[Veliz Books; 2021]
Writer and translator Naomi Washer’s new novel Subjects We Left Out centers around a translator and her work translating a French text about love lost while also examining her own missed chance at love. We don’t know the translator’s name. She says we can call her Isabelle, the same name as the author of the French book she is translating. She calls her lost love Alex, the same as the French Isabelle’s lost love. Washer’s prose is beautiful, and the mood of the novel feels ethereal and haunting, evoking the sense of seeing a person from your past crossing the street just ahead of you. I found myself particularly interested in the way that Washer uses the act of translation as a means of not just moving from one language to another but as a way to understand or translate another person.
As a translator myself, I was prompted to revisit my notes from my last translation class while reading this book. I’d scribbled in a notebook that “one should look at a text as anthropological — not doing this makes you a poor reader — listen to the story as its equal, not as other.” In this way, translation becomes an intimate practice. A translator has to read carefully and try to understand the nuances and mind of the original writer before carefully crafting their words in a new language. Translation is a collaboration between two minds, and it creates a new piece of art. Washer’s narrator does approach the French book in an anthropological manner. She sees herself as equal to Isabelle, giving herself the same name and literally transposing herself into the French Isabelle’s place and mind. The narrator is introduced to French Isabelle through a professor who thought they might like each other’s work, and the narrator takes on the project of translating French Isabelle’s first book Langue entre-temps/Language in the Meanwhile, a collection of prose poems addressed to Alex, an American she got to know while he was studying abroad for one year at her university. French Isabelle describes their relationship as one in which they “knew each other intimately, but nothing ever happened.” The narrator tells French Isabelle that she understands her so well because she had her own “Alex.” She writes, “I’ll call him Alex here too because it’s simpler and because both guys were similar too . . . Isabelle and I were similar too. Let’s call me Isabelle too.” The rest of the book follows the narrator’s memories of her own Alex, an Italian, taking his own year abroad at the narrator’s university in Chicago. Throughout the book, there are sections of Langue entre-temps, followed by the narrator Isabelle’s explorations of her own experience, her own Alex, as she meditates on them through the process of translation.
The narrator is still reeling from how she felt for Alex and its loss. They shared an intellectual intimacy, challenging one another in classes, in their translation work, spending long evenings together, but never crossing the line into something physically intimate. She shows us that her relationship to Alex was not unlike a translation, a back and forth of ideas, a collaboration of two minds. The narrator understands that to acknowledge the relationship could shatter it as Alex will eventually return to Italy. The narrator Isabelle holds herself back from asking more of Alex, or stating how she may feel about him because she is afraid of making a fool of herself or having to consider, as she writes, that “this constant conversation meant, in the end, nothing at all.” Maybe she is mistranslating Alex and to ask a particular question will make the entire project fall apart. She fears that her interpretation of their relationship is not reciprocated. Working through the French Isabelle’s book allows the narrator to reflect on what that intellectual intimacy meant to her Alex:
“You know what you want,” her book told me, “you just don’t want to be the first one to say it.” It was true; I never had. I never said to my Alex what I had wanted to say, just as Isabelle had never said to her Alex what she had wanted to say. None of that mattered now. Or rather, a new meaning for it all had arrived: Isabelle had written it, and I was bringing life to its translation.
In this passage, the narrator Isabelle evokes “constant conversation” in the context of the deep connection that she feels to her Alex, just as a translated text is also in “constant conversation” with its original. The translator’s thoughts must always be in constant conversation with the original author’s — this is necessary for the translator to discover how to understand the author and to make one another understood. It is also necessary to “constantly question” while in the act of translating. Are you understanding the author’s true intent? Or are you treating it as “other,” making it too much your own and losing the original meaning?
This passage also evokes the necessity of translation between two people. Both pairs of Isabelles and Alexs come from different countries, cultures, and first languages. Of the French Isabelle and her Alex, we only have some pieces of Langue entre-temps, but we trust that they had a similar intellectual intimacy with one another because of the way that the narrator Isabelle is relating to the text as she translates. For both couples, some amount of literal translation is required between them to communicate, yet there’s another layer of translation required to understand what it is to love another person. All the partners have “compulsions” towards one another, but they are never quite able to make themselves understood. The narrator Isabelle never “says” to Alex what she wants to. She never translates her compulsion into language for him. If she had, there was a possibility of their connection being broken apart. What if either Isabelle translated her compulsion to her Alex and found that she had misunderstood all along? For the narrator, the loss of understanding and intellectual intimacy is much greater than the physical loss of Alex returning to his native country. Now both Isabelles work together in translation to create a new meaning, a new piece of art, from the intensity of both intellectual challenge and intimacy, paired with the ultimate lack of true acknowledgement between each of them and their lost loves.
Kaycie Hall is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn by way of Jackson, MS and Paris, France. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Bennington. Her work has appeared in Entropy and Neutral Spaces. You can find her at kayciehall.com or on Twitter as @kaycie_hall.