‘As a translator, you are constantly practising this art of conversation by not imposing your own thoughts, not adapting the author’s words to your preconceived ideas, but rather turning towards the author, hosting them, allowing in that newness, all that strangeness, that multiplicity.’
“as a translator you need to be a chameleon in life as on the page”
Bear with me. I’ll get to the conversation bit. Though it’s already happening, here, now.
I grew up in Scotland but took off quite early, travelling in Latin America, and found myself living in Mexico City, where I stayed for over a decade. My first years there were a period of trying out different lives, trying them on for size. Partly out of necessity and partly out of a desire to challenge my fears and disinclinations, I invented or accepted jobs that took me beyond my own sense of who I was. So, I followed the example of seemingly half the city and set up a street stall to sell my wares: my own home-baked bread. I learned how to lay bricks and render a wall with cement. I presented movies to crowded theatres at film festivals. I modelled clothes on a catwalk. I burrowed into corporate towers to teach English to bored executives, buffing up their language skills with the same affected good humour as the shoeshine guy who did their shoes.
In short, I translated myself into different worlds, worlds I could move between with a facility that felt impossible at home. I’d been freed from the trammels of accent, of upbringing and of expectations that can so constrict you in the country in which you’re born. At some point things coalesced, and I found that I had become a translator. And it turned out that all these meanderings had been good preparation for that task. The image I often turn to is that of the chameleon: as a translator you need to be a chameleon in life as on the page, to have a malleability that enables you to adapt to different registers of dialogue, to class and cultural contexts.
I’m not just talking about literary translation, of course. Having the agility to swiftly grasp a context and place yourself in it is just as important to so-called ‘commercial’ translation. Often disparaged as the poor relation, it is in fact an important foil to working on fiction or poetry. (Apart from anything else, it’s rare to be able to make a living solely as a literary translator, without any other source of income.) Such texts – whether magazine articles, product websites, tourist brochures, or whatever – make up the stuff of the language-world that an author is immersed in and draws on. Translating that world is the best way to become conversational with it and – assuming you’re not only doing home appliance manuals – of getting to know its outer reaches.
During this time I also embarked on a PhD at the National University of Mexico, not because I wanted to pursue an academic career but because many years earlier a work of translated fiction pulled from my dad’s bookshelf, A Different Sea by Claudio Magris, had led to an obsession with the little-known thinker Carlo Michelstaedter and his book Persuasion and Rhetoric. As I wrote my thesis, which focused on the shift between poetic and rational persuasion that took place in early Greek thought, the notion of ‘turning’ emerged as key. Turning in the sense of words, from within or without, altering your course or bearing. And I came to see translation as exemplary of this dilemma of persuasion, as a twisting and turning between choices. Translation is about turning over alternatives, about countless tiny decisions that must be taken without there being an absolute basis for determining if they are the right ones or not. All you have to go on are the myriad decisions previously taken by the author, decisions which you must track closely, but not simply imitate.
And so, a kind of conversation is established, even if it’s one where the author doesn’t exactly answer back. Perhaps surprisingly, the etymology of the word ‘conversation’ refers not to ‘speaking together’ but rather ‘turning together’ and originally had a sense of ‘dwelling, keeping company with’. When you walk alongside someone in conversation you do not march parade-style at a fixed distance, rather there is a constant back-and-forth of brushed shoulders, touched arms, glances of complicity, frowns of misunderstanding, while the accidents of the path itself throw you momentarily closer together or further apart.
As with the feet, so with the mind: a good conversation should not just involve repeating facts or opinions at each other, but engaging in a deeper kind of listening. It is not simply about trying to convince, to win somebody over with your arguments, but about making space for the other, letting in the possibility of being changed by the other. It is a turning-towards the other, one that invokes the affirmation of the gaze, and an attentiveness that now seems almost irretrievably lost amidst the catastrophe of social media.
Depictions of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, whose feast day on September 30 has become International Translation Day, almost always show him working alone in his study, with only a lion and a skull for company. Nevertheless, despite the solitary character of the translator’s work, there is always someone else there. When done with care, translation embodies all the attributes of a good conversation, because it requires you to go beyond single-mindedness, beyond singularity of thought, and to open yourself up to a text, to another person’s experience and perspective on the world. As a translator, you are constantly practising this art of conversation by not imposing your own thoughts, not adapting the author’s words to your preconceived ideas, but rather turning towards the author, hosting them, allowing in that newness, all that strangeness, that multiplicity. It is an act of radical empathy.
In her wonderful book Translation as Transhumance (translated by Ros Schwartz), Mireille Gansel expresses this idea more simply and beautifully than I can:
I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.
So, when I think about the conversation that is translation, whether I am working on a novel or on a very ordinary kind of text, I do so in the light of my own many-turning path into the profession. All those glimpsed potential other lives, those times I felt like a stranger to myself, inform me, just as every new book continues to change me. Translation, in the end, is a conversation with ourselves, with our many human selves.
Fionn Petch is a Scottish-born translator working from Spanish and French into English. He lived in Mexico City for 12 years, where he completed a PhD in Philosophy at the UNAM, and now lives in Berlin. Since 2017 he has been translating and editing Latin American fiction for Edinburgh-based Charco Press, including translations of Fireflies by Luis Sagasti (shortlisted for the Translators’ Association First Translation Award 2018) and The Distance Between Us by Renato Cisneros (winner of an English PEN Award, 2018).