The main problem with the workshop was that we were all writing in different languages. Each of us. I came to understand it as part of a study led by a professor of linguistics, though I’m not sure that story was real.
To workshop a novel in a language you don’t understand you have to truly examine each word, pick it up, dust it off. It gets easy, actually, after a few months, to know when something’s not right. Even in a group of bunched-up black ants you can still identify the small, sick ones. That’s what it became for me, identifying the sick ones. I’d circle each one and then put a sad red face to the side so the writer would know what I meant by it.
After a while, I started to get a feel for plot, too, for how a certain chapter was paced. If, say, on the first page, a page meant for saying hello and let me offer you a seat, there were too many shapes leaning to the right, I would suggest adding some shapes that leaned to the left or maybe a few more vertical elements to stabilize it all.
Certain paragraphs started to feel clumpy, too, and I would say as much in workshop with the clap-snap-slap hand motion we used for, or at least I sensed that we used for, saying such things.
I received no such feedback on my own work, of course. Not everyone possessed the same sight, the same nous. My peers insisted on using outdated modes of translation, sucking on the literal til they became sluggish with bloat. Converting their notes for me into English, word for word, they spat out sheet after sheet of senseless sentences full of confused comments like “trope,” “bilious,” and “trite.”
Translation, I offered during workshop one day, left ear aimed toward the class as my right ring finger prodded in and out in our agreed-upon Morse Code-like fashion, comes from the Latin transfero, to carry across. To carry is not to kick. You must, at some point, bend down and get on your knees.
When the workshop ended I knew it was time to leave school. I had stopped producing my own work and, of more central concern, could find no cross-lingual courses offered in the catalogue. Seeking the crescendos of sensation that came from being both at the forefront of an emerging field and, more importantly, being of use, I invested my savings in ads for Intuitive Translingual Editing — Twice the insights, half the price — and waited for a beast to bite.
My first client, blessedly, came from far away, and spoke a language I had never met. It was almost frightening, what the blank backs of her papers did to me, the shivers from my ankles up through my ears.
When we had our first meeting in the corner of my rented room, her husband attempted, in an admittedly delicious form of English, to tell me what her stories hoped to do, and I kicked him out of the room. When my client, too, tried to tell me of the major themes via small muscular shifts around her mouth (“family and society,” thankfully, didn’t give much away), I snatched up her pages and pushed her out the door.
Starved for so long, I put her words to my nose and inhaled, circling my snout across pages and paragraphs, sucking up all the mixed-up metaphors, the poor pacing, the naïveté. How had she lived without me? I wondered. It was terrible to think. I dry-heaved some preliminary notes onto some letterhead which I folded up and promptly put in the mail. Ring me for our next appointment, I’d added as a postscript in a scrawl I sensed she would understand. There is still much to discuss.
When she didn’t call the next day, or the day after that, and my incessant pacing in circles started to make me sick, I licked each of her pages and plastered them to my skin to see if there was anything I’d missed. The sitting still, the slow seepage, it was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
The layers, I thought, curled up like a fetus on the spot of bare floor. How did I miss the layers? I peeled some words off my thigh and, holding them up to the light, almost shouted out in alarm. The incomprehensibly complex characters. The seamlessly woven narrative threads. The expert deconstruction of all that had come before and all that would ever be. The subtle intimations of the human condition as being like that of a compressed coil spring — a lifetime of potential energy wound up with no hope of release.
The following day, or, perhaps, month, I burned the stories on the floor and filled myself up with the ashes. Every hole plugged with genius. That was how I went.
Z. Hanna Mahon is a writer living in Washington, DC.