On Literary Translation as a Narcotic
by Thierry Marignac
What gives most of us pleasure is a slight distortion in the way we
perceive objective reality. As for objective reality itself, the
Russian popular wisdom has it that it's just the result of a serious
lack of alcohol in our blood. What part seventy years of communist
rule and dialectics played in such a cold
statement is anybody's guess.
However, most of us first experience this distortion through a
substance, and in some cases through substance abuse. But humans
have to deal with time, and when liquor and the likes have run their
course to the point of no return, you're supposed to go cold turkey
for the rest of your life. Such was the dark
cloud that hovered above me.
As it happens, work provided a nice distraction from this, but only
if it was combined with a further distortion of the senses: fatigue.
I was a workaholic, but one with a plan. That's what fiction writing
is about, and I did venture into that field four times. But in
writing, you can't maintain a state of
grace unless you're prolific to a fault; and furthermore, it's one
crime that doesn't pay.
That's how literary translation came into my life. My claim of being
a translator had the great advantage of being supported by no
sanctioned legitimacy of any sort. I had to go hunt my
prey--books--and learn the ropes by living with the writers in their
native city, which turned out, at the beginning, to be
New York City. It was during these numerous field trips that I first
noticed the kind of altered state that is produced by having to live
in another language. I became addicted to the high in no time. And
then came changes in behavior, since you can't be the same
signifying character when all the linguistic landmarks you have
lived with are set adrift.
Further distortion was added when I had to grind out a good copy in
French of the rough-and-tough street lingo in which I had
specialized (I belonged to the "Noir" genre) since it had been one
skill you could learn by yourself. Of course, this skill was also
exhilarating and vicarious, reminding me of long-gone nights spent
outdoors, shady characters, smoke-filled joints, women, voices,
darkness. I had a lot in common with that Burroughs character called
"the Buyer," who spent his time buying junk but never taking any,
because he got his kicks by being close to the addicts. And it was a
living. But that, too, ran its course, it could be as boring as a
habit can get over time.
Soon I needed something stronger, more powerful, more
demanding--something that would undermine reality in an even deeper
way. So I decided to superimpose Pushkin's mother tongue on my
mental soundtrack. It was a way of rediscovering those wistful
streets where anything could happen, and regaining that same sense
of discovery, that happy intoxication of youth, a feeling the years
had blown away. But it was bitter medicine. You have to learn
Russian bit by bit the hard way: in school. And when you have
learned the language, you start again all on your own with the
lingo, which was my aim. I jumped at every
opportunity I could have to learn more: newspapers, books, lost
tourists asking for directions.
I took a plane for the capital of all Russias, where I buried myself
in a university before cabin fever pushed me to the streets, and
there I slowly
earned the other language, the one that cries, curses and caresses.
My mind started lto make the first
connections, and the reflection of a third language started to
superimpose itself on the narrowing game of mirrors that had
previously been played out between French and English. A third
character was born under my skin, and, thank God or the Devil, this
time, he was only half a Westerner. I was too shy to speak, so I
snarled, before calming down and grumbling, and changing from dog to
bear, though I was really hyena, owl and wildcat. This was totally
in tune with the charged atmosphere of Moscow after the crisis of
'98--explosive vitality muffled under the age-old gloom. My relative
ignorance of Russian at the time became a ruthless will to guess the
damn language, an almost impossible task, in which I sometimes
succeeded against all odds, usually when I least expected it. And
when it happened, it gave me something very close
to the physical well-being of the high; I was, in short, swept away.
An addict of Narcolanguage, you could say.
I left Moscow exhausted and exhilarated, with a few books and
manuscripts in my suitcase. Then my usual translation work took me
to New York again, and on a sunny day I ended up in Brighton Beach,
on the boardwalk where old people warmed their bones, at the tables
where tatooed characters nodded between steins of beer and small
glasses of vodka, their mobile phones waking them with a start just
before their golden chains hit the soup in their plate.
To gorge myself on fish, I first tried English on the waitress. She
was barely off the plane, probably from Crimea but very blonde, and
looked briefly appalled. Then my broken Russian brought a smile back
to her lips. It was better to break Russian than to break plates. I
could read some trust in her eyes, as if I really had broken through
the strangeness, and the landscapes we flew over together in that
split second were more pleasurable than a thousand highs, especially
considering the bad stuff they sell today.
Meanwhile I programmed myself every day of that New York visit,
trying to brand my nerves with the reflexes of immediate
transcription I had taught myself, by translating more than forty
novels from English to French.
There were more rewards to come. In 2001, I translated my first
short story from Russian. The piece, entitled "The Killer Who Tried
to Be My Friend," described an encounter in the early nineties
between a thug and a young journalist in a Moscow bus, and it was
thick with the high charge of a time electrified
by history. The story was published, and the wave of exhilaration
pulsing in my veins was as good as the devilish mixtures man devises
for his happiness and doom. It was like a wild chase in the field of
meaning, copping fiction and society, a breathless high in the world