Uncommon Translations: Emma Ramadan Interviewed by Kyle Paoletta

On translating avant garde and genderless literature.


Emma Ramadan may be best known for bringing Sphinx, the French author Anne Garréta’s landmark genderless novel, into English, but translating is hardly her only gig. Her main preoccupation is running Riffraff, the bookstore and bar she founded with her husband and fellow translator, Tom Roberge, in an industrial quarter of Providence. This split focus makes it all the more astonishing that Ramadan has, since Sphinx’s publication in 2015, managed to become one of the most vital French translators working today. She’s translated books by the Moroccan writer Fouad Laroui and earlier this year her translation of Garréta’s Not One Day was awarded the Albertine Prize. This year she released three translations: The Shutters, a poetry collection by Ahmed Bouanani (New Directions), Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things (The Feminist Press), a novel in which a young woman becomes a pop star after taking over her twin sister’s life, and Revenge of the Translator (Deep Vellum), the fiction debut of Brice Matthieussent (known in France as the translator of Jim Harrison, Jack Kerouac, and Annie Dillard), which follows an American translator’s attempts to rest control of a novel away from its French author. I sat down with Ramadan in the sleek, neon-lit bar at Riffraff to talk about her approach to translation and how Matthieussent’s meditation on the craft reflects her own process. 

—Kyle Paoletta

Kyle Paoletta You’ve translated such a stylistically diverse group of authors over the past couple years. How do you find the books you work on?

Emma RamadanI don’t do the thing that I assume other translators do, where they’re actively looking at what’s coming out every season in France and scouring catalogs and going to the fairs to see what might be interesting. When I was living in Paris and translating authors who lived there, I would go to their house for dinner and pursue things that came up. If I hear about something through an author I’m translating or a book that I’m reading, that’s going to be something more aligned with what I’m interested in, but if I were scouring catalogs looking for the book I thought was going to be the next big thing, or looking at prizes—who cares?

KPSince there’s so much Francophone literature in the world, I can imagine that it can get pretty competitive. It makes sense to stay away from the places you know everybody else will be looking.

ERIt’s hard. Everyone’s pitching the same publishers, the publishers can only do so many books every year. We’re all in competition with each other, but the kind of stuff that wins the Prix Goncourt is not the thing I’m interested in translating. That stuff will get translated anyway, so I don’t need to be pitching it. I’m attracted to books that are doing something different from the mainstream and getting overlooked. They’re a harder sell, they’re a harder pitch, they’re less popular. When I found Sphinx, it was because I was really interested in the Oulipo, and I had been reading Many Subtle Channels by Daniel Levin Becker, where he mentioned it. A book where both the narrator and the love interest are genderless sounded interesting. I wanted to see how someone else had translated it, and learned it hadn’t been done yet.

Photo Credit Katya Potkin

KPHow did you come across Pretty Things and Revenge of the Translator?

ERVirginie Despentes is a lot more popular in France than she is here. I think all of her stuff is fantastic, and there’s a lot that hasn’t been translated. I had read King Kong Theory and was really, really into it and then started reading her other novels that hadn’t been translated and went to Feminist Press and asked about her. I came across Revenge of the Translator, when I was working towards my masters in translation in Paris, and one of my professors brought it up. Then I pitched it to Deep Vellum. You have to find small publishers who are willing to take a chance on that stuff. The book is a commentary on translation and the act of translation, but it’s also just a novel, and a fun thing to read. Marketing it as a thriller—a literary thriller—could go a long way towards getting the book into the hands of people outside of the translation community.

KPOnce you’re actually sitting down to translate a book, how much do you go back and forth between your manuscript and the original text? Is it helpful to read a passage in French again after you’ve already translated it?

ERMy first drafts are always a mess. A huge mess. Purposefully. I just want to get through my first draft as quickly as possible, leaving slashes in the manuscript if there are ten different words that could fit somewhere and I don’t know yet which one I want to use. If there’s wordplay, if there’s dialogue, if there’s something I just straight up don’t understand, then I flag it. I don’t get the idea of doing a polished first draft. By the time you get to the end of the book, you know what words are repeated throughout, you know if the author’s doing something specific with a certain theme, if the character develops a little bit, if there are certain character traits. You don’t get that at the beginning. Even if you’ve read the book, even if you’ve read it twice, until you’re translating it you don’t necessarily pick up on those things. Or I don’t, at least. If I’m trying to make it perfect on my first draft, I think I’m missing out on a lot of stuff. I like to really think about things and let them sit, and if on the first draft I’m trying to get it perfect and not leave all these options open, then I’m going to come to a conclusion that’s different than if I let myself go through the whole thing and then go back. 

Later in the process, I ask a French person for help on parts I don’t understand. Or I will spend an hour just trying to figure out a particular pun. And then I do another draft where I go through and try not to look back at the French. But you always do, because you read something and something doesn’t sound right so you go back and look. Dialogue is the hardest thing to translate. It’s not often I read a book in translation and think the dialogue sounds good. I think it’s always a little off. It’s so hard. But I don’t know if I could do it any better. I’m so hyperconscious of a line of dialogue that sounds weird in the French— if I translate it and keep it weird in the English—that people are going to think that I fucked something up. And that’s such a risk. I just think it’s really fucking hard.

KPThe English voices you’ve created for Pretty Things and Revenge of the Translator are so distinct. Is that easier to achieve with your approach? I’d think that the opposite of what you’re describing, going line-by-line and trying to achieve a high polish as you go, might end up shaving away that tonal variation.

ERFrom start to end, my understanding of the book changes so much. Even my view of Sphinx, which I read a million times before trying to translate it, changed as I went through it each time. Your understanding of the voice is so much better at the end. If you’re just writing something, it’s probably different because you’re making it sound the way you want it to sound and you know where you’re going with it. With translation, it really takes me the whole first draft to feel like I have a handle on the book. And it means that I have to do a lot more in my editing— the next draft takes me five times as long as it probably should or then it does for anybody else because I’ve left it so messy the first time around.

KPGiving yourself that space with a book like Sphinx makes sense, since it’s an experiment with genderless language on a grand scale.

ERSphinx was hard for me not only because it’s the first novel I ever translated, but Garréta’s writing style and the narrator’s voice are so specific, which was not something I was used to reading. I don’t read a lot of books that sound like that. I was translating that as part of my thesis, and my professor, this middle-aged, British man, reads things in that voice. He recommended Alan Hollinghurst and other things in that register to help me get there. That voice, this kind of pretentious, intellectual narrator, is so not something I was comfortable writing because I don’t read it that way. I got Fouad Laroui’s work right away. The Matthieussent was much easier for me too.

KPThat’s surprising. I think the Matthieussent is similarly erudite. But it’s also a little tongue in cheek, so maybe that helps.

ERIt’s also obvious. It doesn’t waver. It establishes itself from the jump and it doesn’t change. Garréta is so hard because the voice doesn’t necessarily establish itself, you get a sense of the narrator’s voice, but it’s kind of hard to figure out. That’s on purpose because Garréta wanted to keep its gender ambiguous.

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KPPretty Things starts out with this very sharp dialogue, very witty, but when it gets into the twin sisters’ childhoods, it takes on this disquieting aspect that generates a lot of weight.

ERWhat I really love about Pretty Things and all of Despentes’s work is there is this sinister thing going on that she’s trying to bring your attention to, but it has a beach read quality to it so you have to get those things to work together. She’s making social commentary, and it’s very accessible, but it’s also in your face. It’s showing you what’s up and you can figure it out yourself. In the book, one twin commits suicide, the other takes over her life. That’s interesting on its own, and you’re going to get the other stuff because you can’t write a book about women without touching on what it means to be a woman.

KPTaking things a step further, how does your approach change when you’re translating a poetry collection? The voice of a poem has always struck me as potentially the biggest challenge for a translator.

ERI worked on a chapbook of Oulipian sonnets and the author, Frédéric Forte, was heavily involved because all the sonnets rhymed. I had to change a lot of material to keep the rhyme in and maintain the spirit of what he had done. They’re very different poems in English, and it was really important for me that he approve them. We worked very closely on those, and he gave me very specific notes, like, “I think you went a little too far with this one,” or “I think you changed this a little too much,” “I don’t recognize myself in this one anymore … ” Thankfully most of Ahmed Bouanani’s poems in The Shutters have no rhyme or rhythmic constraint, and so I was able to be as faithful as possible to his word choices and his meaning without compromising. But there are a few sections of rhyming poems in the collection, and rather than being playful and silly like some of Forte’s sonnets, Bouanani’s poems were written to convey pain, violence, real memories of his Morocco. I wasn’t comfortable changing things around like I was when translating the sonnets, especially without Bouanani there to look over my work. These aren’t my memories, his poems don’t describe a pain or a history that I can relate to, and so I didn’t feel able or willing to diverge from his words, afraid of losing something precious in the process. I tried so hard to preserve both the rhyme and his meaning, his specific phrases, his numerous cultural references, but there were times that something had to give. While translating Bouanani, I sacrificed the rhyme in a few places, because my priority was his message, whereas in Forte, the rhyme and linguistic playfulness was in itself the message.

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KPNegotiating your relationship with the text and its author is one of the main themes of Revenge of the Translator also includes a stark transformation about what it means to be a translator. The novel begins with the American translator assuring the reader that the French author is his “superior” and that he “exists only in relation to him.” But then he starts deleting adjectives, deleting metaphors, rewriting passages, until he’s just thumbing his nose at the author and writing the book himself. Do you recognize any of that tension in your own work?ERMy instinct is always to be really subservient and extremely terrified and have no faith in myself. I stick very close to the French on my first pass and then snap out of it in the next draft, or maybe the third draft. That’s when I read it out loud in English. I start inserting a little bit of my own creativity in there so that it sounds good and it’s something I can be proud of. There’s a way to achieve balance, but it’s always so tricky. You hit a point in the translation where you think, this isn’t powerful anymore. By being so subservient, you cut the power, the book gets totally deflated. You’re giving life back to the book by putting your own creative thought into it. It becomes necessary at a certain point.KPThat’s interesting. Matthieussent also poses this idea that, once translated, the book becomes an “organism … emancipated from its human tutelage and paternity.” Does it feel true to you that the book ends up unmoored in some way from both the author and the translator?ERI don’t know that I agree. I don’t have this image in my head of the book being distinct from either of us. If I’ve done a good job as a translator, it’s still very much the author’s book. Everyone has different ideas about what the role of a translator is, but I really don’t feel that my role is anything other than putting the book into English in a way that most represents the book in the original language. I don’t feel any ownership over the book, I don’t feel any ownership over the author. Obviously I refer to the book as my translation, and I’ve worked really fucking hard on it, I’m going to celebrate it when it comes out. But I’m always extremely aware that it’s not my writing, it’s not my book. I’m translating it because I like the book itself, and I want people reading it to have the experience that I had when I first read it.

Kyle Paoletta is a writer based in Cambridge, MA. His reporting and criticism has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Baffler, Guernica, and the Harvard Review. Follow him @KPaoletta.  

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