I get an e-mail from the man or woman—I can’t tell by the name—who’s translating my novel into Japanese. Regardless of his/her gender, I picture the translator eating spaghetti because the characters in Haruki Murakami novels are always eating spaghetti, and I love Murakami. The translator seems very polite and smart and has a few questions. One concerns a scene in my book involving a hockey-playing ROTC student with a few missing teeth and an affinity for alcohol and running through traffic. The ROTC boy takes the main character and her friend to a bar with pool tables and a chalkboard where prospective pool players sign up. With violet chalk, the ROTC boy, making a dumb joke, writes: “Jack Mehoff, Haywood Jablowmie, Mike Hunt.”
The translator wants to know who these people are.
I e-mail Heidi Julavits. She and Ed Park and I started a magazine called the Believer about six months ago, and since Heidi lives part of the year—this part—in Maine, and Ed lives in New York, we e-mail each other a lot. I ask Heidi if she’s gotten any interesting questions or requests from translators of her novels. Turns out she has.
“My German translator wanted me to get rid of ‘the mass grave for animals’ in my first book,” Heidi writes. “She thought German readers would think I was making a critique of the Holocaust.”
We decide today that we’re going to start a new feature in the Believer, either in the print edition or online, in which we’ll collect these anecdotes about translators’ queries. I know another writer whose Polish translator asked, “What is ‘motherfucker’? In this context, is this a good thing to be?”
Midday: 826 Valencia is the address and name of the building that houses a nonprofit writing lab where I teach high-school students. It’s also where the Believer is based—by which I mean that this is where Andrew, our managing editor, whom we convinced to drop out of Oberlin to come help with the Believer, has a desk. The building is in the Mission District of San Francisco, a few blocks from where my father grew up. During lunch, I head over to Dolores Park, which is essentially a huge swath of green grass on a sloping hill, bordered by a street lined with thick-trunked palm trees. Turns out there’s a hip-hop concert going on today, all the rap in Spanish, and, it being a warm day and lunchtime, people are lying out on the grass eating. I buy a mango popsicle from a man selling ice cream. His name is Richard, and he’s wearing a T-shirt that says “San Francisco.” Before I take his picture, he takes off his baseball cap, smoothes down his hair, and puts his cap back on.
I’m having dinner with a friend on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Am I really going to talk about the Golden Gate Bridge in a diary written from San Francisco?
When I was little, my father and I spent a lot of time walking along the beach, often with hoods over our heads and always while wearing our old, already sandy sneakers—our “beach shoes.” On foggy mornings, when we walked on the beach and the bridge was hidden my father would tell me that someone had stolen the Golden Gate Bridge. I imagined men in prison garb running off with pieces of the bridge during the night. When the bridge’s base resurfaced (the base always resurfaced first), my father would say that the police had caught the thieves, that the authorities were reassembling the bridge, working from the bottom up.
I had a baby-sitter when I was growing up who liked to tell me love stories. One night, as she was tucking me in, she said she had broken up with her long-term boyfriend after going on one date with a new guy, a man named Greg. Greg had taken her up the one of the bridge’s towers. She claimed that they’d climbed up the north tower and kissed at the top. The danger of the date intrigued me: She had risked her life for a kiss. I told my parents the story in the morning; I never saw that baby-sitter again.
My father’s father, a Hungarian immigrant, helped create the cement that was used on the bridge’s span. It’s a lighter cement mixture than most, he used to say. I never got the chance to know him well. When I drive over the bridge, I look at the road. The concrete beneath the pavement has never been replaced, and about this I feel strangely proud.
I’m answering more of my Japanese translator’s questions when I get an e-mail from another writer friend saying that her Portugese translator asked her to please provide the height and weight of every character in the book. In centimeters and kilograms.