Like many translators, I grow weary of talking about “faithfulness” and “betrayal,” about whether it’s “possible” to translate poetry, about what gets “lost” in translation. These queries quickly become platitudes, and platitudes are tiresome. But what’s always relevant, always urgent, and always exhilarating to me about translation is the idea of respect. The practice of care. One of my favorite translators, Sophie Hughes, recently said in an interview: “I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery, from translationese, from too many mistakes or outlandish mis- and reinterpretations.” And how can we respect anything for what it is until we truly listen to what it has to say about itself and how it sees the world?
Stand in front of the window of your kitchen refuge and prepare the following ingredients:
A welcoming, empty green glass.
A bottle of cold, fresh milk.
An orange and brown tin of Cadbury’s Cocoa.
The two large tablespoons locked in an embrace in the drawer (possibly because of your awful dishwashing skills), which have triggered your loneliness. Use them as they are; do not expend any emotion separating them.
Book by TEFFI (Translated from Russian by ROBERT and ELIZABETH CHANDLER, ANNE MARIE JACKSON, and IRINA STEINBERG) Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG
Teffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire. In her 1907 hit one-act play The Woman Question, subtitled A Fantasy, Teffi imagined a world in which a women’s revolution against men achieves a full role reversal. Women come to occupy the prominent political, military, academic, professional, and bureaucratic roles, while men are subjugated to the childcare and household management tasks. Though the play’s ending largely dismisses this scenario and trivializes the feminist cause, through humor, the piece makes the point that bad behavior—infidelity, sexual harassment, excessive drinking, pettiness—is a function of social status rather than of biological sex.
There once was a man who left his home every morning at about six or six-thirty after shaving his face. He sprinkled heavy golden droplets of cologne onto his palm and then patted his cheeks. His cheeks tingled, and he experienced the subtle scent of lemon. The sting and aroma made him feel as if he were passing by a fruit orchard whose scent was dispelled in the air. Next, he put on a clean pair of shoes, one that he had polished as the final chore of the previous day, just before going to bed. He quietly stepped out of the house. In wintertime he encountered the first beams of the rising sun. In summertime, everything was lit already. He picked up a pebble from the sidewalk nearby. He used to choose one carefully, scooping up and inspecting a handful until one special pebble called out to him and his heart was pleased with it. Now he automatically put a pebble in the pocket of his pants, feeling it from time to time. The mute texture gave him comfort, and the solid roundness made him feel that he was carrying something unique and precious, something whose value was not diminished by the fact that it was picked up from the sidewalk.
Memory and pain are partners in crime. You will kill pain only by killing memory!
I sit facing the coast in a place where I can see the route by which I came. I stand and try to allow the burdens of memory to fall away. I start to slowly raise my hands as if to drag these burdens off me and throw them into the sea.
These days, I can’t seem to hold on to anything, and yet the screeching of battle takes hold of my mind, my fantasies, and my thoughts. The trainer yelling and the bullets flying were the sounds that pushed me to kill so many of my countrymen. I was led by the lust of my budding virility and my idiotic youthful pride. I was nothing but a fool. The war tricked me and played me like a fiddle. The shouts of Abdel Nasser, and wounded Palestine, and crazy Lebanon—my mind kept an account of them all.
Avenue Mohammed V is silent and desolate this late at night, empty apart from a few stray cats meowing like newborn babies; it’s a creepy sound. Then a she-dog ambles up, stops in front of me, and raises her tail at a black male dog limping past. A single bark of seduction from her and he’s mounting her. They’re cleaved to each other, clinging on, and she shuts her eyes in ecstasy, surrenders to his movements. A delicious tingle runs through me. How lucky they are! They do it in public. They’re shameless—as the saying goes, “Not only God sees them but his servants do too.” They don’t have to worry about a police patrol, or about what people will say.
It was almost time for lunch. The guests had grown tired of oohing and aahing over the properties, the streams, the lakes, the banks, the airplanes, and the beautiful women.
“You are about to behold a rare kind of sheep which you will soon be eating,” announced the master of the palace and surrounding farms, as he stood pointing with his right index finger at a giant television screen.
The guests stared at the screen, where a gaggle of beautiful young women, shapely and fair-skinned, their silky golden or jet-black hair streaming in the wind, picked flowers as they romped through a verdant garden filled with trees, cavorted in a turquoise pool, splashing one another and laughing, and finally sat around circular tables, surrendering themselves to ravenous and seemingly insatiable appetites as they devoured the finest foods. The master of the domain addressed his guests once more: “When sheep are upset or frightened, their meat is tough and leathery, and it tastes like sawdust. Our sheep enjoy only the happiest of lives, leaving their flesh succulent and juicy, so tender that it melts in the mouth and hardly requires chewing—moreover, they are all slaughtered in the prescribed, halal manner.” Turning to his eager assistant, the master added: “Yahya, please give our guests a brief summary of what is required for halal ritual slaughter.”
You may wonder how old this sleepless face is. You may put him to bed in a long-gone mountain garden. Or revive him in the gardens of years to come, centuries from now. That’s where I live, in a dimension unseen by your future eyes, where feather-light cars drive by, and words freeze in the air.
This face appears on the other side of the table from me, in a bar suspended at three hundred meters. We sip our drinks in their feather-light glasses: neither raising them up nor setting them down nor clinking them together makes a sound to be heard. We hear no motors grinding or jet engines screeching on the trails wrapping around the mountain lodge. We are immersed in what scientists call the hush void, a space of near-utter silence. Here, voices fall mute when they pass beyond the scant inches of one’s hearing range. In the hush void, words can always be heard by the ears of the person meant to hear them. But if they escape beyond the void, into the vastness below, even a softly-spoken syllable could set off an avalanche in a solid rock face.
Your games are upsetting; they always seem like they’re going to end in tears. Like this one you’re playing right now, for example—I’ve just woken up to find myself blindfolded, with my hands tied to the chair I’m sitting on. I don’t like it at all. But I’m smiling at you anyway, expecting you to come toward me. I’m only smiling because I’m frightened that if I don’t you’ll sense how weak I am and do me even more damage.
The muscles stretching this desolate smile across my face are cramping now, and I give up; I’m going to call out for you, even though I know it means I’ve lost.