I’ve translated a tweet-thread by Alex, @queerbt on twitter, telling his coming out story, and if you’ll let me, I’d like to indulge myself a little in explaining why first.
I’ve been staying in Russia (Moscow, specifically) for a month and 10 days now. While it has a cultural history I will never be able to leave alone, and a number of people and thinkers to whom I owe a great part of who I currently am, it’s hard to recount anything about my time here without first stating the fact that I have been anxious and lonely beyond my wildest imagination. Solidarity is hard to come by when an entire country’s media and public opinion is shaped by the state, and the state pushes LGBTQ+ people beyond the law. When the topic came up by chance in conversation, the woman I’m living with (a 43-year-old born and bred Moscow local) proclaimed that “men who like men and girls who like girls [Russian has terms for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, but I’ve never heard them used by straight Russians, and I’ve only ever read gay Russians online] started appearing when the USSR fell. We thought they were coming over from America or something”. Me hearing that sentence and being unable to respond is both the reason she originally saw it that way, and the reason she’s allowed to keep thinking it: some voices, especially when saying certain things, are blocked from Russian public life. Writer and politician Eduard Limonov is available in every bookshop, but his gay bestseller from the 90s It’s me, Eddie is on sale in none. Poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s home is a museum now, complete with historical record of her work, her lifelong struggle for economic and political survival, and her personal and romantic life. Her multiple public relationships with women that resulted in a number of wonderful poems are swept under the rug, invisible even as I stand in the bedroom where I know that these relationships may well have played out. The cracks have been smoothed over in Russian social history in ways that I desperately hope can be undone, but I’m unsure ever will. The pervasive opinion I have encountered is one of disturbed confusion at the success of gay rights abroad, and a quiet comfort in its inability to find a foothold in Russia. Working at a school, I’ve encountered this mindset as it crystallises in young teenagers: “If the class has any questions for Reuben, feel free to ask” was once followed by, entirely unprompted, “Is it true that LGBT people have … support from the society in Europe and in England?” My confirmation sent a disturbed and surprised mutter through the room, not too dissimilar to when I later confirmed that we also sometimes drank our tea with milk. All Brits, not just gays.
I went searching for connection, for the people who I knew must be here, but couldn’t find within reach of my suburban Moscow commute (and still-limited conversational skills). I found Alex’s thread, and something clicked. I had clearly been looking in the wrong place: while gay people certainly hadn’t arrived in Moscow in the early 1990s, the internet had. All of a sudden, a country full of people who couldn’t find one another, whose voices had no access to the television or newspaper, people who could only march in the streets at the risk of police brutality, were all given tin cups and a web of string to whisper into, and finally hear a scratchy voice on the other end. As mentioned in my last post, I’m still thinking of writing something vaguely related to the internet and the possibilities it gives for political disturbance and self expression. I don’t in any way mean to proclaim that it’s the be-all and end-all of individual freedom of speech, but I think what Alex’s thread brings out most clearly to me is the fact that, for all of Twitter’s misgivings, it is a platform that finally let me hear the story of a gay man, who is around my age, who has lived, gayly, in Russia his entire life. Reading his thread was like straining your eyes to see the first star in a light-polluted city skyline. Once I saw that one star was there, I realised the rest must be, too.
In the thread itself, Alex calls for queer visibility to be spread as far as it can be, and while translating and publishing his thread could technically be a way to do that, I won’t pretend that I think this blog has any reach that will aid the plight of gay Russian teens. It is also precisely because I didn’t come across it in a published or polished format that the thread provided me with any sense of real human interaction; to have it up in lights would be to remove the piece from the context in which it worked. As I said when I asked his permission to use his piece, “this is mostly for my own benefit”. While giving me a chance to hear a much-needed voice, though, it also presents some intriguing questions about how literary translation can apply itself to the medium of Twitter — a website where every tweet already has its own built-in ‘translate’ button.
Firstly, and most obviously, I want it to be made clear that a translation is one person’s reading of another person’s text. I am in a different country to my copy of Kate Briggs’ wonderful book This Little Art so I can’t quote directly, but in the first section of the book she talks at length of the necessity to view a translation as not just transferring the original work to a new language, but rewriting it, and in doing so writing yourself into it as a translator. This is most obvious here in the work’s medium: you’re reading a twitter thread on a blog, dislocated from its source and presented as a finite work. I have sliced off a portion of human interaction from the rest of the world and served it to you as something that contains its own internal meaning and coherence.
Secondly comes form: threads are not a single tweet, nor are they an article. The twitter thread will never be seen as paragraph upon paragraph of flowing argument, it’s a series of punctuated statements that interlink in ways less definite than in longer pieces of writing. It is a unique reading experience, and therefore one that a translator has a burden of replicating as best he can.
Finally, a tweet is more than 280 characters. I have included all the following paraphernalia around each tweet as they were at the time of my reading and translating: the date, the number of replies, and the number of retweets and likes. All of this cements two concepts that are true when reading all translated texts, but are made far more explicit through twitter. The first concept is the coalescence of different time periods as a text makes its way to the reader: you can see the date each tweet was written, a context for the flow of the author’s thoughts, the segmenting of the text. You could make your way to the original and see that since I’ve posted it, the numbers of likes or retweets have changed from what I noted down, the replies have grown, branching into different places and different conversations and stories to the ones that were taking place as I read from where I’m sat now. I can’t give you the whole story, I can only tell you what I saw when I was there. The second, related concept is the rhythm of the text that past readers have left on it. All tweets come complete with their own readership as part and parcel, the number of likes and retweets that each segment of Alex’s story has can tell you where past readers’ eyes were drawn to, which in turn shifts the weighting of your own reading. It’s the rhythmic heartbeat of the text, laying bare the climaxes, lulls, and moments of comic respite that are presented to us as cold, hard figures. I’m not one to generalise about ‘the age of social media’, but in the age of social media, everything we read comes with a permanent pulse, and acknowledging it is as much a part of reading the text as the words themselves are.
I would like to thank Alex twofold: for the personal comfort his story gave me when it was desperately needed, and for the permission he gave me to retell his story as best I see fit. I have no doubt it has brought the lighter breath he hoped it would to the people that needed to hear it.