Co-Translating Marguerite Duras


Olivia Baes ’13 (in Comparative Literature & English) and G’14  and Emma Ramadan G’14 bonded over a shared love of French author Marguerite Duras while studying for an MA in Cultural Translation at AUP. Their second published co-translation of Duras’s work, The Easy Life, has achieved critical acclaim in both The Guardian and The New Yorker.

What are your abiding memories of your time at AUP?

Emma Ramadan: I remember vividly what it felt like in the classroom. The professors took us very seriously, and the texts we were given challenged us. That was special because it allowed me to assume my own intelligence and learn how to fight through difficult problems.

Olivia Baes: Our professors also encouraged us to follow our interests. Daniel Medin, for example, found out that I’d had Catalan as a language as a kid, so he introduced me to this great Catalan author called Mercè Rodoreda. Now that I live in Catalonia and have relearned Catalan, she’s one of my favorite authors. Being steeped in the culture is so important to my life.

Emma: What AUP fosters is really special. It attracts people who want to be in the spaces that exist between cultures and languages. The framework we used in class taught us to play with language in new ways; it even challenged us to reconsider what we thought language was.

What made you want to work on translating Duras together?

Emma: The desire to do so was born very early in our friendship. We’d both come into the master’s program having grown up reading Duras.

Olivia: We identified with the intensity and obsession that runs through her work. There’s something about the way she tells stories through her female characters that made us discover new things about ourselves. We both wanted to inhabit her writing as much as we could.

Emma: Not only did we have similar tastes, but it became increasingly clear we had similar translation philosophies too, due to how often we aligned on things in class. I discovered a story by Duras that had never been translated before called L’été 80, or Summer 80. I asked Olivia if she wanted to work on it together after we finished our program. It turned into a collection of Duras’s works called Me & Other Writing. It was an intense project! But after it was published, we started work on The Easy Life almost immediately because we wanted to keep collaborating.

Olivia: My co-translations with Emma are some of the most formative work I’ve ever done. We each had a powerful connection to the author, but the process of co-translation also led to this beautiful connection between us. Our little love triangle with Marguerite Duras!

What makes co-translation different?

Emma: Co-translation requires a level of mutual understanding and a willingness to negotiate. You have to believe that negotiating will make the translation stronger than if you had done it alone. It requires letting go of some of the authority you might have had over the text.

Olivia: It helps that we prioritize the same things in our translations, such as Duras’s use of rhythm.

Emma: Our approach has always been to split the text in half and then switch and edit each other’s translations. Then we have a series of arguments over video call! We’re able to have those disagreements in a playful way, because we know we have the same voice for Duras in our heads. I have a lot of faith in and admiration for my co-translator.

Olivia: When you translate alone, you’re not going into the same depth. At the end of the day, what I love about creative work is being able to discuss it with someone who takes it as seriously as I do. Emma and I have such challenging conversations about a single word or comma! We’re behind the scenes of French and English, and it’s so exciting to breathe in that passion for language together.

Emma and Olivia hope to collaborate on further Duras translations in the future, but in the meantime are pursuing solo work. Emma’s forthcoming translations include My Husband by Maud Ventura and My Great Arab Melancholy by Lamia Ziadé, while Olivia is developing a feature film, Sirena, with Barcelona-based production company 15L Films, as well as curating her late father’s photography archive.