Para o Ricardo
As a bookseller dedicated to the promotion of fiction in translation, I’m often asked why, if I’m not a translator, I’m so passionate about the subject. Such a question is understandable, when I dedicate so much time to promoting translations via staff recommendations or taking part in such schemes as New Books in German at the Goethe Institut, where the suitability of works for the UK and US markets are considered. The answer is long and convoluted and tightly bound up with both my personal history and emotional life. When I talk about translation, I am talking about something that moves me and has very high emotional stakes. I view life itself as a perpetual act of translation or rather translations. Wherever there are people attempting to communicate, there’s translation. It represents an attempt at closeness, at drawing together of cultures and languages. Translation is personal.
My relationship with languages started early. I grew up in a working class community on the south coast where knowledge of a foreign language could occasionally illicit suspicion. For those who adhered to a xenophobic nationalism , there was even pride to be found in being monolingual. Then, as now, media outlets perpetuated the idea that working class culture was monochrome, regressive, lacking in curiosity. While this piece of received wisdom might have been true of a not insignificant number of people in my neighbourhood, it ignored the existence of a progressive working class mentality, marked by a curiosity and openness exercised against the odds.
For many, rebellion took the form of drink, violence or nights of trangression beneath the pier. For me, rebellion took the form of German. In Worthing, as in many small towns during the period, anti-German sentiment was not unheard of, particularly among older generations. Admittedly, such sentiments often had a playful, competitive aspect, flourishing during football matches, for example. But the lines between playfulness and prejudice could blur and an authentic xenophobia was never far beneath the surface. To learn German was, for me, a transgressive act, a rebuttal of the bigotry often linked to my social class. To learn a language, to engage with other cultures, remains for me a positive assertion of working class culture, a radical counterbalance to the negative conceptualisations of working class life perpetuated and encouraged by the far right.
I could experience the giddy freedom of imagining myself in German, in Portuguese. Languages as tools of emancipation, expansion and self-creation.
I use the word “transgression” above. There was another way in which I transgressed norms, one which would, over the years, become tightly bound up with my passion for languages and translation: my identity as a queer man. There is a sense in which all translation is queer and perhaps a form of drag. The source text is dressed, if you will, in the clothes of another language. A misconception of drag is that it acts as form of disguise, hiding the person beneath. It is more accurate, I think, to say that drag elucidates and reveals the person beneath. There is a synthesis that occurs between the costume and its wearer, between a translation and its source text. It’s not translation, honey, it’s just drag.
Queer culture has its own language or, more accurately, languages. Queerness, after all, is polyphonic – an evolving lexicon produced by LGBTQ communities in all their diversity. Over the years, I have schooled myself in queer culture, and continue to do so, drawing upon a variety of sources: Paris is Burning, Drag Race, the writings of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. In order to feel that I belonged, that I was part of this wonderful community, there was a language I needed to learn and that language was called Queer. I desired to belong and, where there is desire, there is also fear of rejection.
Would I fit in? How would I translate my experiences as a queer individual so as to make myself understood by a community I so wished to be part of? These questions were compounded by a history of insecurity and depression and, in the wake of a hook-up that turned violent, a more recent diagnosis of PTSD. My ability to make myself legible to other gay men was seriously impeded by fear and a nagging feeling that I was missing a crucial part of the shared language required to communicate with other gay men. Translation, as a concept and an act, kept returning to me as emblematic of what I was trying to achieve in my relations with other queers: to find myself in a new language, to be made intelligible.
Of course, I wish I could say that I took up Portuguese because I wanted to read Pessoa and Herberto Helder in the original. Instead, I took it up as an attempt to impress a guy on, I cringe to write it, Twitter. It was clear from his feed that, If I were to impress this guy, I was going to have to swot up on two things: Jurassic Park references and Portuguese. And so, in order to understand his world better, I set about rewatching the Jurassic Park movies and taking Portuguese lessons with a friend of a friend, who I shall hereby refer to as F.
It failed, of course. He was nonplussed but I, meanwhile, had fallen for the language. I had never encountered a language that appeared so powerfully to reflect the landscape of the country from which it was born. Portugal, a nation bound to the sea and whose language sounds like the ocean. The gentle ssshh sound of European Portuguese evokes the sound of waves lapping the shore, of the sound you hear when you place your ear against a sea-shell. It is a whisper, a language for the impartation of secrets, of that which has been submerged. In short, I can’t help but think of is at a language of merpeople. A sentimental depiction that my Portuguese friends will find it hard to forgive me for, no doubt.
This love of Portuguese was a powerful connection between myself and F. Within a very short space of time, our lessons began to recede, to be replaced with shared jokes, conversations of a confessional hue and a growing friendship. What struck us both was how different we were and yet how we nonetheless set about instinctively bridging those divides, creating a shared lexicon drawn from, among many things – fado, Nighty Night, Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Two people, incomprehensible to each other at first, slowly began to make themselves known to and understood by the other. We started, you might say, to translate each other.
What had started as a series of lessons in Portuguese morphed into an attempt to learn each other’s personal language. When we draw closer to a new person, we ask ourselves how we can translate our experiences, hopes and fears, so that they can be understood by the other. Equally, we attempt to decipher their life. All relationships, whether platonic or romantic, involve translation.
With him, that process was glorious and yet, all too soon, we were hit with the reality of what occurs when translation and, by extension, communication fails. This is where my language begins to falter, as I try to describe something that I am still attempting to comprehend. It does not help that the decline of our friendship started in a ridiculous way that I find embarrassing to admit.
Over the course of one weekend, F went unexpectedly quiet. Disturbed by such out of character behaviour, I turned up unannounced at his place of work with a pastel de nata, naively believing that this surprise would both please and cheer him. I had been aware that, over the past few weeks, he had been having a difficult time emotionally. An appreciation of Portuguese sweet treats was part of our shared lexicon and would be, I thought, a gentle reminder that he had access to support and care, if and when he needed it.
His reaction, however, was visceral, angry and disgusted. My gesture had not only failed to translate, to convey its intended meaning, it had somehow been mistranslated. Even now, several months later, I am none the wiser as to what this gesture meant to him and this simple, yet catastrophic, mistranslation haunts me. This misunderstanding birthed further ones. Miscommunications snowballed and our ability to translate what we were feeling into something the other could understand collapsed.
Powerlessness overwhelmed me. I was struggling to translate my feelings to myself, to articulate a repressed past that had been awoken by the violence of his disconnection. For a variety of reasons, I failed to communicate my pain to him. For F, I became untranslatable; my increasingly desperate and erratic behaviour was a language he was unable to understand, nor did he have the willingness to try. Instead, I became the villain he needed me to be. I accepted the script he gave me, called him too much, turned up unexpectedly at his flat with flowers of apology. All of this seemed easier than telling him the truth.
He blocked me across all platforms. My voice was silenced and, to an extent, has remained so. When I most needed to, I could not translate my thoughts, my fears, my past into words that he could understand. To behave out of character is, I think, to interrupt or to jettison, the language that those around us have come to expect, and over days, months and years, learnt to translate .
He and I became, to each other, untranslatable. The outcome: the loss of a friendship and a shared lexicon, the preciousness of which I miss every day.
And so, when it comes to translation, the stakes are high. When I encounter a successful translation like Sarah Booker’s translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest or Jennifer Croft’s rendering of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, I think about intimacy, about the giddy pleasures of mediating a mutual understanding between one language, one world, and another. I think about the happiest act of translation I have know, that which occurred, for a brief period, between he and I. I think also about the possibilities for emancipation inherent within translation and languages. And I also think about what happens when translation fails, the scars left behind by the failed attempt.
Gary Michael Perry is the Assistant Head of the Fiction Department at Foyles, Charing Cross Road