January: the month of translations

And with that, all my Fulbright translations from my year in Ljubljana were published.

It took a year to translate them all and nearly three to send them out, find homes for them, and wait for the projects to materialize in print (or online). I still remember now how I used to feel about translation: how, on that too-warm afternoon in Ljubljana in April, I sat from 7 am until 1 pm in my pajamas, because I thought the solution to the word games in my head was just around the corner–just five minutes more–until I had missed two meals and my morning classes, my hair had become heavy with sweat and was slipping out of its ponytail, and I jumped out of my chair and hit my head on the chandelier because I had translated a whole piece of flash fiction on my own without a co-translator. It had errors and discrepancies that needed to be corrected, but I felt dizzy with euphoria in a way I never had while writing my own fiction. There was an end-game in translation that fiction writing didn’t have. Of course, you can second guess yourself forever and continue to edit and change things with a translation; it’s certainly not an immutable concept. Yet that first draft usually comes across cleaner and closer to finished than any first draft of a fiction piece I’ve ever written. Translation is knowing that the sculpture exists beneath the stone in front of you, and knowing that you have the tools to chip away to find it inside–no matter how long it takes. Fiction writing is looking at a lump and wondering if it’s even stone, or if you can pretend it is, and staring at your hands wondering if your joints even bend in the right way to grip a chisel, never mind use it.

Translation: that project I began because I was at a loss with my own fiction writing, and I thought: if I can crawl around inside the words of another author, I’ll feel the edges of fictional worlds, explore the contours of character in a way I cannot yet in my own writing.

Has translating made me a better fiction writer? In a word: yes. I have learned invaluable lessons from my co-translators, from the women who entrusted their writing to me, and from the editors and professors who have generously corresponded with me through the years.

As I celebrate the publication of five stories in translation this month (Nina Kokelj’s “The Beggar” in Slovene Studies, Silvija Borovnik’s “Guti’s Stories” in Slovene Studies, Suzana Tratnik’s “Ana’s Note” in Slovene Studies, Nina Kokelj’s “Early Butterfly” and Jimena Nespolo’s “The Dorado Woman” in the Brooklyn Rail’s “InTranslation” section), I am ready to turn back to my own writing as I join a new writing workshop this spring. I won’t be taking a break from translation, but as I turn back to my own fiction writing more seriously, I’ll be curious to see how it seeps into my words and plotlines.

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