My Disability Forced Me To Become More Visible in My Work as a Translator
Translators are expected to bury the burden of transparency even though they choose the words on the page
First, I disappeared. Then I became a translator.
It’s supposed to happen the other way around. Crawling in between the lines, you practice effacing yourself. You perfect your ventriloquism, distinguishing yourself through a vanishing act. You’re expected to slip unnoticed from one language to another, masking otherness, both the original text’s and yours. You train for years, decades, to carry the burden of transparency. Gracefully. “Fluently.” Like an actor, you artfully displace your identity, delivering lines that don’t belong to you. But your performance happens behind the scenes. You scout talent, shop projects, manage PR. A translation succeeds when the reader can’t tell it’s a translation. This, according to Lawrence Venuti in The Translator’s Invisibility, is the constraint placed on translators. The illusion he calls them to subvert.
We translators know all this; we knew it long before Venuti wrote his book. We make common cause of our invisibility. Translators, we say, are flesh-and-blood people. We say words and translators pulse with history, and it was the translator who chose the words on the page. We demand a share of the light. I confess I’ve always followed the conversation from a distance, found it important and urgent but entirely out of my reach. How can I resist invisibility, when I owe my origin story to it?
Eight years ago, during the final semester of my Master’s in intercultural communications, my adviser urged me to drop in on a literary translation conference. It was convenient, just a three hours’ drive from my home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She had a colleague, a PhD who’d been a fixture in the organization since the seventies. He was venerable and she would arrange a meeting. I anticipated the conference starstruck: imagine—me!—talking to people who lived off their words. You’ll never make a living off translation, the translator crowed, mid-handshake, before I’d managed to utter anything more than my name. That was three months before the symptoms began.
His pronouncement floored me, not least because there had never been any question of making a living from translation. Growing up in Indiana, books were the means to a job, never the job itself. Something to be indulged beneath blank looks and the glare of the ever-blaring TV. I thought I was fortunate, different. I could disappear into my bedroom and write thick folders of wor(l)ds for my eyes only. From books I taught myself languages. I dreamt of travel, and I did travel, briefly, in college. A month in Brazil, a month in France, that was all I could afford. No one advised me of other options. After graduation, I worked a series of jobs in manufacturing. It was a man’s world, a step above the typical Rust Belt trajectory. Customers called, all speaking Spanish, French, Portuguese; there were occasional work trips abroad; co-workers mocked me for reading books on the plane. I thought I was fortunate, different. I built the global relationships that built the company, while men took all the credit. I was no stranger to invisibility, even then—four years before my invisible disability.
By the time the symptoms hit, I’d survived the Great Recession, gone back to school, graduated, and launched into my search for a second career. I felt more old than wise. Things were shaky in the Midwest, but no shakier than they’d been for the last thirty years. I wanted to escape but didn’t know how. The isolation, the low cost of living, the mounting debt despite the low cost of living, everything conspired to trap me. That February morning, I woke up and knew, fatally, that something had misfired. The benign winter sounded different, all that white, shrill, and the deafening snow. Certain sounds lingered, repeating, I couldn’t hear my own thoughts, buried beneath the deafening snow. I struggled to read, follow conversations. The world felt too disorienting, spatially distorted and acoustically fragmented. I feared going to stores and restaurants. I stopped leaving my house. I wanted nothing to do with the light.
Pursuing translation was my husband’s idea, a way to keep my languages up while I searched for answers. In truth, my symptoms were so disabling that even if I had known how to break in, I couldn’t physically translate. At least not texts. Instead, I spent the next three years finding words for the invisible. Workshopping my translations with doctor after doctor, I’d examine their eyes for some spark of understanding, anything to reassure myself that what I experienced was real. But the more I said, the more invisible I became. Never mind my carefully constructed sentences, my vivid analogies, they doggedly looked right through me, to charts and referrals and test results, always negative. I had no authority. I was a woman navigating a system whose myriad biases are well-documented. Even when reading and commiserating with the stories of women whose pain was dismissed, I couldn’t surrender that burden of bilingualism: I was the only one who spoke the language of my body. If doctors failed to understand, I told myself, confronting the translator’s predicament—foreignize or domesticate—as if it made any difference, well, that was on me.
At last, on the cusp of a diagnosis, I found myself once again tiptoeing between the lines. Why? I struggle to remember. Because translation was hard? Because everything else was harder? Because I had something to say and the invisibility helped me to say it? All I know is for me translation and disability are inextricable and have been since the beginning. I could no longer pretend that either was temporary. Yet accepting this meant making sense of the dissonance. I was a body with invisible limitations, a body that needed to disappear every once in a while. And: I was an unknown translator, working hard to make a name for herself. Even the label, emerging, hummed with impossible obligations, the pressure to appear.
During this time, translation was experiencing an identity crisis of its own. The field had been questioning whether it could sustainably remain out of sight. The phrase I’d heard repeatedly during that first conference was “labor of love,” as though romanticizing the low pay and poor working conditions might weed out the faint-of-heart. Three years later when I returned to translation, it was still a closed profession, but the conversation had changed. Advocacy was on everyone’s lips. In theory, this was meant to bring greater visibility to the work of translators, to translators themselves, so more could afford to do it. In practice, the barriers only multiplied. Translation had always demanded reams of unpaid labor—researching markets, securing rights, pitching to editors. Now sustained presence was part of the job description. The work of activism and networking and community-building and belonging. Presence at conferences, collectives, committees, residencies, launches, workshops, happy hours, out of sight, out of mind. I lived in Indiana. I was blue-collar. I’d learned languages from books and had a combined total of six months’ travel under my belt. (Maybe.) I could feel the distance in my bones, could see crossing it would take everything I had.
I remember the sting when I introduced myself to a fellow translator and she asked, looking right through me, if I knew anything about Brazilian literature. As if to remind me I had no authority. That I didn’t belong here, any more than I’d belonged there. No one knew the negotiations required of me just to show up, the preparations made behind closed doors. How I drove ten hours to New York alone in an ice storm because my illness prevented me from flying. How my husband would drive me to and from Chicago for a bi-monthly translators’ collective, how I’d spend the return trip vomiting or reclining the passenger seat all the way down, then spend the next several days in bed. How an invitation for coffee with a distinguished translator sent me spiraling into panic—only a few days to make the phone calls, find an accessible coffee shop. I appeared and reappeared. It wasn’t enough.
With difficulty, I could attend some conferences, the ones within driving distance, but once there, my symptoms sidelined me from all social activities: the lunch dates and late nights at the bar. I thought I was fortunate, different. I found the words and the nerve to ask for accommodations and felt myself coming into focus. After years of being dismissed by doctors, I believed the most radical acceptance of my invisible illness was that someone acknowledged it, deemed it worthy of the label disability. I didn’t understand that erasure can take many forms. The translators I approached were sympathetic, but their version of access merely paraphrased the status quo. Instead of re-envisioning communal spaces, they worked to shield me from them—packed me in bubble wrap, tucked me away. Those with disabilities often bear the burden of inventing their own accommodations, more so when the disability is invisible and beyond the borders of abled imaginations. For various reasons—I felt precarious, I struggled to name my needs, I didn’t want to be seen as asking for too much—I took what was offered and didn’t complain. I thought I was fortunate, different. But the performance got harder with each passing year. Why kill myself keeping up appearances, if I would be isolated no matter what?
For some, my illness might have read as privilege. I had the time for translation, because I couldn’t do much else. My symptoms were unpredictable, working outside the home out of the question. I could give two or three hours a day to my words before the cognitive effort drained my bodymind completely. I knew translators working “translation-adjacent” jobs—teaching, editing—who dug deep for those three hours, too, but at least their paid work kept them connected, ever-exposed. I was peripheral. A full-time patient: Days swallowed by phone calls, doctor’s appointments, insurance appeals, records requests, side effects, darkened rooms. This, too, is labor, as any caregiver will tell you: essential and noble but looks out of place on a CV. Medical privacy wasn’t the only reason I kept my disability hidden. The hours unaccounted for, my utter lack of income, the full reality of my situation felt taboo.
Also taboo: the fact that none of it would have been possible, without my husband’s paycheck. His health insurance. Still, we were sinking. The question was: Would we go down together, or would he toss out his burden, ballast overboard? Either way, disaster always loomed. On good days he reassured me in first-person plural. We’ll get through this, we’ll make it work. On bad days, he stewed in the singular. He felt trapped, and I was dead weight. We both knew if it came to divorce, I would have nowhere to go, my condition severely limited my options. But the thought slipped in among all the other unbearable scenarios. I’d ask myself, ask him, if translation wasn’t a selfish, untenable occupation, maybe I should bow out, fade away, find some remote work, flexible and probably low-paid, but anything was better than this. And he would say no, if I took another job, I’d never make it as a translator. And he believed in me. Despite his faith, I felt alone, perpetually close to the streets. I felt confused that translation could both give me worth and take it away.
There was no denying my chronic illness strained our resources—physically, financially, and emotionally. To have chosen a field in which eight years of spending money just to make money wasn’t uncommon—well, that made me doubly vulnerable. Sometimes, I resented translation for failing to reckon with how its prolonged invisibility impacts the disabled especially. Shortly before my diagnosis, the translators’ organization introduced a work exchange they believed would make their conferences more financially accessible. I’d spent over ten thousand dollars that year on tests and medical travel. Even foregoing the group hotel for a budget option ten minutes away (a move that isolated me further), I needed that reduced registration. Once there, I learned I’d been assigned to spaces I couldn’t go. It cost me additional labor to negotiate a workaround. The accommodation, once again, was disappearance: back rooms and far-flung corners. And then there were the panels I missed while working, and the panels I skipped after tiring myself out working. If it wasn’t for the pain, even I would have overlooked my own presence.
In 2020, just before the world went dark, I made a New Year’s resolution. I’d been emerging since 2013, and I was exhausted. This, I vowed, would be my Hail Mary Year. I polished my CV and recommitted myself to social media. Improbable deadlines cluttered my calendar—grants and residencies and open submissions. I made my peace with failure. At the same time, I had no plan for what I’d do if I missed.
With Covid, suddenly the whole world understood exhaustion, the steely shiver of isolation. From lockdown I watched as an industry reeling managed to collapse its distances overnight. The adaptations looked painless. Spaces I’d long struggled to reach went virtual, now that the able-bodied couldn’t reach them either. Those first months I broke myself trying to Zoom everywhere at once. I’d gained the world in ones and zeroes, any day now it would all disappear. Sure enough, only three weeks in, the shock had worn off, everyone talked of returning to “normal.” In translation many of the same structures simply migrated to an online forum. For a year, maybe two, not to worry, they assured us, we’ll meet again. Even in our collective invisibility, I felt othered, ignored. If ever there were a season for reimagining…. The missed opportunities gaped like a wound.
Like so many spheres, the world of translation has more work to do when it comes to making space for difference. This means recognizing that unseen genres of experience count as diversity, too, and should be valued as such. Invisible disability, yes, also: class, geography, caregiving, day jobs, the totality of intersections that bring each and every one of us to this profession. After all, a translator is someone who inhabits the in-between. We are a field of misfits, our authority as translators lies in our chronic otherness. Our way of looking always from outside. Then perhaps when we talk of the translator’s (in)visibility, we might redefine the word: Let us not just advocate for translators to be seen; let’s also celebrate the confluence of identities—both visible and invisible—that allow a translator to see. It’s the end of 2021, and I’m still here. I’ve stayed connected to translation by serving as co-chair of a translators’ committee based in New York. When I joined, just before the pandemic, the organization, an arts advocacy group, was looking to widen its borders and acknowledge the barriers faced by emerging translators. They made the effort to seek out someone with my profile. In a sense, they saved me. Still, it’s a volunteer role, and the work, though fulfilling, leaves me little time or energy to translate. Over the past two years, this brave new world has dissolved boundaries between work and home. Those with disabilities feel the encroachment more acutely because our home is also our sickbed. It’s a process, learning to name your needs.
But a text, at least, waits. Patiently. Mine is an experimental Brazilian novel I stumbled upon years ago. The story of a woman grappling with language after a rape, constantly frustrated in her efforts to adequately convey her pain. Would I have been drawn to this book, had I not carried a similarly invisible burden—helplessly spinning sentences as my pain was dismissed? Would I have appreciated what the author was doing—her rhythms, her synesthetic descriptions, the way she makes her protagonist syntactically disappear, swallowed by sensory perception—if I’d been anyone else? Then why doubt my authority as a translator?
There it is, written into me bone and sinew. It is my night vision, my ability to peer into the text and see what others could not. On the question of the translator’s (in)visibility, I’ll confess, I sometimes flinch; I’m still reconciling all the competing variables. But I’m beginning to think we translators have superpowers. We appear, we disappear. We bring whole worlds into the light.