#25: Mireille Gansel, Borders, and Translation

On translation as an anticolonial mode

I spent all month doing in-depth revisions on part of the book and writing an introduction (introductions are VERY hard, do not recommend), so this newsletter is coming to you at the last possible minute and from someone whose brain is mostly full of sand!

I again wanted to write about translation in part because that’s what my book is about, so it’s been spinning around in my head more or less non-stop for months now, and because I got to revisit one of my favorite books in the process of writing the introduction, and I realized I’d love to write about it more.

One of my favorite genres of writing is when translators do manifestos, or explanations, or just tell you what they’re up to: Kate Briggs’ This Little Art is one of my favorite books in this genre, and Lisa Dillman’s translators’ notes for her Yuri Herrera translations are similarly wonderful, and I remain steadfast in desiring an anthology of translators’ notes. The work I want to talk about right now though is Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance.

The book is tiny—109 pages, in a compact, pocket-sized trim—but it is also the best examination I’ve read about how translation often operates in political spaces, even when its literary, along with a memoir and a manifesto. The book opens with her family gathered around the dinner table, listening to her father translate letters from the Hungarian that her extended family wrote in into the French she speaks, the scars of the Holocaust visible in the languages passed down—and not—to her generation; passes through her collaboration with Vietnamese poets, translating their work into French to prove their humanity through or despite occupation; and finishes with her translation of the poet Nelly Sachs, an exile and refugee from the same wartime atrocities that had exiled her own family.

The moment I fell in love with the book happens when Gansel is talking about her work translating the East German poet Reiner Kunze. She talks about one of his poems, a word choice that keeps bothering her: she knows its not quite right, can’t find a better alternative than the one she’s used. So she goes to visit Kunze, and after a conversation, lands on the correct word.

Returning to the other side of the Wall after the Kafkaesque police formalities at the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint, I smuggled back the word I had come to seek.

I don’t think I need to explain too much why this resonated so deeply with me, given the kind of work and translations I do—there’s something lovely about finding just the right word, about picturing it glowing, warmly bundled into an inner pocket of a sensible coat, even as you’re confronted and questioned by dour-faced border agents, about language that slips the bounds of borders and political boundaries.

Translation as Transhumance speaks to the practice of moving livestock—sheep being rotated from a winter to a summer field, the availability of new lands for grazing. To me, this suggests translation as a way of opening up new doors, finding new ideas to tumble over and over in our minds. When I look about the work that translation has done in my life, this is pretty much the sum of it—were it not for translating, I wouldn’t have the job I have, wouldn’t have written the book I did, would have a different relationship to my languages and my country and reading and writing. I think, though, that Gansel’s conclusion reaches over into my life in ways that I find profoundly true:

“It suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.


Reading List:

  1. Translation as Transhumance, Mireille Gansel, trans. Ros Schwartz

  2. This Little Art, Kate Briggs

  3. Experiences in Translation, Umberto Eco, trans. Alastair McEwen

  4. Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman

A fun update re: the reading lists I usually provide: Bookshop is now offering affiliate links, so I made a little bookshop for this letter! If you order from these links, or any of the ones I pepper throughout the newsletter, I’ll get a little kickback, and you get the double satisfaction of supporting your favorite newsletter on girls, God, and feelings and not using Amazon, which is very bad. You can find the affiliate shop here, with collections for every newsletter I’ve published w/ a recommended reading list so far. I also have a section (hopefully a growing one!) with books I’ve been involved with in some way.


A few events coming up! On the 3rd, I am launching A is for Asylum Seeker with Rachel I. Buff at Boswell Books in Milwaukee (or, sort of, it’s a Zoom launch). You can sign up here. If you can’t make that one, we’re doing another event on the 9th with Wellfleet Public Library, which you can sign up for here! On the 10th, I’m facilitating an interview on Translating Spanish at Brookline Booksmith’s Transnational Literature Series with Translation Heroes Sophie Hughes and Megan McDowell. Sign up for that one here! After that, I’ll be sleeping for 10 years.

No new published writing from me this month, but I am really excited to announce that we are expecting a guest letter from Laura Booth, on Terry Tempest Williams and Slowness. I’m hoping to get that out within the next few weeks!

As a reminder, not only can you pitch me your ideas, but I do pay! I also accept donations to keep our guest writer program going—we’ve gotten incredible letters on Julien Baker and Virginia Woolf, and I’m so excited to keep that going. You can venmo me at: @Alejandra-Oliva or send me a PayPal through this link.

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