Humor and Translation

Ways to Disappear

By Mark Herman

One way to disappear is to be a translator.

However, Emma Neufeld, the translator protagonist in Ways to Disappear, a novel by Idra Novey (Little, Brown and Company, 2016), who is herself a translator, literally disappears for most of the book, in that her American friends and family do not know where she is. And Beatriz Yagoda, the Brazilian author whom Neufeld is translating, disappears even more completely: no one knows where she is.

Novey is a poet, a teacher of creative writing, and a literary translator from Spanish and Portuguese into English. Her most recent translation is The Passion According to G. H. by Clarice Lispector.

Beyond the fact that any novel written by a translator with a translator protagonist is likely to be of interest to other translators, Ways to Disappear is fun and fast to read. However, most translators are unlike Emma Neufeld, in that they do not totally identify with their authors, do not consider themselves closer to the authors than the authors’ own children, and do not have love affairs with those children. So, in many ways, the book is a translator’s fantasy. But less fantastical is Novey’s depiction of translating as a sensual experience:

With each sentence, she sank further into the words and her voice began to rise. She’d lived with these descriptions for so long, had mulled over them as she drove through the snow and while she brushed her teeth.

And wasn’t the splendor of translation this very thing—to discover sentences this beautiful and then have the chance to make someone else hear their beauty who had yet to hear it? To arrive, at least once, at a moment this intimate and singular, which would not be possible without these words arranged in this order on this page? (132)

In the novel, Emma Neufeld compares domesticating a translation to lying to her boyfriend:

A translator could justify moving around the object in a sentence if it made it easier for her audience to grasp what was going on. She could even change an object into something more familiar to the reader to avoid baffling him with something he wouldn’t understand. It often occurred with food—with a fruit, for example, that the reader wasn’t likely to recognize and therefore whose sweetness he could not imagine.

The problem with domesticating things this way, however, was the possible misplacement of truth. Emma had made a practice of keeping this dilemma out of mind, of trusting that she was experienced enough now to intuitively know what could be moved and what couldn’t … (169-70)

Indeed, throughout the book decisions required of a translator are paralleled with those beyond translation. For example, to what extent should a translator disappear; that is, be “transparent” and not call attention to the translation as a translation? To what extent should a translator become involved with or take the author’s life into consideration?

Many of Novey’s images involve trees. The fictional author begins her disappearance by climbing, together with her suitcase, into an almond tree. Her disappearance is much publicized and her books become bestsellers. After a second author also climbs into a tree to gain publicity, and is later found murdered, the local scandal sheet warns other authors in Rio de Janeiro to stay out of trees.

The stories written by the fictional author are strange. In disappearing into a tree, she seems to be following one of their plots. In another story, five brothers forget their names, each believing he is called Bruno.

One thing that rings absolutely true is the mistaken notion that a translated book earns lots of money. A Brazilian loan shark to whom the fictional author owes six hundred thousand dollars believes he can recover his money from the translator’s and author’s royalties for one of her books!! This is one fantasy that is not fulfilled in Ways to Disappear.


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.


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