Found in translation

Anatomy of a translation: cracking the music, the slang, the word-play

Roland Glasser’s translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s French novel 'Tram 83' has just been published in India.

We arrange to meet at Porte de Montreuil, edge of the twentieth arrondissement. 7 pm. It’s mid-October, still autumnal mild, but there’s a chill on the breeze, precursor of a Paris winter. Behind me, traffic roars down the inner ring-road, each section of which is named after a famous Marshal of the Napoleonic Empire – the Boulevards des Maréchaux roughly trace the line of the city’s outer defensive walls, long since replaced by 1930s apartment blocks.

This ring-road has been somewhat cleaned up over the last decade, but it was long the haunt of prostitutes, pimps, pushers, the mad, sad and chemically glad, price and demeanor of wares and denizens fluctuating as one circled the city. Around me, people bustle in a proper Paris melting-pot of color, language, dress, class, and purpose.

A tall, slim man approaches, cream trench-coat cinched at the waist by the casually tied belt pulled tight. Polished shoes. Neat spectacles. Light fuzzy beard. Not entirely dissimilar to the photos I’ve seen, but it’s never the same in the flesh. Fiston Mwanza Mujila, author of Tram 83. He recognises me more easily – my self-descriptions tend to be overly precise – and extends a greeting, his voice surprisingly high in tone, almost reedy. He’s not come far, Porte de Vincennes, one Marshal further down.

Tram 83 is Fiston’s debut novel.

It is set in a central African country in the throes of rebellion, and the title refers to the name of the bar/restaurant/nightclub/brothel in the rebel-held “City-State” where everyone gathers, particularly the diamond miners, railroad men, “for-profit tourists,” passing merchants, varied alcoholics, assorted low-lifes and a seemingly endless collection of prostitutes. A succession of disparate music acts perform on the little stage: salsa, rap, rock, jazz, Guadeloupean dancehall, South American eco-warrior folk, you name it. Most of the book’s action takes place in Tram 83, but also out in the streets, at several apartments, the diamond mine, and at the Northern Station, the initial description of which sets the tone from the very first page:

“The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined. It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes. Indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place.”

Lucien is the novel’s central character, an idealistic writer who has just returned to the City-State after a spell in the “Back-Country” (the region not controlled by the rebels). He has completed half of a “play-tale” entitled The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years: “Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceauşescu, not forgetting the dissident General.” Lucien is excessively ethical, preferring to spend several days in jail, for example, rather than bribe the chief of police. He cares for nothing but his writing, and is always scribbling in a notebook.

The other key character is Requiem, a black marketeer, dodgy dealer, and cynical, disillusioned Communist. He deals in an unspecified “merchandise” – probably diamonds, commonly referred to as “the stone.” He also blackmails “for-profit tourists” (Western businessmen of varying degrees of morality and success) with naked photos of them taken by prostitutes they frequent at Tram 83.

Requiem and Lucien have a long history. They used to be firm friends, perhaps comrades in the revolutionary or political cause, but Requiem now resents Lucien for various events that happened in the past, including his divorce. They share an abusive love/hate relationship, out of which Lucien comes off considerably worse.

Fiston and I descend into the Metro, he having acquiesced to my desire for Congolese cuisine by selecting a restaurant up in the 18th arrondissement, not far from Porte de Clignancourt – a neighborhood described in Tram 83 as “a Mecca for impoverished immigrants and other outlaws,” and from where Lucien receives phone calls from a buddy who’s trying to get his play texts staged.

The neighborhood has also been the backdrop for various episodes in my own Paris past; and as we exit at Château Rouge, my body tingles with conflicting emotional memories, accompanied by a burst of snapshot scenes and faces, several my own… Fiston pauses, unsure of which street to take. I reach for my phone, but he stays my hand: “One thing I miss about home,” he says, “is that here in Europe people don’t stop and ask directions any more.” And he walks over to a shopkeeper tending his stall of exotic vegetables and obtains the required information. I’m getting hungry.

This is a curious yet crucial stage of the process. I had first read Tram 83 four months previously, and within a few pages I was almost physiologically transported. I could feel the sweat coursing down my back, and smell the fetid stink of bodies, beer, diverse bodily fluids, garbage, and grilled dog meat. It was pure literary orgasm, engendering a raving, expletive-laden book report for Will Evans of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas, who bought it.

Two months later, I turned myself inside out, at some cost to my sanity and personal relationships, to craft a two-chapter sample securing me the right and privilege of rendering Fiston’s “jazz novel” into English. Now, as I stroll with Fiston toward the restaurant, the book has become a critical success in France, garnering several major prize nominations and a full-page cover spread in Le Monde des Livres. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, but I have yet to translate another word.

Why was it so important for me to meet Fiston before embarking on the translation proper?

It has much to do with my experience in the performing arts, stretching back twenty years, mainly as a lighting designer, but also as a performer, assistant director, and producer. The making of a theatre piece, be it devised or text-based, is all about process. The end result may appear magical and mysterious but its creation is quite down-to-earth and logical.

A thorough deconstruction of the script, or of the elements being adapted, is essential, as is research and exploration of the background and themes, the world in which the piece is set, aspects of the characters and their evolution, the writer’s concerns and intentions. And so it is with literary translation, at least for me. I also find it important to establish a rapport with the author, for this is invaluable as work progresses and a myriad of detailed questions arise.

Fiston and I sit in the small dining room, sipping Pelforth Brune – a rough approximation of an English brown ale. There is something in his gaze… It’s almost intense, yet somehow constantly shifting. Focused, yet seeing beyond. He smiles a lot, and there is a laugh that is almost a giggle. Often when I tell him something he nods sagely with a little grin and an “Ah, ohhkayyy…” The table sags under an array of dishes that coalesce in my memory, but I do recall fried plantain, cassava cooked somehow or other, a couple of meat dishes, something vegetable in sauce, and a deadly hot chili condiment that ties it all together.

I begin to question Fiston about the book – odd points that came up during my initial reading and while working on the sample translation. He confirms that although the book is inspired by the city of Lubumbashi (in southern DRC), where he grew up, his intention was that the “City-State” could be anywhere; a non-place, in the same way that, in his view, DRC is a non-country – no stable government, borders constantly breached by armies from neighboring states.

I'm not exactly sure how this will affect my work (perhaps word choice) but I feel it’s important to bear in mind. We talk a lot about African politics, specifically the Congo: how fucked it is, how it’s in Western interests to maintain that part of Africa in controlled turmoil because it keeps down the prices of diamonds and minerals, including coltan, which is used in smartphones and other devices.

He tells me that when Steve Jobs died, Congolese exiles in Paris celebrated… He tells me that this hellish world of miners and whores and eat-or-be-eaten and make-merry-while-you-may and modern slavery is a reality. He tells me that people are apparently amazed when he describes Tram 83 as a “realist novel,” despite its many surrealist tangents, but yes, there are indeed mining towns (not only in Africa, but South America and elsewhere) that are exactly as he describes.

A week later, I’m at Looren Translation House, near Zurich, with an inspiring, contemplative Alpine view.

Every morning I sit by the vast wraparound window in the library, a large mug of tea to hand, reading yesterday’s Le Monde. Then late breakfast before a walk along the valley or through the woods or down to the village shop and back, then a snack, then coffee. But before heading up to my room to start translating, I pace round the garden, book in hand, reading aloud the chapter I’ll be working on. It’s a kind of sympathetic magic, I suppose, a way of getting the rhythm and sonorities in my head, as well as reminding myself of the content.

You see, Fiston’s writing is highly rhythmic, musical – the man originally wanted to be a jazz saxophonist, but he had to forego that dream for lack of a music school in Lubumbashi, or a saxophone, before recognising that literature could provide a similar means of expression. Reading Tram 83 often puts me in mind of a musical score, with shifts in melody, tone, rhythm and intensity. There are crescendos and diminuendos, overtures and interludes. Indeed Fiston has told me that he is sometimes quite conscious of composing his writing as one would a piece of music.

I finally settle myself at my large desk – by now it’s early afternoon, but I’ll be working late – to commence the day’s forensic excavation of the text. Excavation. The word appears repeatedly in Tram 83, in a mining context, but my own usage is quite archaeological.

The process itself could not be more laborious, for archaeology involves an awful lot of trowel-work on hands and knees in muddy fields before you find a potsherd… My first drafts are always painstaking, with each word and phrase weighed up and researched, although I do impose a ten-minute rule – any longer than that and I flag the “problem” for later probing, and continue.

My primary tool is the website WordReference.com, which I use as a kind of linguistic aide-mémoire. As well as allowing me to check for nuanced meanings that might have escaped me momentarily, there is usually a list of related words – each a clickable entry in this online reference resource. Some are direct synonyms; others, words that are very close. For example, the miners in Tram 83 are also referred to as “creuseurs,” an invented noun derived from the verb creuser, meaning “to dig.” The list of related English words includes: bore, burrow, excavate, gouge, delve, entrench, hollow out, and tunnel, to give but a few examples. I opted for “digger,” since it seemed to fit best in this context as far as meaning and suggestion were concerned, while also being syllabically and homophonically close to the French—not always essential but nice to achieve!

My other mainstay is Roget’s Thesaurus, whose arrangement of words by theme is amazingly useful. Look up “dig” in the index, and one of the results is “excavation,” itself a sub-entry of a theme entitled “Concavity” comprising all manner of words relating to that particular subject, and arranged by noun, adjective, verb, and adverb. Oh, look! Under “excavation” we find an entry that begins “excavator,” and includes such interesting words as quarrier, dredger, sapper, and ditcher.

But I also have a Thesaurus of Slang (recommended to me by the accomplished Dutch to English translator David Colmer). There, under “miner,” it lists: groundhog, sandhog, desert rat, hard rocker, sourdough, hard ankle. Had Fiston used a more slangy word instead of creuseur, then perhaps I might have gone for one of them.

But this is not merely a cold, linear process of logical sifting. It’s intuitive, too. As I sit there, with several books open on my desk, and multiple active browser tabs on my computer, while Edgar Rothermich’s unbelievably wonderful recreation of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score washes over me in all its epic, bassy, atmospheric glory, these words and ideas and phrases and suggestions are pinging around in my brain, and at a certain point I make a choice and the fingers move over the keyboard. I also highlight words to return to later: yellow for things I need to ask Fiston about, blue for words where I have made a choice but am not entirely satisfied, and red for ones I need to discuss with Will Evans, the publisher. Sometimes I will leave myself a note with possible alternatives.

Facebook is much derided as a source of procrastination (and boy, is it that?!), but it is also a way for us freelance translators to run ideas past colleagues, or consult them on subjects where our knowledge is lacking.

In the case of Tram 83, my Facebook queries fell into two categories: 1) Words or expressions that would be comprehensible on both sides of the Atlantic, the translation having been commissioned by Deep Vellum in Dallas, then sold to Jacaranda in London and, later, Scribe in Melbourne, and 2) Things I was simply stuck on.

I recall an intense discussion on Facebook about whether to refer to a “train driver” or an “engineer,” the former being proper to British English, the latter to American English. The consensus was that the average British reader would probably not understand “engineer” in a railroad context, while “train driver” would at least be comprehensible to a US reader, however odd they might find it, not to mention that I had found examples of both terms on websites in both countries…

Then there were the “slim-jims.” The French word is biscottes. A biscotte is a thin piece of industrially produced dry toast that is often eaten at breakfast in France (and its former colonies), slathered with jam and possibly dunked in milky coffee. It is not dissimilar to a slice of rusk, (or a Melba Toast in the US). But in the context of Tram 83, biscottes are “…barely adolescent boys who toil as casual laborers: extracting, carrying, and washing the gravel to separate out the diamond crystals.”

Why are they called biscottes? Because, so Fiston told me, they are thin, like those packaged slices of industrially produced toast, all the better for slipping into the cramped spaces of the mining galleries excavated by the creuseurs. So in order to mimic what Fiston had done in the French, I needed to find a word that conveyed thinness, was food-related, and had a tough, masculine sound—not only is biscotte full of hard consonants, but there also exists a slang word, biscotteaux, meaning “muscles.”

I thought about “wafer” or “wafer-boy,” but it sounded too feminine (“waif”). “Beanpole” and “beanstalk” are existing slang terms, but they just didn’t do it for me, and lacked that tough edge. So I posted my request on Facebook, and very soon got a reply from Zoe Perry (who translates from Portuguese to English). Zoe is half-Canadian, half-American, and she suggested “slim-jim,” explaining that there is a popular brand of jerky snack called Slim Jim, which she associates with her Kentucky childhood.

It fit beautifully, having the thinness (slim) and the maleness (jim), while the food connection would speak to a sizeable chunk of the potential readership. It also transpired that “slim jim” is slang for a tool, consisting of a thin strip of metal with a hook on the end, used to open automobile doors by being slipped between the window and the rubber seal to catch the rods that operate the locking mechanism – not directly relevant but a pleasing additional resonance.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was very little in the way of Congolese-specific slang to fox me.

Fiston’s writing is fairly high register and literary. But what he does do is riff on existing idioms, or even invent new ones, often with surreal intent but interesting results. For example, there is an expression in French, accoucher d’une souris, literally “give birth to a mouse.” It describes a very poor result to a given chain of events. At one point, when referring to the dead-end peace process between the government forces and the rebels, he writes that “the international community had sponsored nineteen sovereign national conferences which had accouché d’une chauve-souris.”

Now, “chauve” means “bald,” but “chauve souris” (literally “bald mouse”) is French for “bat” (as in the winged mammal.) Fiston told me that this was merely a surreal riff on his part – twisting the existing idiom – but when I first read the line, I immediately thought: Ah, a bald mouse is surely even worse than a regular mouse; this must mean that the result of all these peace conferences was particularly unsuccessful. It was impossible to replicate the play on words in English while retaining the meaning I had taken from it, so I had to fall back on “…which had all come to less than naught.” Not very pretty, but pretty neat.

As Fiston and I head back to the metro, replete and pleasantly sloshed, I feel as if I have taken a giant step further into his world, into his imagination, that I could, to a certain, limited extent, consider his text as if through his own eyes. Back at Porte de Montreuil, we part, and he walks into the night, toward the nearest stop on the new ring-road tramway – Tram 3. My own journey, aboard Tram 83, would now begin in earnest.

This article originally appeared on Asymptote.

Roland Glasser translates literary and genre fiction from French, as well as art, travel, and assorted non-fiction.

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