The novel currently on my bookrest is 748 pages long, a new record for me. As I near the end, my left wrist is acting up. I am impressed as the approximately 235,000 words accumulate in my own Word document. It’s got me thinking about the translator as a conduit, both physical and otherwise. I’m reminded of monks in the Middle Ages hunched over their vellum, and their relationship to those sacred words they wrote over and over like a mantra.
I have been lucky to serve as the conduit for several authors whose words and ideas I admire, and have grown comfortable walking miles in their moccasins over the years. Mine is a job in which I am constantly learning. That said, as any honest spirit medium will tell you, being a conduit is not all fun and games, and can leave you contaminated by bits of psychic matter.
Over the last decade I’ve seen my husband Javier Calvo’s writing style evolve into a distilled version of itself: funnier, more otherworldly, more violent. As a birthright Quaker, ultraviolence isn’t my cup of tea. Rewriting a text into another language makes you consider the ways it is not something you would otherwise be writing, perhaps more so when it is written by someone you have been married to for more than a decade. Likewise, a translator has to read on another level, constantly – albeit often instinctively – deconstructing syntax in order to reconstruct it. This intimacy has often left me feeling sullied by the violence of a text, yet translating his story ‘Bat Wings’ left me feeling surprisingly unscathed. In this very brief essay, I wanted to look at how he pulled this off on a structural level, and I have identified three techniques that combine to achieve a masterful use of distance that keeps the reader at arm’s length, watching the scenes from a certain height, feet never touching the blood- and cum-soaked floor.
The first distancing tool is the language employed to set the scene and describe events. The tone is established at the very beginning. I always stick quite close to the literal in my first drafts in order to ensure that the author’s style comes through. This reveals Calvo’s careful word choice to construct an atmosphere where both the reader and the characters function at a certain remove. To borrow a construction from his first paragraph, imagine if I described translation as “the act of rendering the meaning of a text in another language. Impervious to metaphorical association. Impossible to compare to any sort of spirit medium conjuring the long dead. Impossible to associate with any wormhole between cultures. Impossible to depict as anything other than a person sitting at a desk in front of a computer with a bookrest beside her, scribbling marginalia on an open book with a cracked spine.” The detachment created by the repetition of “impossible to” – echoed later in the story by a series of “it is possible that”s – subtly exonerates us while reinforcing exactly what it claims to negate.
As the violence escalates, so does this feeling of disassociation, multiplied by mirrors and a passivity built right into the grammar that insists we are not complicit.”
At the end of this paragraph, Calvo drops a bomb: “It was the second rock they smoked that messed up their sense of orientation.” The reader shares the Blood girls’ oddly bewildered clarity, entering a house located somewhere in the Hollywood Hills in a drugged haze, bathed in yellow mist. As the violence escalates, so does this feeling of disassociation, multiplied by mirrors and a passivity built right into the grammar that insists we are not complicit.
This is further underscored by the fact that linear time is irrelevant here; what is happening has already happened, or has been inevitable since the Blood girls’ short lives began. The ‘present’ within the tale is much less well defined than the flashbacks. We – reader, translator, narrator, even the ostensibly active participants and victims – are converted into distant observers of pre-recorded events, not eyewitnesses compelled to intervene.
The third element contributing to this brilliant sense of dislocation are the reminders that not only is this story a fairy tale, but our entire world is as well. We know what will happen; it happens all the time to girls who stray off the path on their way through the forest. We’ve read this story at bedtime so many nights that we are inured to its harsh realities. Even Omar and the Lund twins seem to be merely allowing the girls to fulfil their destiny. And a part of us is almost expecting the woodcutter to show up and extract the girls unharmed from this enchanted mansion. I think here is the key difference that allowed even the Quaker in me to enjoy channelling this story, despite my throbbing wrist: Calvo has placed us firmly in the role of reader as voyeur. We watch spellbound as the grisly events unfold, yet never consider bursting through the door with the axe ourselves. Metaphorical blood doesn’t stain.
Mara Faye Lethem is a Brooklyn-born, Barcelona-based writer and literary translator.
Read her translation of ‘Bat Wings’.