Something Tangible: An Interview with Emma Ramadan

In this interview, nonfiction MFA candidate Vera Carothers spoke to translator Emma Ramadan about her career path and about translating Delphine Minoui’s newly released memoir, I’m Writing You From Tehran, a story about Iran’s complex history of political unrest and one journalist’s search to be closer to her paternal grandfather.

Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she is the co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of a PEN/Heim grant, an NEA translation fellowship, and a Fulbright grant for her translation work. Her recent translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Not One Day (winner of the 2018 Albertine Prize), Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, Marcus Malte’s The Boy, and Delphine Minoui’s I’m Writing You From Tehran.

When did you begin translating?

When I was in high school for my AP French class, we had to read a book by Marguerite Duras called Moderato Cantabile. That was the first book I read that I was like “holy shit! there are so many really intense, really beautiful things being written in other languages that I’ve never read anything like in English.” And that was a moment for me when I knew that I was going to keep studying French. When I got to college, I studied Comparative Literature, but after study abroad I switched to the translation track. I was just so interested in all the classes. It made me feel like I was producing something tangible and adding something to the world, and that made me feel like I had this sense of purpose. It all just clicked.

Now that you’re farther along in your translation career, do you still feel the same sense of purpose or has your motivation shifted?

The driving force is still that there are really exciting things happening in literature around the world. It makes me feel good to be able to expand [writers’] reach and bring them to people who couldn’t otherwise read them. It was really frustrating to see how one-note everything was when I was taking a look at what had been translated from Morocco into English. The Fouad Laroui book I translated (The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Deep Vellum) was really special for me because it’s so different than everything else that’s coming out of Morocco right now. It’s not about poverty or colonialism, deserts or camels, it’s just about regular people telling really funny and really heartbreaking personal stories. It felt special to be able to bring something that’s shedding a new perspective on things into English.

How did you begin translating Delphine Minoui’s book I’m Writing You from Tehran?

The editor of the book, Jenna Johnson, reached out and asked me if I was interested. I said yes because, you know, you don’t really say no to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. And the book sounded great. And it’s not usually the kind of thing that I translate. Even though I don’t necessarily have a strong background in knowing about Iranian history, I am interested in translating things because there’s not a ton of that stuff getting published. Obviously, there’s a lot more stuff from France getting published than there is from any Middle Eastern country, maybe even all Middle Eastern countries put together. So I’m always happy to be working on things that are different than what’s already being translated. And I thought that this book in particular did a really nice job of being very readable but also very informative. It’s not like a homework history lesson but it’s also not a shallow memoir—it manages to do both really well.

Did you think about translating this book for an American audience and whether it might make Americans empathize more with Iranians or conversely, how it might confirm stereotypes about Iran?

The thing is that this book is not a novel. This is what actually happened in the country and a lot of people died and a lot of people were affected by it and a lot of people were in prison and a lot of people’s lives were ruined. And the repercussions of all of these events are still going on today. What’s nice about this book is that it’s not just showing that side, it’s also showing the side of people who are fighting back—she is in these protests with all these students and she’s showing all of these people who actually have hope and who are rising up and who are resisting. At the very beginning, she writes about a party she went to where the women changed out of their street clothes and into indoor clothes. She does a really good job of showing all facets of Iranian society and the two different sides. She’s showing not just the devastation and the tragedies but also the beauty and the hope that’s going on at the same time.

Did you have to deal with a lot of words in Farsi or Arabic or words that were specific to the historical context?

I think the hardest part was the specific terms for things happening in this era. I tried to do a lot of research on that front of making sure that those specific terms were right, like les barbus she has in French for “the bearded men” and I was really concerned that there was some translation for that that I was missing. And then I met somebody coincidentally who is Iranian and she was like, no you literally just say bearded man because it’s just a description of these men who grew beards to set themselves apart and to send a message of who they were and what they stood for. If you say “bearded men” then that’s getting what Minoui’s talking about.

So I read your Translator’s Diary in Quarterly and I feel really grateful to you for writing so lucidly about anxiety and self-doubt related to the work. And so I was just curious to hear more about how you work through any creative obstacles that come up.

The really nice thing about translating is that you never have a blank page. So in terms of writer’s block, I mean, it’s already been written and you already know that it’s good if you’re working on something that you love and so whether or not you get stuck in a moment, there’s more after that moment. A big part of it is knowing that maybe as you keep translating something will come unstuck, because you’ll see the author do something similar a few pages later or you’ll have a better sense of the book as a whole once you get to the end. I don’t understand people who do really good first drafts because to me it’s not until I reached the end that I feel like I get it even if I’ve read it. I mean you just get so much more out of it from translating it and you come into this totally different understanding of the book once you’ve reached your first draft and so I think a lot of the things that I’m going through my first draft that I like flag to come back to later I probably have a good response for them by the time I’ve gotten to the end anyway.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the writer Sheila Heti but she talks about the ways that she tricks herself into inhabiting her characters or just like inhabiting the mind space she needs to be in to write the story she wants to tell. Is there anything that you do to try to inhabit the voice of the author you’re translating?

I think talking to the author is always my number one way. If I’m really struggling with the voice then having a conversation with the author is far and away the best thing for me because even if even if it’s a novel or short stories and there’s lots of characters and they don’t all sound like the author, I feel like even just having the author’s way of talking in your head is so helpful. What I’ve done is picture the author and what the author would have written in English, the way they would be saying in English if they were writing in English and just trying to channel that. I also read things out loud a lot which is not so much to get in the skin of a character but just to make sure that the words that I’ve written sound like things people would actually say.

What would be your dream project if there were no constraints of time or finances?

Barbara Molinard. I read about her because I’m translating Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras for Dorothy, a publishing project, and in doing my research for that I came across this preface that Marguerite Duras wrote for Barbara Molinard’s book. Basically she was this really reclusive woman who wrote a lot but then destroyed everything she wrote because she was crippled by self-doubt and didn’t believe in her writing and didn’t want to share it. Marguerite Duras finally forced her to hand over a bunch of her short stories to a publisher and then this was like in the ‘60s and then it went out of print and no one’s ever heard of her. If I didn’t have anything else going on right now and I had all the time in the world I would just be translating that because it’s so magnificent, but I haven’t gotten a contract for it yet and I don’t have the time to just translate right now on passion projects. So that’s on the back-burner, but hopefully it will be in the world one day.

Photo courtesy of the author and publisher.

About the author

Vera Carothers is a nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University.

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