Speak For Itself
Copyright © by SuZi, 7/13/11
Reading translation is an act of trust. We trust that the translated text is true to the original, that the spirit of the original comes through to the reader with the same potency as it would if read in the native tongue. The editorial decisions made by the translator –- regarding idiomatic phrases, sound versus sense, what to do with meter in closed form work, et cetera—are the conundrum that does not change the intrinsic nature of translation, as Charles Bernstein says, as that of being “always a form of collaboration: between two[..] poets and two[…] languages” (199). In the end, the text must speak, must rise to possess the mind of the reader, must be present.
Given that print forms have a somewhat beleaguered status in this second decade of our twenty first, common era, century, a book becomes a bit more that a sheaf of bound pages, it becomes an entity, a vessel to contain the spirit of the text, the urn of the genii. How much this vessel’s artifice is appropriate to the spirit within becomes the collaborative relationship—or not—between the author of the text and the publisher. In the case of translation, the physical nature of the original text seems mostly left to the mysteries.
Enter into hand now a lovely, slender volume with a paper cover hued an understated deep bronze, with titling font sized more appropriately to a wedding invitation than the garish, outsized, bling-glitter that seeks to leap to the eye and that is nauseatingly popular of late. The paper of the pages is a weighty non-glare reminiscent of artist’s drawing surface sheets. There is a sense of true quality in this object: efficient, understated, but not blind to the pleasure of the hand or eye.
The cover informs us “Translated from the French”, as if plating a dish at a Michelin multi-star restaurant; the chef –- the translator – is the last name on the cover (slightly smaller in font point than that of the original author—Gabrielle Wittkop-- but in the same all capitol font), acknowledging this work without self-aggrandizement: Don Bapst.
The book itself does not begin with the usual essay detailing the agonies of invocation: a frontspiece with the required copyright, a two line dedication. It is quite clear that this text is meant to speak for itself. Any effort at introduction is made of the back cover, where we find out that this translation is a shade under ten years posthumous to the original author, and four decades post publication in the original French. There is an allusion to Poe and Baudelaire for the reader with weak critical skills, or to the big-box minded to help them shelve the book along the lines of gothic or horror….
The reader enters the text thus in perhaps the same way as the diner must descend their fork and is once again awash in a sensory ecstasy: “The grey eyelashes of this little girl cast a grey shadow against her cheek.” Immediately, the doubts about translation versus the authentic song of the original diminish as the potency of the imagery, the sensitivity of subtle and sonorous repetitions of vowels possess the reader into experiencing the text, into submitting to the elegance of the imagery.
It is the elegance of the language, the very literary merit of Wittkop’s novella that validates the what-must-be labyrinthine task of translation, and which posits a primary irony that will have more puritanical—and thus most American—readers reaching with shrieks for their white sheets: the transgressive nature of the character’s doings. No such sense of trauma was apparently felt by the Canadian publisher, which clearly sees the work as one of literary art, and this holds American hypocrisy up for scrutiny. America has a history of public prudery, yet mobs will throng for spectacles of degeneracy: sexual malfeasance, infanticide, and whatever heinous crimes individuals can muster their impoverished imaginations to commit, all whilst a multi-million dollar media bread-and-circuses distracts the immobilized citizenry from crimes against the planet. Against this Gomorrah-as-usual expectation, the journal entry format of the novella’s plot seems almost a whisper.
Oh how potent the lover’s whisper—private, resonant. When the protagonist names himself, it is with self-reflective irony: “ I had lost the notion of time, measuring my wait not by my watch but by the light. The light…My enemy…Why had I been named Lucien, me the lucifuge?”(54). The text continues with a characterization of a dead man as vivid as Garcia-Marquez’ drowned nobody :
A beautiful man…Heavens! He measured barely less than two metres and was well in proportion. They probably tried to save him at the hospital, for a thick bandage, marked in its centre with a watery stain, squeezed his monumental torso where the dense brown hair curled. Never had I seen a dead man so calm, with his somewhat Roman profile, his sweet white skin like that flour he kneaded over the years into bread for the living”(54-55).
Lest the reader still doubt the literary validity of the text—for although the protagonist does engage in meditative transgression as do many of Poe’s characters, literature has absorbed with amnesia toward the origin of this now trope—Wittkop gives a nod to Baudelaire when one brief episode reveals:
Jerome given back to the night. Jerome given back to the abyss, what currents are you sinking in, drunken boat?
And me, soon. I will fall into death like Narcissus into his own image(61).
This last allusion was chosen by translator Bapst as the dedication; thus, even the dimmest reader understand that this is a text of passion, meditated—in translation microscopically scrutinized—distilled, born forth as literature.
Lest it be forgotten, literature transforms the reader into more of themselves; it is more than mere escape of prosaic drudgery, it allows for a sentience beyond the skin of the individual. The rigors of writing seek to conjure this spirit, that the work has a life of its own; the intricacies of translation seek to summon this spirit intact and true to itself. The character is always a symbol for some manifestation, perhaps bidden hidden to the daily eye; nonetheless, Wittkop’s Lucien experiences transformation through his transgressions:
Nervous, edgy, extremely emotive in daily life, I have a tremendous reserve of calmness and aptness as soon as it’s a question of carrying off a dead body. I become another person. I’m suddenly a stranger to myself, all the while being more myself than ever. I stop being vulnerable. I stop being unhappy. I reach a sort of quintessence of myself[…](81).
This confession of transformation is the novella’s climactic perception, and a wise reader will search self-knowledge for their own moments of self-quintessence. Indeed, American rewards its sports stars quite obscenely for their public displays of this very loss of self into a creature of superb motion.
At a time in America’s cultural climate when the very validity of love is publicly debated as potentially transgressive, Lucien becomes an elegant symbol—for his is a journey of passion, albeit forbidden in expression. While the idiot literalist will balk at who and how the character loves, only the puriently prejudiced will deny the literary lyricism of the text itself. In our times of censorship and tokenism, it would well bespeak any critical mind to reflect on the chaos of our own literary history: from the journals of slaveship survivors to the brief light of multi-culturalism accepted by textbooks at the end of the twentieth century, the face of American literary wisdom looks more like a mutual masturbation of a secret society endlessly discoursing on the ennui of a certain caste, or in avid voyeurism for the country club party to which they will never be invited. This text exists in a purity that is as refreshing as it is uncompromisingly elegant. A rare and valuable read for any mind not weakened with the drugs of dross.
Bapst, Don (translator), Gabrielle Wittkop. The Necrophiliac. ECW Press. 2011.
Bernstein, Charles “ Breaking the Translation Curtain”. Attack of the Difficult Poems. Chicago. 2011.
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