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Miracle by Jen Calleja

Translator Jen Calleja pens her trip to Rome, Italy, to meet author Michelle Steinbeck for the first time. My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Sea is out in October 2018.

This article was originally published on tinyletter.com

Tw: sexual assault

On the shuttle from Fiumicino Airport to Termini, I start feeling small and anxious. After a brief email exchange, the Swiss author whose novel I’m currently translating has invited me to come and spend six days and five nights with her in Rome, where she is in residence for 10 months – so here I am. I project various possible worst case scenarios, including her disappointment in me and/or the translation, misunderstandings, awkward silences, and ultimate rejection resulting in evenings spent eating alone in my room (wherever this will be, I haven’t asked a lot of questions) onto the passing view of apartment blocks.

When I disembark I’ve worked myself up to a peak nervousness, and suddenly realise what I’ve done: I’ve fled the safety of my routine, as well as pre-Christmas downtime, for the second year in a row for a solo trip away motivated by the intensity of writing and translating. But in spite of six weeks spent in Zurich last year, I feel just as awkward and tense. This time I’m in Italy to spend long periods of time with not only a stranger, but a stranger who is relying on me. Will she find me strange, boring, childish, unprofessional?

I spot her wearing a bright red jacket where we had agreed to meet, between two gilded Christmas trees, and I warm my face up to smile so I can give a positive first impression without it coming across as false. I don’t want her to take one look at me and think: I see a few brooding, self-conscious days before me.

I apologise that she has been expecting me for nearly an hour already because I hadn’t made the earlier train and she gives a little shrug and a smile and says that it was no trouble at all. This tiny gesture dissolves all my circular predictions. A more relaxing and familiar passing of time together comes into focus in my mind’s eye.

After a short walk through the already darkening streets flooding with the rush of the end of the working day, we arrive at what looks like a Beverley Hills mansion or an amusement park ride or an immersive installation. A palatial house, surrounded by a high stone wall. Through the automatic gates I can see a manmade, arched faux-rock grotto, which shelters three pools of coy carp.

The house seems to float above and slightly back from this rocky cliff-esque creation. It has a very large, mesmerising, magical purple neon sign that reads

M I R A C L E

on the front of it, which is splashing the palm trees around it with violet light. I imagine a mysterious song starting to play in the distance. Later I’ll learn that hidden speakers play birdsong to scare off the green parakeets here in the grounds of the house.

This sign couldn’t be more fitting for this moment, I think to myself.

She shows me around the walled grounds of the Villa Maraini, now the Swiss Institute in Rome. Private gardens, with a fountain, and cockatoos in a cage. Lemon, orange and grapefruit trees covered in cheerful fruit. There are many entrance-exits to the institute. If you come in the front, you walk via the reception down a long mirrored corridor where you greet the bust of the architect, Otto Maraini, before getting into the wooden lift.

My room has the highest ceiling I’ve ever seen. The twin singles have bright yellow duvets that reflect against the walls, just as the zingy purple MIRACLE reflects on the building opposite the right-hand window. The en suite has white and yellow tiles.

 

Swiss author Michelle Steinbeck.

***

I don’t personally believe in fate or mysticism, but coincidences, connections, repetitions and deja vu have always guided my life with their reassuring signs. I know I’m susceptible to them, but often they surprise me, as if they really are naturally occurring. Some are clear, others more subtle. For instance, I have a one year old cat, she is called Ludo (Ludovica). The street where the institute is located is called via Ludovisi, after the creator of the villa turned museum in the nearby park, Ludovico Ludovisi. It feels like the trip’s been signed off on when I discover this.

When something amazing, almost miraculous happens, it’s thrilling because it seems to be the manifestation of the impossible, even if it can often be logically explained away. Sometimes, however, it does feel like it would have always been unattainable until that very moment.

Almost a year to the day before standing in the driveway of the Istituto Svizzero in Rome, I was at a writing salon in Zurich while writer in residence in the city, telling the assembled writers in the warm flat that I was reading a book I felt a strong connection with, a book that was like a waking dream or nightmare that I couldn’t get off of my mind. It was Michelle Steinbeck’s Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch (My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water, a surreal story of a young woman who accidently murders a child and goes on an adventure to bring it to her father in a suitcase, is one way of describing itand now, through a strange series of events (being entranced by the cover, being given the book by a friend, a chance tip off), I was translating it, and it had brought me to Rome.

And even before all of this, ten years before being in Zurich working on my own novel, I would have been in the first few months of university in London, the first person in my family to go into higher education – overwhelmed, shy, dependent, reclusive, mildly traumatised and broken-hearted from my time spent living alone in Munich (my German: still terrible) and starting to write my first complete stories and poems and personal essays to submit to the university magazine.

And five years before Munich? Starting my first relationship, believing that I would never leave my home town. At some point that year I read a short story my best friend had written and I was confused and in awe as I read it in her bedroom – do regular people write stories, poems, books, not just read them? I had written as a young child, but had forgotten how or why by then. (We still laugh about the time we were on the top deck of the bus riding from Hove to Southwick in our mid-teens and talking about the future and I said I want to be the best, the best at something, anything, whatever I ended up doing, and she shrieked I WANT TO BE THE BEST, laughing at how ridiculous a statement it was.). I think she is the reason I became a writer.

Five seemingly long years before abruptly reconnecting with the idea of writing in her room, I was excused from going to school assemblies to write short stories with a couple of other pupils. Whether it was because I had shown talent, or because things were complicated at home again, I don’t remember. I think this was also around the time I wet myself in a supermarket car park because I was, perhaps, too passive and nervous, or it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask my parents if I could go to the bathroom while they loaded up the car with shopping.

And, to do the unthinkable? Go back a further five years? I was a serious, odd, practically silent child. ‘An old head on young shoulders’, my first school report would read.

My 4 year old, 9 year old, 14 year old, 16 year old, 18 year old, 19 year old, and even 29 year old selves would never have anticipated or even at that point really desired this private, perhaps wholly minor and ordinary miracle to ever happen, but at 30 (and, as of a week ago, 31), I’m glad that I never saw this coming, rather than it feeling like something I was just simply waiting for, something I’ve always been destined to do. At what point in my life did an experience like this, being in Rome with Michelle, become on the cards?

After I had been confirmed to translate her book, I learned from Michelle that the year previous to my six week stay in the little attic room in Zurich, she had sat at the same desk in the same room writing this book, our book, while between flats. We had both written our books in the same place. I had brought her book with me and it had been on the bedside table during my time there.

There’s a framed poem by the German poet Durs Grünbein about this institute in the corridor a couple of floors down from our rooms. He too had been a resident here. I had written my Masters dissertation on Michael Hofmann’s English translations of Grünbein’s poetry five years ago. ‘Ja, ich war hier!’ – Yes, I was here! Is scrawled above his signature, all of it written in red-orange colouring pencil or crayon, a bold choice, as if he was as stoked on being here as I was. But I know it’s a reference to a line in one of his poems on the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden: ‘du bist nicht dabei gewesen’ (you weren’t there), itself a reference to the criticism he received for witnessing something in his poetry that he didn’t experience himself. There are unspoken rules around this kind of thing.

The day before arriving in Rome, I had given a talk at the university where I’d done my Masters on my career as a literary translator since graduating, opening with the anecdote that in one of our lectures we were discouraged from trying to become a translator of literature because it was too difficult, practically impossible.

An unforeseen, glorious return.

The good and bad things that have happened have led to this defining moment, a unique constellation of events has brought me here, in spite of certain obstacles and false starts.

***

Foucault said: “Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same”. Don’t define me, and don’t expect me to remain fixed. A translated line might say this too. (Is this line also a translation? One possible translation of the line? It is in any/every case a translation from Foucault’s undulating mind into the outside).

We ask so much of translated lines:

But what exactly are you?

Trust me, relax, just enjoy our time together, and take my word that I’m the same as the original.

But did you keep all the words? What do you mean you could appear in a different guise?

Not only am I nothing like the original, but I could appear as a whole array of nothing-like-the-originals.

***

We nonchalantly create a routine for ourselves. We meet on the landing at 9/9.30/10 (neither of us is a morning person) and trot down the stairs, me trailing her, to go and have a coffee and a croissant-like pastry, due cappuccini e due cornetti. Or un cornetto – from one morning to the next Michelle wants or doesn’t want one depending on how she feels in the decisive moment, or on how the pastries look.

Then we go back and print a chapter of my translation in the beautiful, underused, partially subterranean library, with lemons and oranges hanging outside the window, and then go all the way up to Michelle’s atelier in the roof with a pot of green tea for her and black tea for me. The room has three porthole windows, and a ridiculously oversized wooden desk.

We go through the opening chapter first, which had sealed the deal for me to be the translator, along with my apparent enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm as part of a translation practice.

Working together is relaxed, easy, intense, serious, jokey, meticulous.

We discuss words, word orders, single sentences, for hours.

The subsequent chapters we dissect are not final drafts – they include the multiple word and line choices I keep until I do my second draft. I want to see what choices Michelle would make in English, though I get the final say, she confirms:

a barrage of abuse / a wave of insults

steam roller / lawn roller

survey one another / look each other up and down

you’re a damn liar / you’re a lying so-and-so / you’re lying left, right and centre

happy are the little children / ignorance is bliss

fashioned / constructed / pieced together / thrown together / assembled

kid/child (and should we consider Kid with a capital K? Because it’s not wholly a kid, it’s also both dead and undead, but not a zombie, but also a metaphor, but also a child, and in German you can just have ‘das Kind’ that has that archetypal power you lose in the English, but then would it just become a metaphor, an archetype?)

Mastiffs/Great Danes (and can you really claim a Great Dane is the size of a calf? I’ll check…
Image: Baby Calf Rescued From Slaughterhouse Thinks He’s A D…’:
‘What they didn’t expect to happen, was that their Great Dane had actually taken up the role of the calf’s mother! The Dane’s name is Leonidas, and together…’)

Google Image Searching ‘Great Dane and Calf’ as translation research.

She especially loved the word peculiar

Anything funny, weird or strange we come across during our time in Rome we declare peculiar.

Though we only work in the morning/early afternoon, and one evening, the book remains mapped onto my experience of Rome. I see the suitcase (carrying the Kid) on the pavement, I see the whole fish (that the Father’s pregnant wife loves to eat pickled) lying in the street, my window with palms thrashing about in a storm (like the view where the strange Artists live at sea) distracts and transports me.

***

Translator Jen Calleja.

Michelle is wonderful in restaurants.

She strides in smiling, laughing at the waiter’s quips I don’t understand, patiently translates everything on the menu for me and is still happy to choose and confidently order, asking questions.

What if I were this open and at ease all the time instead of shuffling and mumbling?

The day I arrive we eat battered fish, chick peas and fennel salad with white wine and I kind of conduct an interview with her.

The top of my list of things to discuss is ‘the controversy’.

A famous German literary critic had appeared on a literary review TV programme in Switzerland and said she thought the book was not only terrible, but that its author was clearly sick, mentally ill. Michelle says that she’d said a lot more worse stuff, but that it got edited out so she wouldn’t get sued.

While working at the main arts venue in Zurich a few years earlier, Michelle had had to provide hospitality for this critic. Little did she know that she would be giving big newspaper interviews in response to this critic’s outrageous claims about her debut novel. One press quote we’re using for the book that I translated is from this critic: ‘If this is the next generation then God help us’.

A few nights later, we go to a very nice restaurant near the institute. As we’re looking at the menu, a woman as part of a couple at the table next to us is complaining about her dish.

‘I thought it would have a sauce and be filled with seafood!’ she loudly tells the waiter in English in a Russian accent, prodding a plate of what looks like plain spaghetti.

‘That’s what I’m going to get’ Michelle says. ‘It’s ricci de mare’

I look it up: sea urchins.

While we’re waiting, we get on to talking about being comparatively young, on being presumed to be middle class because we’re writers, and eventually, Me Too.

Everything blurs even further in this moment. Is this two young writers, now friends, having dinner? Is this an author and her translator after a day of work? Is this two young women talking about being patronised, harassed and assaulted? If it is all of the above, what does this mean?

She had written a piece about being assaulted by a colleague at a theatre she was working at when a few of them stayed the night to save going home in torrential rain. When I read the piece online it made me feel connected to her – the author I’m translating has experienced what I have experienced.

It’s an important moment, we agree. I personally couldn’t muster the energy to do anything public in this moment. It brought a lot of things whooshing back from some other, hidden place, and I felt mute and frozen.

But I tell Michelle.

About the older translator who forcibly kissed me twice at a work meeting in a café.

About someone who’s acted inappropriately at different times when we’ve been alone or when greeting me at literary events and once even bit me on the mouth, presumably because we had gone on one date in the past and I had been talking to him about a friend of his I’d been rejected by.

The work meetings where it has become clear that the editor or programme manager or whoever doesn’t want to talk about work at all and has decided it’s a date. I won’t talk about the music scene here.

But if any of you who have wronged me and feigned respect for me knowing that I looked up to you at the time as peers are reading this, I just want to say in this moment, though it changes every moment: I’m disappointed.

I could have easily said disturbed/exhausted/angry/revengeful.

Dinner as, no, not confessional: as cathartic curse casting.

When Michelle’s meal is set down, there is a pungent waft of stagnant pond, and she seems to regret her choice with a screwed up face. It is a portion of very simple spaghetti, but with two dark blots on the side with some parsley – they look like two thin slivers of liver, or blood clots, or leeches.

Giggling, we dare each other to eat a leech. I go first, and it is like chewing a salty slug that tastes like the bottom of an old fish tank.

When the waiter comes over to see if she’s enjoying it, as if to prove the woman’s complaint was unfounded, Michelle looks up wide-eyed and says it’s ‘intenso’. Then we both burst out laughing.

From then on, anything bad we see or discuss we declare leech

Anything good we declare intenso

***

On Sunday and Tuesday morning we don’t work.

We spend a few hours on Sunday walking around a market. My feet are like ice, and browsing means squeezing through tiny paths between the stalls. I had forgotten that no matter what tat there is at a market, the fun and the thrill is the treasure you might find.

At the very first stall we both try on the same creamy mohair coat, and I eventually buy it. It’s like nothing I would usually wear, and maybe seeing Michelle wear it first imbued it with something that made me want it. Walking around Rome with Michelle feels like I’m inhabiting her and her voice, I feel like I’m in her world.

Wearing the coat feels like dressing up, like I’m someone completely different, which is partly how I feel when I’m out of the country and away from people who know me anyway. I can act differently, be confident, outlandish, even coquettish, because no one will call me out for being a fraud: someone seeing me in the street is none the wiser about who I am, that is, what the process was that resulted in the version of me I am at this point. Out of context, I can experiment a little.

Playing dress up as experimental translation of self.

Michelle finds an old framed print of an angularly-drawn bird with a wine glass – a poster for an alcohol brand from the seventies. As she walks through the market, people stop her to ask about the print. An old lady says that she used to have a similar one, a young man asks, did you know that brand now sponsors the big literary prize in Italy? An old man working at a stall says, bello, it reminds him of being a boy, and, how much will she sell it for?

On Tuesday, my last morning in Rome, Michelle books us a viewing slot at an exquisite art museum, Galleria Borghese, in the nearby park.

I had already walked around the park on Saturday afternoon on my own. In the Pincian Gardens, where the view overlooking Rome and Vatican City is, there are 228 busts depicting famous Italian thinkers, scientists, writers and artists, and only three are women. Of its time, we might say. It made me feel like I was trespassing, which made smirking at them slightly more enjoyable. What must it feel like to be a young girl walking around here? There are a lot of young couples making out on the benches in the incredible light.

The museum gives me a sore neck from looking up at the adorned and painted ceilings. Every look in any direction is too much to take in, my eyes focus on tiny, often whimsical details as a defence mechanism against the onslaught of seeing so much. Cherubs blowing bubbles, a badly painted baby. Room after room of marble sculptures and paintings and hand-painted wallpapers and tiled fireplaces and a whole room of Popes. How is 2 hours enough?

I enter one of the larger rooms. I remain near the doorway. Sigh. Roll my eyes. I wasn’t expecting to see it here.

The central piece is a version of the same sculpture I’ve seen many times before at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The one before me, like much of what is in this museum, is by Bernini. While writing this piece, I find out that the other, poorer quality sculpture in London is possibly by an artist called de’ Rossi, but is more likely by an artist called Peri.

The sculpture before me has the title Ratto di Proserpina, and though I don’t speak Italian, I remember what the title of the sculpture is in London – The Rape of Proserpina. I remember my double take – this white marble sculpture of a man gracefully heaving a women into the air is called The Rape…? The English translation given underneath the Italian title in Rome – and, I discover online, the new given title of the sculpture at the V&A – is just Pluto & Proserpina.

Translation as half-arsed substitute for not worshipping the depiction of violence against women, imaginary or otherwise.

Yes, it meant something different then, ‘to be carried off’ as in ‘thieved’ as in ‘stolen from one man by another/lowered in value for exchange’ as much as the simpler meaning we still have today. While researching this, I find there’s a term and accompanying body of work for this kind of unsettling depiction: ‘heroic rape’, where the act of violence is romanticised, sanitised.

Hit by Cupid’s arrow/not responsible for his natural urges, Pluto/Hades falls in love/kidnaps/takes by force/assaults Proserpina/Persephone and takes her to the underworld/and does who knows what else, is how the myth goes.

Myths from every age and era dictate our contemporary expectations of ourselves and others.

‘Ancient myths’ is another term for ‘present frameworks of reality’.

The text accompanying the sculpture is leading, to say the least:

‘portraying a woman trying to escape from a lover’

‘succumbing to the god’s strength’

‘represents an admirable contrast between tenderness and cruelty’

‘today we are still amazed by the rendering of Proserpina’s soft flesh, into which Pluto’s hands are thrust’

An accompanying sculpture in the next room shows the same subject-matter, this time of Daphne and Apollo.

It shows Daphne trying to escape, just as Proserpina does. Daphne is transforming into a laurel in the process.

The accompanying text casually reads:

‘Daphne had prayed to be dissolved or transformed, and her prayer was answered’

That is: she would rather no longer exist than be raped.

Both Daphne and Proserpina have tranquil, sleepy, almost expressionless faces that divulge barely any emotion at all.

***

Just before leaving to head to the airport, Michelle takes me up to the roof of the institute. It has the second highest viewpoint in the whole of Rome.

She brought a new Italian friend up here and he was grateful for the chance to see somewhere he’d lived all his life this way. He’d never thought he’d get to have this experience, the one these Swiss and English women are having right now.

‘If I lived here and had this view whenever I wanted’ I say, looking out across the sepia buildings and infinite cloudy sky, ‘I would feel so motivated to write’.

‘If I didn’t know that we would still be in contact over the next few weeks, I would find it very strange now you’re going,’ she says at the train station.

A few hours later, waiting for my delayed flight’s departure time to be updated, I would already be missing my temporary routine that had asked so much of the best and special parts of me and at the same time had left undisturbed or at least soothed the parts that seem to cause me the most trouble and distress.

I’ve surprised myself, again.

Flight time: 4.30
Expected: 6.15

***

Laughing with the author about eating leeches in a restaurant

Giggling and pointing with the author at cherubs in an art museum

Making silly faces in the mirror with the author in the hallway of an institution

Experiencing a city through the author’s positive, joyful disposition

Creating a secret, shared language with the author

Two young women up in a tower editing in the dark

as processes for translating fine literature.