a rope fastened between
critical reflections translations language games

The little translator who couldn’t, or Can the gostak gyre?

March 15, 2021


This is the story of a translator who was very short and once asked the question: “Can the gostak gyre?”

The story

There was once a translator who was very short. One day, she awoke from uneasy dreams to find herself posing the question: “Can the gostak gyre?”

She identified as a literary translator. Her diminutive stature entailed, of course, that she could not translate the works of tall authors, owing to the absence of a sharedness of experience.

She had a number of other very particular attributes.

She identified as bicurious. She sometimes identified as female, sometimes as male, though never as both or neither.

All this meant that she could not translate the writings of authors who identified as: homosexual female, heterosexual male, heterosexual female, homosexual male, transgender, bisexual … The list was quite long.

It was, of course, the requirement of sharedness of identity between translator and author that shaped the list. And this requirement is readily understood. Recall, for instance, the fate of Little Women in France. The dear old book was handed over for translation to one of those terrifyingly distinguished nineteenth-century gentilhommes, fairly wreathed in muttonchop whiskers. Forthwith, he set about finding within it a character who resembled himself. Finding such a character–a trifling sideshow in Alcott’s story–he displaced the doppelg√§nger into the limelight, naming the book Les quatre filles du Docteur March.

Humanity has evolved since then, though one has to wonder: what would the world look like if, say, a Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had adopted such post-Enlightenment mores? Spivak, after all, identifies as heterosexual female. And yet, back in the twentieth century, she had the chutzpah to translate heterosexual men–and of hues across the spectrum at that!

Speaking of hues, the little translator’s was hard to identify. For in this regard she had to contend with the entailments of bilateral descent. The latter, coupled with the diverse neolocal residential choices of several ancestors, meant that she required not lineages but pie charts to explain her origins. She was neither Black nor White, scarcely passing muster as Olive.

These individuating factors only reduced her job possibilities.

The little translator spoke and read several languages but translated from only two of them, towards a third. She avowed herself a ’native speaker’ of this third, though her view was routinely contested. For native speakerhood is not conferred on the basis of linguistic competence and performance. No, native speakerhood is a function of History, written as it is by the clamoring victorious.

Thus it was that paid translation work was rare, there being scarcely an author with whom the little translator could claim a sharedness of identity and experience.

Thus it was that our little translator couldn’t.

When she applied for a translation job, she sighed, “I think I can’t, I think I can’t.” Endless days of radio silence followed. Then came the moment of her final mutter: “I thought I couldn’t.” Thus did she live out her days.

For well may the gostak distim, it can never gyre or gimble in the wabe. These remain forever the prerogative of the slithy toves.