Translation Tuesday: “Platini’s Free Kick” by Vassilis Alexakis

The more I studied the unbelievable curve of the ball, the more I found it sublime.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features work by Greek writer Vassilis Alexakis, who is known for his self-translation work: translating his own work from Greek to French and vice-versa in order to study the lived experience of moving through cultural and linguistic boundaries that recalls Beckett’s experimentation. “Platini’s Free Kick” offers a vision of a man obsessed with event and form. As the story twists on, the free kick is stripped of its content as it becomes the focal point for the speaker, a movement of concentration on an object that invokes idolatry and addiction. Rebecca Dehner-Armand’s apt translation brings out the mundane terror of Alexakis’ story, which offers a critique of the persistence of an object and the effects of transfer, wear, and social tension on the way that objects create meaning for the viewer and how that meaning can change and dissipate over time. This dissipation and wear hint at the anxiety of a text or concept being used and reused. Alexakis’ story forces us to ask: Can the original effect of an event or form hold its sway over an individual without both the viewer and the viewed dissolving?

Michel Platini scored the most beautiful goal I’ve ever seen in my life with a free kick against the Dutch team. I’m almost certain that it was the team from the Netherlands: on the videotape, there are still a few traces of orange, the color of the Dutch jerseys. It was not merely a magnificent goal: it seems, in fact, that it ensured the French team’s qualification for the World Cup, which must’ve been held that year in Mexico, or in Argentina. Or in Italy, maybe. No matter. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this historic goal changed my life.

I saw the match at home. I didn’t even regret not finding a ticket for the Parc des Princes, because some goals are shown exclusively on TV in slow motion. Fortunately, I thought to record the match, as if I’d sensed that it would be exceptional. I watched the match alone, because neither my wife nor my daughters like soccer. Was it during the first period that Michel scored? Actually, I think it was during the second half, I would even say during the last fifteen minutes, because things had grown very tense and anticipatory as much on the field as in the stands, as is always the case at the end of a game.

Michel gained momentum. The Dutch, pressed shoulder to shoulder as if terrorized, formed a wall a few meters from him, completely covering their goal. At first sight, it seemed impossible to score. Michel struck from a slight angle, wrapping the inside of his foot around the ball, making it spin like a top. He didn’t kick it toward the goal as one would expect, but toward the end of the wall. Just after having whizzed past the shoulder of a Dutch defender, the ball began to change its trajectory, all on its own, making an unbelievable ellipse. It wound up lodged in the Dutch goal, shooting past the right goalpost. I let out such a cry that my wife and my daughters hurried into the room.

“Oh look!” I said to them. “Look!”

The goal was being shown in slow motion. They had to show it at least five times in a row, this brilliant free kick. My family didn’t want to watch, the idiots; they’d left the room only after ordering me to make less noise.

The TV commentators were overjoyed. The spectators in the Parc were overjoyed. The French players were overjoyed as well, rolling on the ground and running all over the place. The Dutch, well, they were petrified.

The more I studied the unbelievable curve of the ball, the more I found it sublime. It made me think of the bodies of beautiful women I’d only dreamed about, of the trajectory of planets we once studied on the blackboard at school. Platini’s free kick made me think of my adolescence. It justified, single-handedly, the innumerable hours that I’d spent over the course of my life watching soccer on TV. Without knowing it, I’d eagerly awaited this goal. It opened for me the doors of a subtle and graceful universe where even geometry became seductive.

At the office, I couldn’t stop talking about Michel’s goal the day after and during the following weeks. A few of my colleagues were excited about it, but I don’t think anyone had appreciated it as much as I had. I told it better than anyone else. I evoked the scene with the fervor of a mystic telling of her last vision. They ended up firing me.

I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Anyhow, I only really felt comfortable at home, when re-watching the tape. I’d watch it ten times, twenty times a day. My wife and my daughters got tired of me. They left. This suited me just fine because I was no longer able to look after them.

From then on, I could watch my tape in peace.

Years passed by. A few months ago, I was forced to sell my TV and my VCR—in fact, I’d sold everything, except for my tape of course, which I continue to watch at a friend’s place. I go to his house every day, around dinnertime. I really think that one of these days he’ll have had enough of my visits. But what annoys me the most is that my tape, through frequent use, is almost wiped clean. I no longer recognize Michel Platini, much less the other players. I see nothing but spots and marks in varied colors that move around more or less quickly. I can’t make out the ball. The free kick is lost in a snowy fog. Every so often, I have the impression it was nothing but an illusion, that Platini never scored that goal.

Translated from the French by Rebecca Dehner-Armand

Vassilis Alexakis (1943) is a Greek-French author, self-translator, cartoonist, and film director. Born in Athens, Vassilis Alexakis has spent his literary career composing works in both French and Greek that interrogate the exilic condition, the impetus to write in a language other than one’s own, and what it means to belong (or not belong) to a place or to a people. He grew up in Greece but moved to France as an adolescent to study journalism in Lille, returning to Greece after his studies to fulfill his military service. In 1968, in the wake of a devastating military coup d’état there, Alexakis went into what would become a lifelong exile in Paris. Alexakis has received a variety of France’s most prestigious literary awards, including a Prix Médicis (1995), a Prix Albert-Camus (1993), and a Prix de la Langue Française for his entire body of work (2012). He has composed a singular œuvre, marked by his particular staccato and wry style, that illuminates the experience of a growing sector of French society: immigrants, exiles, and foreigners. In spite of the prescience and timeliness of this body of work, only one of Alexakis’ novels has appeared in an English translation. The author now splits his time between Paris and Athens.

Rebecca Dehner-Armand is a literary translator of contemporary French and Francophone fiction. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on contemporary Francophone literature, autobiography, exile and (self-) translation studies. She has taught courses on French language and literature, translation theory, and intercultural communication. In addition to her academic publications, Rebecca has additional translations forthcoming from Delos in the autumn of 2019.


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