Sophie Lewis on translating Noémi Lefebvre.

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Poetics of Work is a mock treatise –or perhaps a work trying to become a treatise whose protagonist is too effectively distracted to carry these efforts through to serious conclusions.

As far as it gets, the treatise is about the pushmepullyou, the carthorse-pulling horse-cart we all become when faced with the question of work. Should we, must we do it? Does it make us or destroy us? Or in destroying remake us in the image of something else? What about vocation – what if the work we seem best made for isn’t remunerated or no one wants it or no one knows they need it? Should we do it anyway, or should we occupy ourselves with something else? And that barbed word ‘occupation’ – is this all we are seeking in life: something to busy us until it’s over?

Other questions flow from these: what about influence and antecedence? What do our parents give us and what do they make of us, with what degree of force? How can we mark out our own choices from theirs? Where do we draw lines between ourselves and all the authorities, parental, municipal and national? When is a national emergency like a writing desk, and can that be ok?

One set of questions is never asked, or perhaps one frame is never imposed on the questions that spiral out of this verbal firework: that of gender. We don’t know; we don’t ask. It’s hardly there at all. To be precise, Noémi Lefebvre does sketch in two parents, distinguished by their genders as well as by their being alive or dead, their presence or absence, their disparate benevolence with textual resources. But our protagonist has neither name nor gender, and speaks without the encumbrance of either. And my dark confession as the book’s translator is that I didn’t even notice. I didn’t notice when I first read Poétique de l’emploi and I still didn’t clock this when I translated it, despite doing several drafts from start to finish. It took an incidental conversation between another of the French book’s readers and Noémi, relayed back a few months later, for me to do a sickening double-take and at last see the absence I had been blithely missing.  

Two emergencies then needed tackling on the spot. One was practical: what, in my ignorance, had I translated wrongly that would need retranslating? I pushed other work aside and went back through ‘my’ Poetics with a fine-toothed comb. The other was moral and contextual: had I betrayed the trust put in me as translator of this book? Could it be ok that I had done this, if I were to fix every little glitch caused by my foundational error? Was I a bad reader, the wrong reader – the wrong translator for this job? How could I reconcile myself with this serious oversight?

The two emergencies turned out to share a solution. On rereading my translation, I discovered no misplaced gender markers, not one, nothing. I checked and rechecked (and on the way rechecked my solutions for other translational tangles of which I had been fully aware) and was surprised but overjoyed to report no required gender changes or related fixes. It turns out that all the work to effect this rare accomplishment of neutrality had been Noémi’s: she had done all the stripping, not of personal pronouns – that is not at issue in French – but principally of titles and of whole types and realms of discourse, where a person’s gender would normally be signalled through all kinds of parts of speech. She had mostly avoided your average third-person descriptive narration, instead using interior monologues and dialogues.

Discovering the nature of this incredibly subtle achievement cleared me of having accidentally mistranslated Noémi’s book, and partially cleared me of having culpably misread it. Noémi’s occultation of the protagonist’s gender was deliberate and meticulous, but she had not intended to make gender or its lack a talking point – rather, she wanted to take it right out of the equation. Her questions were political and philosophical and urgent – she wanted no distraction, no extraneous writerly decisions or readerly debates. Noémi did the heavy work, the speculative testing of her own language, to see what it could bear within such a powerful constraint, and what more it might then express in the thinner air of her gender-free space. It turns out my work, on this score at least, was the lighter task. In belatedly discovering my misreading, I also discovered that, for once, our two languages could mesh without further corseting in the translation process.

Noémi has achieved her aims: we have a book about a poet in the world, a poet facing politics and the language of emergency politics, as only a poet could. And she has done more: her subtle removal of the gender context through which we see so much of life casts an even sharper light on the ways in which language works upon us even while remaining our creature and, apparently, in our control.

Sophie Lewis is an editor and a translator working from French and Portuguese into English. In 2016 she co-founded Shadow Heroes, a workshops series for students on critical thinking through translation. Her co-translation of Emmanuelle Pagano’s Faces on the Tip of My Tongue was longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. In 2018 her translation of Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait was shortlisted for the Scott Moncrieff and Republic of Consciousness prizes. Lefebvre and Lewis also collaborated at the Lancaster LitFest in 2019. Poetics of Work is Lewis’s second book-length translation of Lefebvre’s work.

Photo credit: Carla MacKinnon.

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