A Journal of the Plague Week 40

Monday, December 21st, 2020

I got my name on the cover of a book for Christmas.

The cover of the book Sex and the Nazi Soldier on a bookshelf with other books I've translated

Although I’ve translated 10 published books (and two others that are due out next year)—a number that astounds me, seeing as I still feel like a newcomer/imposter in the world of literary translation—I’ve never seen my name on the cover. I’ve always been named on the title page, and sometimes even in the author’s acknowledgements, and I try to ensure that I’m mentioned in any marketing material pertaining to a book. But I’ve never had the thrill of just picking up a book and finding my name right there, no page-turning required.

It kind of doesn’t matter, and yet it kind of really does. I mean, I’m certainly not in the academic translation business for the fame and glamor. I’m a willing conduit for other people’s scholarship and writing. When I look at the work I’m most proud of, I feel proud not because I’ve gotten my name in lights (I’ve never gotten my name in actual lights, though that would be awesome), but because I feel like I’ve contributed to something meaningful. And in an industry where invisibility—the invisibility of translation itself, and hence of the translator—is often taken to be a prime tenet and goal, it somehow feels unseemly to insist on or even take pleasure in recognition.

At the academic translation workshop I went to in London last year, we briefly touched on the issue of translator acknowledgment, and one of the participants said they were okay with being “invisible” (e.g., not being mentioned by name) because they just wanted to do the work. And much to my own surprise, I vocally and rather vehemently disagreed. I said I was absolutely not okay with being invisible anymore. I argued that the translated words on a page are not just the author’s words, their our words, and the work that goes into a translated book is not just the author’s work, it’s our work, and we should be recognized for it. We’re not interchangeable translation machines, and the more we allow ourselves to be glossed over, the more we will have to fight for fair payment, fair working conditions and basic recognition as professionals—as human beings—who deserve respect.

The book that has my name on the cover along with the author’s is Sex and the Nazi Soldier: Violent, Commercial and Consensual Encounters during the War in the Soviet Union, 1941-45, by Regina Mühlhäuser. I spent two years (on and off) working on the translation because the original German text was gradually updated and expanded for the English version. The book is 368 pages long and deals with some of the worst things people can do to other people. The work was often a struggle—and I say that as someone who has worked on many, many, many frankly horrific projects. In the past, I have fended off panic attacks while translating texts about Soviet prisoners of war at the Neuengamme concentration camp. I wept while working through parts of the first book I translated, Inside Concentration Camps by Maya Suderland. I often have to do the translation equivalent of watching a scary movie through my fingers, where I try not to “see” what I’m translating, because to see it would mean having to really think about it, and sometimes I can’t bear it.

Based on the subject matter alone, Sex and the Nazi Soldier is one of the toughest texts I’ve ever dealt with. Sometimes it wasn’t enough to translate “through my fingers” and I would have to stop and work on something else, or simply get up and walk away. And even that wasn’t enough, really. Reading an account of something terrible can be traumatizing in itself, and translating a terrible account forces you to engage with the horror on an even deeper level. As the literary translator Lara Vergnaud writes in her excellent essay “Translating (in) Darkness” (CW for the full essay: sexual assault):

“The act of literary translation may be the closest reading one can offer a text and its author. For a translator to bring prose from one language into another, nothing can remain ambiguous. Every semantic and orthographic element must be weighed; even punctuation takes on maddening importance. You can’t get into the author’s head, but almost. And for the best translation—finding not the most precise, most equivalent words, but the emotional resonance of a text—you have to feel it. And sometimes you don’t want to.”

Put simply, as Vergnaud writes, “you have to visualize and recreate what you read as you translate it.” And there were so many parts of this book I absolutely did not want to visualize, much less recreate. Like Vergnaud, I used “procrastination as a defense mechanism” and initially skipped over certain passages that were too troubling to deal with. But at some point I had to go back to them and make my linguistic decisions: what verb accurately describes this event, what noun is appropriate here, what adjective invokes this image? In some cases I consulted historical photographs to determine how best to explain something, but in other cases the action played out entirely in my head. In either case, I had to put into words what I was seeing on the screen or in my mind, bringing it to life for the reader, making it all the more real.

And don’t get me wrong: I wanted to translate this book. I jumped at the opportunity. It’s an important book, and I’m honored to have played a part in making it available to an English-speaking audience. It’s exactly the kind of material I’m most interested in, the work that matters to me because it flat-out matters. But there’s no getting around the fact that “translating trauma” takes a toll on your mind and your body. And it’s not something that most people (even most translators) ever think about.

Even when you’re not translating trauma—by translating anything at all you are absorbing a text and creating something that wouldn’t otherwise exist, thereby subtly changing the world and yourself in the process. You put yourself into the work you translate, and the work takes up residence within you as well. It becomes part of your psyche, just as you become part of the words on the page. You’re not invisible as the translator—you’re everywhere.

So, do I think translators deserve recognition? I sure as hell do. And am I proud to have my name of the cover of a book? I sure as hell am.

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