Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘nonfiction’

This past weekend was the first ever BIBLIOTOPIA festival at the Fondation Jan Michalski here in Switzerland. I was asked to moderate one of the sessions – a focus on Language and Identity – and in preparation had the pleasure of reading the following books from three very interesting writers:

  • Katja Petrowskaja – Maybe Esther (tr. Shelley Frisch), 2018
  • Gazmend Kapllani – A Short Border Handbook (tr. Anne-Marie Stanton Ife), 2009
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Je m’appelle Europe (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2013
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Le Dernier Page (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2015
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Village of Stone (tr. Cindy Carter), 2005
  • Xiaolu Guo – Once Upon a Time in the East, 2017
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, 2007
  • Xiaolu Guo – 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (tr. Rebecca Morris, rev. by Pamela Casey), 2009

Several things connect these writers – the first being that none of them are writing in their native language. Petrowskaja is Russophone but chose to write her book in German, Kapllani is originally from Albania but has written his three novels in Greek (which I then read in English or French translation), and Guo began her writing career in Mandarin (which was her 3rd language) before switching to English after she had moved to the UK. All of them are also writing about immigration, displacement, and/or escape, about the intricacies of family narratives – this often meaning silent or hidden stories – and all of them are writing about censorship in one form or another. There was so much linking the writers that I was excited to speak with them as a group. The actual panel conversation I got to have with them was far too short, but I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on how they located themselves—personally, politically, artistically—within their new language and culture.

Something I took away from the discussion and that I am still thinking about is the idea that it isn’t really that big of a deal to be writing in one’s 2nd or 3rd language. We talked about the idea of “betraying” one’s mother tongue, and how they each negotiated that tension in their work and over time, but eventually all three of them insisted on the normality/necessity of writing outside of one’s native language, and even expressed a sense of exasperation that Anglophones are continually astonished, as if this were an impossible task when, in fact, it is not. It was a gentle scolding of the idea that languages are impenetrable from outside their attached culture, in other words language can become another border that doesn’t need policing. We didn’t have time to go into the nuances of stylistic compromises, emotional engagements, etc – things about which I am still very curious. As a translator I know what it feels like to undress and dress a language, and although I consider myself almost bilingual, I very rarely write extensively in French. I found it both perplexing and liberating to think that I could just switch one language for another if I wanted to or needed to.

In any case, I’d like to write a bit about their books now that I’ve spent so much time with them, and I’ll start a new post to do so, beginning with Xiaolu Guo.

When I was first studying translation I read an anthology of essays on translation compiled by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, 1992, Univ of Chicago Press). I’ve been re-reading it over the past few days and enjoying a sudden re-immersion in the various discussions of translatability and “the art of translation.” These essays are so good. This morning I’m looking at Octavio Paz’s 1971 essay, “Translation: Literature and Letters.” In it he writes this, which I love:

Throughout the ages, European poets—and now those of both halves of the American continent as well—have been writing the same poem in different languages. And each version is an original and distinct poem. True, the synchronization is not perfect, but if we take a step backward, we can understand that we are hearing a concert, and that the musicians, playing different instruments, following neither conductor not score, are in the process of collectively composing a symphony in which improvisation is inseparable from translation and creation is indistinguishable from imitation.

This speaks to the other essay I am reading and re-reading. Well, not really an essay, but a longish interview published alongside Jan Zwicky’s marvelous collection Chamber Music, in which she talks about poetic/lyric “availability” and how it intersects with the practice of technique. She discusses music and especially jazz and ends her thought with this:

Poetry has organic form when the music of being inhabits the body of someone’s language, when the gesture of speaking becomes physical material, stuff, that the music can express itself through. A poet’s voice is what corresponds to the dancer’s body. The music of being doesn’t express itself through “language”; it expresses itself through someone’s language.

I love thinking about how this works in translation. The writer’s language, the translator’s language. Both as a creative act. The interplay between the two.

So far my favorite chapter in Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence is « Silent Places » in which she talks about her experience walking for days in a forest – about the secrets of a forest and its complex silences. I grew up exploring the old growth forests of western Oregon, and her descriptions of the Caledonian Forest in Scotland made me wonderfully homesick for the densely growing pines, the lakes and waterfalls, the ancient moss-covered lava flows of this unique area of the United States. All forests are unique—thankfully so—and Maitland has reminded me of the joys of discovering a particular forest’s visual and auditory texture, and thinking how those two spaces interact and oppose.

At the end of the chapter she reflects on the “varieties” of silence, and I love this bit especially:

Beyond the purely auditory experience there is an even greater range; there are emotionally different silences and intellectually different silences, too. I have come to believe that while sound may be predominantly a brain phenomenon, silence is a mind event. The experience of silence is more tightly bound up with culture, cultural expectation and, oddly enough, with language than the experience of sound is. Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration and profound joy; being silenced (a silence chosen by someone else and forced upon one) can drive people mad. It is possible to experience external silence without any sense of interior silence and in a few cases the reverse. Catherine of Siena, the Italian mystic, was famously able to maintain a conscious awareness of her own interior silence while pursuing an eloquent and complex ambassadorial role about the politics of the papacy. Silence is multifaceted, a densely woven fabric of many different strands and threads.


Here is one reason why I absolutely love my job. Last spring, Spolia published my translation of a series of letters written between surrealist photographer Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore. These were letters exchanged while the two women were incarcerated on Jersey Island during WWII. I am currently translating an excerpt of a diary (or is it a letter? This is just one of the mysteries of these fantastic handwritten papers) that Cahun wrote about her internment and about the occupation of the island. This second longer translation will also be published by Spolia later this year.

But today, as I am editing my draft of these thirty or so pages, I came across a tiny anecdote that makes me really excited. Cahun writes a considerable amount about a man in a cell near to hers—a German deserter who arrived in the prison a few months before Liberation. He was arrested, along with his lover (a woman from Jersey), and both were sentenced to death. The German was eventually shot about ten days before the islands were liberated, but the woman was pardoned. Cahun writes about his mental state and how he died – in detail – and it is quite sad. But there is one last part that she mentions only briefly. She receives (from one of the guards) a square piece of cardboard covered in careful handwriting. Moore (who could speak and read German) deciphers it while the two are hiding behind a wood shed in the courtyard of the prison. Here’s the best part, Cahun doesn’t write out what was written on the cardboard but only says that she has kept it, is holding it while she writes this story, and that she decided not to give it to the Jerseywoman, that it wouldn’t do that woman any good.

I don’t write historical fiction, but this is exactly the kind of personal historical footnote that would inspire me to do so – the existence of an undelivered letter between two people who were separated under horrible circumstances. I suppose what I find more interesting is coming across this story in the way that I did: from handwritten papers left in an archive that discuss related events, yes, but that are not intended to be about this German soldier and his Jersey lover. And yet they both became more real to me because of the secret letter that Cahun—who did not really “know” either of them—holds between them, refusing to give what might have been an ending to their story (or not – so many ways to consider why she didn’t just pass the note along; her reasons may be good, may be flawed, may be of no matter at all).

I’ll make a mention when the entire excerpt will be published – it’s a wonderful project, and I’m very excited to see it out in English. Cahun was such a thoughtful and prolific writer, and as far as I know, none of her writing has been translated yet into English.