Fiction

Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge on How Co-Translating 'The Boy' Drew Them Closer

tom_roberge_and_Emma_Ramadan_Riffraff_071916.jpg

The boy’s story begins when his mother’s ends. Having spent his childhood in seclusion with his mother as his only companion, he suddenly finds himself alone, and somehow understands that in order to survive, he must find other people, find a way to join them in living. He knows the buzzing of insects, the silvery glint of the waves of the sea. He knows how to read the weather on the horizon, how to build fire from nothing. But he knows nothing of society, of customs, of borders.  

He will never learn to speak, but the people he meets and especially those who take him in along the way will teach him countless other things: how to be a showman, how to love, how to fight. One day the boy will end up back in nature, his true home, but he’ll have to live through the war before then, through its tragedies and deaths, its violence and its friendship, its boredom and its consequences.

The boy’s story is also the story of France and the French people in the decades surrounding World War I, but these macro themes are approached on the micro level, through each individual sentence. This book is the amalgamation of thousands of sentence-sized revelations. The author’s phrases are brisk, to the point, bare, and yet they glimmer. He does so much with such economy of words. His descriptions are searing, concise, contained. There are no baroque metaphors or flowery descriptions in this book. The boy has no use for them. The war has no use for them. And yet the beauty of the author’s descriptions jumps off the page.

This way of writing made Marcus Malte’s The Boy an easier book to co-translate than some others. There are always so many choices packed into even the barest of sentences, but the specificity and the voice here were so compelling and commanding; there was not a lot of room for argument. We started by splitting up sections, and agreed to check in at various points to make sure our voices and tones matched up. This quickly proved to be unnecessary. Malte sets the tone from the first page, the first sentence, the first word. The orbit of his narrative pulled us to the same axis every time.

Translating The Boy was energizing, each sentence a surge, a neat package to put on the page, each phrase its own gift. No long sentences that leave a translator exhausted by the end. Little jolts of electricity at each page. Smaller plot points stacking on top of each other to add up to this opus, this stunning and astounding commentary on war and society and humanity. On what people do to survive in societies that appear destined for nothing less than utter destruction. On the toll that individually experienced horrors have on an entire generation of people. It’s only a matter of time before we start to turn on each other. What else to do but return to the woods?

Co-translating often involves Skype conversations, emailed questions, hours-long phone calls, winded debates. But this was different. The two of us share a home. Our co-translating involved shouts of ideas across rooms. Plopping down on the couch to run through a series of flagged questions over breakfast. A drowsy debate as we fell asleep, sometimes forgetting the solution we’d come up with in a state of semi-slumber. Track changes comments of simply “Will explain what I mean tonight over dinner.”

There was also less politeness. What might have been “Hm. Not sure I agree with you here. We could ask a third party?” turns into “Trust me on this one—my version is correct.” What is often “Okay, I’m fine keeping the phrase you want here, but then do you mind if we change what I wanted in the paragraph above?” becomes “Fine—you win here, but I’m changing what I wanted in the last paragraph.” And we can laugh about mistakes caught while editing rather than maintaining the facade of professionalism.

There is also more intimacy. Learning from comments and specific word choices how the other person thinks, or speaks. Noticing that Tom often uses the word “moment” in conversation and seeing it appear in the translation where Emma would have written “instant.” Picking up that Emma often uses Frenchisms like “corner of the street” instead of “street corner,” and so Tom starts to point this out in their day to day lives so she is more conscious of it on the page. Seeing that Emma crosses out words that make her cringe in their bookstore’s newsletter and in her translations, whereas Tom continues to insert them in both. Noticing that Tom hates to discuss work in the morning, but Emma can’t think clearly once the sun goes down. There is so much you can learn about a person from watching them recreate words on a page, observing how they mimic worlds and study characters. They say translation is the closest kind of reading, the nearest you can get to a text, or an author. We say co-translation might be the best way to draw nearer to each other.


Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge are the translators of Marcus Malte’s The Boy. They live in Providence, Rhode Island, where they co-own Riffraff bookstore and bar.


Buy the Book:

Read Julie Orringer's Preface to 'The Boy,' a Novel by Marcus Malte

Marcus Malte’s prize-winning novel The Boy, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge, is a story that forces us to consider what it means to be human. Beginning in 1908, the narrative starts, quite simply, with the boy, a wild child from the forests of Southern France who sets out, voiceless and innocent, to discover civilization. As he travels between cities and towns, the boy encounters the best and the worst of the world, from ogres and earthquakes, to love and the joys of music, and finally, to war. Malte’s prose is at once poetic and mysterious, and sometimes harsh as he weaves this poignant tale of the human nature.

In her preface to The Boy, Julie Orringer, bestselling author of How to Breathe Underwater, The Invisible Bridge, and The Flight Portfolio, writes: “As we inhabit [the boy] … there is no way to perceive him as other, only as a version of ourselves, at times compassionate, at times violent, always curious, always seeking comfort and love, a balm for what’s been irrevocably lost.” Read Orringer’s full preface below.


The Boy: A Preface by Julie Orringer

Reading The Swiss Family Robinson recently with my eight-year-old son, I came across a passage—amid the ardent shelter-building, tropical-plant identification, animal-shooting, and campfire cookery of the novel’s first chapters—where our narrator, William, expresses the fear that his family’s new home might be inhabited by savages. The author’s (and translator’s) use of the word seemed to require explanation, or context; I asked my son if he knew what it meant.

“I think he means wild animals,” he said.  “Beasts.”

I explained, with some discomfort, that the author was actually referring to people, indigenous to the island, who likely lived as hunters and gatherers, employing technology that had been used for thousands of years, and practicing forms of religion, storytelling, dance, dress, and music-making that would have been unfamiliar, and perhaps even frightening, to Europeans.  I explained that the word originated with the Latin silva, meaning wood, and silvatica, out of the woods; from this came the French sauvage, and finally our English savage, with its attendant fear of the unknown, of what might lurk in forests, fierce and untameable and possibly intending to do us harm.  But why would a person be called a savage, my son still wanted to know; and what made the Swiss family fear them? Underneath his question I sensed another: What is it that makes us recognize one another as human?  And what does it mean to be human in the first place?

This subject was much on my own mind because I’d been reading the book you now hold in your hands: Marcus Malte’s brilliant and disturbing novel The Boy, which poses the same question in a different way. Using a trope familiar to literature, one that has long fascinated and perplexed us—from Romulus and Remus abandoned by their mother and nursed by a she-wolf, to the tale of Victor of Aveyron, the eighteenth-century French boy who was discovered after more than a decade on his own in the wild—Malte envisions a man-child, newly orphaned at fourteen, who has lived all his life in the isolated wilds of southern France, with only his nonverbal mother for company; the story opens in the first decade of the twentieth century, on the verge of one of the greatest upheavals of Western history.  Notably, the point of view belongs not to some curious observer but—as in T. C. Boyle’s “Wild Child,” or Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”—to the feral child himself, nameless and languageless. As we inhabit him, as we experience his journey into the populated world, there is no way to perceive him as other, only as a version of ourselves, at times compassionate, at times violent, always curious, always seeking comfort and love, a balm for what’s been irrevocably lost. Moving from wilderness to village, from village to town, and from town to city, this extraordinary character perceives, and thereby reveals, the strangeness of the twentieth-century world.  

To see every element of our lives (and yes, these are our lives, with only minor differences)—the things we eat, the way we behave towards animals, the way we house and clothe ourselves, the way we worship, speak, make music, treat our children, medicate ourselves, perform the act of love, and wage war—through the eyes of someone to whom all of this is new, constitutes a reevaluation of everything we take for granted.  In what ways are we ridiculous, or compassionate, or divine? In what ways are we beastly? Mona Ozouf, president of the Prix Femina jury that awarded its 2016 honor to The Boy, called it, in my imperfect translation, “a novel about, among other things, the ensavagement of human beings by war, which reminds us that barbarism camps on the borders of the civilized world.”  

Marcus Malte himself, speculating in an interview about his reasons for choosing the book’s historical setting, said this: “Until now, I’d always located my novels in our own time; I’d described the contemporary world exhaustively, especially its faults, so maybe I’d arrived at a time when this world, our world, weighed on me too much—when I needed to get away from it, at least in my fiction.” But isn't the story of human ensavagement the story of every time?  And isn’t the question of what is barbaric or savage in so-called civilization one we have to face in every era? In our own moment, when acts of racial violence and xenophobia have become the stuff of daily news, don’t we need, more than ever, to be reminded of the value of wordless communication, of immersion in nature, of loving touch, of music-making, of empathy, of literature read aloud by one person to another—as well as of the fact that certain wounds, inflicted deeply enough, can never heal?

The book you’re about to read shines a fierce and necessary light on our world.  Read it patiently, if you can—a challenge at times, considering the wild and unexpected turns it takes, and the pleasures that lie around every corner—and discover, or re-discover, what it means to be a member of the human tribe.

Order the Book

About the Introducer

Julie Orringer is the author of the novel The Invisible Bridge and the award-winning short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn.

Read An Excerpt From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years by Ricardo Piglia

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi - The Happy Years by Ricardo Piglia - 9781632061980.jpg

The second installment of Ricardo Piglia’s acclaimed autobiographical diaries, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years continues the celebrated Argentine author’s bibliographic and intertextual record of his auto-fictional alter ego, Emilio Renzi. Piglia intimately interrogates the trajectories of Renzi’s literary, professional, and personal spheres against the backdrop of Argentina in the 1970s, rampant with emotional and political turmoil from displacement under the effects of Peronism, guerrilla warfare, and a bloody military coup. As in Formative Years, Piglia deftly weaves literary criticism with fiction in this second volume, taking on the historic traditions of literature within which he has secured a place of his own.

 

“For the past few years, every Latin American novelist I know has been telling me how lavish, how grand, how transformative was the Argentinian novelist Ricardo Piglia’s final project, a fictional journal in three volumes, Los diarios de Emilio Renzi—Renzi being Piglia’s fictional alter ego. And now here at last is the first volume in English, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years, translated by Robert Croll. It’s something to be celebrated… [It] offer[s] one form of resistance to encroaching fascism: style.” 

—Adam Thirlwell, BookForum, The Best Books of 2017

 

From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years

Monday, July 1

Let us begin with the death of Perón. On Monday, after alternate versions, stories, enhancements. A meeting at home in the morning with Rubén and Boccardo, delusions with Sadovsky and other gentlemen who have discovered Lenin (what? Lenin?) because of his “prestigious names.” The melancholy while Perón lay dying, at least while the story of his death was born, which I kept myself away from until after four in the afternoon, when I left home and started to grow concerned about the lines in front of the shops (I thought: “I have oil,” I thought: “The lines are coming, just like in Chile”) and about the Galerna library being closed. In the bar I find out about the death of King Lear: general astonishment at my ignorance of the news that had moved everyone in the world. “Where were you?” etc. Even worse, I heard the news from Saúl Sosnowsky, a depoliticized escapee who lives in the United States, whom I am meeting to give him a chapter of my essay on Arlt for his magazine Hispamérica. The city is quiet, people piled up at Congreso, at nightfall, waiting for the line to begin so they can see the dead man.

I visit David, furious about the telegram from the PCR with condolences for Isabelita.

Tuesday 2

I get up at two in the afternoon. An unexpected appearance from Amanda, who comes with Anita Larronde (Luppi’s wife), bringing me a novel by Pavese that, according to her, I had lent her. Trivial conversation, no great tension, a pleasant ending: I give her a copy of Los Libros magazine. Ana says: “There’s an excellent article in here.” She looks for it, it’s mine, and she is amazed. “I’m going to tell Federico I’ve been around important people.” That’s what we call displacement, saying one thing in place of another.

I move through the rainy city, the endless funeral lines, and no one seems to want the goodbyes to end, no one wants to go home; I remember wakes in my childhood that lasted all night and continued on after noon, but now they are expanded, crowded, with serious gestures that repeat on every street. Some have waited for thirty hours to see the dead man, the venerated man one last time. 

Wednesday 3

I walk through the empty city, street openings blocked off, people wandering with a sorrowful air, and I end up on Carlos Pellegrini, where (without seeing it) I feel the effects of the funeral procession that crosses Avenida de Mayo carrying the corpse. Men cry, I see a policeman with his face damp from weeping, the soldiers in procession cry as well. Sorrow weighs down upon the city like a shadow. The Montoneros sing out their slogans. I lose myself in the multitude and make it to Congreso. On the way back I pass down endless streets, skirting along a persistent row of men and women lined up to see the cadaver. The long procession continues along Carlos Pellegrini until Retiro. The people’s pain.

I return home and observe the city in darkness from high above. The lines go on in spite of the rain.

León R. comes over and makes history personal, saying: “What has this man done to us.” It isn’t a question, it’s a complaint, as though he were referring to the ghost of Hamlet’s father. León’s personal view refers everything to himself and his own feelings. That is his philosophical viewpoint. What does the world mean for me? More deep-seated and extreme than Descartes: the subject is the truth of reality. 

Iris talks about the relationships between life and writing—between living and writing—with the same words I have used for years: “Leave everything behind. Live to write.” 

Thursday

Perón’s death has erased all meaning, the despotic signifier has vanished; the mourning is endless and stories proliferate. I register some of them as I walk through the streets: “A regiment from La Tablada rose up” (they say on the first day). Or rather: Perón is dead, the officers make their return. Cámpora appears to be the only political figure from Peronism who has some backing and support. The right sees him as an enemy and wants him to disappear. And so, news has been circulating all day about an attempt on Cámpora’s life. Balbín is the only one who can unify the dominant classes: he is the lower-ranked, imaginary substitute for Perón. In front of the coffin in the incandescent chapel, the empty speeches went on until the Chinese man with round eyeglasses appeared, standing beside the dead man, and said, inspired with a high Latin rhetoric: “Today, an old adversary comes to say goodbye to a friend.” Everyone cried except for him; proud and serene, he spoke for the first time as an equal l to the Man (as my father and all of the Peronists called him during the Resistance years) who had defeated him and imprisoned him and humiliated him. I remembered the unmatched tone of Quevedo’s prose after the murder of Julius Caesar: “Marcus Brutus was a severe man, a man who reproached other’s vices with his own virtue, not with words. He had an eloquent silence, and his intellect keen.” Epic emotion lies in a man’s praise for the rival who has defeated him, or whom he has conquered. It takes the form of a challenge, transforming anger into admiration. The heartfelt requiem that the defeated man enunciates, now without hatred. All of the politicians and the whole of the public pointed to Balbín as the dead man’s heir.

Friday 5

I am reading Marthe Robert’s book on the Freudian family romance as a fundamental root in the history of the origins of modern storytelling. She studies Robinson Crusoe as the figure who negates his father and invents a lineage and a territory of his own 

Julia calls me on the phone, I meet her at Tolón and immediately my peace leaves me. She has lost her handbag with her glasses in it—now she can’t see (does she know who I am?)—and her documents. She is broke, alone, and lost, and she weighs me down with everything. (She also fantasizes about getting together with David, who will be alone on Wednesday once Beba goes to Europe after a Chilean man.) Of course I have nothing to say to her, and I tell her as much and give her a thousand pesos to get back home… Oh those lost loves. It’s as though a light is going out. The woman we once loved is a stranger, speaking to us and chiding us as though she knew us. She seems crazy, talking nonsense. That is how I see her now; love makes people better and when it ends, oh, it is too late for tears.

Saturday, July 6

On the bus, a chain of associations, the criminal always tells his tale as though it belonged to someone else. He can kill, but he cannot say, “I have killed.” It works the same way as dreaming, where the intensity of the experience cannot be transmitted with words: in order to say it, the killer has to kill again. A grammatical reasoning behind the serial killer: he can only speak through the detached bodies. And who can read his message carved into the corpses, as words written in sand? He cannot say it and so repeats the act. 

I go to dinner with Iris at América. León calls after I come back, a melancholy encounter. He speaks from another planet: he analyzes Perón’s death solely through his perspective, as though Argentine history were part of his life. It is the left’s problem with Perón. He has stayed with the working class as though he had abducted them. That’s the issue with León and David. Peronism is seen as a scheme, a tyrannical means of using the subordinate classes through deceit and lies. The personalization of politics viewed as a psychological trap. What has this man done to me, he who governed the country for years and then died without having been condemned? Everything is experienced in first person. Politics as a private drama. That is the merit of impassioned thought and also its self-referential closure.

Sunday 7

A peaceful and happy day. I watch the World Cup finals on television: Germany-Netherlands. Soccer is like life, as my father would say: the better one never wins. Iris and I walk around the city, marked by the absence of the Man. Iris laughs, “he was always controlled by women. First Eva and then Isabelita. The best thing,” she adds, “is that he always got married to fallen women.” Cuarteleras, barracks girls, as military jargon calls the female soldiers who accompany men to war.

Andrés comes over: his older son is dying of cancer. The whole succession of catastrophes, no work, his ex-wife living with Juan Gelman, his ex-best friend–he needs to move. Weighed down, at his limit, he raves a bit and I follow, raving along with him. “Is it possible to kill and not be caught?” We speak calmly, analyzing several alternatives.

Tuesday 9

One could say I spent the whole day sleeping. I got up at ten, and Carlos came to visit me. I went to lunch at the tavern on Calle Serrano. I went back to sleep until three in the afternoon. Now I imagine I will go out into the street like a sleepwalker, looking for a woman. 

Friday 12

I receive a beautiful letter from Tristana. She announces a delivery of stones for the man with the golden arm. Once more the fantasies are reborn in a corner, what can I say to a woman (married, with two children) in a letter. A Stendhalian theme.

I spend the day at Iris’s house, very good. We go out for dinner in the rain, under the pale lights.

Sunday 14

I listen to Mozart, make myself some tea and prepare to write “Los dos linages” in Borges. I act as copyist, going over and over the initial pages of the essay. Three pages that barely suggest the tone. An essay depends on the conviction transmitted by the prose.

Tuesday 23

What can be said of a man like me? A simple letter from Tristana was enough to cause the dull anxiety that follows me. Uncertainty brought by the flight of birds; I see symbols of fate in the slightest traces of the wind among the trees. Reading those signs takes up all of my time and strength. Her letter, on the other hand, reopened a wound in another part of my body. Everything can form part of the novel that I’m writing. The novel and my life, always the same schism. It would be better to say: “The novel of a life.”

A feeling that I am bound to the barrenness of the times. I see David, who calls me to meet in La Moncloa. A meeting for Los Libros. We have Issue 36 ready. An excellent article on Althusser by Altamirano. Several articles about urbanism. What dangers disquiet me? More than dangers it is a discontentment, facing the inadequacy of my life.

The mistake seems to lie in the delusion of expecting validation in the present. Don’t conjugate verbs in past tenses. Forget about the future. This current vision of the future never seems to have been given except perhaps before, in another time. I tell myself once more: “Do not bind yourself to the good times passed, but to the bad times yet to come.”

The essay could be called “Ideology and Fiction in Borges.” Meaning proliferates, the point is to reconstruct the fiction from the origin. The ways writers imagine the material conditions that make their work possible. Sometimes I can’t stand combinatorial analysis, I need some distance, so I go out to smoke a cigarette.