Judith Thurman Translates a Life

Judith Thurman began her career as a poet and translator of poets including the seventeenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Photo by Nick Doll.

On Saturday morning, Judith Thurman gave a talk entitled “Translating a Life: Who are you? Who am I?” As Thurman explained, the act of translation is complicated, whether it be the translation of a text from one language to another, or the translation of life events into a biography. To get at that complexity, Thurman used a series of metaphors that, by the end of the talk, had created a sort of mosaic, with each little chip offering a glimpse into the process of translation.

The translator is an artisan, she said, referring to Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” and reminding us that the translated text could be a pot that still bears the potter’s fingerprints. She also reminded us of the religious connotations of the term “translation,” which refer to the movement of sacred objects, such as the remains of saints, from one location to another, possibly heavenly, locale.

Thurman told us of her own experiences, doing an unrehearsed translation of a live French lecture on particle physics when the original translator fell ill, as well as her freelance work as a subtitler of European pornography.

At one point in her talk, the translator/biographer was a navigator, looking at points on a two-dimensional map, realizing the flaws of that representation when held up against reality, and then relying on some third factor—in the case of the navigator, a celestial body, in the case of the biographer or translator, their own insights and language—in order to navigate through these disparate points and arrive at a new place.

At another point in the talk, translating a text was an exalted form of entertaining guests who speak different languages, the translator giving each one a venue to interact and understand one another. When translation goes well, Thurman said, the translator-host can retire to the kitchen for a cigarette and listen to the humming of voices as the reader and the original text converse in the next room.

For her part, Thurman said she found translation to be a tonic for writer’s block, as the translator never has to face a blank page. Her talk today, she said, also represented a loss of invisibility for her, as she was here discussing what is usually a more transparent act. In the end, she spoke of all language as a form of translation, as a constant act of selection and exclusion in which we choose a name for something out there in the world in hopes that we can do it justice.

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