Posts by Alexander Dickow

Self-Translation and the Multilingual Writer

The act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony.

Samuel Beckett self-translated a great many of his texts from French to English and vice-versa, and does not seem to have unequivocally favored one language over the other. For Beckett, choosing to write in French came from “un désir de m’appauvrir encore plus” (a desire to impoverish myself even further). Evidently, he viewed French as a more minimal language.[1] Beckett sparsely commented on his decision―or compulsion―to write in both languages, but in all events, such choices appear to be largely affective and difficult to justify rationally. All the more so when the act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony. For a minority, self-translation instead liberates the writer, at once from the risk of servility to an original, and from the effort of wrenching a brand new work from one’s mental background noise. One need neither give birth to a new text, nor obey an existing one.

The late novelist Raymond Federman, an émigré from France and a bilingual speaker, offers an example of one writer for whom self-translation was in some sense liberating. Federman wrote for several decades almost entirely in English, and only began to self-translate well into the middle of his career. In fact, English remained his dominant language of initial composition, and he once expressed to me a certain resistance to writing directly in French. Nonetheless, he self-translated extensively from the mid-nineties until his death in 2009. Federman introduces extensive and significant variations between translations and originals, so that his texts exhibit what Sara Kippur calls mouvance (variance), a term borrowed from medievalist Paul Zumthor.[2] Beckett’s own texts exhibit some variation, but in Federman’s case, narrative accounts of a single autobiographical event differ between accounts, whether they occur in different books or in the “same” book’s French and English version. Hence, Federman ties the act of translation directly to issues of autobiographical authenticity, demonstrating that such authenticity is largely illusory―memory is a kind of fiction.

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Portrait of the Translator as Neologist

Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation

The Horde of Counterwind, written by the French writer Alain Damasio, takes place in a world of violent winds where a band of hardened, élite travelers make their arduous way toward the Upper Reaches, from where the winds are said to originate. Translating the thickly packed, virtuosic prose of this singular Science Fiction/Fantasy epic is a bit like having to join the Horde to battle against the winds. Skeptical readers have declared the Horde untranslatable, filled to the brim as it is with wordplay and even a long jeu-parti, or poetic duel, between the improvising troubadour Caracole and his ultraformalist counterpart, Seleme the Stylite. The poetic duel involves palindromes, among other enormous challenges to the translator. Translation, through the Horde of Counterwind, becomes a test of vigor and endurance for both writer and translator, who must faire bloc—become a single vital force—before the shattering gale of language.

Yet the Horde’s translator ultimately spends a great deal more time working on single words than on entire passages. The most difficult task facing the translator of the Horde, and indeed of many works of so-called speculative fiction, lies in the proper rendering of the novel’s innumerable neologisms. Within the first page, the Horde’s translator is called upon to translate the word furvent, a term denoting one of the most violent forms of the wind. After several hours of live discussion by Skype, and after brainstorming literally dozens of possible alternatives, Damasio and I settled on the term threshgale. Furvent derives in large part from the word furieux (furious), and the French word for wind (vent), whereas the neologism retains neither component, preferring winnowing and thrashing to fury, and the storm or gale in place of the mere wind.

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