Intro: OHMA alum Ellen Coon’s thesis on Newari women and divinity uses transcripts from the 1980s of Coon’s interviews with Newar midwife, Dil Maya Aji. Fascinated by the years Coon spent translating these interviews, OHMA student Caroline Cunfer contemplates how the subjective practices of translation and oral history intersect with and complement each other.
While reading Ellen Coon’s thesis in preparation for her public event a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to see her integrating translation theory with oral history theory. As a student of French literary translation and a fellow oral historian, I was completely fascinated by Coon’s translation process. I saw how I could fuse these two disciplines I loved into the same creative and critical process. To act as both oral historian and translator seemed to be an experience that demanded an even closer relationship to our narrator’s words than usual.
My own oral history work concerns peoples’ experiences living in Paris during the terrorist attacks in November of 2015. As a non-native French speaker who has lived in France before, I plan to return to Paris this summer to conduct interviews with French narrators for my thesis. It’s important for me to conduct interviews in French not only because I think it’s particularly crucial to interview people in their comfort language when discussing a distressing or even traumatizing event, but also because I’m interested in the idea of engaging with the added layer of subjectivity and intersubjectivity surrounding language when translating the interviews. What does it mean to engage in an oral history interview between two people who don’t share a native language? And what it does mean—for both the narrator and interviewer—for the interviewer (or someone else) to translate it? As both translator and interviewer, I will be tasked with an enormous linguistic and ethical responsibility, which I hope to carry out as faithfully and beautifully as Coon has.
In the introduction of her thesis, Coon beautifully recreates the scene of her interviewing Newar midwife, Dil Maya Aji. It’s the mid 1980s, and Coon is 24 and has returned to live in Kathmandu, Nepal. In her oral historian debut, she sits on Dil Maya’s bed with her best friend, Anjana, a tape recorder between them. As the monsoon rain pours outside, Coon interviews Dil Maya and Anjana translates. It’s evident upon reading her thesis, which includes large portions of Dil Maya’s transcript translated from Newari into English, that her project required a laborious translation process. In the introduction, Coon describes the translation labor she and Anjana undertook together:
I felt a sense of urgency about writing down Dil Maya’s words. I was staying with Anjana in her married home, sharing her terror at her mother in law’s shouting and her anxiety about completing the household chores expected of her. To get our interviews translated and transcribed, she used to get up before five and creep up to the room on the rooftop where I was staying. I would wake up with a start the moment I heard her hand on the doorknob, and within five minutes, we would be translating and typing. By six, she would have to go downstairs to make tea and toast bread on the gas flame for the extended family’s breakfast. We translated about half the interviews together. Translating was hard work. Anjana (and later, my other translators) spoke English, while I understood some Newari. Alone, neither of us could produce a translation that conveyed the meaning, not just the words.
Translation is a highly creative endeavor; the translator is at once an author, interpreter, and creator, constantly striving to find the perfect balance between retaining fidelity in the source language and achieving clarity in the target language. It is this obligation to exercise artistic liberties and constantly negotiate language and meaning that initially drew me to this work, and that continues to hold my deep attention.
In her essay on translating Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis writes “As we translate, it is not our own choice that confronts us, but the choice of another writer, and we must search more consciously for the right words with which to convey it.” Even after the face-to-face exchange of the oral history interview is over, we are confronted once again with our narrators’ stories as we try to faithfully and accurately render their words into another language. Translation requires a nuanced understanding of what is being said, and this understanding is inevitably mediated through the realities of our own lives, our language comprehension, and how our linguistic identities have informed how we understand and make sense of our world.
Like oral history, translation is a highly subjective, even intersubjective, act. As oral historians, our subjectivity is ever present in our interviews and our interpretations and analyses of them; we cannot divorce our data from the circumstances of our interviews and the relationships that created them. Walter Benjamin describes a “real” translation as being transparent, “not [covering] the original, not [blacking] its light, but [allowing] the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully.” As oral historians, we intend to be completely transparent in our work—who we are and what we bring to the interview space must be conveyed to our audiences. To use Benjamin’s metaphor, we can think of our own subjectivity in a similar manner: not obstructing, but accompanying, elucidating the encounter and its circumstances in a way that shines upon the original all the more fully.
Coon speaks of translation as an editing process and creative encounter that produces meaning. “We demanded a high level of clarity and readability from our translations,” Coon writes, “interrogating the recorded words and each other in minute detail until we were in agreement that the meaning produced was true to what Dil Maya had said, with nothing left out.” It wasn’t until reading this that I considered translation as a process with the potential to further enhance my understanding and interpretation of my work through deep engagement with my narrator’s words. The process of transcription can be viewed as an embodied engagement with our narrators’ words—the words enter our bodies through our ears, and exit through our hands onto the keyboard as we translate them into the written word. The translation process goes further by demanding an even deeper comprehension of each and every word, forcing us to be constantly questioning and negotiating meaning.
In the final moments of her public talk, Coon used the term resonance to describe the partnership between interviewer and narrator—an image of reverberation that strikes me as illustrative of both her interviewing and translation processes:
I like the dictionary definition of resonance: The reinforcement or prolongation of sound, by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of the neighboring object. That’s what we do for our narrators, and that’s what our narrators do for us. As my beloved narrators die, their voices continue to resonate, both in my archive, and in me. Their voices are strengthening my own voice. I don’t exactly expect to get possessed, but I love it when they speak through my mouth.
Caroline is a member of OHMA’s 2018-2019 cohort and is thrilled to have the privilege of spending this year taking in and carrying strangers’ stories with her. Her thesis project explores the ways in which the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris have had varying implications and impacts on people’s lives and well-being, including her own.