To Write a Page in Someone’s Shoes: On Translation and the Experience of Empathy

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Books, open notebook and pen

I translate something almost every day. Five or six days a week, you can find me in the process of drafting, editing, or proofreading a translation, clicking back and forth between the original and my translation, comparing and contrasting, choosing to either bring my version closer or veer farther away, searching for typos, continuity errors, and misunderstandings. As I work through these stages of translation, I end up reading the book I’m working on a minimum of four times (if the writing is straightforward, there are no puns, and the author has no comments), but usually many more times than that.

When you experience something so much, so frequently, and in such depth, you become painfully aware of everything wonderful and everything terrible about it. I love the books I translate. Some are loves at first sight, others take time to evolve and grow. Others still are difficult loves, requiring ample patience and compassion. Most books are all three kinds rolled into one. Like your children, you give them your full attention and try to make the best choices for them, but often can’t help but throw your hands up in frustration. When you get to know someone, or something, so well, your attitude toward it inevitably becomes complex, multi-layered. You love it, but you don’t always like it.

Some examples of things that have caused me to dislike a book I love: too many typos in a book that’s already in print; sloppy editing, with repeating scenes or a sudden and inexplicable change to a character’s last name; an author’s decision to use metaphors that don’t make sense or dialogue that sounds stilted and unnatural. Generally, we’re talking about me trying to control the lives of my children and make them the best possible versions of themselves. We’re also talking about me, a writer who translates and is slightly envious because all of these books have been written and published (and how wonderful is that?). The things that upset me are those that take away from an otherwise great book, anything that I feel should have been caught and fixed in time (read: anything I secretly believe I would have been able to catch and fix in time if it were up to me).

I do believe it’s impossible to perform such a close reading of a book without picking up and picking on every little imperfection. An author once confided in me that he thought by the end of the translation process I knew and understood his book better than he did. When I was taking literature classes in college and rereading short stories like Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-lighted Place or Eudora Welty’s The Hitchhikers dozens of times, locating and then losing themes, I ended up remembering certain passages by heart. Translating a book goes even deeper than that. You read it, you rewrite it, then you read and rewrite it again, and again, as many times as it takes to get it right.

This painful familiarity also gives birth to something beautiful: as I translate, I develop a resounding compassion for the books and their authors. I form teams: me, my author, and their book on one team, and the rest of the world on the other. As I write and rewrite, read and reread, I slip into my author’s skin and see just how hard it was to create their narrative and how easy it was to err. I think of all the little inconsistencies, all the little untruths in my own writing, and how I’d read my own work countless times without noticing them. I sometimes identify so strongly with a scene or a plotline, or even just a turn of phrase, with the words on the page, that I tap into the pain, or joy, or fear, that inspired the author, and forgive any subsequent imperfections. After all, we write because we are imperfect, because, as my friend, writer Karen Havelin says, we’re trying to figure it out. Otherwise, what would be the point?