I've been thinking a lot about translation lately, in large part because I reviewed the Dalkey Archive Best European Fiction 2010 anthology for the Quarterly Conversation (forthcoming, I'll let you know when it comes forth). What seemed most interesting to me about that collection was the idea that there ever is a kind of fiction that can be classified as "European"; and the kinds of stories contained in that volume seem to suggest that translation can be a means of turning disparate cultures into one big melting pot. Then I read this piece on Néojaponisme– a translation of Mori Ōgai 森鴎外’s Honyaku ni tsuite「翻譯に就いて」 (”On translation”), published in 1914 for a collection of essays on literary technique– and it sort of complicates that idea, dealing, as it does, with a Norwegian text and Japanese as the target language.
Ōgai talks about the virtues of being "wrong" in translation– adding or detracting from the original text; of most interest, I think, is the final section in which he contemplates how far a translation should go into the source culture. On translating Ibsen's A Doll House, he writes:
The sweets that Nora eats I translated makuron マクロン. Write rather amedama
飴玉, I was told. Advice like this simply boggles the mind. Tins of
almond macaroons have been shipped here in great number so that you may
buy them at Aokido whenever you please. Reflect, if you will, on the
difference in situation between a woman of the West eating a macaroon
and a child of Japan eating an amedama. I recall one scene in a
novel by someone-or-other wherein two female university students in
Paris’s Latin Quarter munch on macaroons as they trade stories of
heartbreak. To switch those macaroons for amedama, of all
things — well, it would certainly be comical. The gist of such
teachings is that item should appear in translation as appropriately
chosen items unique to Japan, but as for myself, I strive to avoid
things unique to Japan, the better to produce an extraordinary effect.
Furthermore, we only consider here cases where there is an appropriate corresponding item. When uniquely Japanese and inappropriate items appear, the results are quite unbearable.
(I am two weeks behind on this one, but had to feature this here, as Charlotte is a friend and someone whose work I admire very much.)
Charlotte Mandell was recently awarded an NEA Translation Fellowship for her work translating Mathias Enard's award-winning 2008 novel Zone from French to English. The novel has the neat trick of being composed of one long sentence stretched over 517 pages, but this doesn't only function as a gimmick, or as some wacky constraint: it actually serves the narrative, cradled as it is during one long train ride from Milan to Rome, deviating down rail lines not taken or taken long ago, reliving and imagining getting off at other places.
But there is more here than one man's ride on an Italian train; Zone contains multitudes. I read much of it this summer, although I still haven't finished, but from what Charlotte reads in this video, she's captured exactly that feeling of a civilization trundling down a railway track at night, en route to the inevitable.
Anthea Bell on the art of translation at the London Review Bookshop, in honor of their World Literature Weekend:
How difficult is it to find a “voice”?
We’re like actors, impersonating other people. So it depends how
much you are in sympathy with the author of the original. It is a
terrible thing not to be in sympathy. The late great translator Ralph
Manheim once told me how the first book he translated from German was Mein Kampf, and he did get depressed having to think himself into Hitler’s mind. But someone had to do it, for the historical record.
Two Tuesdays ago, to be precise, Orhan Pamuk was awarded an (another) honorary doctorate, this time from the University of Rouen, in Normandy. In his acceptance speech, he discussed his love of Flaubert, Rouen's favorite son. Full French text here; English here. Via Pierre Assouline.
Wyatt Mason has a good post on Samuel Beckett and writing in one's native or adopted tongue; Mason quotes, by way of example, Beckett writing in English and an excerpt from Molloy written in French and translated into English by Patrick Williams. In one of Beckett's recently published letters, Mason finds an explanation for the shift from English to French:
It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to
write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me
like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things
(or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they
seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the
imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time
will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is
best used when most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to
leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill
one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it
something or nothing, starts seeping though–I cannot imagine a higher
goal for today’s writer.
We have only to look at texto-speak to know that language is not, in fact, at its best "when most efficiently abused." But this idea of Beckett's is interesting; and symptomatic of the kind of late modernism Beckett was writing at this period in time, which would then give way to his more postmodern output (the plays, notably). Late modernism is marked by a kind of fatigue with the old models, but has not yet incorporated new ones; it has an element of "of courseness" to it; an element of "are we really doing this again"-ness. It is in this context that we can understand Beckett's turn to French, as a way of, in his words, stripping off the mask that, in my opinion, culture and practice had encrusted.
I can't believe this is actually a story, like with quotes and everything.
* One day I will write a short story about all the idiotic boys I've dated over the years who took Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy as guidelines to live by (how many times before I moved to France did I hear these words from a would-be suitor: "Your dad's an architect? Oh my god, I loved The Fountainhead!"). Now that we're in the midst of a recession, Rand is popular again. Sam Jordison takes a closer look, finding that although Atlas Shrugged may be" absurd," it is "strangely compelling.""Who is John Galt?" the novel begins. Jordison summarizes:
Galt, it transpires (after 700-odd pages of hard yakka) is "Prometheus
who changed his mind". A man who has refused to accept the increasing
socialisation of American society in Rand's bleak future, who has
"taken away his fire" and gone on strike. Living on the principle that
"I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to
live for mine", he's retreated to the Colorado mountains, along with
his great big brain and a super-efficient energy generator of his own
invention. He has also encouraged several other similar heroes to join
him. These are all supermen: supremely intelligent, rich, very
good-looking and clever. Without them the world outside begins to
collapse and destroy itself, as a collection of two-dimensional
"college educated" caricatures pass increasingly idiotic legislation in
the name of "essential need", and feed ever more hungrily on the few
producers whom Galt has not yet taken to Colorado.
If you ask me, Rand's novels are more "repellant" than "compelling," but ok. Has Houellebecq read Rand, too? That would explain so much.
Meandering around the internet last week, I came across the blog of Christophe Claro, who is one of the more unique voices writing the French language, as well as the French voice of Pynchon, Rushdie, and Vollman, whose works he has translated. Claro's blog, called Le Clavier Cannibale [the Cannibal Keyboard] after his latest novel (Editions Inculte), is a collection of odds and ends and occasionally the site of compelling discursions on matters literary and non-. One in particular, "Aux écrivains la patrie méconnaissante," caught my eye, since I'm interested in the problematic concept of national literatures, and, thinking it might be interesting for an English-speaking audience as well, I took it upon myself to translate it, with Claro's permission. For more on Claro, see François Monti's interview in The Quarterly Conversation.
Writers Without Country*
A cultural magazine (doesn't matter which, alas) has devoted a recent cover article to the following question: "Is French literature dead?" Of course, we have no doubt that the ten writers asked to "respond" are going to nuance, or even contradict this staggering possibility.
We also vaguely imagined that the article would serve as a kind of response to the incredibly dull polemic which grew up around Donald Morrison's article for Time magazine not long ago [Ed: The Death of French Culture]. Nevertheless, the very fact of using this kind of question to hook the reader speaks volumes. The question is provocative, though in a way I can't quite put my finger on. What bothers me is not that it is provocative (and, to say the least, absurd); no, what bothers me (not that I'm losing sleep over it) is that it contributes tot he reification of this disastrous notion of "French literature" as a defined body of work, a paper entity, go figure– and the question of the morality of this corpus, whether or not this is in question, conspires to personify an object of study which is all the same difficult to define.
Because really, what is "French literature"? Books written by French authors? French-speaking authors? French-speaking French authors? A translation doesn't count? Although? If it's written in French? By a French person? What are the necessary conditions to be considered an author of French literature? How many months a year do you have to live in Paris or in Laval? Does French have to be your mother tongue? Does your subject have to wear a beret? When Raymond Federman writes in French, is that French literature? If Jim Harrison were naturalized tomorrow, would he count retroactively?
In short, it's all very complicated. And if "French literature" is a less precise idea than it would seem to be, how can we imagine that this imprecise idea could, like a body, be subject to an organic phenomenon like death? How can a literature die? Did it have to be born first? Is it possible for it to get sick? Does it grow up, or get old? These kinds of questions only reinforce the rancid notion of "generational literature" [a kind of literature that is associated, for better or for worse, with a group of writers of about the same age, and treating the problems of their generation] — we had more fun, even, with the invigorating notion of the "death of the author."
So contested is the idea of French literature in the writers' responses in said article, that the mere fact that [the editors] thought it might produce something useful says more about literary criticism than it does about literature. The scare quotes, I hate to say, don't change much. The word "French" is pretty and all that, but as soon as we apply it to literature, that great destroyer of borders, or, for that matter, with the idea of death, well, we become aware of a a certain anxiety that– how to put it? Perhaps we ought to reserve this kind of questioning for the obituary section (i.e. "It is with regret that we announce the death of French literature," and a memorial service would be held upstairs at the Café du Flore) or for the medical journals ("Researchers in Marne-la-Vallée have perhaps found the miracle drug to counteract the degeneration of French literature. Preliminary testing has been carried out on the afflicted inhabitants of St Germain-des-Prés"). However, we look forward to reading the responses generated by this cultural magazine, which we hope is safe from nasty existential headcolds.
*I'm not entirely happy with this title. Anyone want to suggest something better?
Woke up this morning to find Maud Newton had posted a video of Simone de Beauvoir discussing her book La vieillesse (translated as The Coming of Age), and had asked for a translation of its contents. Ever one to oblige, and procrastinate, I got right to it. Questions, comments, and critiques of my translation welcome.
Q: Simone de Beauvoir, what does "aging" mean to you?
SdB: Many things at once. I wrote a 600 page book to explain, I can't answer you in 60 seconds. Ok, we can say first of all that to age is an organic phenomenon. The organs evolve, which leads to a slowing down and even the disappearance of the principal biological functions. This is connected to social and economic conditions. Because an older man no longer has the same ability to [deal with] fatigue and work, he is retired or he retires, he stops working. Which is good for some people, because it allows them to have some more free time, but which is a [terrible?] thing for most people, because not having a job generally signifies a large decline in the quality of life, which is terrifying, and the pensions they receive are insufficient.
Q: You wrote this essay on aging, Simone de Beauvoir, to fight against a society that sees the elderly as pariahs, is that the case?
SdB: Yes. For the most part, we don't say it, but we treat them as pariahs. Unlike in myths and stories where they appear as wise, full of experience, someone venerable and respectable, but when we retire them we prevent them from working, it would be good to give them a decent amount of money on which to live. But we give them nothing, and there is a considerable number of eldery people who are paupers in France and the US.
Q: You say that Western society treats the elderly as pariahs, but is this not the case in Socialist nations, like Soviety Russia?
SdB: IT's not exactly the same thing. In Soviet Russia there is the slightest difference between the salary of a worker and the pension he receives after he has been retired [sa mise à la retraite]. There are also retirement homes, which are, if not more comfortable, more enjoyable, because the residents have the chance to get together, play games, take part in discussions. We do this too, but there is a much smaller quantity of hospices and retirement homes in which the residents can enjoy their free time. [truncated, she gets repetitive]
Q: Do you consider that intellectuals like yourself, like most writers, grow older in a privileged fashion?
SdB: Absolutely. On one hand, we generally belong to a privileged social and economic class, which means we have more money, we don't suffer from the same privations. But on the other hand, as has remarked [many a?] gerontologist, the more engaged intellectually the aging person is, the more slowly their faculties decline. If you have a good memory, if you exercise your memory, you will continue to keep it. And then you are someone who is curious, you know how to keep your mind occupied, which is very important, because, sadly, many elderly people, it's tragic for them, they literally die of boredom.
Q: But for you personally, Simone de Beauvoir, does it seem terrible to you to age?
SdB: No; it seemed terrible to me at one time, I said to myself "I'm going to get older," and there is a stage in my life, which is now, to get over. This happened around age 50-55. I think we think of it as a kind of obstacle you have to get past [ligne à franchir]; everyone feels it, male or female, at a certain point in their life.It can come very late, at 70 or 75 years old, or very early, there are people who are old by around 40 years old, it depends on one's health, economic conditions, their job status, on their circumstances. At this time, I feel there is a line I have just passed, there are some things I can no longer do, or no longer want to, like walking [around the city], which I did a lot in my youth. But that's it, I'm not going to spend my time saying this line has been passed, I'm alive and I do my work and I look around me and don't think about what's over, I think I have this time to live, and I prefer to put it to the best possible use.
Q: Do you not think it's more difficult for a woman to age than for a man?
Q: Because it's terrible to no longer please.
SdB: That's a widespread idea, but the moment a woman thinks her life as a woman is over actually comes much earlier, they experience a terrible crisis at the moment of their menopause. They can no longer have children, they imagine that they are no longer desirable– it's very often at this particular moment [that the crisis takes place]. 50, 55 years old, that's not really old age. But generally after this passes, they are more serene than they were, now that they no longer have to fight to stay in the category of 'young women', when they were disadvantaged in this category.
Q: So how old is "old age"?
SdB: I can't give an exact number. Socially, we place it at 65 years old, because that's the average age of retirement. It's at that age that we think men should stop working. So we say that old age begins for everyone at 65 years old. But chronological old age is not the same things as biological old age, nor is it the same for everyone. You have some people who at 55 years old are terribly used-up, who have the body of an 85 year old, and you have 85 year olds who are extremely vigorous, who can keep up with someone aged 50. So there is an enormous difference, and we cannot say that old age arrives at one age or another.
Q: In fact, Simone de Beauvoir, this essay on aging is important because it is a comprehensive work, the consummate text on aging. Do you think it will do for the elderly what The Second Sex did for women?
SdB: Yes, that's what I had envisioned. I wanted to think about [the subject of ] aging in all of its aspects the way I did [the subject of ] woman. From a biological, anthropological, historical, social perspective– that is, how it exists in our society today; and then on the other hand I wanted to treat the "being in the world" [l'etre dans le monde] of the elderly person, a little like what I did for women, the lived experience, that is to say, look at how he reacts in different situations, his relationship to his body, his self-image, his sexuality, his relationship to time, to what is past and what is to come, his activities, his plans, and his daily relationships with other people, his loved ones, everything that has to do with money…
Q: You say that society condemns the elderly. But according to your historical analysis, every society has always condemned them.
SdB: That is to say, there have been periods when there were only privileged old people, where we didn't speak of old age; in France in the Middle Ages your life was over at 35 years old. So in this case we can't say that the elderly were mistreated, since men didn't live to see their old age. And the rare privileged ones, as in Greek and Roman times, since they were rich and had property, since they were at the head of the family, they were respected, not because of their age, but because of the role they played in society. Except in feudal times, because the vassals, when they had to defend their earnings, by the sword at times, the father would step aside [s'éffacer] in favor of his son.
Which is what we see, for example, in [Corneille's tragedy] Le Cid.
Q: Do you think your book could have an effect on the situation of elderly people in our society?
SdB: Unfortunately, I don't think so. Books are never enough. It can have echoes in revolts, in movements of public opinion, so it seems to be efficacious, but in itself The SEcond Sex didn't change anything about the female condition. It only helped certain women to become aware of their condition. I know it helped them a lot because I've received many letters. So I think this book will help, on one hand, adults and young people, to see the elderly from a different perspective, to treat them in another way. And perhaps it will help the elderly as well to understand the reasons why they live the way they do. But for the mass of [elderly] people for whom this is a material and economic problem, who really have nothing to eat or to heat themselves with in the winter, it is obvious that this book won't change anything.
The translator Charlotte Mandell did the heavy lifting for two of the more exciting imports from France: this year's The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, and next year's Zone, by Mathias Enard. Mandell, who lives in Upstate New York, is also the virtuoso translator behind Proust's The Lemoine Affair, a collection of literary parodies of writers like Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, and Saint-Simon. You can find a bibliography and some of her translations here. M: How did you get started as a translator?
CM: My parents were both university professors, so we spent long summers abroad, first in the Suisse Romande, then in the French Alps. I learned to speak French at a fairly young age, and I still remember my first conversation in French with a stranger in a train station when I was ten: we talked about ordinary, everyday things, but I was amazed that I could converse in another language, and be understood. Then when I was thirteen I read The Adventures of Augie March and had another revelation about language: things have no inherent reality, but are perceived differently by different people; “pain” could be “bread.” Reality is entirely relative, and suffering can be replaced by food. Language is all, and if you can learn to play with language, you can learn to overcome your own relative reality and learn about other people’s perceptions of reality.
I’ve been translating things since high school; I went to Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country (it was founded in 1635 – Harvard was founded a year later, to give its graduates something to do), where I studied Latin for five years and ancient Greek for two, along with five years of French. I translated a lot of the Aeneid in one of my advanced placement Latin classes, and I remember really enjoying the process of translation, the feeling of making an ancient language come alive again. And it was strangely exciting to read lines from Homer in the original. I think Latin School is where I first realized that translation could be a pleasure.
At Bard College, I majored in French literature and minored in film theory. At Bard every senior has to complete a “senior project,” a thesis-length work that can be creative (if you’re a writer) or critical. My senior project was a translation of a book of poems by the contemporary poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry, called le feu l’ombre in French, fire / shadows in English. That won the Lockwood Prize for the best written project at Bard. (I think I’d like to get that published now – I’ve been looking it over recently and I still like the translations. Auxeméry is one of the translators of Charles Olson into French, so his work is influenced by Olson, as well as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley and my husband, Robert Kelly.) After Bard I considered going to graduate school – I was awarded scholarships to both Brown and Rutgers – but somehow more school didn’t appeal to me at the time, and I wasn’t interested in teaching as a profession. I was still translating poetry and publishing the translations in various literary journals, but I never thought of translation as a profession. Then my friend Pierre Joris, a poet and translator, was asked by Helen Tartar (then the editor-in-chief of Stanford University Press) to translate Blanchot’s La Part du feu; he didn’t have time, so he recommended me. I sent in a 15-page sample that Helen liked, so that was the beginning of my translation career. I feel very grateful to both Pierre and Helen for giving me that chance.
M: How many projects do you work on at once?
CM: I prefer to work on just one project at a time, but sometimes things overlap. Right now I’m working on Mathias Énard’s Zone, but I also just finished translating two long essays: one by Jacques Rancière for the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin about the video art of James Coleman, and another by Jean-Luc Nancy about Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s concept of the récit, for an upcoming conference at Fordham. I’m also occasionally asked to translate articles quickly for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.
M: Do you ever feel as a translator that you're fighting with the text? that it goes in ways you want to resist?
CM: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. Yes, I think I have experienced that, most recently with The Kindly Ones, when a character I really liked got killed off. But usually I’m so caught up in trying to render the text appropriately in English that I don’t have time to fight against it – I’m sort of swept along with it, as it were.
M: How did you approach translating a book of literary pastiches like The Lemoine Affair? Did you look at the literary styles of already-extant English translations of Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, etc., or did you work directly from the French? To what extent do you think literary style comes through in translation?
CM: With The Lemoine Affair, I worked directly from the French at first, until I had a rough draft of the entire novella. Then I did look at Saint-Simon in English, to see how my translation compared with a translation of Saint-Simon’s memoirs done some time ago. Proust’s Saint-Simon pastiche was the most difficult to translate, because of all the court lingo and the rules of etiquette that I was unfamiliar with. With the other pastiches, though, I felt that the respective literary styles of each came through clearly enough in the English, so I didn’t feel the need to consult other translations – and of course Balzac and Flaubert felt just like themselves. Proust is such a master stylist, and the styles he’s parodying are so distinctive, that you just have to stay close to the text to let the style show through on its own, I find. M: Were there any particular challenges to translating The Kindly Ones? What about Zone?
With The Kindly Ones, the main challenge was the time constraint: I was working against a deadline, so I had to finish the translation in about nine months. That’s not a lot of time for a thousand-page novel! In way, though, that very urgency worked for me, since I just had to dive into it and try to inhabit Max’s voice, and I could put all other projects aside for those nine months. With Zone, the challenge is to reproduce the style of the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness: the novel is written around one long sentence, and I need to keep the reader’s undivided attention in English in the same way that the French does – it’s a sort of breathless, urgent, spontaneous, but also deeply erudite style that works wonderfully well in the original. I hope I can maintain that momentum in English – when you’re reading it you feel as if you’re on the train with the narrator, being pulled inexorably toward some unknown goal. M: How do you get interested in translating a particular work?
CM: The writing. If the writing is interesting, I’ll do it – I don’t care about plot or character development. That’s why so many different genres appeal to me: philosophy, poetry, fiction, musicology – so long as it’s well-written, I’m in.
M: What's on your bedside table right now?
CM: I’m about halfway through Proust’s Jean Santeuil, but I’m considering putting it aside for a while – it’s written by a very young Proust, and his inexperience shows. It’s disappointing in sort of the same way the explanation of a magic trick is: you feel cheated somehow. With Jean Santeuil I feel as if I’m reading Proust’s private rough draft for A la recherche, so I feel a little as if I’m trespassing where I shouldn’t be. I also have a stack of books by Flann O’Brien waiting to be read – most of them are Myles na Gopaleen articles for the Irish Times, in various collections. Oh, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Meet Mr. Mulliner, which contains the story “Honeysuckle Cottage,” probably the funniest ghost story I’ve ever read. I read somewhere that that was Wittgenstein’s favorite story, and Wodehouse was his favorite author. M: If you were in Paris tonight, what would you be doing?
CM: I wish you hadn’t asked me that! I’ll start to wax nostalgic… I could go on for pages on this one. Let’s see…
I’d probably be trying in vain to prevent Robert (my husband) from eating too much tripes à la mode de Caen at Pharamond, while I ate ris de veau. If there were a Double Change poetry reading, we’d be going to that. There was a conference last weekend on Jean-Luc Nancy that I’d have liked to attend, at Paris VII, I think, and was also a meeting of the editorial board of the Blanchot site around the same time that I wish I could have attended. There’s a Roland Petit ballet coming up at the Opéra Garnier that I’d love to see, since he was close to Genet – he choreographed a ballet Genet wrote called “’adame Miroir,” which I translated in Fragments of the Artwork. And I love opera – if Anna Netrebko were singing somewhere I’d go see her.
Do they still have weekly teas at Shakespeare & Co.? I remember enjoying those. I also love having tea at Le Loir dans la théière (The Dormouse in the Teapot) in the Marais. Or knishes at Jo Goldberg’s. Or hot chocolate at that place around the corner from Shakespeare & Co. – I think it’s called The Tea Caddy.
During the day I’d have lunch at my favorite café (Perec’s too–he wrote Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien there), the Café de la Mairie on the place St. Sulpice, and then dessert – millefeuille or some chocolate creation – at my favorite pâtisserie, Gérard Mulot, around the corner. I’d look at the Delacroix painting in the Église St.-Sulpice and walk over to the Bon Marché for tea in that lovely old-style cafeteria, where Robert and I would watch the Ladies Who Lunch and try to guess what sort of government ministers their husbands were. Then we’d walk over to Gilbert Jeune or Gibert Joseph and stock up on cheap fountain pens and Clairefontaine notebooks, the quadrille-ruled kind. Then we’d take the métro to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, our favorite Parisian park, full of 19th century follies and fake grottos and real ducks. Or we’d walk around the Luxembourg gardens or the Jardin des Plantes – is there still a yak there?
There’s a story by Mary Butts called “Mappa Mundi” that tells of a secret, alternate Paris available only to people who know the spell to enter it. I think everyone who discovers Paris finds this secret other side if they look long enough – passageways they didn’t know existed, parks with strange landscapes, bridges leading to odd islands. It’s a city that expands from within and creates haunting dreamscapes for anyone who inhabits it: a city that’s bigger inside than out.