The overlooked elixir: thoughts on translation


Blog by poet and translator Zackary Sholem Berger
Illustrations by Max Mose 

For years I have been waiting for a happy throng to corner me in the street demanding my translation secrets. That hasn’t happened yet, so I’ll share them here uncoerced. 

Pretend for the sake of argument that I have already name-checked translation theory, mentioned the Italian pun on “translator” and “traitor,” and gravely intoned that true translation is impossible. I don’t care about any of that. Translating is like falling in love: without imperfections, the whole wouldn’t be worthwhile. We learned in school that sexual reproduction freshens the gene-pool smoothie with new flavors. Going outside one language is like that, and staying within is like parthenogenesis—just as generative, but not as much fun.

A translator is a magpie, hunting gardens for eggs to feed her young. We are writers who can’t leave well enough alone, stealing into other literatures and rooting underneath their mattress for wads of foreign bills. It’s not the Flauberts or Dostoyevskys or Cervanteses we’re looking for in the grand library, but the untouched vial of elixir abandoned in the corner, still bearing the seal of the High Priest. We break it open and describe the scent in our mother tongue.

The benefit of translating from a minority literature (like Yiddish, which is what I translate most often) is that everything has been overlooked. We have our great writers—and those are overtranslated too—but compared to say, War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time, no one remembers a previous generation’s translations of smaller literature. We are after the alternative and transient, those works which elude the gaze of prize committees and bestseller compilers.

Our job is not to produce a definitive rendering, but to create something that couldn’t exist without the language leap. I can try to explain how it goes, but it’ll sound not all that much different from things you do all the time.

First you read. Then you really read, trying to understand all the words you skimmed over the first time. You might buttonhole a stranger in the library stacks or a Facebook friend, asking them what they think a word means, what bells it rings for them. You understand the poem more than you ever have. You have begrudging respect for the word choices you raised an eyebrow at before. Like a parasite, you are now feeding on the guts of the poem, digesting what others ignore.

Then you write, feeling guilty that such a door into creation has been vouchsafed—in this moment—to you and no one else. You delude yourself, for a sweet second, that you are giving birth and not a surrogate. If you could call this your poem, you would.

It is yours, of course, at the same time that it isn’t. It is both birth and adoption, borrowing, theft, and return. After you write, you read it time and again till you convince yourself that you have produced not an exploitation but a gift. Then you go searching for the next forgotten vial.


 See Zackary's beautiful translations here.

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