One day I learned that Nancy Houston, Canadian writer living and publishing in two languages and somewhat an icon in the field of auto-translation, sometimes writes down her prose in French first only to then proceed self-translating it back into her first language English. What at first seems like a mere exercise in style and at most a linguistic effort bordering on sadomasochism is for her, as she recalls in Lettres Parisiennes, a technique of truth: Freed from the abundance of words and phrases that one has in their native tongue, Houston says this almost Hemingwayesque process of elimination allows her to get to the core of things and create something that doesn’t hide behind stylistic detours and superfluous mannerisms.
Following more my intuitions than any logical explanation, I’d been doing something very similar: Before even considering ever publishing my work in any other language than German, I would sometimes put a paragraph of my short stories into Google Translate, just because I felt like I could literally watch the words come alive within seconds – breathing the fresh air of a foreign, albeit not strange language.
Translating, which etymologically derives from the Latin translatio, carrying across, describes a spatial act – the crossing of a border maybe, of taking a step away from something for the sake of a better overview. Self-translating your own texts means making your work accessible to a broader audience of which the first reader – and critic – is you, by not only relocating the words, but also yourself. For me, reading my own writing feels like looking into a mirror: It is I that I see behind the glass, a mere reflection, and even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t really know how to change it; I’m attached to it, in the most literal sense. But another language allows me to gain a little distance, to take a step out of the text and get to work. Through self-translating, I get an idea of how the text would be read – not as if I’m looking into a mirror, but through the eyes of another.
In two seconds you can take one shot of tequila or throw up two.
In two seconds you can let someone run their fingers through your hair or have it all cut off.
In two seconds you can burp furtively or listen to the world’s hiccups for a brief moment.
In two seconds you cannot: change your life. But a traffic light can.
And in a way that’s exactly how it went down, an insignificant Wednesday afternoon of average humidity, as the traffic lights at the Pont au Change jumped from red to green and everything in the life of She turned upside down.
As always, she had flipped her head while waiting, turning her large eyes over her shoulder where in distance the Eiffel Tower stood—waiting patiently, bored, a French aquiline nose made of steel. In a city where every thought is stifled in dust because everything has already been thought, said, or felt, it’s hard to live something entirely new; whenever that thought crossed her mind, she wanted to unfold the weary streets and tear its cobblestones from the asphalt. She wanted to rip the whole damn city into large pieces, peel it, skin it and remove its seeds.
She turned around again. She didn’t do it in a flashy way, and most importantly, she didn’t take any photos, she wasn’t a goddamn tourist after all. Sometimes she just wanted to make sure it was still there, that she was still there. Everything was still there, just as the day before—just as always. In the Café Bords de Seine a few people were sitting alone in front of their espressos, pretending to be busy, or having long since given it up, their faces like empty plates.
Impatiently, she stepped from one foot to the other, it was March, but still brisk, besides, she was indeed not a tourist, she was capable of admiring the worn beauty of this city even while rushing by. Around the Place de Châtelet cars scrambled around in impassioned hurry, overran each other, got stuck: there are no gaps in Paris. Paris is a city like a lived life, its whole topography a beaten path. The thought drove into her flesh like a dull razor blade.
Then the lights turned green and she started walking.
And then she saw the gap.
Looked right into the gap and then around its borders—into the face, above and below, of the person standing on the opposite side of the bridge, waiting for her to cross it.
If a face were a foreign country, she would have entered that field at the exact moment the traffic lights changed at Pont au Change. She wanted to wander through this face like it was a national park and get lost in its creases; she would have learnt all about this soil, discovered its gems and stones, perhaps sat down in the dimple on the left corner of the mouth and ordered a whisky on the rocks. But because it was a face and not a national park, and because she wasn’t crazy—and way too big in proportion anyways—she just smiled coyly into it, as if into a mirror, and said hello.
And the fence around the gap opened into a wide grin and she went in.