user_mobilelogo

Jayde Will is a literary translator, writer, and voice actor. Recent translations include Latvian poet Arvis Viguls’s poetry collection They (Valley Press, 2020) Latvian writer Alberts Bels’s novel Insomnia (Parthian 2020), and The Last Model, an anthology of Latgalian poetry (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2020). His writing has been featured in Other Words, Words Without Borders, and Panel Magazine. He lives in Riga.

vr banner19

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla
Virginija Cibarauske

by
Jayde Will

 Authors photo by Inga Pizane

 

When I was asked to write an essay about translation, I knew I wouldn’t be able to elucidate upon the finer points of the craft and make a lofty defense of my profession and what it entails. Why? Because I look at the work of translation as simply work, word after word, sentence after sentence, questions upon questions, digging and sculpting a second text from a first one. I don’t exactly know how it all works on a subconscious level and what is happening in the brain, but you dive into it, and hopefully, you finish with something you, the author, and the reader are happy with. Maybe even sometimes ecstatic with. I will leave the eloquent soliloquies of what our profession means to those who do it best. I will be the laboring bricklayer who gets the job done, one brick at a time.

I thought instead to weave the days of a recent residency I had in Vilnius working on a translation of Jurgis Kucinas’s novel Bilė and Friends with the behind-the-scenes moments of a translator actually living his life. I think real moments away from work can inform a reader more than anything about the person behind a translation. Translators, in the end, are people too, with their virtues and vices. And let’s face it, knowing that there are vices and what they might be is a little more fun to read about that virtues.

I think my profession has an image problem. I periodically have a feeling that when I say I am a translator, people don’t quite to know what to make of me – am I a modern-day monk, surrounded by mountains of dusty books; an erudite professor spouting off quotes from Cicero like they are lines from a cult film; or a slightly eccentric, bespectacled truth-seeker that is only able to talk about the last Hungarian author he read at a party instead of being able to hold a more lively conversation?

I have hidden the identities of the people I spoke with over this last month and don’t go into too much detail about topics that generally don’t reach articles devoted to translation, though I do feel it’s worth throwing in a few themes that relate to us all – cultural differences, identity, and of course, Tinder. The essential topics of our time.

October 4th

It’s strange to do a residency in a place you called home for more than ten years; walking the streets, you see the old and new, you feel a new excitement inside yourself, meet new acquaintances, reconnect with old friends, but what’s more, you are reminded of all your mistakes – in relationships, with money, and with life. You walk some streets and remember how you walked with that one friend you don’t talk with anymore because he and your ex are good friends, and you needed to cut off all ties with both of them to really heal. You go past where you and she used to live and remember the lazy summer days, the cold nights (you had a corner flat that was exposed on two sides to the freezing wind), the regular dialogue of the drunk husband yelling to his wife in the courtyard to let him in, screaming at the top of his lungs, before she closed the curtain and darkness fell.

The pain has faded over time. Fresh-faced Vilniusites and newcomers flood the city year in and year out, and people do the same things all over again in their own way, just as it’s been for centuries. Any person who has taken the time to delve into the city’s history will soon realize that we repeat everything in our own way, and maybe that gives our lives an artistic touch that makes us unique or gives sense to our lives.

My love for Vilnius took a turn at some point, as loves often do, and the hidden courtyards and Baroque facades I had found so charming at the beginning soon became points of ire for me; what was fascination slowly grew into a nagging feeling that it was all a façade. I could never get into those courtyards – they beckoned me with their mysteriousness, but no matter what I did, I was still left at the gate, with eyes peering back at me, knowing full well what I wanted was inside. In the end, I realized you can never force anyone to reveal what they don’t want to reveal. Purging oneself of feelings is better when done on your own time, and then the healing can start.

*

Translators are digging around in the labyrinths of other people’s lives. It’s a kind of voyeurism, a window into the psyche. But this doesn’t solve any problems for you as a person. Your life isn’t a book. It’s better to be in the throes of passion in real life than read Fifty Shades of Gray

I wonder what the consummate professional is in my line of work. I remember having a discussion with I. during a residency some years ago. I talked about translators I know who have done anywhere from 100 to 260 books in their lifetime, and it seems they are so versatile and agile in their language that they can make almost any book breathe for a reader. I said I was amazed and envious because I know I can’t do that. I translate what I enjoy, and that is hard enough. One translator asked me why that even matters. I realized it didn’t. Funny how we put up some ideals that don’t even have any bearing on our lives and how much that narrative takes hold of us, almost imperceptibly, almost insidiously. 

I realized recently that my work, though I consider it important, is simply a tool that has helped me to form a sense of purpose – life is everything else, and it fills up my life more than any job. It’s easy to hide in the thing that has formed much of who you are. You take your identity from that. But you’re much more than any profession.

*

I miss my fascination with Western Europe. Twenty years ago, it was all fresh, all new. Now I feel that it’s slowly declining, somehow refined, stable, but no room for growth. I remember Rome in the late ’90s – it all seemed like a Fellini movie, dilapidated, small family businesses, getting gelato at a small ice cream shop, passing St. Peter’s in the bus, all possibilities before our eyes – the “eternal city,” as I would call it for many years.

Going east is different. It always has been, and the feeling has never left me. I am more alive. Prague, 1997, going across Charles Bridge, which was practically deserted at midnight, walking along lantern-lit stone roads, feeling like almost the only one in the area. You owned that little part of Prague for at least a moment, and you cherished it, and it would never leave you. It never has, but others have found it. You tussle with those memories like a lover, fighting for their heart with thousands of others. Maybe that memory was never yours to begin with, only something to be shared for a split second, or that night, till the morning.

I talked about it with a Polish translator, who also said something similar – she needs a little chaos in her life, and life since 1990 in parts of Europe can often be explained in such terms. There has been so much change that you don’t even notice. My father has never touched a computer, but I see seventy-year-olds here using computers at the bank. Times have changed, oftentimes by force.

October 6th

I met V. in a café. I hadn’t seen her for a long time, but after we started to talk, it seemed like not all that long ago. We talked about all manner of things – her family, literature, the Nobel Prize selection process, how things have changed in Lithuania over the last twenty years. And what hasn’t. We agree on many topics, some of which I always second-guessed myself about, but now I realize there are others with the same thoughts. It is comforting to know that people who are between cultures have some ties with others who, though they come from a different background, still have perspective and can present their arguments with precision, and without anger or bitterness. Something to learn.

October 7th

Yesterday I went out with some friends, and we talked about relationships. Two locals, and two foreigners. It was probably one of the most open discussions I have had about relationships during my time in the Baltic. Maybe we are all old enough to be more honest with ourselves and others about what we want and what we believe. We talked about cultural differences, expectations, sex, love, contraception, how difficult it is to be with someone for a long period of time, how relationships should develop. The spark that starts it as well as lights the bombs that explode in it. We talked about how Lithuanians, for the most part, are introverted, which was not the story I was told when I lived here in the 2000s. The idea that Lithuania is a northern country is catching on. You see that in the promotion of its image abroad, but I still don’t quite see the country in that light. It’s not Scandinavia. The fact that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania always looked southwards and eastwards, and also that it became Christianized, has lent a certain Central European flavor to it, though we can argue this from different angles.

October 18

I have been pretty good about translating a certain number of words per day for this project, but I have some other work to attend to, so Kunčinas will have to wait. The book is looking at me and waiting to be opened. Its expression, however, is polite – it knows I will be coming back.

I met up with a former colleague at the university. After working for several years with interpreters at Vilnius University, I left, and haven’t had much contact with people working in the field. Due to the pandemic, their lives changed quite drastically, and though now there is on-site interpreting happening in Brussels and Strasbourg, the landscape has changed. We talk about former students (I have kept in contact with very few over the years) and about her family. Her kids say the funniest things, and it’s a reminder of just how much their character is in place at such a young age. I offered to join a class, and she says that’s fine. Nice to be in the classroom and see how things are going.

I went to physiotherapy. As it is most of the time, it was strenuous, but that’s what I am paying for. Good to stretch your limbs; it just it sucks that you feel it a day or two later.

Finishing up some of that other work. I decided to head to Mint Vinetu till closing time. It generally speeds up the process. Coffee and books are a good combination. Hard to beat it.

October 19

Again busy with other work, and Kunčinas is politely waiting. I think I will be done with it by the end of the day, and then I get back to the realia of the 1980s. Quite excited to do it.

There was a pub quiz at Būsi trečias. We came in second last week, and I had high hopes that we’d do about the same this week. Fourth place. Not so bad. Didn’t fair too well with the literature round this week. I guess it’s one of those things where if you are supposedly the expert in the group, you do the worst. Anyway, next time. After the pub quiz, we started talking about dating and Tinder. I got a free consultation about how one of my photos (which I thought was pretty artsy) looks like a coffin, and that I need something to show my spontaneity (we joked that maybe mountains to show how adventurous I am). I appreciated the honesty. We talk again about cultural differences (with a Lithuanian, an American, an Italian, and Dutchman present, we had a lot to talk about). I felt I reached my alcohol limit, so I ordered a Coke and listened to the end of the conversation, which already has left my brain as I write this. Hope I can get up at a decent hour tomorrow.

October 20

If 10 am is a decent hour, then I hit the mark. Hard to get going. I really wanted to finish that other work, but it will have to happen after noon. Need a coffee and some rolls.

Went to physiotherapy. My physiotherapist asked how I felt, and I told her I felt like I was already here this week. Not too sore, but my body was aware of the work we’ve been putting in.

I met P. I hadn’t seen him for quite a long time – I had translated a children’s book of his earlier in the year, and am hoping to do some sample poetry translations. We talked about his day-to-day life, the situation for testing children in schools, publishing, and how he started writing. All these years we had never had much of a chance to sit down and talk about all these things. Good he had time. It was well worth the wait.

November 1st

All Saints Day. It might very well be my favorite day of the year. Ever since I lived in Vilnius, it’s one of two times of the year that cause some longing in me. It sounds macabre walking around a cemetery with thousands of people, but such holidays are celebrated around the world, albeit with different traditions and times that it takes place.

I think there are no such traditions in the US, as we feel we can take the bull by the horns, almost defying death, or worst-case scenario, compartmentalize it after a short mourning period. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, let the dead bury the dead – the Bible is littered with such curt sayings. Even if you aren’t a believer, such things sneak into your mindset. You grow up in culture after all, with all of its subconscious influences.

 Or perhaps there are so many people in large countries that one death is a drop in the bucket and not really worth commemorating (unless they happen to be mega-famous). Small countries seem to value their ancestors more, maybe by the fact that they understand their size, whereas large countries are endless expanses with endless amounts of people who come and go.

I went to Bernardinų Cemetery this morning to take a walk before sitting down to write. I felt the march of time as the sun beamed down on the many graves. A lot of Polish names, which always seems to work on my conscious and create a small eruption inside me – going back generations, there is a Polish part of my family, and it always causes some feelings of pride and confusion in me. I think any sort of origin does that to us. It’s almost too close to the heart. It is entangled in you, and it pulls you in, like that aunt who always pulled you in to give you a sloppy kiss you would be wiping off for the next half-hour – it was her way of showing love, but not the love you wanted (you wanted a toy car). You have such feelings every time someone else shows nostalgia for such things, but when you have it, you think it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about it.

I think identity in general is a painful topic. When someone comes to a foreign country at a still-impressionable age, as I did, you want to fit in. And after you try your best to learn the language, pick up the gestures, take on almost another persona, leave your values behind, and you are still rejected, it hurts. I tried this on two occasions in my life, and it was an endeavor that ended in being pushed away. No one likes to be pushed away (“it’s me, not you”) and it leaves an indelible mark on your being.

I rarely read works on the topic of displacement, immigrant stories, the search for identity, as I’ve already been through the process, and don’t find much solace in other people’s pain. However, in talking with translators, many of which have gone through this process, I find that we share many stories, and perhaps that makes me feel a bit better about what I do, and that I am not alone in doing it.

I make this entire endeavor of translation sound like an us-versus-the-world sort of dichotomy, but I have come to realize that this is more about you trading your values for someone else’s far too easily and naively, and that is squarely on me. It’s my responsibility to judge what values are worth having and what should be tossed. Not all values should be taken whole-heartedly. Some are simply rotten. Chuck them out, despite what those around you say.

*

Translation has given me a world view, which has totally changed my life, from the books I have read in other people’s translations to the books I have translated. It helped me to filter things through the author as well as through myself. But maybe all art is that, a filtering of information through our prisms of understanding, and we keep some of it inside ourselves. We know we are part of something bigger, that someone understands us.

I began translating partly to help others understand what happened in the Baltic in the twentieth century. I remember being met with incredulous looks and responses when I wanted to know what had happened during the Soviet period. People would say “you don’t understand” and let that control their daily lives. Even those who I got to know better always had a wall, and it was impossible to scale it.

*

I walked over the bridge near the Russian Orthodox church that even now still plays a role in the skyline of the Old Town – the Gothic towers rising up, surrounding the cone-shaped cupola, a testament to the Orthodox influence in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. I went to get a coffee at a café near the angel monument in Užupis. I’ve made the café my own over the last few weeks, with a colorful morning public of coffee drinkers and talkers. I walk up the hill, past several newly restored buildings, some places that are now excavated holes waiting to be filled with concrete and new flats (the bar Snekutis with its L-shaped outdoor terrace, R.I.P.), and then my goal of the walk – Bernardiniu Cemetery.

It seems I was the only one there so early. Walking along the wall, I read the names, mostly Polish, of those buried here. With coffee cup in hand (which I nursed carefully on this brisk morning), I thought about the transience of life and how quickly it can all end.

I’ll be heading to another cemetery later. Looking forward to seeing the hills again.

*

I went to Rasų Cemetery, doing my regular rounds – the Polish cemetery with Piłsudski’s heart and his mother’s remains, and the Polish soldiers from 1919, and then to the winding start of Rasų Cemetery. I made it around the chapel from all sides, gazing down to the graves below, with many of the graves having candles. I forgot mine this year, but I will try to hit Antakalnio Cemetery to make up for that.

I observed the visitors as they came: in couples, some with kids or grandparents, some foreign students on their first time to this place. I looked over that hill and thought about the graves that have fallen into disrepair and have no one to take care of them. I thought about those families that have grown apart or did not have descendants, and I paused to reflect.

Strangely enough, though I wax and wane about this celebration, I have never been a fan of cemeteries – my mother died when I was young and I took the whole “let the dead bury their dead” phrase quite literally. I still don’t feel anything when I visit the graves of my immediate family, as much as it might hurt for them to hear that. It’s only with my more distant relatives that I feel some solace in and connection with history. Our contemporaries are rarely the ones we look up to, whether that be because of competition, or outright jealousy, or simply lack of ever really getting to know them because we consider our stories as having the same value as theirs, and thus there is no point in reinventing the wheel – why get to know someone who lived in the same period as you? You lived it, so why do you need someone else’s opinions? The past is something far more mysterious, something we can fill in with our emotions and images. The unknown draws us in, and isn’t scary, not like the unknowns that face us in the here and now.

November 3rd

I just came back from a Lithuanian Writers’ Union project where they film writers and other literary experts to talk about a particular subject concerning literature. It’s essentially a filmed lecture. The project is geared towards teenagers, but it could really be for any age.

In preparation for the lecture, I was asked to talk about why and how I started to learn Lithuanian. I understand that people are oftentimes quite perplexed as to why I started to learn it. To put in simple terms, I wanted to learn it, and then I began. If people need details, I can say that I heard Lithuanian for the first time while visiting Kaunas in the late ’90s, and instantly fell in love with it. If they want to know the whole story, it would take longer, but anyway, that’s the general gist of it. Obvious, there were other things that I understood only later about myself and why I learned it, but that initial love and desire were key.

I periodically have doubts about how useful my biography can be for someone. I hope it is. Each time when I am asked about why I started learning the language, I am forced to pick through my own life for details so I don’t repeat myself endlessly, but it also forces me to become ever more sure about my decision. A narrative forms, and over time with each retelling, the narrative is reinforced. Sometime the narrative has been shaped like a sculpture, very sure of itself, a story that just jumps off the page or is lively when told. That said, there are always new avenues in the story, small details I never thought about, and I try to expand on those to better understand myself and the times. Maybe I remember something I hadn’t really thought about, and then I come to some realizations.

I understood one thing that perhaps didn’t come out in my lecture today, and that is I have learned languages because I want to know what’s going on around me, even if the information I find out is painful or horrible. I hate the state of ignorant bliss; I have never been a person who willingly ignores the topics I feel are close to my heart, and I have to say, I want to understand if someone is telling me they love me or telling me to fuck off. It’s better to know than not know.

*

I went to the pub quiz last night. We got second, but we were close to getting first.

I am aware of one distinct problem with pub quizzes – when there is anything to do with literature, often all eyes get pointed in my direction, as if I am supposed to know something. The reality is that for every question about Camus, there are five to six questions about Harry Potter (which I never read). As luck would have it (or bad luck, in this case), there was one question about Camus and an entire round of ten questions dedicated to Harry Potter.

The trick to that round of ten questions was that one person from each team was led into a room, where they had to answer the questions separately without their teammates. And they were not told in advance what exactly the literature round was going to be about. As soon as our emissary came out of the room, he had an exasperated look on his face, and words like “Dumbledore” and “quidditch” began to spill out of his mouth. I felt sorry for him, though somehow relieved that I had not been in his place (I had been a possible candidate for going into the back room until he was chosen). I would have scored a big, fat zero. How am I supposed to know Dumbledore’s eighteen other names or who Ron’s brothers were? I know obscure facts about sixteenth-century Lithuanian history and baseball trivia before 1998, so my brain doesn’t have any vacancies for the names of Harry Potter’s parents or their house number. At least knowing how Camus died (from a car crash, by the way, for those who might need to know) shows the tragedy and unpredictability of life. What the fuck does knowing the rules of quidditch do for me? Nothing.

That said, of course Harry Potter has the right to exist, just as any other genre. If people are reading, discussing, dressing up, and having conferences, then why not? It’s easy to make light of books you don’t read (and God knows how often that happens), so I generally hold my tongue when conversations veer towards regions of literature I am not well-versed in. Live and let live.¨

 

 

 

e-max.it: your social media marketing partner

Sponsors

Friends

logo lrsThe Lithuanian Culture Institutelogo lim