Endless Work: The Responsibilities and Pleasures of Translation

My mother comes from a family of restless activity lovers. Her dad built stone walls and took daylong bike rides well into his seventies; his brother Leon, meanwhile, tried to retire but hated it so much he launched a whole second career. My father comes from a family of major- and minor-league obsessives. In me these inheritances manifest the same way: endless work. Years of juggling jobs, school, translation, freelancing, and fiction writing have reinforced my natural inclination to overload myself, to pack my schedule, to open my laptop before my coffee kicks in and not close it till well after my brain has leaked down the back of my neck. 

Translation comes with a unique form of responsibility. If I screw up this essay, I will only have misrepresented myself. If I screw up a translation, I will have misrepresented the author, which is perhaps less frightening than exposing myself as a whiny impostor but strikes me as a much bigger ethical failure.

I am, to be clear, neither a productive nor an efficient writer. I am an anxious and maniacal one. Take my editing process, which barely deserves the name: I revise by retyping the same paragraph five, ten, fifteen times, waiting for it to shake itself into place. This strategy leads, eventually, to precise and deliberate prose, but for a freelancer on a deadline, which I usually am, it is a terrible, time-sucking way to proceed. For a fiction writer it has real hazards. My ceaseless rewriting can leave me with polished pages full of plot holes, character inconsistencies, bad ideas, and general garbage. But when it comes to translation, my bad editing habits—all my awful work habits, in fact—become complicated. Some turn into virtues. Others turn into traps. 

Rewriting is the lone bad tendency that becomes good without qualification—or almost without—when I start translating. After all, translation is rewriting. Specifically it is a form of rewriting geared toward style more than content. Yes, the two are intertwined, but only to a point. A core difference between writing and translation is that the former requires me to vet every layer of what I produce; the latter, not so much. If I write a character who doesn’t behave the way I’d like her to, the problem is mine, and I have to fix it. If I translate a character whose choices aren’t the ones I would have had her make, too bad. My job is to re-create her as the author gave her to me. My revision compulsion, which is all about exactitude and surface perfection, is very good for that.

I don’t mean to imply that translation happens only on the surface of the translator’s mind, which is not true at all. Nor does it involve engaging with only the surface of the text; I cannot imagine translating fiction well without understanding it deeply. It would be very hard, I assume, to re-create a text without feeling the emotions that run through it. However, feeling those emotions is not the same as conjuring them out of thin air, or dredging them out of yourself. Translation doesn’t require the same level of introspection and inner wrangling that I find fiction and essay writing do. I don’t need to confront hidden fears or expose secret shames while I translate. I need, instead, to tinker with sentences, to talk out loud a lot, and, most of all, to trust my ear. For me one of the great emotional challenges of translation is having the confidence to alter the original text enough to make it sound right in English, even if I can’t explain what “sounding right” means. A note I frequently include when sending translation drafts to writers is I don’t know why this works, but it does! 

In her excellent autobiographical novel, The End of the Story (Picador, 2004), Lydia Davis describes the emotional difference between writing and translation in very similar terms. Her unnamed protagonist is translating a short but difficult book; she’s also struggling to write fiction about a love affair that has recently fallen apart. Her novel is going badly, which, she realizes, is partly because she is prone to “shifting the truth a little, at certain points accidentally, but at others deliberately.” She rearranges events to make them “more acceptable or palatable,” or to avoid remembering times she behaved badly or was unhappy or bored. Unsurprisingly this weakens her novel and makes her dislike herself. In contrast her challenging translation project becomes an escape. She speaks of it as if it were a game, referring to the book as “a problem to solve, just hard enough to keep me busy [and] captivated.” The worst that happens is, if a translation problem is too hard to solve, her mind “knock[s] up against it over and over, until at last it just float[s] free.” Compared with self-hatred and novel failure, letting your mind float free is a real reprieve. 

In this way translation is easier than writing. It is more fun—I often compare the pleasure of translating to that of doing a very hard crossword puzzle—and less likely to expose my failings and fears. As I write this essay, for instance, I am afraid of explaining myself badly. I don’t want to seem like a jerk bragging about her great work ethic, or a spoiled princess whining because she has to work too much, or a neurotic who needs to go talk to somebody about her compulsive relationship to work. If I were translating I wouldn’t have that fear. I wouldn’t be the jerk, or the princess, or the neurotic. I would just be in charge of conveying her to you. Emotionally that’s a much easier task.

Still, translation comes with a unique form of responsibility. If I screw up this essay, I will only have misrepresented myself. If I screw up a translation, I will have misrepresented the author, which is perhaps less frightening than exposing myself as a whiny impostor but strikes me as a much bigger ethical failure. Translation activates a powerful social perfectionism in me, one I recognize from my single non–work obsession: cooking. I love to cook in general, but I especially love, fantasize about, and fixate on cooking for other people. I fuss over the big meals I make, but—this is a critical distinction—I dislike making fussy food. I like dinners casual enough that whoever is eating them can relax: roast chicken with a pretty salad and fresh bread, maybe, or a giant bowl of grains filled with herbs. In Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Knopf, 1988), Laurie Colwin writes that nobody wants to eat restaurant food at a friend’s house, an attitude I share completely. If I cook for you at my house, I want you to be so comfortable you feel like you’re eating at home.

I feel similarly about translation. I translate from Spanish to English and have been lucky to work primarily with two writers, Claudia Ulloa Donoso and María José Navia, who happily collaborate with me, meaning I get to show them all my drafts. One of my biggest goals—the biggest, perhaps—is for my English versions of their fiction to strike them as not only elegant, but familiar. I’d like my translations to make them feel seen and understood. I want the English text to be so comfortable it feels like home. In both translation and cooking, this reflects the person I would like to be. I very much want to be welcoming and understanding: a good caretaker, a good host. A failed translation would mean I hadn’t taken care of the writer well enough, which is a shameful prospect for me to consider. 

I have to suspect—I couldn’t help but wonder, as Carrie Bradshaw would say—that I wouldn’t be using this cooking-caretaking metaphor if I were a man. Perfectionism is so often feminized; translation too. In her memoir-manifesto, This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), translator Kate Briggs describes the received image of a translator as a “lady [doing] what she loves, working from home.” She means to critique this image but cannot help returning to it, sometimes more consciously than others. Late in the book she compares the responsibility of translating not to cooking, but to cutting fruit into pieces small enough for her young son to swallow. His life depends on her; so does the English-language version of the work. Implicitly this gendered dependence is its own reward. 

I do not find the idea of a writer relying on me rewarding in the way Briggs seems to. Dependence gives me too much power. This is especially true when it comes to the translation market, which, in the United States, is not good. Only 3 percent of books published each year are translations, many of which either get released by small presses or receive small marketing budgets at big ones. Money is a good route to readership, though, of course, not the only one. Some translations—Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—break through. Still, it can seem daunting to find readers for a translation. Yet it strikes me as my responsibility to do so. If a writer trusts me with their work, isn’t it my job to do everything I can to share that work widely? And doesn’t that begin with creating the most compelling translation I possibly can? I have no influence over the market, but endless work offers me the illusion of control. Surely, I tell myself, if my translation is good enough, if I spend long enough refining every single sentence, somebody will buy it. Readers will come. 

In order to work in this way, I have to set aside any hope of parity between time and payment. Translation is not a lucrative field. Here, Briggs is sharp on the role of gender, noting that publishers seem to expect translators to occupy a traditional middle-class female role: not breadwinners, but glorified hobbyists “grateful for but not entirely reliant on the…‘dribble of money’” we get paid. What Briggs calls the “precarious economy” of translation is inextricably intertwined with my attitude toward it. I know some strains of literary discourse try to separate craft from careerism, but where translation is concerned I find that impossible. I translate fiction I love because I want other people to read it and love it too. This means that I, as a translator, need to interact with the market; I need to find a publisher who will pay me, pay the writer, and pay to publish our book well. (I doubt I need to explain or defend my desire to be paid, though I will note that I recently had a conversation with a prolific poetry translator who had never been paid by a publisher and was baffled that I expected otherwise. I was appalled and hope you are too.) The prospect of dealing with the market on my own behalf makes me anxious; the prospect of dealing with it on somebody else’s is far worse. This anxiety spurs my perfectionism, which, in turn, spurs endless work. 

I am stealing the term “endless work” from the socialist feminist Silvia Federici. Specifically, I took it from her 1975 manifesto, Wages Against Housework (Power of Women Collective/Falling Wall Press), in which she argues that domestic labor is crucial to the survival of capitalist systems—like, say, the U.S. economy—that transform family and partnership into coercive economic exchanges. (A brief example: How many people do you know who got married in part for tax breaks or health care? That’s state coercion at work.) Women, Federici writes, “cannot love except at the price of endless work.” According to her, the only solution is for the state to pay women for the duties assumed to be ours: childcare, cleaning, and the like. Were that to happen, she argues, we would all, for the first time, understand the difference between labor and love. As a direct result the idea of the labor of love would wither and die.

Translation is often seen as a labor of love. I sometimes think of it as one. Certainly I do it because I love it, not because society impels me. But do I translate endlessly because I love it? Would I sit hunched up at my desk till my legs ache, searching for a synonym for walk even though I know there’s no good one to be found, feeling my eyeballs dry out in real time? I think not. I translate endlessly for two combined reasons. The first is that it’s possible. Translation is more captivating and less emotionally taxing than writing, which means that it takes me a long time, when translating, to hit an insurmountable wall. The second is that translation contains a unique risk of interpersonal failure. I could fail the writer I’m translating by mangling their work; I could fail them by navigating the market poorly on our combined behalf; I could fail them by getting distracted by other work long enough to, somehow, let our project die. I am, of course, taking on too much responsibility here. It’s a trap to think that only my endless work will guarantee my translations long, happy, reader-filled lives—and yet I fall into that trap. I can’t seem to get out. 

In college I acquired an undying affection for Søren Kierkegaard. In his Works of Love, which I have read only in Howard and Edna Hong’s excellent 1962 translation published by Harper & Row, he writes that it is “a sad upside-downness…to talk on and on about how the object of love should be in order to be lovable enough, instead of talking about how love should be in order that it can love.” Endless work is a sad upside-downness. It takes translation, which I love, and turns it into a manifestation of my personal and professional anxieties. If I were to follow Kierkegaard strictly, I would have to conclude that the solution to this problem is not to fix translation, but to fix my relationship to it. I do recognize that some fixing is in order; I wouldn’t be writing essays about my troubled relationship to my translation practice if I weren’t aware that it’s, well, troubled. 

I will say that, over the course of the pandemic, I have finally learned to impose some restrictions on my unhealthy inclinations. Watching my boyfriend work normal hours—noticing that he shuts his computer at the end of the afternoon and rarely touches it again—has been very, very good for me. Making my workday mirror his, unsurprisingly, has also been good for my translations. Forcing myself to limit tinkering and be decisive creates clarity. It may not yield the best possible sentence in every single case, but it does create something more important: a translation with a strong, unified, coherent tone. 

Modeling my routines on my boyfriend’s has also reminded me that, when I had a full-time job, I never struggled to walk away from it at the end of the day. Now that I am in a PhD program, I don’t let academic work balloon to overtake my life. Only my creative work—which is to say my precarious work—becomes endless. Translating is the most precarious of all. Here is where I diverge from Kierkegaard: Translation, my object of love, needs some fixing too. It needs to become a more stable field. I cannot see this happening without the United States deciding to value both the arts and international cultural exchange much more than it presently does. If this country gave substantial arts grants to more than a handful of translators a year, or, even better, gave substantial arts grants to the heroic independent presses that publish translations, I imagine that translators like me would be significantly less anxious. Financial stability wouldn’t be a mirage to chase but a legitimate goal attainable to me and to my peers; our readers wouldn’t seem out of reach; aspiring translators would, I hope, feel daunted by the art of translation, not the uncertainty that comes with it. Failing the writer would remain a massive concern, at least for me, but that, I think, is as it should be. As Kate Briggs points out, the writer is not responsible for the translator, but the translator is responsible for the writer. It would be nice to face that duty squarely, undistracted by others. I suspect it would help me get on with my work. 

 

Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic from Washington, D.C. Her short translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Contra Viento, Electric Literature, Joyland, Latin American Literature Today, MAKE, and Tin House. She is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. Her first full-length translation is Little Bird (Deep Vellum, 2021) by Claudia Ulloa Donoso.