I Know Nothing About Translating(ion), a review of Z213: EXIT by Dimitris Lyacos, translated by Shorsha Sullivan

What I know of translation comes from some naïve college years where I thought I could pick up the original French version of Camus’ THE STRANGER &, by reading it alongside an English translation, learn French. This was a stupid idea & a fruitless endeavor, but I did learn one thing: translating is pivotal. Only one or two pages in I came across some dialogue in the French version, the protagonist declining an offer – & while I didn’t (don’t) know French, I could (can) recognize even European quotation marks, so I knew that our character was speaking words. Strangely enough though, in the English version, Camus’ translator didn’t have our character saying anything – no – in fact, he merely shook his head, being ‘too tired to speak’. I am no translator, but this seemed wrong, was wrong, is wrong. I knew it, know it. & that is the entirety of my knowledge on the subject of translation(ing).

& then, there is this:

Z213: EXIT by Dimitris Lyacos, translated by Shorsha Sullivan (Shoestring Press, 2010):

A few hours more, station, deserted, a dirt road for into the town, mud, mud, blankets outside, mouldering houses of tin, the shattered pylon further behind, not even a car, rubbish, two children setting fire to a heap, two or three other fires on the horizon, houses, the smell even more acid, asphalt pieces and pieces, cement block houses, a few people, half-open doors, half-light, the mattress as if it were soaked, that milk, the cramp in the stomach and dizziness, when I awoke…

While I have no idea of Sullivan’s accuracy in translating this book, I do know that what I held when I read & read when I held Lyacos’ Z213: EXIT, an astounding river of words poured from an open wound. There is coming & going & loss & redemption. There are sharp & tongue-filled rhythms. & the book itself denies its own categorization or existence by straddling poetry & fiction, story & memory, creating a dizziness in our blindness, a castration of reader grounding.

It began with something like drowsiness. I could see what was happening but could not move, not even open my mouth. Not even think about simple things, where, what day or what time. I was not sure. In a confusion I couldn’t shake off. I was very hot. I wanted to take off my clothes. I lowered my trousers. There was someone stretched out beside me, fallen down, I wanted to piss on him as he was fallen there. I went and kept trying but nothing would come.

It is an uprooting, this book, & Z213: EXIT reminds me of the power of translation, of getting into my hands the words of a language I can’t read but can certainly feel, in Sullivan’s translation, in the rhythms & the pauses, the calculated words & the course of a book travelling a distance I can only image when I read.

Voyage: Z213: EXIT

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4 thoughts on “I Know Nothing About Translating(ion), a review of Z213: EXIT by Dimitris Lyacos, translated by Shorsha Sullivan

  1. This looks like a really interesting and intense text, Jason.

    Funny — I took an intensive summer class in French a few years ago and the goal by the end of it was to be able to read THE STRANGER in French — which I did, of course, with a dictionary. Since then, I’ve lost all of what French I learned due to atrophy.

    Translation is indeed a critical task. I wish I had more time to keep my Spanish sharp.

  2. Great that you’re willing to read & discuss a book without being afraid of translation, that looming threat to the very concept of originality. Also, the book sounds like a great read.

    Many people who haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about/talking about/writing about/reading about literary translation resort to this idea of fidelity or accuracy that you bring up, this spectre of semantic equivalence. But a little time reading a tiny bit about translation (Larry Venuti’s article “How to Read a Translation” on Words Without Borders is a great jumping-off point) makes it obvious that language is always entrenched in a web of references, cultural, semantic, etc. and literary language especially relies on its poetic qualities. So accuracy is kind of moot. Think about translating Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” into a language that doesn’t have a verb for “to be,” for example. The best translations work on layers of literary meaning, with semantic value being only one, and arguably not the most important.

    Anyway, there’s a whole can of worms in there which I’ll leave ajar for now. Thanks for being willing to enter into the conversation about literary translation at all!

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