On Translation and the (Temporary) Inheritance of Trauma
Yardenne Greenspan Considers What It Means to Truly Inhabit an Author’s Work
In the summer of 2020, the relentless worry of the early pandemic lifted and my mood changed. My family was finding its footing in this new reality. My son was becoming an expert at entertaining himself, freeing up time for my husband and me to work, exercise, and find little pockets of privacy. Public attention was expanding to include other crucial issues beyond the pandemic. I was no longer quite as anxious. Instead, I was sad.
Things were more or less all right. We were donating and protesting for important causes. Our kid was getting into chapter books, which was a lot of fun. The weather was better and we were no longer frightened to be outside, keeping a safe distance from friends and neighbors. I was translating a fascinating novel about an aspiring writer coming to terms with her past sexual trauma—
And there it was. The protagonist of the book I was translating was a young female writer who develops an obsessive crush on a fellow writing workshop participant while also experiencing intense flashbacks to the abusive and exploitative relationship she had as an adolescent. The story was absorbing, heartbreaking, gut wrenching. It brought to mind the pervasiveness of sexual violation, the helplessness of children, and something else.
While I had never gone through anything quite as harrowing as the protagonist of this novel, we all have our painful memories, dark moments in which we try not to dwell. And for me, these memories were particularly close to the surface. Just before embarking on this translation, I had completed yet another draft of my memoir about living with vaginismus—a condition in which the vaginal muscles contract uncontrollably upon penetration, rendering intercourse an impossibility at worst, and an excruciating experience at best.Translation requires a devotion beyond any that I’ve experienced in my other endeavors.
Writing this memoir entailed delving into the pain, fear, and heartache that characterized much of my late teens and early twenties. I’d been afraid of being assaulted, abused, taken advantage of. I felt weak and vulnerable and like I would never find lasting love. I was compelled to let boyfriends do things that didn’t always feel good because I felt I was damaged goods and owed them as much. To write about it all, I had to reassume my own past identity and truly live in the mind of the person I used to be—that hurt, frightened person. Writing and rewriting this book was an ordeal, and I was relieved to be finished.
But then I delved into that translation. While writing my own experiences was understandably and expectedly challenging, there is something uniquely difficult about translating triggering subject matter. When you write a difficult book, you brush the dust off of things that have happened to you, being careful not to look too hard all at once. When you read a difficult book, you jump in and out of its world, donning as many protective layers as you need to in order to get through it. You might cry, or have nightmares, or decide to quit reading midway through, but your level of engagement is, to a great degree, a choice.
But translation requires a devotion beyond any that I’ve experienced in my other endeavors. To render a faithful translation is not to provide the literal equivalent of every given word on the page, but rather to seek, on a sentence and word level, a parallel that is committed to the relentless and continuous recognition of the most important element in the original writing and recreating it in English as powerfully and intimately as the language barrier permits; to create an analogous experience for the English-language reader; to pretend to be the writer themselves, reinventing their own work in a new format.
To make a great translation is to produce what I imagine the writer themselves would have generated had they been using the English language, with its unique grammar, slang, and idiosyncrasies. To do this, I am compelled to forget myself and dive headfirst into the writer’s brain, heart, and psyche. To slip into their minds. To wear their skin. To be them. That means taking on their trauma, whatever dark force they carry, which did its quiet work in the hidden recesses of their minds and came up with a piece of writing.
And so while I was finally taking a break from my own painful reflections, I was now spending several hours every day inside a mind that had envisioned a woman in her thirties trying to write about the terrifying sex she’d experienced as a teenager, and having to reawaken her own demons in the process. It was disorienting. When I sank into the couch every evening, mind bogged down and heart heavy, was it the character’s hurt that I was processing? The author’s? Or my own? When I moped about the kitchen, when I jumped at my husband’s touch, when I blinked at my sullen face in the morning after a night of fitful sleep, I felt as though I was manifesting a chimera of traumas—the character’s dark storyline, her own muted and repressed memories, which were worn over the author’s personal aches, which covered up my own.
I spent the winter of 2021 translating a novel about a mother and teenaged daughter who abandon their family abruptly to escape from the girl’s sexually abusive father. While her siblings remain back in their old home and her mother goes out to work every day, the girl spends her summer vacation under voluntary house arrest, fostering sexual fantasies about aggressive older men and showering constantly to wash off the stink of shame. Everybody wants to protect her, but no one addresses the trauma and its aftermath, leaving her exposed to compounding danger and psychological scarring.
While I worked on this book, my child was back in school and I was newly pregnant again, with a girl this time. When I picked up my son in the afternoon I asked incessant questions about his relationships with his teachers. At night, as I tossed and turned in bed, I felt my belly for any premature kicks, covering the skin with my hands, forming a protective shield that I knew I could not sustain.A small part of every book I have translated would stay with me, like a skin graft, fusing into me, another layer in the costume—the characters, the themes, the words, the authors’ psychologies.
I spent the summer of 2022 translating a book of auto-fiction about a gay teenager’s repeated sexual abuse in the hands of older men behind the backs of his unsuspecting parents, including a horrific, evocative, semi-fantastical rape scene. As I watched my baby daughter smile readily at every stranger on the street, I thought, not for the first time, about how consistently my son refuses to share the things his friends tell him at the playground. In the evening, while my husband relaxed with a book, I reached compulsively for fluffy comedies and cooking shows, desperately trying to shut down my brain.
I spent the fall of 2022 translating an anthology of essays by daughters of Holocaust survivors. In it, writer, editor, and psychologist Ester Peled reflects on growing up in the age that preceded awareness of intergenerational trauma. She recalls how flustered society used to be when facing those that have inherited trauma from their parents: “How can you have trauma if no trauma happened to you, if nobody did anything to you? And yet you act as if you’re traumatized, and so they don’t really know what is the problem with you.”
Then things clicked. I was sad, anxious, and nervous, but these were not exactly my sadness, anxiety, or nervousness. I had inherited them—temporarily—from my authors. To do justice to their words, I had to take on their identities, emotional baggage included. I had to wear the author’s skin over my own and carry their memories and dark ideas, like a porter transferring luggage, until I could deposit them safely in the translated manuscript. They were mine, but they were not mine. Once the translation was complete, I would be able to move on from them—but not all at once, and not completely. Little by little, the weight would lift, the malaise would melt away, and I would go back to being myself, rather than an amalgam of myself and the author, myself and the author’s characters, myself and the subtext.
But like all emotional baggage, I could never fully let it go. Some of that pain, some of those bad memories, would meld themselves into my lived experience, like a fetus transforming their mother’s DNA in utero. I would move on, my heart and body making space for the next book to come and flood me. But a small part of every book I have translated would stay with me, like a skin graft, fusing into me, another layer in the costume—the characters, the themes, the words, the authors’ psychologies. Underneath these layers, in the kernel of my beating pain, I will be waiting, holding younger me in my arms, taking deep breaths, waiting to heal.