Lydia Davis Interview

An interview with Lydia Davis, conducted by Sarah Giragosian and Anna Eyre
for Barzakh.

Sarah: Many of our questions are about the intersections between your translation work
and fiction work. So first: do you find that your work in translation sharpens or renews
your fiction writing in any unexpected ways?

Lydia: It first produces new writings- brand new stories. I'm probably not going to be
doing book-length translations anymore, but in the past I would find that I was a little
bored while translating certain works. I've often had to translate for money as well as
for the pleasure of it. It’s been one of the ways I've earned my living ever since
college. I’ve had to do some books that I wouldn’t have wanted even to read, let alone
translate. So I get a little bored, my mind wanders, and I begin working on a story
instead of translating. So for instance, my story “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman”
was written while I was translating a biography of Marie Curie. The latest
translation, Madame Bovary, resulted in ten stories (I don’t know if I mentioned this in
class) called “Ten Stories from Flaubert.” And that was from reading his letters and
finding stories in his letters that I then shaped into stories that are mostly his material
and language, though I’ve done plenty of interfering in them. I know more generally
translating sharpens my sense of what English is capable of, because whenever you
work within a constraint you have to struggle more, to reach farther to see how you can
solve a problem, whereas when you’re writing your own work, you don’t necessarily
have to solve a problem. You can just go where you want to go. When I was doing the
Proust translation, I really looked at French etymology for the first time in the same way
that I look at English etymology.

Sarah: It seems that as an invisible translator, you must work against the implication of
your own subjective or writerly presence. Do you find that writing fiction involves a
similar tension?

Lydia: So, denying one part of yourself? That’s a hard question. I think I can answer it
sort of indirectly. Each piece requires a different approach, but I think I sometimes take
on a persona. I am more aware of that now. In the beginning, I am not sure I was. I
would write from an “I,” but the “I” wasn’t the “I” talking to you now. It was an assumed
identity of a woman close to me, but not me-- someone kind of more obsessed, more
single-minded, meaner, you know? I would take on her persona, as if I were acting a
part, and then speak in her voice. Is that sort of what you mean?

Sarah: Yes. In what way does translation, a practice that encourages thoroughness and
precision and involves the transcription of another’s consciousness, intersect with
creative writing?

Lydia: I would say also that when you’re doing your own writing, you want to be in just
the right frame of mind—to feel good and feel ready to do it. It’s hard to do it if you’re
tired or grumpy, not in the mood, but with translation, because it’s not just a form of
writing, but also a kind of a craft, you can do it in different moods, you can function in a
different frame of mind. You say, “Well, at the end of the day, oh, I’ll just do an hour.”
It’s sort of like a word problem, which I like also. You know, you have this set text, you
have a paragraph, and you have to solve the problem, so you bring lots of writerly skills
to it, but you don’t have to involve the more difficult aspects of writing, the invention, the
hard questions, such as how to end the story. None of that is involved--you just solve
the set problem.

Anna: I guess I am going to follow up on what she was asking. Of personas, would you
feel at all that adopting a persona in writing a story was like a translation of yourself?

Lydia: I hadn't quite thought of it that way, because it would be a kind of partial
translation, I guess. The persona is a version of me. I am just telling the story (in some
stories, anyway). One of the recent ones I've been working on called “The Cows” is all
about what I observe about some cows that live across the road from me. It has nothing
to do with a portrait of a woman except that someone is looking at the cows. I would say
that all those personas are partial portraits, when I adopt them, that is— as I said—
some of the stories have nothing to do with the woman telling it.

Anna: That's a good place to look for a chance to intersect with non-fiction, in a way. A
closer way to non-fiction.

Lydia: Yes, I was thinking about that, actually, on the way over here. I was reading a
book by Edith Grossman called Why Translation Matters. I don't know if you're doing a
special translation issue, but if you have time, you might want to read it. It's not a long
book—120 pages. She's one of the main Latin American translators. She also
translated Don Quixote recently. You might be interested in what she says about
translation. But she also talks about fiction writing, and I realized that what she said
about fiction didn't apply to my kind of writing. If you think of Raymond Carver's stories
or those of more conventional short story writers, you can imagine the writers thinking of
a plot: "Oh, wouldn't this be a neat idea?" or "How would this play out?" And you'd have
to "prepare this," and create a "climax" and make sure there was some sort of
"revelation." I certainly don't work that way. I don't really work from a plot and try to fill it
out. For me, writing a story is a little more like writing a poem. Say you have some
experience or epiphany, and you want to write a poem about it: it’s taken from your life,
it’s philosophical, and you create some images from what actually happened. I am doing
prose a little bit that way. It is definitely meant to be fictional, and has always been
fictional, but it is often taken from life.

Anna: You've translated so much of Blanchot and other philosophical writers. How do
you see your translation of their work somehow intersecting with your creative writing?
Where do you see philosophy, creative writing, and translation intersecting, or informing
each other?

Lydia: I'm always thinking about how people lead their lives and make decisions, how
they prepare for death—the big questions. I am always mulling them over and trying to
come to some place with them, so there is definitely a big philosophical impulse to what
I do. I think certain authors like Blanchot interest me because they’re wrestling with
those sorts of things. In the case of Blanchot, it would be absence and presence and
naming: the idea that you kill the thing once you name it. I am very drawn to certain
writers, and you do identify with a writer when you are translating him or her— it's
usually "him" in my case. I think Blanchot interests me very much—both his ideas and
the way he writes: the close focus, the really minute focus, on a thought, just one
thought at a time, so that the thought actually becomes a character. It's all very
interesting. I am drawn to the writers I translate because of my own interests, and vice
versa—what I learn from them feeds back into my own writing.

Anna: I read somewhere that you are writing a book that is written in French
grammatical structure with French syntax, but in English. Is that correct?

Lydia: Well, that's just a project I've put on the back burner for a long time. I still want to
do it, but it's sort of waiting in line behind probably another two projects. But it would be
a French grammar book that would teach you some French, but it would also be a
novel. And there are two ways to do it: one is to write the book more and more in
French so that the reader leaves the English behind and ends up with only
French. That's one way that would be interesting, and the other is straight grammar, but
with a continuing story.

Anna: So somehow grammar is wrapped in scenarios ...

Lydia: I love grammar books, and I love the strangeness of the sentences you have to
translate in grammar exercises, so I would be having fun with some of that.

Anna: It's almost like you would say, it’s a character in a way— the character of a
sentence, the way that it’s structured. I wonder if you've ever come across something
that you felt was totally untranslatable, and if you left it out, and how you negotiate that
when the puzzle cannot be solved.

Lydia: I've never just omitted something, tempting as that might be. That would be too
bad. It was actually in Blanchot's work--some of his essays—that I had real problems. I
would say every translation has one or two moments that are hard to understand, but
some of Blanchot's works had more than a few passages, as in The Gaze of Orpheus,
which was the selection of essays that I translated. You look and look in dictionaries,
and you ask people, and you don't usually get a lot of help. I think sometimes I've fallen
back on translating a phrase or sentence more literally, trying to make it read
reasonably well in English, yet trying to stay somewhat close to the French wording or,
on the other hand, just deciding, “Okay, it may mean this and it may mean that and I
don't know which it means; I'm going to choose one of them and go with it.” I suppose
in something like a book of essays, as opposed to a novel, you could have a footnote or
a note at the back giving the French. Some people wouldn't do that; their professional
pride might not allow them to admit that they were confused. But I don't have that
problem, so I would give the French, and maybe say, “It could also mean this,” so that
at least someone reading it and depending upon it would have that alternative. A friend
of mine is translating some work by Roger Lewinter and she's having a real problem
with five or six places that she doesn't understand at all. She showed them to me, and I
didn't understand them either, so together we're going to show them to a group of five
more French translators and see if we can't figure them out together.

Anna: Yes, it seems like the syntax is incredibly important to the thought, and also the
metaphor or ambiguity of certain words. How you negotiate that as a translator must be
very difficult.

Lydia: Yes.

Anna: I don't read French and I haven’t read Proust, but the sentences are so long, and
the syntax is very different from English syntax. If you tried to keep that syntactical
level, how do you negotiate that?

Lydia: Some of the syntax is different or certain words are used in a way that we just
can't use in English, like the word dont,which means 'of which' or 'by which,' 'about
which.' In Proust’s case, it’s not so much that the syntax is different. It is more that he is
doing things with it that most writers don’t do, which is build these long, long sentences
full of subordinate clauses. We could do the same thing, and I actually did do the same
thing in English, it’s just that not many others chose to do that. I'm not sure if I answered
your question.

Anna: Yes, I think. It's still readable in English, but you kept that sort of strangeness of
his.

Lydia: It was very important to him that the sentences not be broken up. They are
broken up by some translators, and people— readers— will say, "Please break them
up," because they're easier to read. But he felt that one sentence contained one
thought, so that even if the sentence was very long--even many pages—and had many
parts to it, it still was one complex thought. He didn't want it broken up into different
sentences. He also said that his writing was very concise, and I think that's an
interesting point too. You can have a very long sentence, and a very long book, and it's
still concisely matched to what you're expressing.

Anna: Just a big thought.

Lydia: Yes, a very big, very complex thought. It is really interesting the way that he
worked.

Anna: So you said that you won't do many more translations, and will just focus on your
own writing?

Lydia: Yes, this latest one, Madame Bovary, took about three years. It's not that I did no
writing of my own, but I certainly did a lot less, and I don't think I'm willing to go on
losing three years at a time. Well, of course those three years are not totally lost; doing
a good translation is doing a service. I think it's important and I wish more writers did
translate more, and I wish more publishers would publish a lot more translations.
Apparently in the U.S. and the U.K. now, only about three percent of our books every
year are translations, whereas in other countries between twenty five and forty percent
are translations.

Anna: Yeah, probably contributing to xenophobia, and so much culture gets translated
through these texts.

Lydia: Yes, we're so insular, and getting more and more so. We're desperately in need
of more translations.

Anna: Have you ever translated yourself or have you ever written in another language?
Lydia: I've done a rough draft of one short story into French. It really doesn't work going
in that direction, because I don't have the same familiarity and comfort with writing
French that I do with English. I am not truly bilingual in the way I'd have to be to do
that. I did a sort of rough version for someone else to fine tune. Of course, I can read
someone else's French translation of my writing, and say, "No, you're a little off there."
It's interesting to try to translate yourself, because you can see you're doing something
purposely ambiguous right here, and it doesn't really have a clear translation. It does
mean several things at once or it’s deliberately unclear, and you would have to match
that in the other language. It makes you look more closely at what you're doing in your
own writing.

Anna: Do you think that translation could be taught? For instance, what if there was a
Translation MFA? Is it something that should be taught? Also, what is your advice to
somebody who is starting to translate?

Lydia: I taught a translation workshop out at UCSD, and it was also, of course, a writing
workshop. A lot of the teaching has to concentrate on the students' writing, but you can
also guide their translation process. Yes, I think you can certainly teach translation. You
would read a lot of translation theory and also compare different translations of the
same texts. The students would work on their own translations and the class would
critique them as translations and also as pieces of writing. I would think there do exist
translation MFA’s and PhD’s. There's no reason not to take an untranslated book or a
classic that hasn't been translated well, do a translation of it and make that your PhD
thesis, with a substantial introduction. I think it should be encouraged like mad, because
we need to reach out to other cultures right now.

Anna: Do you think fiction, American fiction, is suffering because not enough writers are
reading?

Lydia: Absolutely. And not reading enough foreign writing. This is another thing that
was brought out well in Edith Grossman's book: the fruitfulness of cross-cultural
influences. Garcia Marquez, if I have it correct, was very influenced by Faulkner,
translated into Spanish. Marquez, in turn, was very influential on Don DeLillo and his
generation. We have the possibility of this kind of cross-cultural exchange, and yet
most of our fiction reading is confined to our contemporary American and English
authors, and of the new crop that are published each year only a few are really good.
And then we have our three percent that are translations. But when you stop and think
that maybe there was some other amazing book that came out in Hungarian last year,
for example, and another really mind-blowing book that came out in Syrian, or Farsi, or
Turkish, and we just won't ever know those books, and maybe those writers were
influenced by reading Grace Paley in Turkish or maybe Marilynne Robison. We just
don’t know, and we don't get a Hungarian newsletter that tells us about the exciting new
novels that have come out this year. I do think the cultural exchange is immensely
important; it's not happening to the degree that it should, and we are missing out.

interviewBarzakh Mag