Vagaries, Quirks and a Cracked Kettle: The Way of Translation

“I am not frightened of the truth. I am not afraid to tell a secret. But until now, words have been frailer and more cunning than I would have liked.” These lines are in the opening paragraph of life sentence, a novella by French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot, published in 1948 and translated here by the noted American writer Lydia Davis in 1998 (Station Hill Press).

Words are impossible; translation is impossible. Czech theorist Vilém Flusser says the issue of language is one of the interior virtuality’s finding expression through words, and he speaks of the gesture of writing. He says, “only when the virtuality has met the resistance of words, does one decide to write.” (Gestures, Translated by Nancy Ann Roth, University of Minnesota Press, 2014). The resistance of words would be home country for Blanchot, but the idea of home country would be anomalous or perhaps foreign to Flusser, who saw himself as nomadic. In her Translator’s Preface, Roth refers to German cultural theorist Rainer Guldin’s noting that this nomadism is tied to the idea that translation is endless and open-ended. The translator attempts to circle without success back to the first work. Guldin concludes, “Meaning is homeless and itinerant.”

Since he was multilingual Flusser had, in his memory, words from all these many languages and each, he said, carried its own universe of meaning. From this polyglot richness he would act as translator, carrying specificity and elaborations from one to the other.

Today there is a proliferation of words and symbols but communication and meaning are elusive, so Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman (Yale University Press, 2010) drew my attention. From one form to another, one medium to something entirely different—words to music, music to dance, text to stage‚ opacity to elucidation, misunderstanding to contiguity—translation could be the way. I like Grossman’s explanation of her task and pursuit. “Our purpose is to re-create as far as possible, within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work we are translating. And we do this by analogy—that is, by finding comparable, not identical characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language.” What is produced is its own form—not the impossible direct transcription, not a word-by-word stiff and literal simulacrum but another work. Her use of alien in describing a system of language implies, as I read it, a generosity, suggesting some thing else and therefore an enrichment, and what interests me is this gap between the first work and the second. It’s this space of distinction or separation that is resonant with possibility, a distance that makes literature and art and also us, discrete entities, discrete beings, and thereby elements that translation can breach—the thin skin or veil made permeable by translation. An osmotic transmission.

We vacillate. Read pejoratively we are indecisive but generatively, if we vacillate, hovering between states, we resist stasis. Grossman cited Goethe, who believed that literature, closed off from the influence of other literatures, would exhaust itself, and she extended this argument to languages too, which are always broadening and strengthening through fortuitous contamination with other languages and cultures.

It would be impossible not to find Walter Benjamin as a source and reference on the subject of translation, and Grossman did indeed quote him in confirming, “No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original….While a poet’s words endure in his own language, even the greatest translation is destined to become part of a growth of its own language and eventually absorbed by its renewal.”

It wasn’t the story, the tale in Blanchot’s death sentence that stopped my breath. It was what the language did, language which set for me an airless tautology in its vacuum-like determination to disallow resolution. The steel strut narrative frame could be discerned or picked out through close reading and re-reading; the whole brief book required white-knuckled close reading. It was his relentless closing down, shoring up, stalling. The absolutely effective ruthlessness in his denial of the ability of language to move us forward in even the tiniest natural way. As achievement in language seen as cast concrete blocks, it is masterful. How could a conditional form be used more effectively? “Once I am dead, it will represent only the shell of an enigma….I will give more details about this later. If these details are not there, I beg them not to plunge unexpectedly into my few secrets, or read my letters if any are found, or look at my photographs if any turn up….”

The prolonged dying, described with the dispassionate accuracy of a documentarian, and then the death of the woman whose dying provoked his admiration for her apparent ability to forestall and therefore exercise some control over death, was recorded by the narrator as an “astounding miracle.” This section, the first of only three, concludes: “I have said nothing extraordinary or even surprising. What’s extraordinary begins at the moment I stop. But I am no longer able to speak of it.” Begins and stops, and then stops again in his being unable to speak. The solid door firmly closed, and closed a second time.

Words double back, are denied, won’t advance. Because they are everything. But what are they, exactly? What message are they carrying? About his close feeling and later confessed passion for Nathalie, the narrator tells us, “I can say that by getting involved with Nathalie I was hardly getting involved with anyone: that is not meant to belittle her; on the contrary, it is the most serious thing I can say about a person.” Reading, the syntax is sensible; the meaning opaque. Some time has passed. He may have been indiscreet; “Infidelity may be good, or it may be bad; I am not passing judgment on it.” Her response, he thinks later, may have indicated some hurt, some wish to advance their closeness, an offer he rejected and she, he said, “began playing her role of being no one.” He remarks that she remained in his presence with the “freedom of a thought; she was in this world, but I was encountering her again in this world only because she was my thought.”

Edith Grossman includes in her book the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, who said, “when we learn to speak we are learning to translate,” repeating Flusser’s idea of the state of sensibility or knowledge that precedes, and brings into being the words that through their formation are already translations—thought into word, thought into being, like Blanchot’s narrator and the absent essence who is Nathalie. It’s a parallel engagement for Grossman, elaborating on Paz’s notion of all language being translation—from the writer’s imagination to the page; from first text to translated work. She raises the question with which Blanchot grappled. Is the writer true to the idea? Is the word—which is some thing else—another thing but not an idea, not an emotion and not a sensory provocation, a true, credible, faithful carrier? The imprint of one laid over the other can never align perfectly. When the registration is almost exact the writer has come as close as possible to truth. Not a replica but the halo of cognition or recognition. Grossman adds Gustave Flaubert’s words to this struggle, to the merely-human endeavour that can only fall short. He wrote, “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” Grounded, words fail.

Flusser said that to have unwritten ideas was to have nothing. For Blanchot the struggle was with the inadequacy of language to carry, without ambiguity, arrow-straight, the feeling or meaning he wanted conveyed. How singular in intention and reception, how clear can language ever be? Once written, words stand independent of their author, subject to interpretation, shifting contexts, historical application, varying registers of fidelity to the original intention and, of course, how well were they issued at the outset.

“And it is true that I felt irresponsible in this other language, so unfamiliar to me; and this unreal stammering of expressions that were more or less invented, whose meaning flitted past, far away from my mind, drew from me things I never would have said, or thought, or even left unsaid in real words,” Blanchot’s narrator acknowledges. The stammering is a displacement, a moral stammering or wavering for him, from the path he’d expected he would follow, and a misstep of courage, his footing unsure, hidden as he was from any real meaning he understood or might have intended. He carried on, cloaked in someone else’s language, “Inwardly I committed myself to knowing these strange words; the more extreme they were, I mean alien to what might have been expected of me, the more true they seemed to me because they were novel, because they had no precedent; the more I wanted, since they could not be believed, to make them believable, even to myself, especially to myself….” He finds himself distanced from meaning and using a language, foreign to his person and his history, from which he is unhinged.

At the book’s end, the narrator has been bested by his persistent deferral, or is it a reluctance to say, “I mean this, and this means this,” his inability to acknowledge that language can be both opaque and transparent and that in these dialectical qualities its tensile strength resides. “As for me,” he says, “I have not been the unfortunate messenger of a thought stronger than I.” ❚