Translating with Constraint, on Bringing Oulipian Writers into English: A Conversation with Translator Emma Ramadan

Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she co-owns Riffraff bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of a Fulbright, an NEA Translation Fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and the 2018 Albertine Prize for her work. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Not One Day, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, and a co-translation of Marguerite Duras’s Me & Other Writing.


In March, in 2018, Emma Ramadan spoke with my class on literary translation theory, specifically on the problems posed by the kinds of formal experimentations embraced by members of OuLiPo, and those having similar interests. We were joined by Dr. Lora Lunt’s class on French Translation. The students had read excerpts from Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets.

Emma Ramadan: I hear that you’ve read some of my translation work. I hope that you found it at least somewhat interesting and valuable. I’m here to answer any questions that you might have.

Would you like me talk about what OuLiPo is? It stands for the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which is the workshop for potential literature. It’s a group of international writers, but they’re mainly based in France and they’re mainly European. They write with constraints, meaning sometimes they do things like writing a novel without the letter ‘e.’ Georges Perec, one of the members, did that. La Disparition is a 300-page novel written entirely without the letter ‘e.’ Some of the constraints are pure literary conceit, just to see what might happen. The idea behind it all being that having a constraint to work around can actually inspire the writing, can inspire ideas that you might not otherwise come to if you have everything at your disposal.

I think there is this interesting divide happening in OuLiPo. Anne Garréta is very much a part of that, where she writes with constraint to make a bigger a point about society. Sphinx doesn’t have any gender markers for the characters because she’s trying to make a point about the way gender is working in society. Her constraint is a way of doing something in literature that no one’s ever done before, and in making a point that you can’t make without it. I think there’s this divide between people who want to use literary constraint to do something political and make some kind of stance and be very much engaging on this level of ‘Look what we can do with literature, look at what we can say if we use constraint in literature.’ Then there’s the other side of that coin, which is ‘I just want to show people that I can pull off this thing, like I want to make flat sonnets or I want to write a novel without the letter ‘e’ just to see what happens, to see if I can do it and challenge myself and challenge what writing is.’

So there are two different views of what OuLiPo is and is capable of being. Garréta clearly is on one side of that, and I think Frédéric Forte, the author of 33 Flat Sonnets, is on the other side.

Dylan: When you were reading and translating Sphinx, was there a point where you got into the text and realized or saw some new feature and had to go back and redo some of the earlier work that you did? What is your whole process as you go through a text?

ER: When I was translating Sphinx, I was in my master’s program at the American University in Paris. I was very lucky to be in France. Garréta was in France at the same time. We would meet up and talk about the book, and she would show me things that I had missed. I had translated pretty much half of the book by the time I started talking to her. She read over the first, maybe, twenty pages that I translated, and she showed me these references she was making to certain tropes in French literature and how, in the beginning, the scenes are sort of making fun of a lot of classical French books. There are references to authors like Proust, and there are references to religious texts, things I would not necessarily have picked up on if she hadn’t shown them to me. That’s how Garréta writes. She likes to have lots of references to things. She’s a very intellectual writer. As you can tell from the little you read, the way she writes is very baroque and high register and there are lots of things going on. When I started meeting with her, I did have to go back and change almost everything about what I had translated up to that point because once I had Garréta’s voice in my head, the rest of the voice of the book became so much more clear to me. In my mind, and this may or may not be correct, but in my mind Garréta is the narrator of Sphinx. The voices are exactly the same voice, and the way the narrator in Sphinx speaks is so much like the way Garréta speaks that once I had Garréta’s voice in my head I went back and redid my whole translation to match her voice and to fix those references I’d missed and to incorporate things.

One of the the most important things Garréta said to me was—there’s this scene towards the beginning of Sphinx where the narrator is in this seedy bar in a seedy neighborhood in Paris, and the narrator is having this moment of panic. It’s not really clear to the reader why. Garréta explained to me that there are these other people in the bar, and the way the narrator is reacting to them could be totally different depending on whether the narrator is a man or a woman, a straight man, a gay man, a straight woman, a gay woman, and the way that the other people in the bar are perceiving the narrator would change the way the narrator’s panic could be interpreted. She had to leave it vague because if you’re reading Sphinx you need to be able to read it all the different possible ways and because you don’t know if the narrator is a man, a woman, a straight man, straight woman, gay man, gay woman, a trans person, you just don’t know. So the text itself had to leave all of those options open for the reader. That was really important for me going forward and translating and making sure that every scene could be interpreted all those different ways.

May: When you’re translating, do you follow the literal meaning of the text or what the author is trying to communicate through the story?

ER: It’s always a weird balance of the two. Sometimes the literal is more important than what the author is trying to do, and sometimes what the author is trying to do is much more important than the literal. In a book like Sphinx, because there is that constraint and because it’s never going to look exactly the same in English as it does in French because of that constraint, I was focused more on what Garréta was trying to do than on the literal words on the page. I think you read my translator’s note, which explains a bit about the way that you avoid gender markers in French. It is very different than the way you do that in English. So a lot of times there were entire passages where the narrator is describing A and A’s body. Those changed so much in translation because I have to use totally different methods to keep the gender out of describing somebody’s body. I can’t say ‘her neck’ or ‘his arm’ or any of those things. The text itself has to change so that you can’t tell the gender of the persons in English. So for a book like Sphinx, the focus was on maintaining the constraint, maintaining the point of the book, which was to show how ridiculous the binary of gender is in society and how we don’t actually need it in our love stories. I couldn’t have done that if I had stayed close to a literal translation.

Laine: With the adoption of the ‘they’/’them’ pronouns being non-gendered singular, if you were to go back and do a second translation of Sphinx, do you think that you would start using that? You wrote that you’ve really tried to avoid pronouns in order to stay within the constraint.

ER: I think I probably did use a little bit of ‘they’ and ‘them’ in Sphinx because I probably didn’t have a choice. I don’t know that I have a great answer to that because there are gender-neutral pronouns that are starting to be used besides ‘they’ and ‘them’ as well, and there are so many different things that I think would feel very modern and ‘in this moment’ in a way that I’m not sure would be lasting. The way the language evolves happens so quickly and happens so ofsten, I would be worried about using a gender-neutral pronoun that’s becoming popular and used a lot right now, because the book was not written in this time period. If someone’s going to read the book in ten years, would it feel really dated because we’ve moved on to different gender-neutral pronouns? So it’s tricky in the same way that using any reference to anything in society gets really tricky.

The other part of it is that these characters in Sphinx aren’t necessarily the kinds of people that use gender-neutral pronouns. It’s just that we don’t know what pronouns they use. So I think if I were to assign them gender-neutral pronouns, that might put a spin on the book that wasn’t intended, if that makes sense. Like, if I’m giving them gender-neutral pronouns then it might be assumed that they identify as ‘they,’ which is something that I am putting on these characters and not something that the author put on these characters. The other point, Garréta’s point in writing this book, was that you’re supposed to be able to read the book and maybe not even notice that the genders aren’t identified. When the book first came out in French, a lot of reviewers reviewed the book without even picking up on the fact that there was a constraint, without even noticing that in their heads they had assigned the genders to these characters that weren’t actually in the book. I think if I were to use general neutral pronouns, that same effect couldn’t happen. It’s almost like Garréta is trying to trick people into realizing that they’re projecting their own ideas of gender onto people. If I do the work for them and give them the out of being gender-neutral, and being identified as gender-neutral, then the reader doesn’t have the chance to make the mistake and then learn from the mistake.

Alicia: I have this question about whether metaphor can transcend language. Do you find that when you’re trying to translate metaphors it’s more difficult for you, where you have to go a different way, or do you find that some things are just untranslatable?

ER: I hate to say that anything is untranslatable. There are a lot of really long metaphors in Sphinx that I had difficulty translating because I think sometimes it’s not about whether a certain meaning gets across as much as a certain kind of language or a certain kind of image might work better in French than it does in English. The French tend to be more flowery or whatever with their metaphors, and when it gets to English that can fall really flat, even though the idea behind it is easily comprehensible. In whatever book I’m translating, I always try to maintain the metaphor, whether it means translating it literally if we have a similar expression, or changing it slightly so that it would be more accessible to us. I think there’s always a little bit of wiggle room and a little bit of having to change things around with certain metaphors in certain books. But there’s always a way to convey the same message. It’s just a matter of crafting that same metaphor in English in a way that will evoke the same feeling in an English reader as it did in the French reader. So I don’t ever want to translate a metaphor literally and for an English reader to miss the point of it and turn their nose up at it. I want to translate that feeling. I think the feeling behind the metaphor or the image behind the metaphor is always translatable.

So, for example, I’m translating this other book now where it’s about this boy; it’s called Le Garçon, or The Boy, and he grows up completely isolated from society. He basically has no idea what anything is. His mother has raised him to be living in the wilderness. Suddenly his mother dies. So he has to come and find his way into society and make his life work. Otherwise he’s just going to perish in the woods. As he’s slowly entering society, he’s encountering all of these things that he’s never seen before and he doesn’t have the language to describe them. So the first time he sees a car, the author describes it as being like a bunch of bees, like the noise of a bunch of bees, like it’s just a silver-colored giant bee. I had no idea what he was talking about. It didn’t make any sense to me. I’m co-translating it with someone. I showed it to the person I’m translating with, and I said, “What on earth is going on here?” Once we figured out what he was talking about, we realized it wasn’t the words he was using, and it wasn’t the image he was prompting that was confusing, it was the language of the clause and the way he had set up the clause. We just reworded it to sound more like the way English metaphors typically sound, so that it would be comprehensible to an English reader. He’s talking about a car, but you can’t use the words to describe a car because that kid had never seen a car before. I think it’s just us rewording the sentence and putting a little bit more clarity into the sentence. We were still able to get the message across. But his style in French was so much more sparse in using metaphors, and the metaphor was just kind of thrown in, and it wasn’t working for us. That was our way of slightly adjusting for an English audience.

John: You said in the translator’s note that Garréta’s French was fluid in the way that she omitted gender. You also noted in the translator’s note her slight use of the passé simple. You said she would substitute imparfait for the passé composé. When she did use the passé simple, did it seem irregular? Is that how she would avoid using être as an auxiliary verb?

ER: Not all the time. I talked in my translator’s note about how she has to use the passé simple sometimes in order to avoid using verbs that require agreement and therefore reveal the genders of the characters. But to do that, she has to make the narrator’s voice a little bit more precious in order to accommodate the use of the passé simple. The narrator’s whole personality is that of a theology student who thinks they’re smarter than everybody else, very intellectual. As a translator I’m looking at every single verb and analyzing Garréta’s every word choice, but if you’re just reading the book, her use of the passé simple wouldn’t seem off for such a narrator. Garréta, as she was writing this book, realized that she couldn’t use the passé composé all the time, that she would have to use the passé simple in some places. The passé simple became part of the narrator’s personality and became more present in the book, as opposed to it feeling like “Oh, of course, this is a very normal thing to do.” When I was in Paris and I was working on this book there were often all different kinds of vocabulary that I couldn’t find in any dictionary, that my professors weren’t familiar with, that my native French-speaking friends had never seen before. There were all of these words Garréta had clearly gone out of her way to incorporate into the book and to incorporate into the narrator’s personality. I’m not really sure that would have been the case had there not been the constraint.

John: You mention a few different ways Garréta was able to avoid the gender thing, like using the passive instead of the active. Was it generally easier to do in French the English?

ER: I think it’s easier to write a book that doesn’t disclose characters’ gender in English because I think that we have ways of talking about people that don’t really involve gender. If you’re talking in the first person, it’s really hard to reveal your gender. Our adjectives don’t have to agree. Our verbs don’t have to agree. If I were writing from scratch and I were writing a book like Sphinx that’s in the first-person, I think it would have been perhaps slightly easier to do it in English than in French. Because I was translating a book that had been originally written in French, and had been totally geared around avoiding gender in French, and all of the ways where you don’t have to use gender in French, translating it into English was difficult. Because I was playing by her rules and playing by the book’s rules, it became really difficult to be gender-neutral in English. But if I were starting just from scratch with English rules, I think it might be easier to do in English than in French, and probably in many other languages.

Shawntel: Do you think that French is one of the easier languages to translate into English?

ER: I don’t know, because French is the only language I’ve translated from. From what I know of my other friends who are translators and who translate from other languages, French is probably a lot easier than a lot of other languages. But I wouldn’t be able to be specific. Romance languages are relatively similar to each other. Translating between them is probably much easier than going from French or English or Icelandic to Hungarian. I don’t know. I can’t speak about other languages, just in terms of my experience with French. I think it helps that that they’re both Western countries, that the culture is more easily comprehensible to me. I have a friend who translates from Thai and there are all these signifiers of formality when you address people. I would not necessarily know how that works or how to translate that kind of situation. I think the fact that, culturally, America and France are relatively similar and the languages do have a lot of similarities makes it easier than if I were to try to go learn Hungarian tomorrow.

Alicia: To go off of that, do you run into different problems translating the culture of Morocco to the United States than France to the U.S. because Morocco’s not Western?

ER: I translate a couple of Moroccan authors. I translated The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine), by Fouad Laroui, a few years ago while I was in Morocco. They’re really funny short stories, but the humor only works if you understand how Moroccan culture works. For example, one of the stories is about a school where suddenly they decide there needs to be a swimming test as part of the high school graduation exam, but the school doesn’t have a swimming pool. There’s no swimming pool in all of El Jadida. So they have to make their own and they make it out of different materials, like one is out of sand and one is green grass. It’s ridiculously over-the-top. It’s just making fun of Moroccan schools and how they never have the right resources and they’re always trying to come up with these schemes to make things work. There’s another story where this guy’s dad never registers his birth when he’s born, so he doesn’t have a birth certificate and he doesn’t know where he was born. That whole story is making fun of the bureaucracy in Morocco, how it’s not really professionalized and things get lost and people can be alive without having birth certificates. All of the stories are very funny and absurd, but the humor only works if you can get where he’s coming from. As I was reading the stories, I thought they were so funny. My friends who have been to Morocco thought they were so funny. But when I translated them into English, there are a lot of people who are reading them who just didn’t understand the humor.

There’s definitely an issue of cultural translation. There’s an issue of cultural translation in everything. My experience with the French books I’ve translated thus far is that French authors love to reference other French authors. It’s a sign of intellectual superiority if they can pull this off in their books. If you’re reading something translated from French and you’re missing a bunch of references, there’s a cultural component missing there, too. There are always going to be difficulties, but I think it’s more readily accessible to an American reader to picture somebody in a cabaret or going in the Paris metro, or being in a French café and sitting on a terrace and smoking a cigarette, than it is to imagine a totally ridiculous situation in a Moroccan school where they have to make a swimming pool out of sand. I think there’s probably a lot of ways in which it;s easier to translate a French book for an American audience than a Moroccan book for an American audience.

Lora: How did you reference these works, those that were French people proving their knowledge of French culture in your English translation?

ER: How did I translate the references in Garréta in the English translation? A lot of them were things that it didn’t necessarily matter to me if they were missed in translation because I think they there were a lot of French readers that would would have missed those references, too. And there were things that Garréta pointed out to me that I turned around and asked my French professors and my friends, “Would you have ever gotten this from what she wrote?” and they said, “No.” Then you know it’s not the end of the world if some English readers missed this, too. But there were some things that were more important. I am against footnotes. I’m against having a glossary in literary books. It takes the reader out of it and it makes things feel very academic and heavy. If I see footnotes in a novel I’m reading, I want to put it down immediately. I just have no interest in a lesson while I’m reading. One of the things I did was, if there was a reference to the madeleine part of Proust, I just tried to pull it out a little bit more and make it ever-so-slightly more explicit in the text. There are people who disagree with this kind of thing, but because I knew there would be lost French references I inserted an English reference.

There was a place where the narrator says something about the world is a stage, or something along those lines, and there’s an exact Shakespeare line about the world is a stage, so I just inserted that Shakespeare quote without explicitly saying it, without saying Shakespeare, or without any of that. I just put it in the text the way the Garréta puts French authors in the text. That was a suggestion from my thesis advisor, and at first I was like, that feels so weird to me, putting in this reference that Garréta didn’t have in her text, but it is very much in line with her style and with her embedding references within references. So I did it. I think there are going to be English readers who will see that and who get a little kick out of it in the way the French reader might see a Proust reference and get a little kick out of it. That’s one way of culturally translating. I don’t know that I would do that again in a future book, but I don’t think it was a bad idea in the Garréta.

Allison: When you’re translating, do you sometimes find it hard to preserve the aesthetic, to preserve the beauty, without really flattening it or dulling it?

ER: I think my number one priority is that the reader of the English text takes away the same effect and the same feeling and the same meaning of the overall spirit of the text that a French reader got from the original. Then if I’m breaking it down from there, I think preserving the author’s style, and the way that the text reads, and the sounds of the words, and if something rhymes, and if the author has a really beautiful way of mashing a bunch of words together and not using a lot of commas. If sometimes it’s confusing, but it makes this really beautiful rhythm, I think that is super important. Because if that’s not being translated, then it’s not the same book anymore and it’s not the same feeling and the reader is not having the same experience as the French reader. That is really important for me and especially in Garréta’s Sphinx. Her writing is very much high register and she uses language that I don’t generally use. It was really hard for me to match that register and find that voice. Personally, I would have enjoyed the book more if it weren’t in that high register, but I understood why it needed to be, and I understood that it was a choice the author made, that it’s not my place to judge or change. So even though I was not really comfortable at first with getting that voice and getting that register, I worked really hard on it. I read a lot of books in English, like Alan Hollinghurst or similar things, that had a similar register and used that as inspiration to capture the same aesthetic in Sphinx. I think no matter what my taste is, or no matter what my preference is, it is my responsibility to translate the meaning, to translate the aesthetic, to translate the feeling, to translate the spirit. None of those things can be sacrificed. I don’t think that one ever has to take a backseat to the other. I think they all fit together in a very purposeful way in any text.

Sometimes, if I’m translating poetry that rhymes or poetry that has a certain rhythm, I’ll prioritize the rhyme and the rhythm over the literal meaning. But I don’t think sacrificing literal meaning ever actually does anything significantly damaging to a text in those cases.

Dylan: Do you have a certain structure to how you go about translating poetry in regards to sacrificing literal meaning or the rhythm or the structure of it?

ER: It depends. I always start with a bare, literal translation draft. I then go back from there and take more attention to the rhythm and the rhyme and the voice and the word choices and the style. That all comes second in how I translate, but not in priority. I make it embody the spirit of the text more in my second draft. If that means in certain contexts a very specific word that we have a word for in English, but that word doesn’t fit for whatever reason, and I need to change it, then it might change. Sometimes I’ll be translating something and I’ll be all the way through with a literal draft and then my second will change completely because by the time I got to the end I realized something was going on that I hadn’t known in the beginning, or the ending changes the entire way I thought about the book, then of course when I go through it again it’s going to start changing. But generally I do a very literal first draft, and then I go through and and make it match the spirit of the original more, and then I read the whole damn thing out loud to myself to get the voice in my head to make sure it matches and make sure it makes sense. Then, if I feel good about it, I’ll send it off, and if I don’t feel good about it then I do it again.

Breanne: How strong are our projections of gender in English and how strong are they in French, and does this change the way you translate and would it change the way a reader reads?

ER: I don’t really know how to answer for France, but of course in America the way we talk about gender and the way we live and the way we are told you’re a man, you’re a woman, you get two bubbles on any exam you take or on any form you have to fill out. You’re divided into men and women. And this idea is going to affect the way we read, it’s going to affect the way we write and the way we think about ourselves and learn about each other, and the way we think about characters, everything. I don’t think it’s really escapable, which is why Garréta wanted to write a book where it’s not there. If you put it there, then you have to understand that it’s coming from you and not coming from the book.

What’s been the most interesting thing to me is when people read Sphinx in English and they’ll always come to me and say, “Well, what did you think the characters were? Because I thought A was a man and the narrator was a woman,” or whatever it was. It’s like, that doesn’t matter. You’ve totally missed the point if you’re trying to guess what these characters are. But nobody can help it. When I was reading and when I was translating, I definitely had ideas in my head of what the characters were. I could not get myself completely out of that mode of, you know, they’re both this or they’re both that. It showed up in my translation because there are, I think, five times when I referred to A as a specific gender. Everybody around me who was reading my translation also thought that they were the same gender as I did because nobody caught my mistake. I think four different people read my translation and nobody caught that I had referred to A as a woman five different times, because in their minds A was a woman, too. That was a really big problem because when I realized what I had done, and thankfully I realized that long before it was published, I had to go back and reread everything and say, “Okay, did my perception of these characters influence the way I translated this book?” We don’t live in a genderless utopia, so it’s impossible to not project on things. In certain ways it’s kind of beautiful that you can project onto Sphinx. I’ve had people come to me and say that they don’t identify as man or woman and being able to project themselves onto these characters was very meaningful for them.

If you’re interested in the way that language infected society with its own bias in France, there’s tons you can read about that, and it’s super interesting. I think we’re fortunate that in English a lot of our terms for job titles and things like that are already gender-neutral, so there’s not that kind of slippage into our way of thinking that bleeds between language and society. I think we’ve got a long way to go. Until we’re there, our biases are always going to infect the way that we do anything and infect the way that we read a book like Sphinx. There was a lot of that in the reception of Sphinx when it came out, people just rushing to see if their projections matched up with other people’s.

To answer the first question about culture crossing the language barrier, there’s always going to be a little bit of foreignness in any text, and I think that’s important. I don’t think you should read a book from France and feel like you’re reading a book by an American author. I think it’s really special the different ways that French authors use language and the different ways that a French author might describe something that you’re not familiar with. I’m opposed to when translators take references to, like, French TV shows or French musicians or French bands, when they translate a book and make them references to American TV shows and American bands. That doesn’t make any sense. This person is in France; they’re not in America. It’s okay to read a book about someone in France and be exposed to different cultural references. I don’t think that’s a problem; I think that’s how you grow and how people understand that there are other cultures in the world. There is a lot of different translation theory about translating culture, but I don’t think that it necessarily needs to be translated in every instance.

Lora: You have described Sphinx as if the author’s purpose is to challenge people to change their thinking. Do you think that literature can change culture?

ER: I think definitely. I certainly hope so. I think in the same way that any art form can influence culture and society and can challenge the way we think, that literature plays a part in that and is super important. I think literature is really special in that you can use language the way you want to use it. Writers, within their books, can use language however they want. They can kind of dent it and change it to accommodate what they’re trying to get across. I think there’s something really valuable in that. I think that’s why I was so drawn to Sphinx, because Garréta is basically saying, “Hey, I have words at my disposal, and I’m gonna show a different way of thinking about the world by changing the way that we normally write about things.” I don’t know whether Sphinx, in France or in the U.S., is going to have this long-term effect on how we think about gender, but I think it’s changed the way certain individuals think about gender and that’s a huge start. And it’s changed the way that I thought about gender. I know that I’m not the only one who’s read this book and had my ideas challenged. Whether it’s on a small scale or a large scale, there’s always some kind of impact that can be had from reading books that challenge our way of thinking about things. I hope that people keep writing books like that and I hope people keep reading them. If there was no hope of literature being able to change the way society works then I don’t know why we would read.

James: I’m just curious how you got started translating and, moreover, when you really reach a plateau of being able to make a living and just go off translating.

ER: How I got started…When I was in college I knew I was interested in language and in literature and I just didn’t know what to do with it because I didn’t want to be a writer, and being a reader is not really a job. I wanted to be able to do something tangible with my love for languages and books, and a really beautiful way to do something tangible was to translate something. It just seemed intellectually challenging, and you produce something that’s a real object in the world, and you feel like you’re contributing to society in some way, whether or not you are and it’s just like you’re making connections with authors. It just felt like it was checking all the boxes of what I wanted to be doing but was still satisfying for me. I just started translating in college, and then I did my master’s degree. You don’t need to do a master’s if you’re interested in translation, but I just got into translation really late in college and felt like I wanted to keep learning about it and doing more things with it. I just started finding books that sounded right, that hadn’t been translated yet, Sphinx being the first one, and just pitched it around to really small publishing houses. A small publishing house was interested, and so they bought the rights and they gave me a contract and that was my first contract.

Basically that’s how you do it. You find a book that hasn’t been translated and that sounds like it should be translated, has maybe commercial appeal, has some literary value, is doing something that no other book is doing in English, and then you pitch it. You translate a small portion of it, you pitch it, and hopefully someone takes it. If not, you move on and you find another book. In terms of making a living off of it, I don’t want to make anyone very sad, but it’s not super feasible. As you know, I also run a bookstore/bar. Translation is not my only income. Well, I just opened the bookstore/bar, so it is right now my only income, but the idea is that it won’t be eventually. I did make a living for a few years just on a literary translator salary, and it it is not great, guys; it is not super easy. You don’t get paid a lot for literary translation. It’s really hard to make a living off of it, especially if you want a live in the big city, if you want to go out to dinner, if you want to have a life. These are things that require money, and literary translation is never going to make you rich. But despite all of that, it’s something that I still do and I’m still making a career out of because it’s that meaningful to me. I think it’s that valuable and it’s something that I really want to do. There are ways to make it work. I have friends who live in New York City as translators and they somehow make it work. It is possible. You just have to hustle and you have to be willing to hustle. Basically I’ve just chosen to live in a city where rent is cheap. I have gotten to the point where I have enough projects going on at any given time that I’m not panicking about where my next paycheck is coming from. It’s possible to do. If you’re interested in doing it and you have that drive that you have to do it, then you should absolutely do it. It’s worth it if you want to do it, but it’s not the easiest thing to make a career out of.


Rick Henry

Rick Henry has lived across the United States but always returns to the sensibilities, landscapes, and histories of upstate New York. This is reflected in the novel 'Letters' (1855) and in 'Lucy's Eggs: Short Stories and a Novella,' winner of the 2006 Adirondack Literary Award for Best Work of Fiction. His other books include: 'Then' (54 text blocks), 'Chant: A Romance,' and 'Sidewalk Portrait: Fifty-fourth Floor and Falling,' a novella. He teaches at SUNY Potsdam. Find him at

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