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.

This is the basic principle generally at work when translating neologisms: rather than moving closer and closer—asymptotically, let’s say—to a workable solution, the translator must instead move further and further away from literal solutions. The Horde of Counterwind once again offers many analogies for this process. Damasio deploys philosophical ideas drawn from Bergson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze to glorify a vitality that animates both the wind, language, and the human soul. To shift and adjust, and especially to diverge or swerve from one’s established path, is vital. To settle into a single, predictable trajectory is to wither.

In some sense, then, the same goes for translation. In spite of the brain-wracking trudge involved in finding solutions to certain problems of translation, the result ultimately has to do as much with agility as with persistence: the ability to swerve away, and yet end up somehow at one’s destination, like an acrobat or a troubadour. The Horde’s Trailbreaker, the Ninth Golgoth, prefers the direct path: he trailbreaks facing the wind, in a straight line. But the translator must find oblique angles from which he might inch forward. The fastest, in the world of the Horde, is that master of change, the maître-foudre: not some clunky, clumsy “lightning-master,” but an evanescent Scintillant.

Naturally, neologisms are not always problematic for the translator: a chrone remains a chrone (in Damasio’s world, a proto-lifeform left behind by threshgales, shaped like large oblong masses that can transform matter, such as flesh into stone, or animal into vegetal); a glyphe is a glyph (a chrone trapped in an inscription). As usual, the practical variations of translation resist theoretical generalization.

Why are neologisms such a key part of speculative fiction? The worlds of the genre rely on what Darko Suvin famously called the novum, that key difference between the fictional universe and our own, which propels the plot and determines singular social formations: in the Horde of Counterwind, the novum is the Wind, and that which justifies the Horde’s pack-like mentality and code of honor. Yet in all good Science Fiction, the novum also has a linguistic component. Except for the novum itself, science fiction worlds do not reinvent the fundamental social and technological backdrop of our own contemporary world: in Star Trek’s far future, the linguistic and cultural idiom remains that of the late twentieth century; its differences are purely punctual—the discovery of a singular gadget or a strange being—and not a reinvention of all social codes. Likewise, Science Fiction cannot reinvent the very texture of language any more than poetry can: instead, it uses indexical markers of difference that we call neologisms to suggest, rather than represent, a radically different world.

Translation no doubt confronts similar problems of difference, and must remain content with a partial or punctual transfer of codes, rather than a fully-formed reflection of cultural and linguistic difference. Schleiermacher’s contention that the foreignness of the source language must maintain a foothold in the translator’s target language holds especially true for Science Fiction, where identification and social difference is reflected in a forged vocabulary.

Because the science fiction story’s backdrop remains contemporary, Suvin argues, Science Fiction is best envisaged as analogical to our contemporary reality, not as anticipatory: for instance, Dune’s allegory of fossil fuels (the Spice) and middle-eastern culture is evidently far more crucial than the novel’s possible anticipation of some future; Dune is about political power in relation to natural resources now. The same goes for the Horde of Counterwind, situated neither in the past nor the future, but in an alternate, unnamed world and time: the novel explores the possibility of ethical pluralism in the miniaturized community of the Horde, crisscrossed by the characters’ interpersonal tensions and antagonistic viewpoints. The novel asks whether such a society, restricted to a small, cohesive group that incorporates and sustains difference, might be viable today as an alternative to larger-scale tribalisms.

Translation, once again, asks similar questions of human community: it asks that difference be maintained and respected, recognized and sustained, while seeming to abolish that difference in an act of linguistic transmission. Translating neologism navigates that gap between maintaining strangeness and novelty, and fitting into a new code, that of the target language. Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation: like translation in general, the problems neologisms may or may not pose to the translator are unpredictable and non-systematic and require a constant negotiation of difference.

Alexander Dickow is a poet, scholar, and translator originally from Moscow, Idaho (USA). His first collection, Caramboles (Argol éditions, 2008), consists of poems in French and English and involves the art of translation. Dickow’s literary translations include poems by Henri Droguet, Max Jacob, Christian Prigent and others. Dickow is an Associate Professor of French at Virginia Tech and Communications Manager for Asymptote.


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