In addition to being one of the most impressive new translators to come onto the scene in recent years, Emma Ramadan is a good friend. I was very pleased to see her translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx become a huge success, and I was excited to see that Emma then began work on a second translation of Garréta’s. That book is now with us, Not One Day, a sort of catalogue/journey-through-memory of Garréta’s experiences with women. That book is now published.
When Emma is not translating, she is preparing to open a new independent bookstore called Riffraff with Tom Roberge, formerly of New Directions and the prestigious French bookstore, Albertine, on New York’s Upper East Side.
I reached out to Emma via email to learn a little more about Not One Day, as well as her experiences with Sphinx and Garréta.
Scott Esposito: Most people reading this interview will know of Anne Garréta through her first novel, Sphinx, which you also translated. That novel has been very often described as a “genderless love story,” and, indeed, never revealing the gender of the two lovers at the center of the novel is that book’s foremost constraint. Sphinx granted Garréta entry into the Oulipo, where she would continue to write books employing various constraints. So, can you tell us a little about what the premise of this book is, and some of the constraints employed therein?
Emma Ramadan: Not One Day begins “Why not write something different, differently than you usually do? Once more, but with a new twist, rid yourself of your self…Since you can no longer conceive of writing except in long and intricate constructions, isn’t it time to go against the grain?” But unable to resist her self, Garréta proceeds to set up a series of constraints that have come to feel characteristic to her writing. “If you aim to thwart your habits and inclinations, you might as well go about it systematically.” And so we get the constraints. Garréta vows to write every day, for 5 hours straight, for a month, teasing out the memory of one story of desire each day, a woman she has desired, a woman who has desired her, (hence the idea not one day without a woman), or a different kind of desire altogether. Written in the order they come to mind. Arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically. No pen, “nothing but the keyboard,” no draft, no notes, writing only from memory. Not writing things as they happened, or might have happened, or as she wished they had happened, but as they appear to her in memory in that moment. No erasing, no rewriting, “syntax matching composition.” The ultimate aim being to dissipate herself through this process, “in order to dispel the desires that you still feel.” These constraints are clearly laid out in the Ante Scriptum at the beginning of the book, but Garréta hints in the Post Scriptum that some of these rules may have been broken in the process.
SE: To talk about Sphinx for a moment, this book has been very successful in your translation, and you’ve had the opportunity to do events in support of that book and to represent it in various capacities. Can you tell us about some of the reactions to this book by readers you encountered?
ER: I was blown away by the incredible response to Sphinx. People really seemed to connect with the book, which I think speaks to the power of Garréta’s fictional world to embody precisely what it is people seek out in their own realities, but are often unable to inhabit because of the nature of the society they live in. Ultimately Sphinx is the demonstration that gender is just one more false binary that has been imposed on us by outside forces. Many of us feel a disconnect between our lived experience and the ways we are told and expected to live in the world. By creating the possibility for a new way of talking about love and relationships that doesn’t have to subscribe to typical constructions of gender, Sphinx has carved out a space where people can project themselves onto these genderless characters in a way that they can’t always with characters in other books, providing a different experience for each reader. It was pretty fucking special to meet and talk with other people who found this opportunity in Sphinx to be as necessary and effective as I did.
SE: Do you feel that Not One Day provides some of the same opportunities for the reader to project him or herself into the text?
ER: Yes, but maybe not in such a straightforward way as in Sphinx. Not One Day is, essentially, one woman’s memories, experiences. And while many of those experiences may be relatable for some, many of them won’t be. But the conclusions Garréta draws from her memories, about desire and the way we talk or write about desire, the way desire is expected to play out versus the ways it manifests in reality, those conclusions can certainly be adapted to anyone’s experience, and are meant to provoke thought in everyone who reads the book about their own relationships. So in a lot of ways, the take-aways do resemble those of Sphinx, but they’re grounded in one person’s reality rather than taking form in a fictional space.
SE: What were some of the challenges of translating this book? Some of the pleasures?
ER: The biggest challenge for me in translating this book was the same I faced in translating Sphinx: Anne Garréta is a genius who puts her genius ideas into writing in a way that can be difficult for the average human to understand, let alone rewrite in English. The Ante Scriptum and the Post Scriptum are pure thought, and Anne and I Skyped and went over almost every line of those chapters so I could better get in her head to translate them. Another challenge was that I strongly believe in the idea of translating constrained writing by applying that same constraint to yourself, as I did with Sphinx, but for this book it just wasn’t possible. Translating each chapter in five hours without any editing just wasn’t going to be feasible, particularly not for a book like this.
The biggest pleasure of translating this book was how personal it is. It was a new experience for me to delve so deep into the life and mind of an author, especially someone like Anne whose writing I think of generally as deeply intellectually driven. There’s a lot of vulnerability and humanity in this book, and it’s a nice change to translate someone’s life as opposed to someone’s words.
SE: It’s clear that Garréta’s writing has touched you really deeply. It I’m not mistaken, Sphinx was the first book of hers that you read. Could you talk briefly about how you discovered Sphinx and why you wanted to translate it?
ER: I read about Sphinx in Daniel Levin-Becker’s book Many Subtle Channels, which is about the members of the Oulipo and their work. I was curious to see how it had been translated in English, since gender works so differently in the French language than it does in the English language. And when I realized that no one had translated it yet, I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge.
SE: Which episodes from Not One Day did you like the best?
ER: I loved translating B*. It felt very real, this idea of pacing the room, replaying your encounters with a given person, debating whether or not to make a move. I could imagine the scene very clearly in my mind, could feel Anne’s anxiety. I also liked translating K* because as I was translating it, I felt as though I was discovering along with Anne her true feelings for K*. The process of realizing things as you flesh them out in writing is on full display here.
SE: I like that idea, using the same time constraint to translation the book that Garréta used to write it. You mentioned that she wrote this book in a month. How long did the translation take?
ER: To be fair, in the Post Scriptum at the end of the book, Anne reveals: “As for writing every day or even every night, that was rather optimistic… Did you really bank on so easily curing yourself of your cardinal vice—procrastination?…What should have been a month’s work was disseminated over more than a year.” It probably took me, also, just over a year, editing time included.
SE: Which constraint of Garréta’s (from any book, story, etc, translated or not) do you find most fascinating?
ER: Anne’s novel La Décomposition has as its protagonist a serial killer who systematically assassinates the characters of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Anne once showed me an enormous binder full of the notes she used to write that book. She has called it “a strategy for reversing the censorship, for opening the potentiality of the Proustian text.” Which is pretty great. But Sphinx‘s constraint is still really exciting to me, it has so much explosive potential to it, I’d like to see everything from Greek myths to nursery rhymes to the literary canon rewritten without any indication of sex or gender.
SE: What’s next for you and Garréta? Another book? Other projects?
ER: Honestly, I’m not sure! I heard a rumor that she’s been producing a lot of new writing recently, so who knows…