The literary translator perches between two different texts with distinct cultural origins and political histories. Depending on the languages involved, her eyes may travel from right to left or left to right; they may even close for a nap. She might prepare a snack, email friends, or scroll through her social media feeds. Perhaps she’ll take a walk to think through a particularly knotty problem. Always she’ll return to the texts; she’ll return to the words.
A collection of essays, River in an Ocean illuminates this tangled process by inviting readers into the rooms of many diverse artists, writers, and literary translators. The names of translators do not always appear on the covers of books, and their work is frequently misunderstood or vaguely likened to a “bridge” or “musical interpretation.” This insightful volume offers twelve points of view that aim to change such perceptions by asking: What is translation? What does it look like to do it? Of course, such an investigation involves writing about translating. But the pieces also engage the authors’ development as activists, poets, daughters, mothers, writers, scholars, and friends, and they describe how these roles influence their often invisible labour.
The collection is the brainchild of Nuzhat Abbas, the founder and director of Trace Press, a new not-for-profit venture based in Toronto that primarily publishes literary translations from the global South. Abbas has gathered contributors from Uganda, Kashmir, Palestine, Rwanda, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Saudi Arabia to engage in a “curious and communal conversation” and “to offer a space for the soundings of different trajectories.” She was inspired to undertake the project by the Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh, who died from cancer in 2017 at sixty-nine. Rukh’s mixed media depiction of a river in an ocean features on the book’s cover. By “blurring the border” between two bodies of water, it serves as a metaphor for “translation’s slippage between self and other,” which is to say the fuzzy relationship between the translator and their subject.
Following a substantive foreword by the political theorist Françoise Vergès, which takes up her fraught relationship with French as the language of a “dominant colonial empire,” Abbas’s introduction articulates some of the deep questions that guide the collection: “What, and where, is the time and place of translation, and of literary translation, in particular? Of the translator as writer, as attentive listener, as co-creator?” This spirit of inquisitiveness continues with the first essay, “Apa Kabar, Penerjemah? How Are You, Translator?” In it, Khairani Barokka, an interdisciplinary artist and editor from Jakarta, wonders how the translator might perform their task without clinging to the simplistic notion of “everything as translatable.” To that end, Barokka begins her piece with one paragraph in Indonesian, followed by its English equivalent, and so on. This back and forth will create a productive if frustrating exercise for many anglophone readers, who are asked to move through a language they likely do not fully understand. It’s a clever way to show them — if only for a few pages — the position of the global majority, whose languages are often sidelined in favour of English and other European languages when translations are commissioned and published.
Suneela Mubayi’s “The Temple Whore of Language” considers the experience of translating into and out of Arabic from the perspective of the author’s identity as Indian American and gender non-conforming. “I translate because I am not stably anchored,” the independent scholar and rather prolific translator writes, “neither in my origins, nor in my cultural affiliations, sense of belonging, or my gender.” She turns to translation as a vehicle for self-fulfillment: “To translate, for me, is to experience being an outsider, a trespasser, a poser — and to be able to revel in that condition.” Indeed, the idea of the translator as an outsider emerges as a theme throughout the collection; unlike Mubayi, however, not all translators delight in that marginal position. Originally from Saudi Arabia, Norah Alkharashi now teaches at the University of Ottawa. As she describes in her contribution, “Translating Courageously,” since joining the profession, she has, like many of her contemporaries, “become ‘other,’ estranged from my own language.”
At the small independent bookstore where I work, this collection has sold well. On the one hand, this isn’t particularly surprising; it’s been my staff pick for several weeks, and customers tend to take note of what we highlight. On the other hand, the words “essay” and “translation” can sometimes dissuade readers, and this book’s subtitle contains both.
But these pages are surprisingly accessible, transcending theory and offering compelling stories grounded in real life. As Vergès puts it, the collection foregrounds the authors’ “personal voices” and presents “the work of translation in all its complexity, and the frustrations, joys, and emotions it provides.” True to that informal approach, River in an Ocean flows like an extended craft talk, a lively roundtable, or a dynamic dinner party. It’s not just for translators; it’s for everyone. As Yasmine Haj suggests in perhaps the collection’s most ambitious selection, translation is a universal experience: “A human’s first task is to translate.”
Claire Foster is a writer, translator, and bookseller in Toronto.