A few months after I moved back to New York I got an unexpected email from a guy I’d known in Vilnius, Augustinus, or Augie, for short. Sociable guy, warm, if a little intense. Augie wrote that he wanted to follow up on a conversation we’d had wherein—so he claimed—I’d promised I’d contribute a story, which he’d translate, to his magazine, a literary magazine whose name I wouldn’t have remembered but there it was in his signature: Snarglys. I looked it up online. The site was sparse, well designed, and entirely in Lithuanian.
That I had no recollection of this conversation in no way meant it hadn’t happened. I definitely remembered him talking about this magazine. He talked about it all the time. It was something he clearly had a lot of pride in. He’d assume this insistent, authoritative tone that would have been unbearable had I had the slightest familiarity with or interest in Lithuanian literary culture, but as I did not have the slightest familiarity or interest in Lithuanian literary culture, why should it bother me? He claimed it was the most prestigious literary journal in Lithuania, and someone’s journal had to be the most prestigious journal in Lithuania; why not Augie’s?
Point is, it was certainly possible that on some cold night in some bar Augie had asked me to contribute a story and I’d enthusiastically agreed. This seemed exactly like something I would do: acknowledge his acknowledgement of me, recognize the status the request implicitly conferred, but without any intention of actually delivering. In Vilnius, the perception of me as a writer could not have been more generous. I had nothing to prove. I could just surf the respect the fellowship granted.
But now I wasn’t in Vilnius. I was in Brooklyn. And in Brooklyn I was just another writerly schmuck in Brooklyn. So Augie’s request seemed heaven-sent. I wrote Augie back, thanked him, said it’d be a huge privilege, but I just needed a couple of weeks to go through my material, see what I’ve got that’s still unpublished and/or available, what might be a good fit, etc. My response hinted at the existence of a veritable depot of world-altering work that might or might not be available, depending on demand and publishing cycles, but the truth was that it had been years since I’d finished a story.
But now, buoyed by Augie’s request, I felt more motivated than I had in a very long time, maybe ever, and I got to it, and in a couple of weeks I wrote, I finished, a new story. Nothing too ambitious—if writing half-stories has taught me anything at all, it has taught me where the holes I fell into were. I avoided all those holes, took a safe route. The story was fine. Satisfactory, competent, unobjectionable. I got it to the point where I was confident that a Lithuanian literary journal would be totally okay with it.
The story was about a couple, a man and a woman. They live together in Brooklyn. Precisely where they are on the professional/artist spectrum isn’t made fully clear but they’re neither rich nor destitute. They go on a camping trip. Location is somewhere northern New Hampshire. It’s rustic, pretty, serene: my descriptions of sunlight and forest and dappled shadows, of leaves crunching and light slowly changing, were, I felt, particularly good.
There’s a summit they’ve heard is really something, that’s where they’re headed, but it’s difficult to get to. The path is a multi-day hike with steep climbs, wetlands, hornet’s nest, fire ants, etc. After a couple of days the path is taking its toll and he and she, increasingly frazzled, begin to take it out on each other, snipe and lash out and sulk, and through their increasingly fraught interactions it emerges, and to a certain extent it emerges to the reader and to the characters themselves, that there are deep and complex emotional issues at play, and it also emerges that at least one of them has at least one shameful secret he/she/they haven’t shared and still aren’t ready to share. These issues and secrets I don’t really get into, mainly because I myself wasn’t 100% sure what they were, but I do hint knowingly at them.
The hike up to the summit is long and exhausting; by the time they actually reach it they’ve hit a breaking point: they’re miserable, sad, wet, upset, barely speaking to each other. And when the summit turns out to be nothing special, just a clearing with a view that’s actually pretty shitty, they’re so disappointed—in the summit, in themselves, in each other—that there’s nothing to do except embrace, and such is the emotional pitch of the moment that one thing leads to another, body parts are touched, clothes come off, etc., but just as it’s surpassing the PG mark they’re interrupted by a supernatural event, maybe a visitor, maybe a vision, maybe some kind of miracle—I left it pretty vague—and then there are two sentences about origins and language that I plagiarized from a dead philosopher—I felt it added some mystery and heft—and then the event is over, the visitor disappears, the miracle ceases, and the story abruptly ends. As to how the ordeal will affect the couple moving forward, I left it enchantingly uncertain.
Augie replied a few days later. He was enthusiastic, to say the least. He’d read my story and thought the world of it, it was great, wonderful, poignant. On and on he went, piling on praise I was pretty sure I didn’t deserve but was more than happy to accept. So of course I right away reread my story, with fresh eyes, and I was no longer so sure I didn’t deserve his praise. Maybe it was genius? Maybe my genius was so real that I was blind to it? I’m no critic. Augie asked me for my address, so that he might send a copy when it’s out.
Soon enough I got word that the issue had been published in Lithuania. Several of my Vilnius friends wrote to congratulate me. I got an email from an editor in Slovenia, another from an editor in Poland. They were interested in translating my story. I was proud all over again. I gave the editors the go-ahead.
Before long I received a copy of Snarglys in the mail. The magazine was square and compact, maybe eight inches by eight inches. On the cover was an artsy photo of an unswept room with a dazzling disco ball and no one inside except a goat, but who cares about the cover, because there, on page 65, was my name, and beneath my name my story. It began: Vyras negali nustoti kalbėti su juo—I couldn’t read a word but why should I have to! I’d written it! Holding the issue, seeing my name and my story in the most prestigious literary journal in the Baltics, feeling the journal’s weight, its evident prestige—it felt like a pretty serious achievement, I have to tell you.
That night I took my friend Daniel out for some celebratory drinks, though I made it sound like publishing where I had was as much a relief as an achievement, like I’d unloaded this shitty story on those Lithuanian suckers. Daniel congratulated me, was sincerely happy for me (he’s not a writer, he’s an academic). We ordered a round and he asked if he could see the journal. Daniel held it, commented on the goat, then flipped to the table of contents, then to page 65, then looked at my words and grinned. I grinned too and said, I know! It’s such a weird-looking language. He asked if Lithuanian is read phonetically, and I, the relative expert, said I think so, more or less, and he said, Great, let’s have a reading. He stood up and asked the bartender to lower the music, and then, holding my copy of Snarglys open to my page, started going at it in this melty faux-Russian accent. I thought it was pretty funny, and, though I didn’t show it, I also felt quite a bit of pride, even as I didn’t understand a word. None of the other patrons paid us any attention. Daniel read an entire page before he got bored and sat back down. He passed the journal back to me and was about to order another round when a woman who’d been at the bar—we’d both noticed her, she was blond, sharp features—came up to Daniel and asked him why he’d been reading Lithuanian. Daniel got that excited, wiggly look on his face and he said, You speak Lithuanian? She said sort of. Her mother was Lithuanian and she understood the language well enough to know that Daniel understood it not at all. Daniel, who relishes opportunities like this, told her that his friend, with his thumb indicating me, had recently published a story in a Lithuanian journal, which just so happens to be the most prestigious literary journal in Eastern Europe. Lina—that was her name—flipped through it, felt its weight and evident prestige, and seemed impressed, and Daniel, taking his cue, made up an excuse and got out of there. Lina and I ordered another round and I asked her, jokingly, or somewhat jokingly, or at the very least flirtingly, if she would read my story, I said I was curious to get her input about the quality of the translation. She agreed right away, she was a good sport. She sat erect on the stool and cleared away the empty glasses and put the journal on the bar and her finger on the opening sentence. I watched, charmed, feeling pretty good about myself, as she began to read, but then I saw how slowly she read, her finger stuttering across the page, and realized this was a mistake, this was a terrible way to flirt, but she was committed, I couldn’t talk her out of it. She read so, so slowly, and kept stopping in order to apologize. My Lithuanian is really not very good, she’d say. I’d say, Really, don’t worry about it, you don’t have to read it. She’d smile and read on.
After like twenty minutes and eight pages in, probably around the part where the couple reaches the summit, something was wrong. Lina began glancing up every half minute with this pained, almost diarrheic look. What was that? What was that look? My initial fear was that she was able to see right through me. That now she knew I was camouflaging my mediocrity in a language no one I know knows. I sat and watched her very carefully. Lina opened her mouth, shut it, opened her mouth, shut it—clearly she wanted to say something but was holding back. I said, I can tell you want to ask me something. She said, Well, and I said, It’s okay, you can ask me anything. She said, I have a question, and I said, Okay, what’s your question. And she said, Are you Jewish?, which was not at all the sort of question I was expecting. I was expecting something like, Have you ever even been to New Hampshire? (or Vermont? where had I set the story again?) or, Have you ever even been in a real relationship? and so I, surprised, but at the same time exaggerating my surprise, said, Yes, as a matter of fact I am Jewish, but where did that come from? She looked at me with what seemed like genuine surprise and said, Well, I mean, it’s hard to imagine someone who isn’t Jewish writing something like this, to which I replied Ah, right, right, like what she’d said made any sense, as if only Jews wrote about forests. I had no idea what she was referring to, but I didn’t want to challenge her, I just wanted this to be over, so I just sat and watched as she continued to read. Towards the end, on the last or second to last page, she audibly gasped—I assumed it was the bit with the supernatural event—and then she was done, she closed the magazine, laid it on the bar, and said, I’m going to go, and then added, as she gathered her things: You probably shouldn’t show this to anyone.
I was too shocked to even protest. Was the story really that bad? I rushed home and opened my computer and reread the story (in English). And? I was aghast. I was filled with revulsion. There was nothing there. Lina was right, it was awful, I shouldn’t show this to anyone. I deleted the story from my hard-drive, and then deleted the email I’d sent to Augie that had the story attached. I destroyed the thing, this little stupid half-story.
Obviously I didn’t throw out my copy of the magazine, that still felt like an achievement, or at least it had, and probably would again, given enough time, and in fact a few months later I was cleaning my apartment and came across it. Feeling unsure how I felt about it, I sat down and read it, or rather looked at it, my eyes wandering over the word-blocks for something, anything, but I recognized nothing, I understood nothing, I couldn’t even find the names of the characters, no words seemed to repeat, except, I noticed, ‘zydu’, which I assumed must be the Lithuanized version of a name of one of my characters until I noticed the word appeared also in the title of my story: Svetimas Zydu, which I looked up in an online dictionary: ‘Alien Jews.’
This was unsettling. What were Jews doing in my story? I was nearly certain I hadn’t put any Jews in my story. I never let Jews into my stories. This is something I’m vigilant about. Once a Jew gets into my story it’s over, the Jew has so much narrative gravity, the story is necessarily a Jewish story, and Jewish stories have too much to say, the problems of authenticity are too big, the morality too sharp, the symbols too grand, and suddenly I’m lost and entangled in Semitic semiotics. Pffffffft. In the first half of my half-story writing career Jews snuck into everything I wrote, hijacked all my plots, wreaked havoc. I learned my lesson. And now, for reasons I could not fathom, Augie had made one or even both of my characters Jewish.
But maybe I was getting ahead of myself…? Maybe ‘zydu’, in addition to meaning ‘Jew’, also meant something else in Lithuanian, that a more-innocent word I’d used translated to ‘zydu’? Maybe something to do with hiking, or treetops? Maybe it described forest noises or slatted sunlight, who knows. I sent Augie a very polite, casual email, asking only about the title. But after a few days I hadn’t heard back, and I was getting more and more nervous, so I asked Daniel what he thinks I should do, if he knew anyone who reads Lithuanian. He recommended I reach out to a professor in his department, a woman named Jurate Butkute, a visiting professor of Lithuanian literature. I found her contact info on the City University website and emailed her. I left it vague. I wrote that a story of mine had recently been translated into Lithuanian in a journal called Snarglys, and that I was curious about the quality of the translation. If Professor Butkute had the time, I wrote, I’d love if she’d be able to quickly read the story, etc. I didn’t mention anything about ‘zydu’, or about Lina. I lied and mentioned something about anthologies and editors, the implication being that it wasn’t really me who wanted to know, it was someone else, an editor, an agent. Professor Butkute wrote how exciting, how fortuitous, it was that I’d written her. She had, she wrote, heard so much about my piece in Snarglys, but had been unable to get her hands on a copy. She’d heard that the author was based in New York, and as it happens she’s been trying to get in touch with me. So this, my emailing her out of the blue, was just wonderful. Would I be able to swing by her office, around lunchtime, any day this week? She signed off, Warmly, Jurate. We made a date.
Dr. Butkute’s office was stuffy and harshly lit. Dr. Butkute was a handsome middle-aged woman with a large and serious jaw. In reassuringly fluent English, she told me how utterly thrilled she was to meet me, to at last have the opportunity to read for herself my story. For the life of her she could not find a copy in New York, and the copy her colleagues sent—or claimed to have sent, she joked—hasn’t yet arrived, Lithuanian mail! ha ha!, we laughed—and would I object if she took twenty, twenty five minutes, right now, to read the story? I said of course and handed her my copy. She leaned back, crossed her legs—she was, you could tell, just by her pose, a serious reader—and read, and she read raptly, with the little exhalations and lip-bites of someone moved and surprised, and once or twice she gasped out loud or made other noises that signaled—what it signaled I wasn’t sure, to be honest, so I asked, as naturally as I could manage, in the manner and voice I thought an author might ask someone who’s reading his work, Which part is that? What part are you up to?, but she just went on reading in her quick professional way, responding to me with a raised but polite finger.
When she was finished she closed the journal and tossed it on the desk with a dramatic flourish, then we sat silently. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, so I squinted and said, Okay, not in a beseeching way, not even in an inquisitive way, but in a confirmative way. She nodded gravely and said, Not okay, far more than okay, because this—she tapped the magazine—is an artifact of fiction that is truly extraordinary. I stuttered a thank you, to which she said, Oh, don’t thank me, why would you thank me?, you’ve written a story that is, above all else, significant, a story with ramifications of political and historical nature, and while she spoke she looked at me with the sort of lustful writerly admiration I’d always dreamed women (and men too) would look at me with. It hit me that of course the story’s mine, because that look is for me and that look is for the person who wrote the story, so it must be me who wrote the story; what exactly Jews were doing in my story we’d figure out soon enough, but really—who cared. I said thank you again, this time with a lot more confidence. I waved off the praise, claiming with a suitable amount of aw-shucks-ness that, No no, it’s really not such a big deal, it’s just a story. She shook her head and said, You writers! Where on earth do you find your inspiration? For instance, the time travel! Tell me, did you read a lot of science fiction as a child? I can envision—and maybe I will even write!—a paper on this: how the element of time travel seamlessly conveys so much complexity!, how the mechanics of narrative are bent in such a way as to, in a sense, give yourself and give your reader permission to reapproach a topic usually so out-of-bounds. It is like a protective layer of whimsy with which to handle such ferociously sensitive material.
Oh yes, I nodded, trying to recall anything about the supernatural event in my story, particularly how hazy or unhazy I’d made it. As far as I could remember it was very hazy. I said, Oh I read tons of science fiction as a kid. Brilliant, she said, then she flipped through the journal, rereading passages out loud, in Lithuanian. I smiled blankly as my confidence that the story was mine wavered. If my story had time travel in it, and it had uninvited Jews in it, what else was in there? but at this point I couldn’t very well just up and ask Dr. Butkute what the story I had written was about, so instead I asked (I thought rather cannily), Do you have a favorite part? A least favorite part? Anything you think I should change? She said, Oh no no, I’m no writer. But I pressed. I said I was asking her as a reader: Was there anything that threw you off, that you thought maybe didn’t fit, was too much, too little, might be reworked, cut, expanded? Your feedback would be very helpful, I said. I am thinking of expanding it into a novel.
Oh! she said. Well in that case. Certainly there were things that threw me off, the whole story threw me off!, but isn’t that the purpose? The obvious example is the incest. For all practical purposes this is the only taboo left. And the incest in your story is not so-called standard incest but incest put in a sensitive and perspicacious dialogue with the Jewish wartime experience. All I could do was nod. She continued: and the genius in your choice to employ and integrate the narrative elements and conventions of science-fiction is, in my opinion, that it allows you to create what I believe is a fundamentally new hermeneutic. Hmm, I said, that’s so interesting. But what exactly do you mean, fundamentally new hermeneutic? And thus our conversation went. The professor would make a comment and I’d ask questions designed to fish for more concrete details about my story but posed carefully so as to hide the fact that I was fishing for details of the plot of a story ostensibly written by me. Dr. Butkute was sharp and had what were seemingly very informed and learned opinions about the story I’d written, opinions I didn’t understand at all, because at this point I was (pretty) sure I hadn’t written it.
The more we spoke, the less I understood, and the more worried I got that I was going to say something that would expose me, that would reveal my non-authorship, so I told Dr. Butkute I was so sorry but I really had to go but it was such a pleasure to have met her. She stood and shook my hand and said it was an honor for her to have finally met the young genius, and she hopes it won’t be too long till we can talk again, till maybe I can show her more of my work.
I went home and paced my room and scratched my cheek, which is what I do when I’m really anxious, and after an hour and a half of pacing and scratching, I looked up a professional translation company. I called them and explained at length and in a manner I thought very clear what I required, that all I needed was a plot summary, not a word-for-word translation. But all they offered was publication-quality translation, and the cost, calculated per word, was outrageous. So what I would do, I decided, is type my own story, type carefully these blocks of strangely vowelled characters, into an online translator. It wouldn’t be a great translation but it would be, for my purposes, totally fine.
Feeling very calm and purposeful, I sat in front of my computer, my copy of Snarglys open on my lap, and got to it. I typed out my entire story. This took an exceptionally long time—every word was a nightmare to spell—but as I typed it felt like I was actually writing: I achieved a sort of communion with the words, maybe not exactly authorship but also not not-authorship? In fact it felt like particularly inspired writing, something close to pure inspiration, all unfiltered, unmediated. I didn’t understand what I was writing, I was just writing. This communion was interrupted only when I came to a word I recognized, and there was only one word I recognized, which was ‘zydu’ and variations thereof, and it showed up roughly once a paragraph, and each time it shattered my fuzzy illusion, and panic would flood in and I’d remember why I was doing this, why I was transcribing character-by-character in the first place.
It took six, seven hours, which I did straight and with nearly unwavering attention—this was easily the most successful writing session I’d ever had—and then copied and pasted into an online translator. I clicked and there appeared a rough translation of Augie’s translation of my story. Now, given the well-below-idiomatic quality of the translation of Augie’s translation, it wasn’t always easy to follow, and there were a number of passages I was extremely confused about. But as best as I can tell—
My story now followed a young man who lives in a big American city, and who is Jewish but ambivalently so (or, as the story puts it: I am a Jew, of course, but, in fact, that means am? This eye color, hair curliness of simplest genetics, like more than anything else, should be involved, how quickly I can run?). The protagonist attends what seems to be a fancy party. There he is cornered by an older man who’s also Jewish but far more conspicuously and consciously Jewish than the protagonist is, and they have a conversation that is seemingly extremely theologically charged. (At one point the conspicuous Jew says: God, the Jews, God is not your pants. God does not care about your penis pants or you put on it. God cares about you, he cares about; Solution is everything.)
The protagonist, alienated and annoyed (could be I’m projecting, but this was the motivation that seemed to make the most sense), leaves the party and goes to another party. I’m unsure why he didn’t just go home. It could be he doesn’t know why, either. He’s looking for something, that much is clear. There is a distinct sense of ‘searching.’ He leaves the next party, too, goes to a third party. At each party he has an uncomfortable conversation regarding Jews/Judaism, then leaves. He does this the entire night, each party a little fancier and more exclusive than the last—from penthouse to loft to club to apartment to loft, each party pointing to the next, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Eventually he reaches the top, he arrives at what appears to be the most exclusive party in the history of the city. (More than you can imagine fancier is a party, and you thought your dream was filled to the Bath, each with luxury living.)
This party is happening in a loft the size and shape of a warehouse. Even in jumbled English it’s an eerie scene. There is no music, no one is talking—it’s totally silent. Everyone is just standing around solemnly, watching each other. The protagonist wanders the enormous room. In a far dark corner he comes upon a ladder, hidden inside a rolled-up purple velvet curtain. He climbs the ladder. He climbs up inside this thick velvet cylinder, he climbs and climbs, way past where the ceiling should have been. Soon he can’t see down, all he sees is a circle of purple dark below (« circle of purple dark »—that’s my description, by the way, that wasn’t in the translation of the translation). After an impossibly long time he gets to the top, where there is a wooden trap door. The trap door is very old—the wood is warped and there’re cracks and mildewy stains. The protagonist (always a good sport) pushes up and goes through the trap door.
There’s a paragraph break and the protagonist is suddenly in a cellar. Low ceiling, uneven wooden floor, etc.—all in all very cellar-like. Dank, dark, dirty, you know. A single candle throws shadows onto the stone brick walls (the shadows are reported very extensively), and it becomes apparent that the protagonist isn’t alone: there is with him inside this cellar a young girl. As far as I can determine, she is very pretty. She is afraid, shaken, but what she’s afraid of and shook up by is not the protagonist’s sudden appearance but these stomps overhead (which the protagonist seems to take quite a long time to notice, but whatever), of what sounds like booted men stomping around upstairs. The protagonist asks the girl who she is, what those stomps are, why is she in this basement, why is he in this basement, but she doesn’t understand the questions, she doesn’t speak his language. She just shakes her head and motions for him to be quiet.
The protagonist (apparently finally ready to call it a night) tries to leave, to go back down the ladder, but the trap door will not open. No matter how hard he pulls it won’t budge. He’s stuck. So he waits with this girl until the clomping retreats. And when it’s finally quiet, when it’s finally safe, the two of them exhale and look at each other: they are holding hands. It’s a warmhearted but also uncomfortable scene—the energy between them is distinctly sexual. And indeed, things start heating up. Kissing, touching, disrobing. At this point, though, the story got very unclear. It was impossible to tell if my incomprehension was due to the poor quality of the translation (the computer’s fault) or the Lithuanian text itself (Augie’s fault (or my fault?)). Here’s what I did figure out. The protagonist and the girl seem to have sex (the shadows of their entangled bodies on the stone walls are lovingly reported). However, it also becomes clear that the protagonist has traveled in time and that this girl is in fact the protagonist’s grandmother. Let me emphasize that it’s not clear at what point—which is to say: before, during, or after the maybe-sex—this fact becomes clear. In fact it’s not even clear if the protagonist is aware that he’s related to this young girl, or if it’s only the reader who’s let in. But to reiterate: regardless of what the protagonist believed, whether he knew or did not know the real identity of this girl, she definitely is his grandmother and they definitely have maybe-sex.
This certainly did seem to be quite a departure from the original text.
So that was the translation of the translation. Now, speaking strictly in terms of content: this certainly did seem to be quite a departure from the original text. I felt embarrassed (re Lina, and also a little bit re Dr. Butkute), upset (at Augie), and annoyed (at Daniel). But all of those feelings were well overwhelmed by the intense feelings of shame I was feeling vis-à-vis my Bubby, who is still alive and who is a lovely woman who lives in Queens and loves nothing more than to make runny, buttery eggs for her grandson on Sunday mornings, and who is in fact a Holocaust survivor. And while I don’t know the particulars of Bubby’s story—she never seemed all that interested in sharing, and we, apparently, were never all that interested in learning—I do know it involved quite a bit of hiding from Nazis, very possibly in cellars. So obviously my fears galloped straight towards the worst possible scenario: what if Bubby reads my story? I know, I know, it’s unlikely, but what if my survivor Bubby reads a story written by her obnoxious grandson about a young Jewish man who has maybe-sex with his grandmother while they’re hiding from Nazis?
Now, as far as I was aware, Bubby didn’t speak Lithuanian. But at the same time I wasn’t actually certain that she didn’t speak Lithuanian, because sometimes, you know, these survivors ended up in whatever random country, ended up spending lots of time with other survivors from other random countries, and you just never know what languages they might have picked up. So, nauseous with anxiety, but also feeling stupid about said anxiety, I called Bubby and, after some warm-up talk, just straight up asked her. I said, Bubby, I have a question for you. What? she said, I’m using the white phone and can’t hear you so good, so I said, louder, I have a question for you, and she said, So bubbele, so ask. I said, Bubby, you don’t speak any Lithuanian, right? Lithuanian? she said, What, Polish, Yiddish, English, Russian, French not enough that also I should speak Lithuanian? Haha! I laughed—the relief came so sharp and fast it was almost painful—and then she asked me if I was coming for breakfast that Sunday and I said of course!
The anxiety felt done away with, or at least managed. That this version of the story was in Lithuanian was as good a guarantee as I could have hoped for that my grandmother, who’s not a big reader, not in English, not in Polish or Yiddish, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t read anything except the Five Towns Jewish Times, who certainly doesn’t read literary journals let alone foreign literary journals, would never, ever, ever come across the story. And Bubby almost certainly didn’t know anyone, very likely doesn’t even know anyone who knows anyone, who would conceivably come across an issue of Snarglys.
I wrote Augie another email. It was coy and careful—the story was being acclaimed and it was mine and I may even have written it, and I wasn’t rushing to give that up—and I opened by saying how much I loved the issue, that, haha, I wish I could read it!, and let him know how much positive attention I’ve been getting over here, and I was curious as to the reaction in Lithuania. Funny story, I went on, I have a good friend here in New York, Lina, she speaks some Lithuanian—I get the sense that Lina’s Lithuanian isn’t very good; certainly it’s better than mine, ha ha, but still it’s not great—and she read the story and she told me that she couldn’t totally follow but was pretty sure that ‘grandmother’ appears in the story, somewhere towards the end, as does ‘Jew’, which, actually, Lina said was all over the place. This was a little surprising, I wrote, because—we must have spoken about this at some point last year…?—I never allow Jews into my stories. It’s a strict rule of mine, I wrote. Nothing major or urgent, of course, just wanted to reach out and ask you about this—I guess I’m interested in hearing about your translation process. Warmly, -M.
Augie never got back to me, because he had died. I learned of his death (car accident) the next day on Facebook. All of my Vilnius friends were writing long, heartbreaking posts about Augie and his life and his work and his art and his character. I sat at my computer and read and cried a little. These posts were like daggers. I realized I’d hardly known Augie. My friends were linking to obituaries in the national newspapers and sharing eulogistic posts written by eminent Lithuanian artists and writers and politicians. They were calling Augie a genius, a visionary. Saying his death was a national tragedy. I felt sad and ugly and petty. My stupid little story. Augie was tapped into something I couldn’t access, not even—or perhaps especially—in regards to my own work. I was incapable of appreciating the essence of anything, let alone literature. Dr. Butkute, I could see, hadn’t been mistaken. I clicked away from Facebook and opened up the translation of the translation, read it again, this time without prejudice, without fear or shame, with still-wet eyes. And there was something special there. I understood now that Augie and I had collaboratively created something really significant. There was something pretty magical going on. All that stuff Dr. Butkute had said, all that stuff about fundamentally new hermeneutics, she was right on. But my pleasure was marred: the sentences, as you’ve seen, were a disaster, just a huge sticky syntactical mess. This won’t do, I said to myself, and without quite planning to, I spent a good few hours combing the story, fixing the syntax, smoothing out the English, resolving any semantic ambiguities. (The end stayed vague and unclear, though, as it was meant to.) I wasn’t quite rewriting, and I wasn’t quite editing—it was more like restoring. The metaphor in my head was: a fine vintage automobile (=the story) had been driven off a cliff (=run through the online translator) and now had to be fixed up. When I was finished I stood up and said to myself, In honor of Augie. I thought: Maybe one day, after Bubby passes on, I’ll publish the English translation of Augie’s translation of my story.
Then I remembered that the story was being translated into Polish. For all I knew it could have already happened. All that fear and shame rushed back: Bubby doesn’t really read, but the mere fact that the story would exist in the world in a language comprehensible to her was enormously unnerving. Distraught, I dug up the email of the Polish editor, a guy named Jan. Immediately I wrote and asked about the translation, where they were in the process. Jan responded a couple minutes later that it was great to hear from me, he was actually just about to write me—my story (a masterpiece, he said in parentheses) was going to be the feature story of the upcoming issue of Sracz. He apologized that it had taken this long; Snarglys was of course a very respected journal in Lithuania but Sracz was really of a different magnitude, it had more writers, more issues, more editors, things simply took longer. And the translator they had in mind, really one of the best, was only now available, but she was, Jan assured me, worth the wait. Dear Jan, I wrote back. Thanks so much for the quick reply, and for all your work, it does sound exciting. I hate to do this, I wrote, but unfortunately I have to rescind my permission for you guys to use my story. It’s a little complicated, I feel terrible, I’m really very sorry. If it’s any help I can send another story in its stead. Just give me a couple weeks. With apologies, -M. Jan responded: I hate to do this but I simply cannot cut your story. Without your story—and this story in particular, not simply a story by you—we have no issue. These issues are built carefully, I’m sure you’re aware. But you needn’t be worried, I assure you: in every conceivable way, Sracz is superior to Snarglys, and I promise we will do your story justice. I wrote back, straining to be civil, that it was my story, my choice. He responded, also straining to be civil, along the lines that he didn’t much care, that the writer is the writer, sure, but after a point you lose that power. I sat and scratched at my cheek and read and reread the exchange. I was very upset, I wanted to unload on Jan, but that, I knew, was a terrible idea, at least strategically, it’d ruin any shot I had of avoiding having this story appear in Polish. And they hadn’t even started the translation, certainly there must be something I could do to derail or at least hijack the process. It came to me. Dear Jan, I wrote. I apologize for my tone, I got carried away. I just really care, you know? It’s a very personal story, very delicate, very sensitive, and I think maybe it’s important that I use a translator I know and trust. So I had an idea: What if I used my own translator—namely, my grandmother?
Here’s what I was thinking: I was thinking I could take my cleaned-up version of the English translation of Augie’s translation of my story and extricate gently all the parts I was uncomfortable with. Delete the Holocaust, erase the incest. I could expel the Jews from my story. Send ’em packing. What would remain would be a weird little unsymbolic story about parties and time travel and a little bit of maybe-sex, but there’s nothing wrong with weird little stories about parties and time travel and a little bit of maybe-sex. Then I’d give it to Bubby, she’d put it into Polish, I’d send it to Jan, maybe he’d miss the excised parts but if the story was truly a masterpiece then even censored it would still be pretty good, and everything would be wonderful.
Considering your story, Jan responded, this is a very interesting idea. He also apologized for his tone. He referred to my grandmother as a brave and literary woman. He gave me a week to get it in.
I called Bubby, confirmed we were on for breakfast that Sunday. She said, Of course, and I said, Great! I can’t wait to see you, and then, as if it had only just occurred to me, I told her that a Polish magazine wanted to translate one of my stories, and maybe she’d be interested in helping me with the translation? She was a little confused and said, You want that I should write a Polish story? Sort of, I said, except that you won’t have to make anything up. Hm? she said. So what is it you need me to do? It’s nothing, I said. It’s very easy. Just translate, that’s all. I’ll tell you a funny little story and you write down what I say, but in Polish, and then we send it to Poland on the computer. So why not? she said, and also on Sunday when you come bring new bagels.
I got to work. Like a surgeon I carefully laid out Augie’s restored translation and excised the parts that needed to come out: any mention of or even implied reference to Jews, incest, or the war. Then I sewed up the holes, making minor amendments as necessary. Then a few cosmetic changes: the gender of the protagonist I changed, made it a woman. And the last scene I now had take place not in WW2-era Europe but in Cambodia circa 1975. The booted men, it was now implied, were Khmer Rouge. The girl in the cellar—I kept her as a girl. I had no idea how to make it sexual, so I had them hug for a really long time. Admittedly the amended version lacked a little something, but it would have to do.
That Sunday I bought half a dozen bagels and took the subway to Queens, to my Bubby’s. She made me her wonderful, runny, buttery scrambled eggs, and afterwards, we sat at the table to do the translation. Bubby, pen and fresh pad at the ready, beamed; she was very excited. Ready? I asked. Ready! she said.
So I began reading her the story but right away I realized—once again but also for the first time—how stupid and shitty this story was, it was so flimsy, it was so nothing, it made no sense, it was entirely implausible, it had no flow, it had no edge, the characters were paper-thin, etc., and so on the fly—I’m a much better speaker than I am writer—I improvised, edited, added details, filled out the characters’ backstories, made the world they’re inhabiting richer and more interesting. Overall my sense in the moment was that it was a vast improvement but it’s also true that it made my telling a good deal more confusing, more convoluted, I wasn’t sticking to any script. But Bubby was phenomenal. When something wasn’t clear, she pressed. She made sure she understood the order of the events and the nature of the events. She took notes on everything. It was slow and tedious work, but by the end of the story I felt proud and cunning.
Bubby was eager to type it up right away. While it’s new, she said, before it goes rotten. I stuck around for a couple hours, sitting on the sofa behind the desk, watching Bubby write my story. I’ll admit I was moved, collaborating like this with my grandmother. Mostly I stayed silent but occasionally I asked what part she was up to; she’d answer, but I could tell the interruptions annoyed her, and eventually she said I should go home, she was sure I had a lot to do, no point in waiting. I protested, I said I didn’t mind sticking around, and besides I had to wait for her to finish, as I had to send it to Poland. Bubbele, she said, go home go home, rest, I can send it to you, I know how. Are you sure, I asked. Yes yes, she said, but also leave for me the address of the man in Poland, so if I have to ask him certain words I’ll be able to, young people speak different. I didn’t want to leave but Bubby wanted me to leave; I think she was having an emotional experience, maybe, writing for the first time in a long time in Polish. So I wrote down for her Jan’s email, and, just in case, my email. I love you, Bubby, and thank you, I said, kissing her on her forehead. The eggs were delicious, as usual.
In the morning I had an email from Jan saying how much he loved the transdistillation. He hadn’t realized how cutting edge this project was, he wrote, and can’t wait to publish. Glad everything turned out well. I wrote Jan back: What do you mean, transdistillation? And then I called Bubby. Bubby, I said, they love your translation. Ya? Ah this makes me happy, she said.
But Bubby, I said, you never sent me what you wrote. Oh no? The two emails, maybe I mixed up. I can send you right away. Thanks, Bubby, please do, I said, but what did you send? Jan wasn’t replying; I assumed he had
Bubby, a few hours later, forwarded me what she had sent. It was, in its entirety, a single paragraph, which I copied and pasted into the online translator, which, this time, had no trouble at all: this story, Bubby’s story—my story in Polish—was written very simply, with short sentences, easy syntax, easy vocabulary.
Once upon a time there was a duck. The duck was not happy. The duck was not happy because more than anything else in the world, the duck wanted to be a horse. So every day when the duck woke up, he would walk to the stables and pretend he was a horse. In the beginning the horses mocked the duck. « What are you doing here? » they said. « You are not a horse! » But the duck was very stubborn, and every day he came back to the stables. « What are you doing here? » the horses said, again and again. « You are not a horse! » But every day the duck came back to the stables and pretended he was a horse. After many days the horses got tired of telling the duck that he was not a horse. They learned to accept him. The duck was a little bit happier. But he was still not completely happy, because he was lonely. One day a very pretty girl duck came to the stables. The duck was in love. The duck said to the pretty girl duck, « I love you! Do you love me? » « Yes, » the pretty girl duck said, « I do love you. But are you a horse? » « Of course, » the duck said. « What else would I be doing here? » They got married. MORAL: The story is about being who you want to be, but also about being who you really are on the inside. THE END.
That night Daniel and I met up and had an interesting conversation about this. Initially, I’ll tell you, I was extremely unconvinced that Augie’s translation was anything more than some high-concept literary prank. I told Daniel that the only part of the story that was mine was my name. Everything else, I said, was Augie’s, at least as far as I could remember. Daniel read the translation of the translation. I don’t know, he said. What do you mean you don’t know? I said. What don’t you know? Well, he said, for starters I haven’t read the original. Yes, I said, but I’ve told you the gist of it. And secondly, Daniel went on, I’m not entirely convinced that this isn’t a translation. Are you kidding, I said. Don’t get mad at me, Daniel said. All I’m saying is that you might have to expand your notion of translation. What! I said. Daniel shrugged and said that translation means different things in different places. I don’t have any idea what that means, I said. Think about it this way, he said. It could be that a quote-unquote literal translation of your story into Lithuanian would have made no sense. I disagree, I said. I think it would have made perfect sense. They have forests in Lithuania. I don’t totally remember what else it was about, but certainly there was a lot of forest. You think your story was about forests? Daniel said. My story was absolutely about forests, I said. Let me ask you this, Daniel said. What if you’d written a poem about forests? Would you say then it was about forests? Yes, I said. Then it would be a poem about forests.
Daniel said, Tradurre e’tradire. What? I said. What did you just say? Nothing, Daniel said. No, I said, tell me, what did you just say? It’s an Italian phrase, he said. Have you read Lawrence Venuti? Fuck you, I said. Look, Daniel said, I can’t read Lithuanian, and I don’t have the original, I can’t really comment. But Venuti says that translation is extracting, down to the root, the complex of abstract things, the emotions, symbols, moods, and replanting all of that in a foreign cultural soil. The point is to transmit not information but the unfathomable and mysterious stuff that’s beyond the information. So your story, he said, was the singular work of a singular mind, an American mind, a Jewish American mind circa now, and the job of the translator is to ascertain that in translation the spiritual and psychological truths of the story are not lost. I rolled my eyes and said that’s bullshit. Round and round we went. Eventually there was nothing left to say; all we could do was wait and see what Augie had to say, see if Augie was in fact undertaking a high-concept translation or just being a high-concept dick.
It took a few days, but Jan eventually did get back to me. It had been a hectic week, he wrote. When you ask me what transdistillation is, he continued, I assume you’re asking me not the definition (because obviously you’re already familiar!) but my personal stance on it. It is a rather controversial subject right now in certain Polish literary circles. My take, personally, is that it is concerned with form and with power and also with what I like to call directionality. I find it somewhat romantic, like the kiss of a text. Jan quoted Derrida for multiple paragraphs. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I texted Daniel, my go-to authority on matters of lit theory. As far as Daniel knew, it was very trendy in the former Soviet Union. He’d seen a research paper examining recent transdistillations of the great Russian works. Most of these had appeared on Twitter.