Crotches Crossed and Sexes Mixed
Emma Ramadan with Mirene Arsanios
December 1st, 2015
Emma Ramadan is the translator of the Oulipian novel Sphinx, written in 1986 by French author Anne Garréta. The narrator is a young, disillusioned theology student-turned-DJ who falls in love with A***, an African-American dancer living in Paris. Garréta’s Oulipian constraint extends itself into a pronoun-agnostic narrative in which the reader is rendered blind to the characters’ gender. This is no small feat, when one considers the entrenched patriarchy native to the French language, where almost all objects are sexed. I met with Emma to discuss her translation of Sphinx. Our conversation swayed between the translation of the book and Garréta’s narrative itself, which Emma viewed with the intimacy that only a translator can.
Mirene Arsanios: How did you encounter Sphinx? And what made you want to translate it?
Emma Ramadan: When I was in college, I got interested in the Oulipo movement. I read a book by Daniel Levin Becker called Many Subtle Channels about the Oulipo members in which he mentions Sphinx. I was really curious to see how someone would have translated the book. I went looking for it in English and couldn’t find it: it hadn’t been translated. I was curious about how one would write a genderless book in English versus how one would write one in French. What kind of difference would come out? I’ve always been interested in translation of Oulipian works and how they change in another language. How they have to change. So I got a copy of it in French and started translating Sphinx.
MA: Was Sphinx your first translation?
ER: I did a book of prose poetry, which is coming out next month actually. That was my first book translation. It’s called Monospace by Anne Parian. It’s a very weird contemporary book of prose poetry. That was my first real translating experience. I always go for the things that are experimental and weird.
MA: Is there any connection between Garréta and Parian?
ER: Not at all! But because it’s poetry, there is an inherent constraint to translating it. There is a lot of sound in it, which I wanted to keep in the English translation.
MA: Garréta has a very ornate, almost baroque prose. How difficult was it to respect her stylistic choices in English?
ER: In French, Garreta mainly uses the passé simple, which immediately connotes a high register. That was the hardest part for me, being able to get that register in English while making it sound natural. I was reading a lot of books in English that had been written with that kind of register, like Alan Hollinghurst or Edmund White. Getting the voice tone in a high register was harder for me than taking out gender. There is no passé simple in English. There is no way to convey that tone other than through vocabulary.
MA: Don't you think it's ironic that in order to “remove” gender, you had to resort to novels epitomizing white maleness?
ER: In French you’re able to convey different aspects of language through verbs, whereas we can’t do that in English… In a way English words have less contained within them; they can do less than French words can. In French, for example, every noun has a gender. There are so many little things you can do with that. You can play with language in ways you can’t necessarily in English.
Concerning parallel literature, I also read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which is not at all about whiteness, but still about a male experience. I did read other female queer writers (Monique Wittig, Djuna Barnes) but struggled to think beyond Alan Hollinghurst as a point of reference for a book that was both queer and written in a high register, which is not to say similar writing by women isn’t out there, just that I probably didn’t dig deep enough. Or maybe it means that queer women like Wittig are tearing apart language instead of glorifying it.
MA: Would you say that French’s binary gender structure is also what allows you to play with language and subvert it?
ER: It allows you to fight back.
MA: In a passage of the book, the narrator describes body parts and genitalia. Garréta genders the genitalia without gendering the person. In your blog Brouillon, you discuss the sentence; “Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. Dans la confusion nous nous endormîmes” which you translate, after lengthy deliberation, as “Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything.”
ER: There’s a review in the Quarterly Conversation by Chris Clarke in which he talks about something I hadn’t noticed myself. There are certain parts in the book in which the narrator will be describing A’s body, and the nouns she uses will alternate gender. The head will be one gender (“la tête”), but the rest of the body parts will be masculine. There’s a part where the narrator talks about watching A dancing on a stage and each noun alternates between masculine/ feminine. Garréta does so much with language and gender on the page, screwing with your ability to perceive A***’s gender. And I can’t do that in English. That was something I had to lose in English.
MA: Though Garréta successfully avoids gender, other binaries creep in: the confessor and the listener, who is black who is white, who is smart who is uneducated. How does she challenge these other categories?
ER: There is a part in the French in which the narrator meets A’s family in Harlem and a part in which she/he/they is with A’s mom in the hospital. I wasn’t entirely comfortable translating the way Garréta wrote about the black characters. This book was written in France in the 80s. In present-day America, certain things sound culturally offensive. When in the hospital with A***’s mother, the narrator keeps bringing up that she is black. In the French, Garréta refers to two men at the end of the last chapter as “les noirs.” In English you can’t just be referring to them as “the black guys.” She also uses the word “nègre”, or more precisely “les origines nègres.” In English you can’t say “the negro origins.” That’s just not OK. So I had to change things like that.
MA: Did she agree?
ER: It’s funny because I met with her in Paris and told her I wasn’t really comfortable translating the word “nègres” and she couldn’t believe she had used that word! She absolutely agreed to my translation.
MA: Though Garréta doesn’t erase all binaries, she wants her characters to be fluid and able to navigate different cultures and spaces.
ER: Yes. The narrator, for example, is really educated but works in a nightclub. She can enter into any place: gay bars, straight bars, etc.
MA: What I find really clever about the book is that formal constraints end up serving the narrative. For example, A is a silent character because it would be difficult to make A*** speak without revealing gender. Yet, at some point, A complains to the narrator ““How do you see me, anyway?,” turning silence into awareness.
ER: Garréta knows that if you closely read the book, you’re going to know that A***’s character is not fully developed. She owns these limitations.
MA: Though Garréta skillfully plays with these constraints, do you think it is “enough”?
ER: I think that this is why the book had to be framed the way it is: one person looking back on their memories of a love affair. We see everything through the narrator’s perspective. But the book could also exist without the constraint and still be believable: one person is self-obsessed, trying to purge a terrible love affair by disregarding another person’s personality. Many people complain about this book saying they don’t believe it. Maybe they’re hyper aware because they know there is a constraint.
MA: We often expect fiction to be believable, for the characters to be fully developed, but I’m not sure this was Garréta's intention. At the end of the book the narrator, who is writing a book about A*** , projects the book's ambivalence by saying: “What do I do now with this pile of paper, impossible to neatly classify as an essay, novel, or allegorical memoir.”
ER: I think, and I’m speaking for Garréta here, that the characters and the story need to be believable because if nothing is believable then Garréta failed. She is trying to make the following point: gender shouldn’t matter in literature and in reality. You should be able to read the book without noticing the absence of gender. When the book first came out, some people reviewed it without realizing the absence of gender. Though there is no gender, are you still touched by this love story, are you still engaged? Not by the characters themselves, but by the narrator’s experience of that love.
MA: Experience and desire are gendered too. Feminist and lesbian writers have fought to emancipate female desire from the phallus. I can’t tell if Garréta’s version of desire is feminist, emancipated. It feels very Catholic and guilt-driven. There's a persistant binary between flesh and spirit, and the book is mined with religious metaphors.
ER: I wonder if the way that desire is framed is partly formal. It needs to be in the past tense. It can’t be happening in the present tense. It can’t be an ecstatic kind of desire because it’s not happening in the present. In English you could easily write a present tense genderless novel. In French it would be hard.
MA: How influenced was Garréta by Wittig and L’Écriture féminine? Wittig wanted to dismantle French’s built-in patriarchy. She wanted to abolish the female/male binary…
ER: Yes, “Femme” in French (woman) also means wife… Wittig uses language to fight back against language. She tweaks words that are masculine by default, making “quelqu’un” into “quelqu’une” for instance. When I first met with Garréta and asked what books I should be reading, she said Wittig and Barthes. She even wrote an introduction to one of Wittig’s books, Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes. She was definitely influenced by Wittig, but she didn’t like Écriture féminine. She thought it was too essentialist. Garréta wanted to get out of any categorization: you can’t say, “A*** is a woman because she is a dancer.” So in my opinion, she’s a feminist.
MA: While reading Sphinx I sometimes had the feeling that Garréta wanted to create an out-of-body experience. The body is either murdered, or sick, or very pale. She uses light and shadow metaphors, walking the line between the visible and the invisible (“as if my identity had been lost or dissolved within the chiaroscuro”).
ER: The narrator is constantly saying that A***’s body is vanishing even if the narrator is holding it. Her/ his/ their body was probably never there in the first place, and yet, all we get in this book are bodies!
MA: The book celebrates bodies yet bodies are in a constant state of decomposition.
ER: And it’s celebrating bodies in all their different forms. All bodies, even the ones that don’t fit within society’s expectations. Especially those.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of not identifying with something you’re supposed to--the way you feel, dress, desire--and not have words to talk about it. Then your desire doesn’t exist because it doesn’t fit within existing language. This book is supposed to be a starting point to talk about desire in another way, desire that doesn’t have to exist within the confines of what society thinks desire should look like. Desire that is separated from the power relations that can come from gendered relationships.
MA: Can you talk more about the translation challenges between the two languages?
ER: There are ways in which the use of pronouns would be harder in English. You can’t say “the arm” (le bras) when referring to a person’s arm, you have to say his/ her arm, whereas in French you can. In English, you don’t ever have to give away gender with verbs, adjectives; there is no agreement. People have asked me if it would have been easier to write Sphinx in English than in French. Sure, if it had originally been written in English, it would have been an easier book to write, but because it’s written in French and Garréta plays with pronouns, body parts, etc. which are exactly the parts that are impossible in English, it’s really hard to translate into English.
MA: In a passage of the book, the narrator says “My eclecticism pushed me to ignore differences and transgress against exclusions.” Does “eclectic” apply to your translation of the book?
ER: Yeah, it does feel like it was pieced together, research of different knowledge, fields, languages, my own writing style with her writing style, the high register in French and how to convey this in English. Translation is always piecing together your own writing style with the author’s writing style, like a collaboration of sorts.
MA: There’s a sort of eclecticism, yet the voice is coherent. It is able to navigate different spaces while retaining selfhood.
ER: Perhaps, the whole reason that other binaries exist is to demonstrate that the narrator can navigate these different spaces without identifying with them, I never thought about it that way…
MA: That would be a generous reading! Even if Garréta wants to create a character free of binaries, a reader keeps projecting her/his/their sexual desires and identities onto the characters. It’s difficult for the reader not to do that, to respect Garréta’s neutrality.
ER: Talking about the mirror… the day I felt the book was successful was the day a transgender critic wrote a review about it. This person had heard about Sphinx on Twitter, and she/he/they wrote that for the first time in literature, this book was a mirror for them; they were able to project themselves onto the characters because there is no gender, and they could put themselves into the characters because the character was in that in-between space. There aren’t many books written like that.
MA: Following A***’s death, the narrator says, “I is nothing. It was a painful triumph when, faced with this beloved being, I finally achieved what I had always been aiming toward: the ability to confess my own weakness, my nothingness.” The narrator goes on to talk about “ a great panic of individual desires.”
ER: I know which part you’re talking about: the narrator is DJing and people come up to her/him/them with individual requests and it bothers her/him/them that they’re trying to individuate themselves (“It was a dangerous game that exposed me to the disapproval, disrespect, or insidious resentment of the people to whom I denied the assurance of being subjects”). The narrator refuses them the ability to be subjects, to know where they stand and assert themselves for whatever stupid reason. The narrator is saying “I’m going to deny you that. You need to dissolve the ways in which society makes you feel like a subject.” I read it as a metaphor. That was the first question a moderator once brought up at a reading. She asked if I thought this was a metaphor for the book, and I think it is. I think Garréta is saying: “I’m going to instill panic in you because you can’t identify or pin down these characters as subjects that you recognize.” You’re right, maybe that means that we shouldn’t be able to project ourselves onto these characters. I was never able to project myself, but the transgender critic was able to read themselves onto the characters. That’s what’s beautiful about Garréta; she’s giving the space to people who have always been denied that space, by denying the space to those who have always had it.
MA: That’s a great way of putting it! One last question: did translating Sphinx challenge the translator/writer binary for you?
ER: Anytime there is a constraint in a book, the text has to change in English in order for the constraint to work. In that respect, I took more freedom than I would have with another book. I had to re-imagine it.
MA: It’s almost like sharing the book’s authorship.
ER: Yes, when people read the book in English, they want to talk about the translation, not only about the book.