Life and translating
My friend Giedrius Subačius asked me a question I ponder often: which books or writers I’ve translated were the most difficult? The glib answer is, the bad ones. And it’s true: there’s nothing so difficult as making a readable sentence out of poorly-thought out one. Into this category, unfortunately, fall several of the academic articles I’ve done.
But there’s a flip side to this question, too, which is why are some writers such a pleasure to translate? Ričardas Gavelis stands out in this regard. I can’t say translating his writing is easy, but I can most definitely say it is not boring. But the oddest thing is how life keeps intruding into the book, or his book into your life. Here’s an example. It started with a news item that showed up on my Facebook page, about the millionaire Swiss (formerly Russian) 52-year old widow of Robert Louis-Dreyfus giving birth to twins. For real?
I spent a good five minutes staring at this woman’s picture in absolute horror. I've come across victims of plastic surgery in person, but I can never bring myself to actually look them in the face, it's so dreadful. Somehow, television disguises it fairly well, or at least it did before high-definition. There's thousands of pictures of her out there, but I don't see any in which she doesn't look like a human prosthesis.
And then what is the title of the next chapter of Sun-Tzu? Why, “The Intentions of the World Hegemony of Prostheses.” Now, how can you not have fun with a text like that? In it, Gavelis indulges us in every last bit of horror we could possibly have on the subject. For a treat, here’s just two paragraphs (very early draft!):
"But that afternoon I just swallowed my saliva in despair, not daring to open my mouth. My first father’s family were enjoying life. That’s the way I remember them—like in some Lithuanianized Bruegel painting. A white tablecloth with long fringe was spread on an outdoor table. My first father sat there, a plate set next to him of an exhibit not yet catalogued in his deconstruction room, something resembling the dismembered paw of a frog. My legless uncle, as always, didn’t even take a plate of food, just a sizable glass of vodka. Grandmother flitted about the table; even back then she liked to fly. And just the yellowish prosthesis glared at all of them from under its disgusting prosthesis eyelids. By no means was it a fake piece of Uncle’s body; it was an independent predatory beast lying in perpetual ambush. It was a yellowish hyena feeding on corpses. That hyena was relishing the taste of my uncle’s corpse in advance; it had already infected Uncle’s body with poison, and knew the day of his imminent death.
That prosthesis rubbed the stump of my uncle’s leg raw and injected its poisonous saliva into the little cut. My thunder-voiced, noisemaking uncle thought it nothing, but in reality it was a mortal bite. My uncle was hit by a lightning-fast sepsis; he didn’t even manage to grasp that he was dying; he just got delirious, and then he didn’t even know he was already dead. Uncle lived by himself, so no one missed him until the neighbors couldn’t stand it anymore because of the unbearable stench of the corpse. All that week or longer, the yellow prosthesis hyena ate his corpse. They say it chewed off the entire stump of his leg, up to the hip, up to the very crotch, and even started eating his right gonad. My first father kept that bitten, blackened testicle in his collection. Sometimes he would look at it for a long time, trying to understand the writing only he could see on that macabre exhibit. I don’t know how my father understood that story of the prosthesis, but there was a great deal I grasped all too clearly."