Posts featuring Samuel Beckett

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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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

We’re starting the week with the fifth installment of the Translator’s Diary, a column by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As Kling translates the 909-page  Die Strudlhofstiege by Heimito von Doderer for New York Review Books, he is allowing us to peek into the ebb and flow of his thought process. Here is Kling’s dispatch from the prestigious Omi International Arts Center. (Intrigued? Don’t miss the first, second, third and fourth installments.) 

Abstraction Meets Craft: My dateline this month is Ghent, New York, where I am writing from the idyllic Ledig House at the Omi International Arts Center. Ten translators, five from English to German and five from German to English, are presenting work in progress during a week of close reading and feedback. I’m grateful for the practical comments about the part of Strudlhofstiege I presented, especially suggestions for bringing out more fully the playfully interwoven levels of the narrator’s voice. That’s crucial, because he’s not only the main event, he’s the only event, the sole governing sensibility, digressing and freely associating as eccentrically as the narrator of Tristram Shandy. He loves the drollery and irony of shifting registers, creating variety by deft incongruities in elevating or lowering the diction. An example: two characters challenge a third character’s plan, because they know from experience it will miscarry. The passage I brought to the workshop said that they were “stubbornly resistant,” but the native German speakers found my rendering one level too high. I had mistakenly retained the narrator’s formality from the beginning of the sentence to the end, even after he had adroitly switched gears. We entertained “they nixed the plan” or “they put the kibosh on the plan”—both now a level too low, we agreed—until I settled on “they balked” or “they dug in their heels.” General endorsement; on to the next refinement.

Meanwhile, my efforts in earlier posts to trace the ancestry of that narrating voice as an aid to grasping its full scope and range—thank you, readers, for not logging off—made me afraid I was straying too far from the practicality of craft. However, the group showed me how a seemingly abstract concern, which I feared might be taking me away from the text, was in fact leading me back to it, since understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

“Learned Wit,” Scholastic Universality, Baroque Elaboration: One participant ratified my search by encouraging me to read Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s German novel The Island of Second Sight (published 1953, translated into English by Donald O. White in 2010). It’s a wonderful discovery in itself and eye-opening in its kinship with Doderer. Thelen subtitles his book a volume of “applied recollections,” a term applicable in moderation to Strudlhofstiege as well, since the narrator is likewise the sole presence and presents a mammoth set of memories that lie decades in the past. Vigoleis, Thelen’s alter ego, similarly glories in asides, digressions, parentheses, addresses to the reader, convoluted backtracking and remote tangents, filigree, pyrotechnics, set-piece lyric rhapsodies, and meta fiction, proclaiming his joy at leading us on wild goose chases and detours around the mulberry bush. These narrators even digress to explain why they’re digressing! Same associative approach, then, but Thelen hews closer to linearity than his Doderer “cousin,” who reconfigures the narrative line into curlicues and zigzags of the kind Sterne draws in Tristram Shandy. Thelen develops from the base line of a story in straight chronological order; Doderer skillfully blends and blurs two time periods, 1908–1910 and 1923–1925. In both cases, the distance in time between the incidents themselves and their accounts creates reflective irony as the basic mode of observation.

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Translating Finnegans Wake: An Interview with Hervé Michel

I would advise that a reader approach Finnegans Wake like a work of art—a composition of sounds and colors, music and painting...

Can Finnegans Wake be translated into another language? As the joke well-known amongst Joyceans goes, “Which language are you translating it from?”

If it is possible to translate Finnegans Wake, the next question might be: who on earth is willing and able to undertake such a task? Who even has the time to translate this work Joyce spent 17 years writing?

The Wake has been translated into French twice. Philippe Lavergne translated the book in the early 1980s, but unsatisfied with this edition, Hervé Michel has spent the last two decades working on a translation of his own.

Michel was born to French parents, in 1950s Morocco. He spent his youth “wandering across Europe, America, Africa and the Near East.” From 1979 until 1984 he lived in Casablanca, studying Arabic. Michel joined the French civil service in 1986 and eventually attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). With an annual acceptance rate of only 6%, ENA is an extremely elite graduate school for French government administrators and officials. After a decade of varied work ranging from finance to international relations, in 1996 Michel accepted a high-ranking position within the French Ministry of Defense.

In his spare time, Michel reads the Wake. He first encountered the book in 1980 and began translating the text in 1997. He has tried at various times to find a publisher for his translation, but the audience for Finnegans Wake translations is limited. In 2004 Michel decided to publish his translation as Veillée Pinouilles online, a format that allows him to make ongoing updates and revisions à la Leaves of Grass.

As Michel prepared to retire from his career in the civil service, he graciously took the time to speak with me about this longstanding fascination with the Wake. The interview was conducted over email, a format allowing for conversation as well as textual elucidation and analysis.

Derek Pyle (DP): How did you first get interested in Joyce?

Hervé Michel (HM): My interest first went to Finnegans Wake, not to James Joyce. By 1985, I had returned to Paris from a five-year sojourn in Morocco—a country where I happened to be born and raised from 1950 to 1962 and where I had returned with my newly-met wife Constance Hélène in 1980—where I had spent a jolly good time studying Arabic and reading the Qur’an. Back in Paris I felt compelled to go to the Galignani English bookshop on Rue de Rivoli to buy Finnegans Wake, on the back cover of which I discovered the man-in-the-street allure of James Joyce which was a sort of a shock. For me, Finnegans Wake was the Sacred Scripture of the Modern Era. I was not to be deceived by a text displaying all the phatic function I expected and smearing a thick semiotic matter, so I immediately felt the need to have it rendered in French.

DP: So you began with Finnegans Wake. Did you go the bookshop specifically seeking out the Wake? Or did it just one day catch your eye, while you were in the bookshop? Can you also explain a bit more what you mean that this was a text ”displaying all the phatic function… and smearing a thick semiotic matter”?

HM: Reference to James Joyce was paramount in the French literary critique between 1960 and 1980, people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, all drove me to consider Finnegans Wake as the nexus of the modern literary fabric, which I, with my gross ignorance of the finesse of the English language and of the encyclopedic richness of Joyce’s culture, took at first as the thick material somebody like Jackson Pollock smeared on his canvasses, but eventually I craved to emulate this latter Indian creation dance myself with the French language.

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On Attending ‘Godot’

McKellen and Stewart in Beckett's seminal play

When Beckett translated his own En Attendant Godot into Waiting for Godot it was an act of editing as much as anything else. Some of his changes were quite normal for a translator (the selection of the best words, the retention of the play’s themes and shape and humor) and some unique to the self-translator: reworking passages, adding phrases (a whole back-and-forth of cursing, for instance), cutting speeches. The French is riddled with rien; the English with ‘nothing.’ In one of his many amusing alterations he turns phoque (the French word for seal, which sounds like the English cuss ‘fuck’) into ‘grampus,’ which is an obscure English word for dolphin that sounds, if pronounced like a Frenchman, like a small turd. READ MORE…