My Mother, the Translator

I taught myself to type – using a book titled, approximately, Teach Yourself to Type – the summer after my junior year of high school, which is when it became clear to me that asking my mother to type my school assignments was intolerable. I was studying writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and turning in handwritten work was disallowed, in part because we were to learn to view our own work with the critical distance necessary for effective revising via the helpful anonymity of pica and elite, and in part as an early lesson in discipline and professionalism that in retrospect I appreciate. I could have typed my own stories if I’d gotten them written early enough in advance of each deadline to allow for my own hunt-and-peck technique that sent my fingers questing helplessly around the keyboard; but then one day I reached an impasse: I didn’t get my story finished until an already fairly advanced hour of the night before it was due, and I had no choice but to beg Mom for help. And help she did, her fingers flying across the keys, because she was, among other things, an expert typist. She had even learned shorthand as a girl – Pitman rather than Gregg, I think – something I tried my hand at too because it was such a strange new language, with many commonly used words represented by a single curved or slanting stroke. She was good at typing, but she was my mother, and she had opinions, and her commentary on my work grated on my delicate adolescent nerves. I’m far from adolescent now, but I know that even now I would not want my mother typing my work for me. Even though I love her lots. It’s just how it is. Now imagine that instead of typing your story, your mother is translating it into her native tongue that was originally yours as well before you emigrated and became a writer in English. And that she is good at it but also has opinions about the work strong enough to make her want to become a co-writer at crucial points. That’s Jaspreet Singh’s story, and he tells it beautifully in Granta. You can read it here.

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  1. juliacgs says:

    Very interesting, Susan. Last summer I translated “Mofongo”, a novel by Cecilia Samartin, a cuban-american writer who, of course, writes in English.

    The novel will be published in Spain in the next few months, and of course, I am eager to know what she has to say about my work (particularly considering that our Spanish varieties are not the same), but I am not too afraid, because she is a sweet person, and will not be harsh on my work, although she will surely have her opinions…

    It is always interesting to get to do works like that, because it takes the standard up when we know the author is going to peep into our work and understand it and feel it with our own words…

    On the other hand, I think that if I wrote something and got to be translated, I’d love to pester the life of my translators telling them how I would like to have things done.

    By the way, I loved Jaspreet Singh story: that translation circle between mother and son is very inspiring.

  2. Wow, Susan. Jaspreet Singh’s story hits me right in the gut and makes me want to read those memoirs when they are ready.

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