Illustration by Andris Straumanis
I’m a liar and a thief, a deceiver and a cheat. I steal precious goods with one hand and give back an inferior product with the other, drawing a profit from the difference. I make a living peddling mere shadows of the truth, spend my days practicing the fine art of deception. I translate texts from Latvian into English.
To translate is to engage willfully in deceit, to misrepresent the fundamental meaning of a language to unsuspecting readers who don’t share your coveted access to the source. When translating a text, you rob the original of its living essence and palm it off in diluted form, intermingled with your own subjectively biased interpretation. Perhaps this is why people rarely plan to enter the profession; they’re sort of forced into it by a mixture of circumstance and necessity. Yet another way in which translation is like a life of petty crime.
After moving to Rīga, many foreigners with even a minimal understanding of Latvian work as translators for a while, to pay the bills until they find more gainful employment. Translation is the perfect occupational manifestation of an in-between state, a transitional mode of existence: you have one foot dangling back in the mother tongue and the other stretched forward precariously into the language of your new home. I often feel like I’m the only American unsteady enough to keep at it full time, while everyone else puts their feet firmly together on the ground and ascends the ranks at law firms, corporations, international organizations and chambers of commerce, getting rich in the process. I’ve wanted to get out of the trade for years, to find a real job, though I can’t seem to shift my weight enough to catch my balance.
Of course, the translation racket doesn’t come without its incentives. If anything, being a translator endows you with an ear for comparisons, a tendency to think in terms of the “as if” and the “like.” This is because there is no such thing as a pure translation; words and sentences have only near approximations in other languages. There is no meta-system binding two tongues together, no Venn diagram highlighting areas of easy overlap. Even a cursory glance at the contents of the Tilde or Letonika dictionaries—the trusty tools of the trade—proves this to be the case.
I like to exercise my translation skills by strolling through the streets of Rīga and interpreting the city around me, removing the phenomena from their immediate context and dropping them into a foreign web of meaning, rendering them from Latvia back to America. This helps me try to bridge the gap between the two isolated linguistic units—Latvian and English—engaged in constant combat up in my brain. But my efforts never quite bear fruit, and the object of my exercise always slips from my grasp, resisting translation. I get the sense of falling short, reaching out but not quite catching it, of being perpetually stuck in the “almost,” the “not quite.”
For example, I’ll think, the Maskačka district of Rīga is sort of like the Lower East Side of Manhattan or Wicker Park in Chicago, and might someday share the fate of those areas—formerly rundown havens for drugs and crime transformed into trendy neighborhoods. Or when I take a walk across the Daugava River, I’ll muse, Pārdaugava is sort of like certain parts of Brooklyn, or the entire city of Philadelphia: the place you move to in search of cheaper rents, more space and a tighter sense of community.
But I know these translations aren’t quite right. Latvia doesn’t have a strong class of young urban professionals with that crucial combination of ample free time, educated tastes, and disposal income needed to support the renewal of a derelict neighborhood. And the notion of a close-knit neighborhood is completely foreign for this land of staunch individualists, who historically resided on small isolated farms in the hardscrabble countryside. You’ll get the same impassive frowns and cold stares in the districts of wooden houses across the river as you do in the art nouveau center of town. Plus, these days, property all over the city is cheap no matter what the size, if you’re lucky enough to have a job to pay your rent.
Sometimes, when I go to concerts in the abandoned machine shops around the former industrial port, or in the 19th century brick warehouses by the Central Market, I’ll observe that the hipsters look as if they were transplanted from those converted factories on the Williamsburg waterfront. But, of course, this interpretation doesn’t quite work either. The Rīga hipster is a very different breed from his New York counterpart—more DIY than MFA. This means you can’t have a conversation with him about Lacan or Bataille, but if you need to install, say, new windows in your apartment, you can call up a few guys who will appear at your door in skinny jeans and ironic T-shirts, wielding power drills and soldering irons. The same ascendancy of praxis over theory also holds true for young women. The Latvian hipster chick wearing clunky plastic glasses and a neon jumpsuit on a Friday night will probably spend the next morning pedaling her fixed-gear bike to a nearby forest, to pick berries for making jam or wild mushrooms to preserve for winter, instead of packing her iPod with lectures by Žižek. At a bar, they’re all more likely to order hot mugs of chamomile tea than frosty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, especially if it’s hot outside.
I also try to translate Rīga for my 2-year-old son, explaining the place to him in a way that is inescapably my own faulty interpretation of what I see. But I haven’t had much luck there, either. My son already understands this city better than I do, and knows how to distinguish a bad translation from the real thing. As I push him on his scooter through the park near the Orthodox cathedral, I’ll whisper, “Watch out for those guys in track suits and leather jackets. They’re gypsies.” But my son just laughs off my warning and practically runs over their pointy leather shoes. He’s right: These aren’t the gypsies you read about in fairy tales, who steal children in the middle of the night. They’re čigāni, who have been here for ages and have no need for extra children, since most of them are grandfathers by the time they turn 30. They make a living picking blueberries in roadside forests, not roaming the countryside in wagons, and the most aggressive thing they’ll do is stub out a cigarette on the dial of a watch they’re trying to sell you, presumably to show you it’s made of real glass.
Local phenomena aren’t the only things that resist translation. Some Latvian words and expressions are so deeply ensconced in language’s tight weft of associations that they can’t be coaxed out of hiding. For instance, how to render the old colloquial phrase patriekt ar sūdainu mietu? How do you convey the good humor inherent in the shit-covered object—that there are piles of shit everywhere in the countryside, left by roaming dogs and grazing cows, and not much malice is required to procure a smearable sample? Or how do you show that the vexation apparent in the original phrase, patriekt ar sūdainu koku, has, in this case, been intensified by the replacement of a simple wooden stick by a solid metal rod, a miets, to chase away the offending party with the fetid threat of defilement?
Latvian grammar also has some tricks up her sleeve to help resist English-based understanding or translation. For example, if you’re lucky enough to be served a traditional Latvian country meal of kidney beans and sour cream, you will be urged to piedzert klāt kefīru, that is, to intersperse your bites of bean with sips of kefir, in order to spare a sudden affliction with gas. Afterward, you’ll probably be treated to some rich and creamy dessert, and then asked if you want to uzdzert kafiju, top it off with coffee to wash it all down. Following the meal, of course, you’ll all stay in the kitchen and someone will sing out, Iedzersim pa glāzei!—let’s have a drink, pure and simple, with the inevitable possibility of more. If you do stick around for another couple glasses, you’ll begin to iedzīvoties, start to feel at home. Perhaps the neighbors will come over and you’ll all uzdzīvo—live it up. But come the wee hours of the morning, you might begin to sense that you have aizdzīvojies, stayed a little too long, perhaps even begun to feel piedzēries, drunk (piedzerties not to be confused with piedzert). In short, piedzert, uzdzert, iedzert; iedzīvoties, uzdzīvot, aizdzīvoties; piedzerties—the story of many a Latvian evening, easily compacted into two basic root words (dzert, dzīvot) and the cunning alteration of four short prefixes (pie, uz, ie, aiz), each of which gives a crucially variant meaning and has no readily available counterpart in English.
Nevertheless, I feel most at home in Latvia when I turn off the translation application in my head and let the place reveal itself for what it is, when I stop trying to interpret—to compare and approximate—and simply allow the country to flourish before my eyes.
Though I wasn’t born in Latvia, and certainly don’t share in the collective consciousness of people who have lived here all their lives, something clicks in my brain when I encounter certain scenes in the surrounding landscape. It is almost as if these tiny elements hidden deep inside the phenomenal world are the thing itself—Latvia the noumenon—basking in the glory and fullness of its being. A triangular birch hayrick leaning against a craggy apple tree. The deep, coffin-like cold emanating from the boarded-up windows of an abandoned brick building on a hot summer day, interlaced with the caustic stench of Soviet-era construction materials. Those perfectly straight paths cut through the meadow grass from house to woodshed, well to garden. The sharp angle of a barn roof on a misty morning. Two bulbous-nosed drunks dressed in ratty slacks and blazers, shuffling arm-in-arm to a musty basement beer bar in the middle of the afternoon. “Miglā asaro logs” belted out at three in the morning on a rainy Vecrīga street. The infinite net of associations ignited by these presences stretches out into oblivion, and cannot be corralled back into the closed circle of a hermetic translation.
Perhaps you’re better equipped to intuit these noumena if your engagement with Latvia is impartial and disinterested, untainted by some deep inner need, a desire to have it a certain way or make the country conform to your expectations. (A friend of mine, an American who lived here for a year back in the mid-1990s, recently wrote on her Twitter page, “Whenever I dream of being lost in Latvia, I wake up with the faint taste of biezpiens and strawberry soup in my mouth.”) Or maybe you have to live here for a while in order to plow through all the sauerkraut and sausage and get to the underlying, subtly flavored soul of the thing: the strawberries and cream. I’m not sure if you should avoid being a translator, a dissembler, a stealer of meaning; or, conversely, if perhaps a brief foray into a life of crime—translation—is exactly what you need to understand the futility of interpreting Latvia, the sheer beauty in letting the thing itself come out of hiding and speak its untranslatable truth.
In Latvia, there are no big mountains that scrape the clouds and tall waves do not crash into rocky shores. The sun does not burn in the sky and the fallen snow quickly turns to slush and then ice. There is no teeming metropolis, no famous landmark, no single defining national character trait. There are no large, striking features that might lend themselves to easy translation. It’s hard to get a purchase on Latvia, difficult to secure a grip. It is elusive, evasive, recalcitrant—resistant to appropriation as well as to occupation. In the time it takes to translate, to steal its meaning, to plunder its depths, to invent some mendacious interpretation, to lie about its honest words, it has already slipped from your greedy fingers and sunk back into the cool coastal night.
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