I mentioned before a list of books about translators and interpreters, which also included this novel, but I only got to read it a couple of days ago and, since then, I can’t stop thinking about it.
In just a few words, Aalyia, the protagonist, is an old woman who reminisces her life going back and forth between the Beirut of the ’50s and of the war with Israel, and the westernized Beirut of recent years, while taking us into a journey through world literature. For fifty years, she has translated one book a year, based on a system she designed herself, but without ever intending to publish her work. Her love for books and her passion and dedication for translation make her one of the most beloved and admirable literary characters I’ve known so far.
Here is what she says about translation (and I just had to have this quote here!):
I made translation my master and my days were no longer alarmingly dreadful. My projects distract me. I work and the days pass.
But then I wonder if that’s the emphatic truth. I have to consider that I do what I do because it makes me happy sometimes. I don’t suffer from anhedonia, after all; I am able to experience pleasure. I read a poem about happiness by Edward Hirsch that ends with these lines:
My head is like skylight.
My heart is like dawn.
I think that at times, not all times, when I’m translating, my head is like skylight. Through no effort of my own, I’m visited by bliss. It isn’t often, yet I can be happy when I commune with translation, my master. Sometimes I think that’s enough, a few moments of ecstasy in a life of Beckett dullness. Peaks cannot exist without valleys. My translating is a Wagner opera. The narrative sets up, the tension builds, the music ebbs and flows, the strings, the horns, more tension, and suddenly a moment of pure pleasure. Gabriel blows his golden trumpet, ambrosial fragrance fills the air sublime, and gods descend from Olympus to dance—most heavenly this peak of ecstasy.
During these moments, I am no longer my usual self, yet I am wholeheartedly myself, body and spirit. During these moments, I am healed of all wounds.
I’ll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don’t wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.
So, if you are (literary) translators and, as it so often happens, you struggle with words and meanings and sounds, and sometimes even with material hardships, just read these lines and remember this is what makes you HAPPY.
If you are just readers in love with books, remember to appreciate the people behind them, the people who bring you literary jewels from all over the world, the people who make it possible for you to read books created in other langues, the TRANSLATORS.
And, if you have the chance, read An Unnecessary Woman, it’s a wonderful novel and a magnificent journey!