Fully Immersed: Karen Emmerich on Translating Margarita Karapanou’s Rien ne va plus

Translation is an act of collaboration. The final result is not just the hard labor of a cloistered translator, surrounded by brick wall and one small window that barely lets in light.  What goes on between writer and translator is a tricky relationship that involves a balancing of words, as well as interpretations and re-imaginings of those very same words.  And when the writer’s dead, that relationship gets even trickier.

Clockroot has been lucky enough to have Karen Emmerich translate the late Margarite Karapanou’s book Rien ne va plus. This book is complicated, the kind of novel that teaches the brain how to read it.  Intellectually thrilling, emotionally tumultuous, trying to imagine it in another language seems somewhat unreal.

Could you talk about your relationship to Karapanou’s work?

KE: I started reading Karapanou when I was in college, as a freshman or sophomore, with very bad Greek. Someone had recommended her to me because her language is fairly simple, and she tends to write in short sections—so for the beginning reader of Greek, her work is a good place to start. You can take a section a day, puzzle it out with a dictionary, and feel like you’ve achieved something by the end. So in a sense, Karapanou was really one of the people who taught me Greek.  I started with Rien ne va plus, and it just entranced me. I read everything of hers that we had in the library at Princeton, but it was always Rien that I kept returning to. Almost fifteen years later, I still find it fascinating, but I think there’s something about the book that can be incredibly powerful for a young person—and particularly a young woman—still trying to figure out this whole business of human relationships, and where the mental and emotional coincides with the real. At some point I decided to start translating the novel. I was helped along the way by Dimitri Gondicas, who heads the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton. He’s one of the busiest people I know, but was enormously generous with his time. We would meet and sit down and read through the novel line by line, and he would point out any mistakes or misunderstandings. When I look back on it now, it’s just incredible, that he would have done that for me, and for her.

But I think Karapanou is the kind of writer who inspires generosity in others; people felt things for her even when they had never met her. I certainly did.

Many years have passed since then, and the translation went through too many drafts to count before it was published. When I started reworking it for publication a few years ago, everything had to be rethought anew—I had changed so much, as had my thinking about translation. So I guess in a way, this was also a book that taught me to translate. I later embarked on an earlier novel by Karapanou, as well, The Sleepwalker, which you’ll be publishing next year—and while I love that one, too, my relationship to Rien still feels special.

The back of the novel features that wonderful quote by the author: “Every time I want to write, I want to write love stories. But as soon as I pick up the pen I’m overcome by horror.”  This sentiment provides a sort of tonal infrastructure to this book.  As a translator, how did this tone affect– or complicate– your rendering of the novel?

KE: I guess I would say that there’s this kind of brutal emotional honesty to the book. There are all kinds of things that many readers might see as clichéd language, or clichéd scenes. There are parts of the book that are, for that reason, sort of embarrassing to read. The prose feels so exposed—and my impulse as someone responsible for bringing that prose over into English is to swaddle it a bit, give it some protection. Of course it’s an impulse I fought, especially after Karapanou’s death. The novel has come to seem to me a kind of document of her, as well.

I was recently at a talk given by Foteini Tsalicoglou, a close friend of Karapanou’s who edited a volume of letters to Karapanou from her mother, the writer Margarita Lyberaki. Tsalicoglou said something during that talk about Karapanou’s ability to make clichés come alive. She told a little anecdote about doing a reading with Karapanou for the book Perhaps, which the two of them co-authored, and at one point Karapanou turned to the audience and told them all, “I love you.” Just like that, simply, not in any affected way, with a kind of childlike sincerity that felt real, and was real, and moved everyone but maybe made them sort of uncomfortable at the same time.

For me, that’s the real essence of this book: the way it discomfits you, the way it makes you feel things you might not always want to feel. The reality of the emotions, even if the story itself is always put under erasure.

“Part Two” of the novel acts as a sort of interlude. It almost seems to define the concept of “rien ne va plus,” as this abstract space where anything can happen. Could you talk about how you came to see this section in relation to the rest of the novel?

KE: I think anyone else’s guess as to that second section is as good as mine—I’ve always found it puzzling. It’s definitely a meditation on creation, particularly literary creation, on the relationship of truth to fiction, perhaps on the inevitable fictionalization of all fact, on how any relation of an event is always going to involve some amount of interpretation.

Finally, could you say something on the duality of Rien Ne Va Plus?  Obviously a novel where the narrator tells two versions of the same dissolution gives the reader plenty to think and talk about. As immersed as you are in the material, though, what insight can you give us on the shape and structure of this piece?

KE: I’m not sure how much insight I can give—I may actually be too immersed in the material to see exactly what’s going on. The narrator gives two versions of what is ostensibly the same story: her relationship and marriage to a man named Alkiviades (a name that might have looked more familiar had I chosen to translate it as Alcibiades). In the first, much shorter version, Alki is something of a monster, and treats her pretty despicably. In the second version, she’s the one who treats him badly, running off to live with another man in the U.S. right after he proposes, things like that. At the end of the book—and I apologize if I seem to be ruining the ending, here, but I really don’t think I am—we’re told by the narrator that the first version was just a novel she wrote, her fictionalization of their life in which the roles were reversed, and life thus transmuted into art.

On the surface, that seems like a fine way of explaining the doubling in the book. But it’s just too easy, and there are too many holes. First of all, the “novel” of the first part is really only thirty or so pages long. Does that really count as a novel? And if we’re supposed to take the second version as the “truth,” what are we supposed to do with passages like the one describing the narrator’s stay in Connecticut, when a huge rainstorm creates an epic flood in which neighboring houses are washed from their foundations and go floating by like ships at sail? In other words, the retelling is full of things that are explicitly marked as fictional. The first version never departs from anything that could actually have happened, while the second version is far more fanciful. It also draws on all kinds of stereotypes, too. There’s one scene where the narrator spends days on end watching movies in bed—romances, thrillers, porn. Well, her narration also incorporates set scenes that seem at times to be lifted from those kinds of genre films: the visit to the psychiatrist’s office, the thriller-like dreams involving her aborted baby. Nothing in that second version of the story can really be trusted. And of course at the end of the novel we slip into a third-person narration of events; the narrator actually disappears into the text itself.

I guess what I’m getting at is, the book is far more complicated than it might seem on a first read. The line between fiction and reality is constantly being blurred, even within the world of the text itself.

—Miranda

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