (‘From Word to Text’). Barthes’ imagery in this passage has stayed with me, helping me to process how a writer can be present in a text not as feelings or memories laid bare on the page that must remain pure, original, true, but rather as the writer written; a person created by words as opposed to recorded by them. Rewriting the Kafka story (which I read in the English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir) enabled me to sculpt a memory, objectify it, separate it from myself. Through stylistic manipulation, vocabulary choices, – ‘tempering my subjectivity by style’ to paraphrase Peter Bush – I distanced the event from myself, transforming it into an object. I no longer feel like the text is swamped by me. And yet I still feel it as mine.
Though a text that is based on personal memory comes inescapably from ourselves, once written we become a paper self. The texts we translate on the other hand do not come from ourselves but become us and ours through the act of translation. I’m intrigued by the translator’s level of presence in a text and how we ‘temper’ our subjectivity and our visibility. When translating I’ve tended to try to write from the other’s perspective, subsuming myself in another culture, another person. But I’m enjoying shifting towards an individual, subjective voice which is nevertheless an objectifiable entity; one which neither shouts nor remains silent. If we accept that translation is the writing of our reading of a text, this makes it at once personal (bearing with it our experiences, thought processes, connections) but based on an object not originally ours. We get all the pleasure of engaging and being exposed to what we are not, and all the pleasure of putting ourselves into the carpet of another’s text. Our threads making someone else’s design. Weaving our own carpet.
Ruth Chester (MA in Literary Translation Student 2020-21)