Fearful Symmetries

Fearful Symmetries


Harry Mathews writes of the inherent difficulties in translation - especially the translation of his own work.

Reprinted from The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays. Chicago and Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2003. 55-65.

The subject of these pages, translating American English into French, is plainly one I cannot claim to know much about. I am in fact familiar with only one small body of work that involves the process - my own. That the work is mine is largely irrelevant. What has led me to set down these remarks is that two of my translators, Georges Perec and Marie Chaix, have been highly gifted writers; that they produced translations of exceptional quality; and that I collaborated with them routinely in the process of translation. Thanks to these collaborations, I became familiar with many ordinary problems facing translators of American English, as well as with the exceptional ones due to my own eccentricities; and as any translator knows, it is often the plainest statements that produce the biggest headaches.

I have pointed out elsewhereTranslation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese” in The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose (London: Atlas Press, 1999). that one disparity in American and French ways of thinking can be demonstrated by two of the plainest statements of all: the way citizens of the two countries declare their national identities: ‘Je suis français’; ‘I’m American.’ Translating these words by ‘I’m French’ and ‘je suis Américan’ brings to light differences rather than similarities. In the language of the Frenchman, nationality basically means a complex cultural history; in the language of the American it basically means the fact of citizenship, often coupled with a disrespect for history. While it would be fatuous to translate these statements in any other way, we can see how the translations leave out what is vividly implicit in each language.

Curiously, the same statements can with slight modification be turned into much closer equivalents of one another. With some emphasis, the Frenchman now says, ‘je suis français, monsieur!’ The American responds, ‘I’m American, and you better believe it!’ The effective meaning of both statements is the same: not so much an assertion of nationality as of membership in one’s very own community. What makes the equivalence interesting is that it depends not on the sense of the words used (where the French/American difference remains entire) but on other linguistic factors, whatever they may be. And it should be said at once that, whatever they may be, they have nothing to do with style: stylistically, there is still an ocean of difference between ‘Je suis français, monsieur!,’ and ‘I’m American, and you better believe it.’

This example of what we may call efficient translation suggests that one thing a translator should look for is a means of letting non-nominal meaning pass into the target language; and this in turn implies that fidelity in translation should apply not only to nominal meaning but to what may be provisionally called effect. A further implication is that reinvention rather than replication can best realize this aim. Let me cite some examples of my own experience in support of this view.

My first work with a French translator provided me with a basic apprenticeship in the practicalities of converting written English into French. (The work being translated was a novel appropriately called The Conversions.) At the start, whenever a difficulty arose, I would soon find a solution for it, only to be reluctantly but accurately informed that ‘c’est une chose qu’on ne peut pas dire en français.’‘That’s something you can’t say in French.’ I thus discovered that there are numerous rules of French composition not to be found in grammars, that in order to learn them it is advisable to attend twelve years in a French primary school and lycée, and that I would be well advised to restrict my own writing of French to such easily initiated forms as official letters. As for the actual rendering of the book, Claude Portail, my translator, was knowledgeable, sensitive, and talented enough; she was also, unfortunately, all too modest when confronted with a demanding author; and since I was stupidly obsessed with preserving the rhythm of my sentences and paragraphs (that is, their shape and phrasing), she did her utmost to oblige my usually unreasonable insistence, with results that were inevitably flawed.

How unreasonable my insistence was became glaringly evident on the very title page of my second novel, the first of two translated by Georges Perec. In English the book was called Tlooth, a meaningless, made-up word suggesting both a ‘tooth’ and the word ‘truth’ as a Chinaman or a Thai might pronounce it. Perec and I spent much time concocting analogous French words. Of his many ingenious inventions, I particularly remember Dentité;The invented word suggests ‘toothness’ as well as ‘identity.’ like the rest, it was discarded as being too literary, too clever. (The word tlooth, after all, sounds like nothing so much as a grunt.) One day Perec suggested as a title Les verts champs de moutarde de l’Afghanistan, words that end a chapter more or less half way through the novel; I did not approve; so he waited until I was safely on the other side of the Atlantic before announcing, after the book had been sent to the printer, that he and Geneviève Serreau had agreed that Les verts champs de moutarde de l’AfghanistanThe green mustard-fields of Afghanistan. was indeed the best possible title for the French edition.

Now Georges had understood that, aside from its semantic implications, the title of the book performs a specific function: tlooth is an undefined something that hovers over the novel, page after page, until - at a moment when It has become both familiar and forgotten - the word surfaces in the text itself. Its unheralded appearance then interrupts the normal progress of reading; and for a moment the book is transformed from a distanced narrative into a physically present object. As a means of achieving this effect, the title Les verts champs de moutarde de l’Afghanistan works every bit as well as the original Tlooth: its significance is no less mysterious, its emergence in the text no less abrupt. Here we have a perfect example of efficient translation - one where, need I point out, nominal meaning is completely abandoned, and form no less so: a grotesquely short title has been replaced with a grotesquely long one.

In both Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, Perec performed innumerable and prodigious feats of translation; like the title of Tlooth, most of them were provoked by linguistic peculiarities of my own making and are therefore not pertinent to our subject today; but one of his less spectacular contributions is worth mentioning, that is, his handling of the terms of the Great American Pastime, the game of baseball. At that time - perhaps still today - French baseball devotees called the pitcher le lanceur, the catcher l’attrapeur, the infielders les basemen, and the outfielders les fielders, terms that, appearing at a narrative’s outset, might very well convince a reader to proceed no further - a possibility that Perec felt it was imperative to avoid. Here are his own terms for the nine positions of a baseball team, as they appear on the first page of Les verts champs:

left field           aile gauche (left wing - a soccer term)
center field      demi-centre (center half)
pitcher             pointeur (from French game of boules: one who pitches the                       ball accurately to a particular spot)
1st base          1ère base
shortstop         arrière (back)
2nd base         2ème base
right field         aile droite (right wing)
catcher            catcheur (wrestler - making no sense: but the term is                            undeniably French)
3rd base          3ème base

(in Le Naufrage du Stade Odradek, aile gauche and aile droite became ailiers gauche et droite, and the shortstop changed - a definite improvement - from l’arrière to le volant.) In similar fashion, a single is translated as un solo, a double as un doublé (a doublet); a walk is un fauteuil (arriver dans un fauteuil means to win in a walkover); to strike or foul out is se fare forclore (to be shut out), to hit safely is marquer (when used transitively, it means to score a point).

In terms of fidelity to nominal meaning, pointeur, ailiers, catcheur, volant, solo, and fauteuil are ‘mistakes’; in terms of efficient translation, they work admirably, using as they do terms from other sports well-known in France. Once again, Perec gave primary consideration to the text’s effect on the reader: in both novels, the details of the baseball games are of little narrative importance, and to an American reader the terms associated with the sport would pass unnoticed, so Perec decided to replace them with words that, no matter how vague their correspondence to the originals, would be acceptable to French readers - words both appropriate and ordinary enough to allow the flow of reading to proceed normally. Efficient translation here demanded that inconspicuous familiarity replace canonical fidelity as a rule of procedure.

Perec used a similar if less arbitrary approach to solve another problem in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. The novel consists of an exchange of letters between a husband and a wife. As the plot evolves, the husband falls into the hands of con artists (more formally known as confidence men - des arnaqueurs); at the end of the book he is convinced that his wife is working with them and against him. In frequenting these criminals, he has gradually picked up their jargon, and in his last letter to his wife he denounces her in terms drawn entirely from that jargon:

This chump never blowed you were turned out to hopscotch. You let him find the leather, and he copped you for the pure quill, when you’re nothing but a crow. It took a long time to bobble him but now you’ve knocked him good and he feels like a heavy gee had slipped him a shiv. Well, no twist well ever beat this savage again, not if she hands over her bottom bumblebee - it’s cheaper loaning cush to Pogy O’Brien. Don’t you play the hinge but stick to the big con. You’re a class raggle with a grand future, even if this mark knows you’re snider.

Perec would have been happy to find a repertory of l’argot des arnaqueurs; but since this proved impossible, and knowing that in translating this letter what mattered was the presence on the page of a compact mass of exotic slang, he put together an effective vocabulary compounded of standard argot and ordinary language. He knew that its impact here was intended above all to reflect the letter-writer’s state of mind, that of one who has taken bitter refuge in the speech of those who have duped him:

Ce chapon n’avait jamais reniflé que tu t’alignais à la marelle. Tu lui as fait la cornanche et il t’a chopée pour une moelleuse alors que tu n’es rien d’autre qu’une corbaque. Ca a a pris du temps pour 1’empiler mais tu l’as bien démarqué et il a l’impression qu’un sueur l’a tailladé au surin. Eh bien, aucune chouquette ne lui refilera plus le coton, même si elle lui donne sa dernière dentelle - ça coûte moins cher de prêter ses arjoncs à Pierrot-la-Torpille. Ne pivote pas des bernicles, mais reste dans la grosse carotte. Tu es une catiche badour avec un avenir maousse même si ce miquel sait que tu es un bide.It is important to remember that no expression in the English text has retained its nominal meaning: savage means ‘victim,’ bumblebee means ‘dollar bill,’ and so forth. Here are some of Perec’s French equivalents: chapon (invented slang) = capon; la marelle (invented slang), literal translation of ‘hopscotch’; cornanche = marking of a card by a card sharp; choper (slang) = to take; moelleuse (invented slang), literally a tender, sweet woman; corbaque (slang) = crow; empiler (slang) = to con; démarquer (invented slang) = to remove identification marks of goods; sueur (invented slang), suggested by faire suer = to harass; surin (slang) = dagger; chouquette = pastry, a petit chou, which is also a term of endearment; refiler (slang) = to get rid of (e.g., counterfeit money), combined with filer un mauvais coton = to be ill; dentelle (invented slang) = lace; arjoncs, suggested by argent = money and jonc (slang) = gold; bernicles (slang) = eyeglasses; carotte (slang) a lie leading to the extorsion of money (cf. carotter = to con); catiche (invented slang), perhaps suggested by catin = prostitute and pouliche = filly; badour (slang) = beautiful; maousse (slang) = huge; miquel (invented slang), cf. miquelet, guerilla fighter in Napoleonic wars; bide (slang) = flop.

Marie Chaix faced a similar challenge in translating certain passages of my novel Cigarettes. They occur in a chapter that relates a sadomasochistic relationship between two men. At each of their intimate encounters, the normally well-spoken sadist plays his role by (among other things) systematically denigrating his sensitive lover in appalling terms taken entirely from gay slang - an extraordinarily rich and ingenious dialect based on the ironic attitude known as ‘camp.’ After Chaix had started translating Cigarettes, both she and I began asking our many gay friends for French equivalents of the sadist’s words: but the only responses we received were either medical terms or crude vulgarities. After persisting for weeks in our quest, we were forced to conclude that in a language so much richer than English in erotic nuances gay slang does not exist and that the notion of camp is quite un- known. By the time we abandoned our research, time was running out, so Chaix simply decided to make up what she needed. (Like Perec, she adapted words wherever she could, although relatively more from the language of the original than from her own.) Here is the sadist’s last harangue:

‘Even if I don’t like reading you the stations, I won’t spread jam. So please, Louisa, get it and go. You’re a mess, a reject, a patient - I could go on for days. And don’t tell me - I have your nose wide open. I’m sorry. Spare me the wet lashes, it’s all summer stock. Because the only one you’ve ever been really strung out on is your own smart self, and you always will be. Think I’m going to stick around and watch the buns drop? And for what - to keep catching my rakes in your zits? Forget it, Dorothy. This is goodbye. Remember one thing, though. No matter what I’ve said to you, no matter how I’ve turned you out, the truth is, and I’m singing it out: I lo-…’

Chaix’s translation:

‘Même si je n’aime pas déplier mon Golgotha, je ne vais pas faire dans la rnarmelade. Alors, s’il te plaît, Louisa, c’est ça et pas autre chose : T’es qu’une foire, un défaut, un invalide … et ainsi de suite à perpète. Et ne me dis pas que tu bats des naseaux. Excuse-moi! Pas besoin d’éponger tes faux-cils, ce n’est que la tournée de province. Le seul pour qui tu pinces le banjo, c’est ton self à la con et ça changera jamais. Tu t’imagines pas que je vais me carier à attendre que tes meringues dévissent ? Et pourquoi? Pour continuer à ratisser tes bourgeons? Tu peux courir Berthe. Bonjour et bonsoir. Souviens-toi d’une chose pourtant. Peu importe ce que je t’ai dit, peu importe comment je t’ai décapé, la vérité, c’est … La vérité, c’est, j’te la chante sur trois notes : je t’a-…’Again, it should be remembered that the English words have nowhere retained their ordinary meaning: ‘to read the stations’ means ‘to complain,’ ‘to spread jam’ means ‘to lie,’ ‘I’m sorry’ means ‘I strongly disagree,’ etc. A few of Chaix’s equivalents, virtually all of which are invented: déplier mon Golgotha = to lay out my [map of] Golgotha; foire comes from enfoiré = a bugger, in its most contemptuous sense; à perpète: for life, normally used to describe a jail sentence; battre des naseaux = to have one’s nostrils a-flutter: éponger tes faux-cils = to dry your false eyelashes; pincer le banjo combines pincer = to have a crush and pincer = you have another think coming, with adieu Berthe = it’s all over.

What all these examples suggest is that efficient translation requires a fidelity to aesthetic function at least as great as the conventional fidelity to nominal meaning. In some of my examples, admittedly exceptional ones, fidelity to meaning has even been dispensed with altogether; but a more useful point to make is that when fidelity to meaning is given undisputed priority, distortion often follows, and sometimes outright disaster. Let me I provide a short sample of what I mean.

When I worked with the Italian and Spanish translators of Cigarettes, I was often frustrated by inefficient translations. They took one of two forms: they were either bulky, descriptive elaborations of concise English expressions or reductive formulations of explicit statements. Both kinds were invariably justified by the same assertion: there is no other way of saying this in our language. One instance concerned a very ordinary sentence describing the influence of Oliver, a man in his twenties, on Pauline, a somewhat younger woman who had been a virgin when Oliver artfully seduced her. The disputed sentence reads in English: ‘He invented the ways she felt.’ In Italian this became, ‘Inventò la sessualità di Pauline’ (‘He invented Pauline’s sexuality’). An argument lasting a good half hour did little to reduce the total of agreement between the two sides - in the end, all I achieved was have sessualità replaced with sensualità, and this hardly mattered. What mattered to me was that ‘the way she felt’ is an indefinite phrase where the verb acts as a dynamic agent of possibility; whereas ‘inventò la sessualità di Pauline’ describes a circumscribed and completed fact. Yes, my translator would reply, but doesn’t the sentence ultimately mean that Oliver taught Pauline about sex? Maybe, I would counter, but that’s not how it works. In that case, came the conclusive response, this is the way you say that in good Italian. The discussion went round and round in this pointless circle. The only thing I gained from it was the knowledge that Italians are not only addicted to nominal meaning but that they prefer nouns to verbs, and abstract nouns at that.

At this point it would clearly be easy to classify a translator’s options, in some such way as: translation where nominal meaning is identified and defended at all costs; translation where, as in Perec’s treatment of baseball terms, adapting convenient substitutes can replace literal replication; translation where wholly new terms are introduced to recreate the function of the original, as was done for the French title of Tlooth and the gay slang passages in Cigarettes. I think, however, that there are other comments to be made, ones more interesting and certainly more relevant to the topic of this discussion.

One inference of the battle with my Italian translator is that Americans and Italians - and for Italians, read Europeans, de la petite Europe - hold knowledge in very different ways. To put it in broad terms, Americans look on knowledge as something to be invented or discovered, Europeans look on knowledge as something to be recognized and identified, that is, placed within a preexisting order of ideas. This does not mean that Americans are more original than Europeans or that Europeans are more reductive than Americans, rather that in their approach to knowledge Americans tend to start from a point of uncertainty and Europeans from one of certainty.

This distinction makes itself notably apparent in the domain of written language. Unless I am hopelessly mistaken, it seems to me perfectly possible to write well in French simply by writing correctly - by writing well I obviously do not necessarily mean elegantly or brilliantly; I mean only that there exists a normative written language available to anyone who takes the trouble to learn it that will enable its user to write prose that can be universally read without objection. Such a ‘correct’ language does not exist in America (or in England, for that matter). Left to itself, merely correct American English tends to go flat. American writing of any kind has an ad hoc quality about it, a quality of having been improvised for the occasion; and good writing invariably involves the admixture of a particular individual manner. This difference manifests itself conspicuously in literary translations. French translations of the Greek and Roman classics strike me as pure marvels, because the normative language in which they are written allows me a familiar access to the substance of the text uncluttered by special stylistic effects (I believe Chateaubriand’s Paradise Lost to be the only exception to the general rule); whereas much as I enjoy Lang’s Homer or Dryden and Clough’s Plutarch, they are, as in English they must be, ‘worked up’ stylistically so as to attain not only weight but a significant presence on the page. For the same reason many French translators of atrociously written contemporary American works produce versions of them that are far better readable than the originals. They have, of course, no choice in the matter; but I know of no analogous examples in English, even if, as with the classics, translators often dress up the original work, as Scott Montcrief did in poeticizing Proust.

The reason for my bringing in these generalities will no doubt be obvious. In translating from an American author - someone who will, if she is gifted, necessarily have an idiosyncratic language of her own - Europeans schooled in their admirably normative languages may find themselves at a disadvantage whenever efficient translation is required; and the more professionally skilled they are as translators, the greater that disadvantage will be. Idiosyncratic inventiveness cannot yield its sense to the exercise of systematic recognition and identification, no matter how perceptive: within any normative language, the pitfalls of reductiveness will always remain an imminent danger. My own experience certainly confirms this view. The professional translators I have had, all highly qualified, have generally aimed at producing faithful renderings that broke no rules. Where efficient translation is desirable, that is not enough. Whenever Perec and Chaix, who anything but experts in English, started translating something I had written, they always began by asking, usually in an irritated grumble, ‘How can I possibly say that in French?,’ meaning: ‘if I were the one saying the crazy things this man has thought up, what might they be?’ In other words, they set out to recreate the original text as if it were their very own work. That is, of course, a huge commitment to take on; but it is sometimes the only way to get the job properly done.

Lori Emerson:

See also Michael Boyden’s interview with Mathews in which he discusses the issue of translation, referring to this essay and two other related pieces available on ebr: the story “Dialect of the Tribe” and “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese.”