For Women in Translation Month, Godine intern Ethan Resek corresponded with Aleksandra Lun, an accomplished translator and the author of The Palimpsests, an experimental novel in translation which, through the lens of absurdist humor, comments thoughtfully on immigration, cultural ownership, and our personal relationships with language. Their conversation below dug into many of these themes.
The Palimpsests is her debut novel and will be out from Godine on October 24th.
One of the first things that the reader sees when they open the book is an epigram from “Against Poets” by Witold Gombrowicz: “It would be more reasonable of me not to get involved in drastic issues because I find myself at a disadvantage. I am a completely unknown foreigner, I have no authority, and my Spanish is a small boy who can barely speak.“
There seem to be a lot of subtle connections between this quote and both the content and construction of your book, especially when it comes to who holds the power in language. Unlike Gombrowicz, who tries to avoid “drastic issues” in this foreign land, Przęśnicki writes full novels in his non-native language and gets into a whole lot of trouble with the natives because of it. Was there a linguistic conflict in your life or in the translating world that inspired you to write this book about the linguistically conflicted Przęśnicki?
Rather than a conflict, I would say there is a general misconception. When you enter another culture there is a silent expectation that you will—linguistically—stay quiet. Your acquired language is supposed to be purely utilitarian, a necessary vehicle of communication. You only need it to work or socialize, and you are supposed to revert to “your” language as soon as you can, especially when undertaking an intimate activity like writing. You are not supposed to talk to yourself or write a diary in a foreign language because it is “not yours.”
And yet, as Jacques Derrida said, a language doesn’t belong to anyone. Then who claims to own it? And why? One not only immigrates into a country; one immigrates into a language, but there is this cultural expectation of a correct way to be an immigrant meaning, amongst other things, being faithful to your mother tongue.
According to this script, an immigrant called Samuel Beckett would be working at a call centre in Paris, only using his French to speak with his work colleagues and then rushing home to watch Irish TV. Fortunately for us, Beckett wrote in French and ended up winning a Nobel Prize in Literature, and he and other illustrious immigrants, like Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, or Ágota Kristóf, whose language choices I describe in my book, didn’t follow the official script, one so naïve in perceiving identity and mother tongue as static and impermeable concepts.
In my case, nine years ago, after spending twelve years in Spain, I moved to Belgium. So culturally, as a Polish citizen living in Belgium, I have even less “right” to write in Spanish. My answer to that is that I have earned the right to write in Spanish because I had to pay for Spanish lessons to learn something that native speakers got for free—so let me write novels in your language or give me my money back!
When did you decide you wanted it to be a Spanish-language book rather than one of the many other languages you know?
Let’s say that when I write in Polish, my mother tongue, I am an experienced and overconfident driver of a giant truck. I don’t need a map because I know the highway by heart. I proudly observe the road from the height of my homey cabin as the radio plays The Beatles’s “Yesterday.”
Writing in Spanish I drive a stolen sports car. It’s much smaller than the truck but also faster. I get to see more since I replaced the GPS with a portable radio playing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. I sing along as I pull over to hide from a police patrol looking for language thieves. It’s a linguistic “Thelma and Louise,” hopefully with a better ending.
Continuing with the automotive metaphor, writing in English I would be driving a convertible bought on credit—in a snowstorm. In French I’d drive a rental car through mountain roads, not able to see beyond the curve. In Catalan it would be a cozy and comfortable campervan, and in Italian a scooter (you don’t really want to see me driving a scooter). In Romanian I would be observing my vehicle being towed away. And in Dutch I’d stick to a bicycle for now.
Przęśnicki worries and thinks excessively about his writing and his language choices in the book. He explains to his therapist that she “should be happy I wrote in Antarctic and not in Polish. Slavic languages, with the freedom proffered by their declensions, presented an added difficulty for the writer faced with a blank page, for if an Antarctic writer was met with innumerable possibilities, then a Polish writer came up against infinity. If I wrote in my mother tongue I would grow even more anxious when faced with a blank page and it was not in my interest to get anxious, given that I was dependent on the health sector of a country that had had no government for the past year.”
As a translator of a variety of languages, do you find yourself relating to this statement made by Przęśnicki that some languages provide distinct opportunities for writers and translators? When you read the English translation of Los Palimpsestos for the first time, did you find yourself lost in the differences?
Reading the English translation of The Palimpsests was a delightful experience because I fell in love with that funny and intelligent book that I was reading for the first time. Elizabeth Bryer’s translation is excellent, and I am very grateful for her creativity and sense of humor. To continue with the previous automotive metaphor, we could say that every language is a different type of car, and yet they can all get you where you want to go: in a different style or through a different path, but with a good translator, like with a good driver, you always enjoy the ride. Borges said that translation was a translation of spirit and that is what Elizabeth did with her translation of my book, unsurprisingly awarded the PEN/Heim translation grant.
Sex, sexuality, and desire play a big role in the novel. Occasionally it seems that Przęśnicki is just as controlled and restricted by his sex life (and the infrequency with which he has “sexual relations”) as he is linguistically in the asylum. What connections did you see between the two (sex and language) when you were writing the novel?
I wouldn’t say that sex plays a big role in my novel; it is rather Przęśnicki’s fantasies and experiences that lead to his frustration, which is logistically inevitable because he somehow manages to only desire deceased people. Hemingway is only one of the famous dead bodies he wants to cuddle with. That’s the danger of literature: it can entertain you and it can lift you up to spiritual heights, but it can also make you have sexual fantasies about people who died two centuries before your grand-grand-grandfather even had his first sexual intercourse.
Are sex and language connected? They probably are. It is our key contemporary ritual to connect everything to sex, including sales or the fall of the Roman Empire.
There is a precise repetition in both the narrative and the language of the story. Besides adding an extremely effective comedic element, what else did you want to effect through this narrative tool?
My repetitions are a comic tool but also a musical one since I conceive writing as composing music, and I need a particular rhythm. I have no musical training, so I cannot explain how it happens technically, apart from the fact that I often read aloud as I write. If I was a musician in a previous life, I just hope I wasn’t Wagner.
What are you working on now? Do you have any translations or novels coming out soon? Anything else on the horizon that you are especially excited for?
I am now finishing my second novel that I am very excited about. It is also written in Spanish: that’s something I am asked a lot. When I was writing my first book, I got plenty of surprised comments on the fact that I was writing it in Spanish. I thought that question got answered once and for all with the publication of The Palimpsests, but it turns out it didn’t. Now I am asked all the time if my second novel is also in Spanish. I guess it will continue till the last novel I publish. I imagine my funeral full of very surprised people.
Aleksandra Lun (Gliwice, 1979) left Poland at 19, financed her studies in languages and literature in Spain by working at a casino, and now lives in Belgium. She translates from English, French, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, and Romanian into Polish, her mother tongue. Among other works, she has translated a book of conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. Her first novel, The Palimpsests, written in Spanish, has already been published in France, where it garnered critical acclaim, and its translation into English by Elizabeth Bryer won a PEN/Heim grant from PEN America. She is currently studying Dutch and working on her second novel.