Jeffrey Zuckerman on Translating Ananda Devi’s “Eve Out of Her Ruins”

"Eve Out of Her Ruins" cover

Ananda Devi’s novel Eve Out of Her Ruins is a wrenching novel of four friends set in a bleak neighborhood in Mauritius. Their ambitions and expectations clash with the instability and violence around them, and the way that the narrative is told–through each of their voices–magnifies their idiosyncrasies and personalities. An English translation of the novel was recently released by Deep Vellum Publishing, and I reached out to translator Jeffrey Zuckerman with a few questions about how this new edition came to be, his process, and how he first came into contact with Devi’s book.

This is probably the logical place to start: where did you first encounter Eve Out of Her Ruins? And what drew you to it as a translator?

Several years ago, when I decided that I might take a stab at being a translator, I emailed one of my friends who had been a graduate student in French. She wrote back immediately with two recommendations: a book about a relationship without any genders called Sphinx and a slim little masterpiece called Eve Out of Her Ruins that more or less wrecked her. It took me several weeks before I laid hands on the second book, but as soon as I opened it to its first page and read its first lines–in English, “Walking is hard. I limp, I hobble along on the steaming asphalt. With each step a monster rises, fully formed”–I was hooked. I had never heard a voice this intense, this sharp, this seductive ever before. I distinctly remember thinking to myself: what kind of writer could conjure up such sentences? I translated the first few pages practically as I read them, and then emailed Ananda Devi out of nowhere, asking if there was any chance she might consider letting me translate this book into English. She said yes, and, well, the rest is history. Funnily enough, this book is coming out from the exact same publisher that did Sphinx just a year ago. What are the odds?

Ananda Devi has written in both French and English. How collaborative was the process of translating this novel?

To be honest, I was nervous the first time I emailed her because I knew she’d already translated one of her own novels, Pagli, and another translator had worked on Indian Tango. But, to my shock, she told me that I was free to try my hand at the project. After I finished a draft of the entire book, and got all the answers to various little questions, I sent her the whole manuscript and about a week later it came back sounding, impossibly, even better than I’d originally done it. Usually, when I work with French authors, they know just a little English, and this means that when they see something in the translation that they don’t understand, they change it to sound more French–without realizing that it doesn’t make any sense in English. But Ananda moves so effortlessly between languages that when she saw the opportunity to truly fine-tune a sentence, she didn’t hesitate. It was a rare and special opportunity to work with an author who could truly put her own imprint upon the final translation, and I hope we’ll get to do it many more times.

Speaking more generally, how do you generally go about translating this novel?

There’s no particular magic to translation as a job: I completed the book by sitting down at a desk at 9 am and working straight through to 5 pm each day, taking each sentence one at a time, and trying to come up with an English equivalent that nicely echoed the original French. Sometimes I had to come up with a new rhythm to match a particularly poetic sentence, or rejigger the syntax to achieve an effect that had been created in the original’s sentence structure. In this context, I’m inclined to compare translating to completing a crossword puzzle: most of the components are easily put together, so the true challenge is in finding exactly the right word that causes the whole sentence to snap in place. The whole experience was oddly exhilarating as I entered each character’s mind and found my lexicon subtly shifting to reflect each character’s particular stance toward the world…

Given that the characters in this book are speaking more than one language, how difficult was it to represent multiple languages in a novel translated into one particular language?

Surprisingly, almost not at all! I’m lucky in the sense that Mauritians are generally trilingual in French, English, and Mauritian Creole. Creole is most commonly spoken in public, but all children are educated in both English and French. French tends to be the language of choice for business, literature, and mass media, while English is most commonly seen in government and many other public contexts.

Eve Out of Her Ruins was written in French, but there are enough moments when something is repeated in all three languages or when a specific language is emphasized that I could easily mention that something was specifically being said in English or in French. That said, I did specifically keep a few words in French so that they would register as “foreign” much as particular English or Kreol words were italicized in the original French text.

Where would you situate Eve Out of Her Ruins in terms of Devi’s larger body of work? For readers encountering her work for the first time, do you have a recommendation of where they should go from here?

Ananda’s literary career began upon winning a major short-story prize when she was in her teens, so her oeuvre is a considerable one at this point. Eve Out of Her Ruins is a particularly visceral, emotional text (which is part of why it’s now assigned in many high-school and university courses), but English readers can also pick up a copy of Indian Tango, which is more measured and deeply rooted in India. Of her still-untranslated books, I’m currently working on the novella Moi, l’interdite–about a girl with a harelip who slowly turns into a dog–which has been one of her most popular tales, and I’ve been asked to seriously consider translating Le Sari vert, a hefty novel that’s practically a monologue on evil and cruelty by a dying man. It’s a difficult and unpleasant book, much more so than Devi’s other titles, but it won her extraordinary awards and acclaim. So we will see…

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