Ralph Ellison in Italian
How would you translate “Women? Godahm, mahn!”? Three words, so many unsayable things going on. Moments like these make themselves felt slowly when I’m translating a book. The ramifications, the impossibility, the horror of the subject matter all take their time to surface. One heavy word after another — and I have to turn it all into prose. Prose is when it flows, but when words like these jump out at you it feels absurd that you have to make sentences of the onslaught, of the overstimulation flooding your brain — and that you have to do it all in a different language.
Plus, the chapter you’re translating is getting increasingly dark: “Is that equality?” the dialogue continues. “Is that the black mahn’s freedom? A pat on the back and a piece of cunt without no passion?” What sound would you go after if you were translating this? Does it sound “poor”? “Unhinged”? Maybe “in the know”? You have to make a bunch of interwoven calls about a different culture’s sounds and vibes and attitudes. The task feels preposterous.
However you choose to translate these words, could you imagine thinking you’d done a good job? What would doing a good job even mean? In the end what you’ll have done is cover up a huge, ambiguous mess of sounds and meanings by massaging them into your own language.
The person speaking in these quotation marks is Ras the Exhorter, a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man who rants anytime he takes center stage. He is the hyper-perceptive Harlem leader on a horse who thinks collaboration with white people is utterly impossible. Although it has a strong first-person narrator, Invisible Man is, at heart, a novel of voices. Throughout the novel the young protagonist finds subtle ways to relinquish the mic to many interesting characters who are able to speak a truth that is more nuanced than his own. The narrator is a young Black man who’s been singled out by the white power structure by means of a scholarship, so his voice has inherited a lot of the slick, cumbersome white “refinement” he’s been taught. At the beginning of the book, after the prologue, we find a society of white men that wants to make an example of him and show off his virtue — and which will soon sabotage him in spectacular fashion. His entanglement with white power and culture is the unspoken reason he has to let other voices speak in different, less certified kinds of English, so that he can paint a more expansive picture of America. Ellison’s America, after all, is a place that calls for polyphony and cacophony — it’s a place where a Black painter works at a factory that produces the whitest white in the land, leaving him at once a prisoner and a leader in a scorching hot cave where he mixes the chemicals that create Liberty Paint’s Optic White. This kind of irony can’t be entrusted to a lone, reasonable voice.
I translated Invisible Man into Italian in the spring of 2020 for an independent publisher that had won the recently expired rights to Ellison’s entire body of work. I’d first attempted to read the novel in my late twenties, as a sort of continuation of his friend Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, but I never made it past the prologue, which I found boringly preachy. I recently looked back at that old edition, and the copy on its back cover underscored that this was a very serious work of literature, rather than a crazy, spaced-out blast of a book. At the time, Invisible Man felt like required reading — I didn’t expect and I wasn’t told that it was going to go berserk as soon as the first chapter announced itself. The relationship between that prologue and the rest of the book turned out to be the whole point of Invisible Man, which I gradually understood as I worked on the different voices.
The titular man’s voice was easy to figure out, because the narrator seems to be speaking to white readers. His voice has a heavy-handed precision that makes you self-conscious as you read. It conveys to the white reader that certain stories are hard to tell because their characters are — well — invisible. This is an argument that makes for very linear translation. All those other voices that appear later, like Ras the Exhorter’s, are far less worried about explaining themselves to us. Instead they come up to bat and hit stuff at their translator that is very hard to catch, clean, and render into a different language. Ras’s voice — I couldn’t bring myself to read it aloud, right? What would it seem like I was doing? What game would I be playing? Imagine my voice reading this at a literary event:
Maggots! They buy you that blahsted cheap, mahn? What they do to my people! Where is your brains? These women dregs, mahn! They bile water! You know the high-class white mahn hates the black mahn, that’s simple. So now he use the dregs and wahnt you black young men to do his dirty work. They betray you and you betray the black people. They tricking you, mahn. Let them fight among themselves.
For those native English-speaking readers who have never tried their hands at translation I’ll suggest a game I’ve played on occasion in Italian: just take the following passage and try to separate its meaning from its sound, then rewrite it in the English you were taught to consider correct and civil. Where is the meaning?
“Here’s the sneakypete, and don’t try to find no home in that bottle.”
“It’s the only home I got, Muckleroy. You want to take that away from me?”
“Man, drink up and pass the damn bottle.”
I started around them, hearing one of them say, “What you saying, Mr. Rinehart, how’s your hammer hanging?” . . .
“Heavy, man,” I said, knowing the answer to that one, “very heavy.”
“Well, it’ll be lighter by morning.”
At one point a character uses the word Poppa-stopper. When I first encountered this word I emailed my editor and suggested that we should just leave it untranslated. It sounds so funny and intuitive: we know the word stop and the word poppa well enough to register that meaning isn’t really the point here. You can’t use, say, Roman or Neapolitan dialect to capture it, nor can you find the same halo hovering over anything that official, national, educated Italian offers.
Even when I’m translating something less tricky than this I usually joke with editors that, were it up to me (and it is not: this aspect of publishing is always more like a collaboration with the editor, plus the author if they’re living and want to be involved), I’d keep entire passages in English — not just the occasional word. The idea that readers won’t get to know the real sound of a book makes me mad — and sad, because ultimately I’m the one responsible for that. I hate that they could pick up a book that doesn’t sound like itself. Certain DeLillo novels, for example, are composed of short words that demand a crisp, staccato reading pace that the Italian language can’t provide, despite the best efforts of his excellent translators. I’ve watched both dubbed and subtitled versions of Japanese movies and it’s something else entirely when you hear the way the characters speak, even if the subtitles distract you from the images, even if the dialogue is often simplified. Literature is not mixed media, but at the same time I always find myself engrossed by parallel-text editions of poetry and drama, by the relationship between content and form. The idea of the single text as somehow sacred is a persistent one — to read this way is to help kill it.
When invisibility is Ellison’s central metaphor for Blackness, can a European translator of his work afford to stay invisible?Tweet
Invisible Man is so dense — so full of voices and roadblocks to the transmission of those voices — that as I got to work on the translation my joke about keeping some things in English quickly became more serious. Poppa-stopper was bad enough, but there was so much more. I wasn’t going to write all those rants in my own voice, or try to match up whatever street-smart or made-up lingo I could find with every single thing Ellison had in his original. So I again emailed my editor, who sits strategically low in the patriarchal pyramid of mainstream book publishing and who can thus be free to try new things. Could I actually keep some English in our version? I asked. Words, phrases, maybe entire sentences?
I had a bunch of very practical problems in mind. Let’s take the simplest example from Ras’s dialogue, mahn. I tried taking the word out altogether, because as soon as I started looking for a ringer I got caught up in the trashiest conventions. As far as African American–coded filler words are concerned, Italy’s long-standing tradition of dubbing movies has lodged an endless loop of Eddie Murphy squealing ehi amico! in our collective mind. Which — goddammit. For us, courtesy of those Eddie Murphy movies, a squealing ehi amico! is exactly what an African American man sounds like when he says hey buddy or interjects man. How do you retool and reboot an entire country’s racial codes? I tried this out with Ras, who, after all, was larger-than-life enough to deserve his own solution: I kept mahn and sprinkled italics throughout Ras’s rants. I thought, look, Italian kids use bro in their slang, they’ve heard the music, they can figure out why I kept it in. “But what about the average reader?” most Italian editors will ask. The only thing I have to say about the average reader is that they should be ashamed to know less about the world than a kid with YouTube open on his phone.
When a reader reads, they play from the music sheet with the instrument of their own cultural experiences. For the Italian reader, Eddie Murphy’s ehi amico! is a constraint on that experience, a limit to how much complexity they can access. There are many such constraints. Literature’s journey between cultures is circuitous, but racism is always along for the ride. As Invisible Man explores, in the American context, African American Vernacular English has been attacked for its alleged vulgarity, its illegitimacy, its lack of refinement, and so on. Some of these prejudices get lost in cultural translation; other new ones emerge or appear homegrown.
And still for all that, what the Italian kids watching YouTube understand (even if they don’t yet know that they understand it) is that Ellison’s English has aged spectacularly well — better than, say, Bellow’s, or Updike’s in the Rabbit books. In the nearly seven decades since Invisible Man was published, the kinds of African American sounds and visions that Ellison represented have circulated across Western culture. As a result, Ellison’s English sounds more lively and relevant to me than the contributions to the English language of the midcentury white men. (I’ve included Bellow, whose father was born in Vilnius, just to keep my point less easy, less bianco e nero.) These days a messy sentence spoken by a peddler on the streets of Harlem is very recognizable to Italian ears. And precisely because of that legibility I hated translating all that talking. It felt like censoring a sound that we have all heard a million times in songs and movies and TV shows and documentaries — a sound that needs no explanation but collapses under the gentrifying impulses of translation.
A translation is just one more literary veil added to the others. There’s no direct truth to be stared at.Tweet
My friend and colleague Ilide Carmignani, who has translated Bolaño, García Márquez, Cortázar, and many others, has referred to the translator as an autore invisibile. If I consider that description in this context — a book about an invisible man — an eerie echo ripples in my head. It is easy (and unwise) to push the analogy too far. But when invisibility is Ellison’s central metaphor for Blackness, can a European translator of his work afford to stay invisible?
But even in less overdetermined instances, invisibility is a kind of trap. Translators are asked to be invisible. The job is hard, as hard as any in the cultural sphere, but the spirit with which it’s pursued is dutiful. Translators are told to look for the “right” solution every time: not an interesting solution, not a — well — political solution, not a twisted or restless solution. Translators themselves want to seem inconspicuous, like imperial clerks toiling away in a dark garret, resolving geopolitical issues by working out the finer terms in the draft of a big treaty. The collective need for invisibility creates a language that’s even, parsed out, correct — a language that escorts books out of their country and dresses them up as responsible travelers. Most idiosyncrasies are razed and — far worse — never commented on. You could imagine that commentary showing its face in a footnote, but what you find there instead are comments on the blatantly untranslatable stuff, or explanations of the most obscure references, God forbid the reader finds out that a foreign novel is, in fact, joyously elusive. No — everything must be careful. Streamlined. The damned and damning marriage between the market and the aloofness of high culture keeps everybody on the edge of their seats. Culture requires thoroughness. The market requires smoothness. All the fun and funk must be laundered into content.
The fault is not the translation’s or the translator’s. The marching orders come from above, dictating that the work should be smooth above all, that translation should be a plug-and-play process, like everything else. Ironically or tragically, the author of the original remains mostly unaware of the situation. The foreign edition they receive in the mail is just a cover obscuring an Ikea product in lieu of what was their own handmade piece of vernacular furniture.
I follow the Borges credo that literature is the friction coming from the veils and the levels and the frames, all the obstacles keeping a reader from obtaining the dream of truth. A translation is just one more literary veil added to the others. There’s no direct truth to be stared at. For this reason I love the work of Antoine Volodine. He is a French novelist who writes like some made-up Russian author in translation, and his collaboration with translators is at once strong and unbelievably free. His Italian accomplice, Anna D’Elia, is a wild visionary who conjures up a dreamy Italian that doesn’t feel like a translation from a particular language, only a big joke on what feels literary, what feels spooky, a fake séance where she jokingly pretends to believe in the myth of the urtext.
Translators like Anna avoid the dictates of smoothness and infuse their work with personality and idiosyncrasy. A very experienced translator I know says that a translation should convey the greatest amount possible of what the writer meant. That sounds fine, but then why is it that, more than once, I’ve recognized this translator’s voice in a book I didn’t know they’d translated? If you’re conveying the greatest amount possible of what the writer meant, how can I recognize you? This translator makes everything sound fresh and joyful and crisp. Is the vibe of a text not a part of what the author “meant”? Sometimes I feel that, despite this translator’s recurring mantra, what they end up getting away with is a form of ghost coauthorship, heavily hijacking the style and transforming the book in question into a Gesamtkunstwerk that’ll end up studied as an original work, a commentary about postmodern, late-stage capitalist America through the manipulated works of American authors. A Richard Prince of literature.
Every translator is given away by something. For me it’s the diminutives. If I’m translating little umbrella I’ll always write ombrellino. I find it ridiculous to use un piccolo ombrello, even though that’s what most people would do. Ultimately no one is right. What’s crucial is that this fascinating process be wrested from the hands of people who treat art like going to mass. The expectation of a good, transparent translation is wrong to begin with. The process should own being the mess it is and readers should learn to roll with it — with more footnotes, with more layers, even if adding layers seems like it might imperil the suspension of disbelief that is so crucial when reading stories.
The only parts of Invisible Man that felt straightforward were those where the white characters were speaking and thinking. I understood their mindset (“reason,” in the Enlightenment mode) and their impulses: project, plan, dominate, taxonomize, control. I can translate these things. Not only because this coincides with my experience of the world, but also because this is the mindset that European culture — and, thus, the publishing world — grew up with. (Everything else is a mystery that we usually solve and resolve for ourselves through whatever form of exoticism we happen to have at our disposal.) So I had no problem translating portmanteaus of dominance and control, and I had no problem with the inevitable neuroses it brings to the surface, the mannerisms that are the offspring of all that sublimation and ambition.
Take the rich man’s child, whom our hero visits in order to ask for a job. The narrator brings a letter of recommendation from his headmaster with him. The hipster son of the rich man receives the narrator in his father’s stead and wants to warn him about the letter’s real, wicked content, which indicts its bearer. The son feels sympathy for the narrator, but there are many other weird feelings in the mix. Translating this stuff was so easy:
“Look,” he said, his face working violently, “I was trying to tell you that I know many things about you — not you personally, but fellows like you. Not much, either, but still more than the average. With us it’s still Jim and Huck Finn. A number of my friends are jazz musicians, and I’ve been around. I know the conditions under which you live — Why go back [to the Southern college], fellow? There is so much you could do here [in New York] where there is more freedom. You won’t find what you’re looking for when you return anyway; because so much is involved that you can’t possibly know. Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t say all this to impress you. Or to give myself some kind of sadistic catharsis. Truly, I don’t . But I do know this world you’re trying to contact — all its virtues and all its unspeakables — Ha, yes, unspeakables. I’m afraid my father considers me one of the unspeakables . . . I’m Huckleberry, you see . . .”
He laughed drily as I tried to make sense of his ramblings. Huckleberry? Why did he keep talking about that kid’s story? I was puzzled and annoyed that he could talk to me this way because he stood between me and a job, the campus . . .
I can translate a dominant, weak soul with my eyes closed. This monologue smacks of David Foster Wallace and J. D. Salinger to me. It feels so good to live in a century that has ceased to celebrate that voice. I can be sentimentally attached to it, of course, but its delightful shallowness is drying up not because some of its exemplars have been canceled or problematized, but because it’s a voice that’s been outgrown — just as the decadent voice before it retreated and the romantic voice retreated before that. The voices have become niche forms of expression, and now the male ball-hogging neurotic voice is fading too. Some people will continue to use it, but it’ll come to sound more and more like the way a creep or a stalker uses Milady or Principessa. And I will always be able to translate that voice. It is in my DNA forever.
This is all to say that if what comes naturally to this translator is that voice, and it’s being phased out, then the only way to go is forward, into the dark, with no rules. Contrary to our will to survive as paid people in the business, we must not try to be invisible like those clerks in the garret. Every time we translate we are auditioning for the role of translator in the near future. The result might be that we’re — that I’m — no longer fit to translate anything other than neurotic, white, male, middle-class narrators. So it goes. After all, what was that mode if not a seventy-odd-year-long fad, a fad that got me published as a novelist in the first place?
When I began this essay I wanted to write about the experience of translating Invisible Man during the spring of 2020 after two terrified months of preemptive quarantine. As I got to work on Ellison’s nightmarish America, a wave of demonstrations swept your country following the ruthless murder of George Floyd by the police. Trying to find Italian voices for a series of Black characters crashing against a white wall while following the news coming from America was distressing and eye-opening. I’ve shared the experience with friends and I’ve thought about it a lot. But now that I’ve come around to writing all this down I find myself much more eager to write about the translation process than my feelings as a cabin fever–suffering news spectator.
Invisible Man also unravels after the killing of a man by the police. The reason is yet another preposterous law-and-order pretext — the man is selling dancing paper dolls on the street and flees the scene after being spotted by the cops.
And Clifton had the box slung to his left shoulder with the cop moving slowly behind and to one side of him . . . the cop pushed him, jolting him forward and Clifton trying to keep the box from swinging against his leg and saying something over his shoulder . . . and I could see the cop push Clifton again, stepping solidly forward in his black shirt, his arm shooting out stiffly, sending him in a head-snapping forward stumble until he caught himself, saying something over his shoulder again, the two moving in a kind of march that I’d seen many times . . . I heard rapid explosions and saw each pigeon diving wildly as though blackjacked by the sound, and the cop sitting up straight now, and rising to his knees looking steadily at Clifton, and the pigeons plummeting swiftly into the trees, and Clifton still facing the cop and suddenly crumpling.
I found the murder in the book obscene in its similarities to what was being reported in the news. Everything going on in the world brought me back to the book and the book was making me traverse image after image of ugliness. After the murder, the invisible man walks up to the policemen:
“Look, Junior,” he said very clearly, “I had enough trouble for today — you going to get on across that street?”
I opened my mouth but nothing would come. Kneeling, one of the cops was examining Clifton and making notes on a pad.
“I’m his friend,” I said, and the one making notes looked up.
“He’s a cooked pigeon, Mac,” he said. “You ain’t got any friend anymore.”
I looked at him.
“Hey, Mickey,” the boy above us called, “the guy’s out cold!”
I looked down. “That’s right,” the kneeling cop said. “What’s your name?”
I was late with the job. I was supposed to begin in February but when we entered strict lockdown at the beginning of March I still hadn’t started. I couldn’t work on anything thoroughly for the first two months of the pandemic. Translating a book means allocating time weekly — a lot of it. Consistency is essential. My wife and I were usually drinking liquor by noon, and by the time the government held its daily disaster-movie-like briefing every evening at 6 PM, we were inevitably upset. The day left some space for much-needed bursts of writing but not for actual work, which translation is. It was the first time in my life I was afraid to walk around my neighborhood, afraid I might be stopped by the police, and I lived in a constant fear that has since made a lot of my hair and beard white, like everyone else’s.
I had an early fall deadline, which meant that from May to August I had to rush through the long novel. Its unrelenting cruelty entered my imagination at a disorienting pace, the nonsense of every vignette in the book a whirlwind of pain and revelation I couldn’t just stop and process. Every day I ate up entire sequences, seeing them go impeccably wrong, seeing bad outcomes transpire without being able to stop. Ellison writes so that you can tell he can inhabit the murderer and the victim, the dumbest character and the smartest. He feels lost all the time, he doesn’t rule over his novel, he’s a devil, he’s in the details, he has no Tolstoyan ambition to lunge upward, he can inhabit the ugliest heap of furniture thrown onto the sidewalk during an eviction, he can inhabit the faint affectation of the vain old white trustee whose inanity shocks the plot forward. When I was translating scenes like the one where that young man is murdered by police, the rushed work gave me the feeling that I was a part of a well-oiled machine that killed young Black men for no reason — and then on to the next one.
The murder scene is introduced by another scene, a more philosophical sort of assassination. The young man who is about to be murdered is portrayed as having lost so much hope in the cause he had been advocating that he’s gone back to the streets to sell Sambo dolls, toys that caricature the most extreme stereotypes of African Americans. In writing the scene, Ellison lets the young Black man go on about the merits of his ugly paper dolls in a manner of speech that we Italians have heard everywhere, from HBO to Spotify to Netflix:
Shake it up! Shake it up!
He’s Sambo, the dancing doll, ladies and gentlemen . . .
Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him
For he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing,
Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll.
And all for twenty-five cents, the quarter part of a dollar . . .
Ladies and gentlemen, he’ll bring you joy, step up and meet him . . .
So here I am translating this. The urgency, the energy, the staccato solo that combines preaching and selling in equal proportion. The first-order problem seems to be straightforward: how to make this young man convincing in Italian. Ellison is making tragic fun of the character’s desperation. What Ellison is doing is simultaneously inhabiting and ironizing the parody. Just as the dolls are a parody of white parodies of Black people, their vendor is a parody of white parodies of Black characters. It’s a depth that reaches beyond the actual possibilities of language because it fucks with your memories and biases about categories of people. Ellison is playing with our ears and minds, not just with language. Language would be nothing if it weren’t infected with our prejudices (and by extension our feelings) toward everything. And so, as a translator, I’m not exactly dealing with language. This is why the pursuit of the right register isn’t really where the work begins. A register is not a fact — it isn’t found in nature. It is a coded transcription of the way we hear people talk. That’s what made the mahn thing so slippery. I wasn’t looking for how to translate a word; I was prodding at a whole register, terrified at the idea that it could snap back at me at any moment.
One of Ellison’s characters is a farmer who has gotten his daughter pregnant. He speaks the way a white American might think a midcentury Black farmer used to speak. What was I supposed to do here? How would I proceed? Did I need to ask the worst (literal) fascists I’ve met in my Italian life to chime in? Should I have consulted with the racist employers of domestic workers of color in the well-to-do neighborhood where I grew up? The words aren’t the problem here — the problem is that the feelings swirling around the words are so hard to capture.
I understand that at this stage in the thought process — and in this essay — I need to pivot. I should say here that for all the sordid complexity of prejudice and language there are many positive, uplifting aspects of this work and the struggle is key to Ellison’s project, that Ellison’s sentences are tangled up in biases even as they capture the liveliness and excitement of voices that, until that point, were treated with little or no respect by the white cultural establishment. Ellison found an opening in language and went to see if there was an exit there. He probably chose the only glimpses of linguistic truth he could let his characters escape through. A happy linguistic accomplishment is a door where you didn’t expect to find one. But if an author finds one in their own language, how can we expect his translators to find theirs? The translator’s predicament is more difficult than the author’s, who only went where he found a passage. The translator is forced to try the same route, even if, in their own language, there’s no opening at all.
With the farmer, I decided not to go slangy and instead tried to mess with grammar abstractly, like a bitcrusher pedal on an electric guitar. I didn’t want the farmer’s monologue to sound figurative — instead it was more like handing the reader the Pantone code for how I think he was talking, even though I never actually tried to paint him.
Then I heard the gal say, “Daddy,” soft and low in her sleep and I looked, tryin’ to see if she was still awake. But all I can do is smell her and feel her breath on my hand when I go to touch her. She said it so soft I couldn’t be sure I had heard anything, so I just laid there listenin’. Seems like I heard a whippoorwill callin’, and I thought to myself, Go on away from here, we’ll whip ole Will when we find him. Then I heard the clock up there at the school strikin’ four times, lonesome like.
Like I said: in the face of something like this, the invisible author cannot really stay invisible.
Translating these parts of the book made for a very brittle, even fishy emotional adventure. I felt played by Ellison: he had forced me to go all in to find the voice of a broken Black street vendor trying to convince passersby to purchase his vulgar and worthless wares. He had forced me to tiptoe around the queasiness of linguistic blackface — only to show me the man’s death and ask me to put Italian words in the policemen’s mouths.
What Ellison asked of me is what I feel literature can ask of people. The discomfort I felt over the course of the translation has stayed with me — saved, though not rescued, by the eeriest inspiration I found at every page. The quality, the resolution, the impossibility of what he pulled off in Invisible Man, has never been clearer to me.
Granular work on literature has shown me that there’s no way to stay whole if you are to participate in the publicity spin cycle that enfolds books the way it does everything. Working on translations helps in this respect. You get very close to the imagery and the sentences. You live in a kind of slow motion that reveals that there is no atmosphere, no halo sustaining the sentences. The halo emanates from the cover, not the page. The page is dry, it’s creaking, it’s a desert. No, that’s misleading. What I want to say is that the more you delve into a complex book, the more you appreciate the way it is composed and all the invisible senses it arouses and performs inside your mind — the more you feel the emptiness, the void that stares at you at the bottom of all the wealth. Engaging with complex work takes you away from the possibility of learning things from a book.
Ellison is a writer who can lead you into the void. I like to pit him against Camus. Camus wrote very plain — perfect — things and then added “existential” sentences. The Stranger is almost childish when you analyze its strategies: I went for a walk. My life had no meaning. Ellison, meanwhile, puts into question every single atom of the world he’s describing. He doesn’t want to be loved like Camus. He wants to sound unpleasant. He wants to show that everything is a part of the nightmare. Here’s the lobby of a hotel for Black people:
The lobby was the meeting place for various groups still caught up in the illusions that had just been boomeranged out of my head: college boys working to return to school down South; older advocates of racial progress with Utopian schemes for building black business empires . . .
I remember the surprise I felt — the surprise and also the fear — when I stumbled upon this further zoom-in:
Old men of sixty or more still caught up in post–Civil War dreams of freedom within segregation; the pathetic ones who possessed nothing beyond their dreams of being gentlemen, who held small jobs or drew small pensions, and all pretending to be engaged in some vast, though obscure, enterprise, who affected the pseudo-courtly manners of certain southern congressmen and bowed and nodded as they passed like senile old roosters in a barnyard . . .
The entire paragraph consists of visions that go deeper and deeper —
. . . the “actors” who sought to achieve the status of brokers through imagination alone, a group of janitors and messengers who spent most of their wages on clothing such as was fashionable among Wall Street brokers, with their Brooks Brothers suits and bowler hats, English umbrellas, black calfskin shoes and yellow gloves; with their orthodox and passionate argument as to what was the correct tie to wear with what shirt, what shade of gray was correct for spats and what would the Prince of Wales wear at a certain seasonal event . . .
I edit three types of work: my writing, other people’s writing, and the two-headed monster that is my translation work — a mix of my writing and somebody else’s. When I teach creative writing I also close read the so-called classics with my students. These four activities amount to a lot of extremely slow reading, and I’ve come to regard that slowness as the only thing I love about literature. When you speed it up, it becomes news, it becomes content, it becomes entertainment. When it’s slow, and it’s slow for hours, for days, it helps you glance beyond the hollow network of meanings that we cater to in order to be a functional society.
Invisible Man took me to a place where I couldn’t think about the things that were happening in the world in the spring of 2020. It didn’t make me feel guilty, it just put me where I already was, at the center of the European world, the Western world, and it brought me gifts, like the encounter between a person who is white and afraid and attracted by the myth of the Black lover and a person who is Black and is exhausted by white people:
“Don’t drink too much, beautiful,” she said. “It always takes the pep out of George.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I rapes real good when I’m drunk.”
She looked startled. “Ooooh, then pour me another,” she said, giving herself a bounce….
Then she looked at me, her eyes bright behind narrowed lids and raised up and struck me where it hurt. “Come on, beat me, daddy—you—you big black bruiser. What’s taking you so long?” she said. “Hurry up, knock me down! Don’t you want me?”…
Then she said, “Come on, come on!” and I said, “Sure, sure,” looking around wildly and starting to pour the drink upon her and was stopped, my emotions locked, as I saw her lipstick lying on the table and grabbed it, saying, “Yes, yes,” as I bent to write furiously across her belly in drunken inspiration:
SYBIL, YOU WERE RAPED
and paused there . . .
I am astounded by that aside: my emotions locked.
When I was translating Invisible Man I had the impression that the two months of lockdown had brought me closer to what the book was about and what America was about during the scary final months of the Trump era.
One year later, I’m vaccinated and exhausted after two summers of realizing how rickety everything is, adapting to a perennial state of fragility and uncertainty — precisely the emotional state any number of moderate political parties promised my middle-class ancestors we would never experience.
Maybe I needed a shepherd to welcome me into a new age of exhaustion. It had to be a writer who is able to slip an aside like that — my emotions locked — while he’s painting the furious hateful sensual picture of an affair.
Literature is always more than the news. You go slo-mo on a video and you get nowhere. You go slo-mo on a book like this and it rewires you. I don’t need to give a complete account of my experience translating it. I’d complain about the wrong things. Literature, on the other hand, is harsh, and it won’t save you. If you need to be saved, go read Camus.