Translation Tuesday: “The Hot-Air Balloon” by Vassilis Alexakis

In reality, it’s like all words, with good and bad attributes, capable of protecting a thought as much as betraying a meaning.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features microfiction by Vassilis Alexakis. “The Hot-Air Balloon” begins and ends in an ambiguity, thickly described. The prose is structured around a choice without mooring, a choice that presents itself only to give way to the realization that a language system is something that only appears all-encompassing. By intellectualizing the feeling of infinite choice within a closed system and the eventual choice to leave it, Alexakis acutely describes a weightlessness only obtainable by those who walk between epistemologies. In the end, it is the feeling of the transcendence of the system, thematized as an air-balloon, that prevails. It is only through a meditation on words that we can unmoor ourselves from a system. This airy story depicts well the critical posture, especially of those with multiple languages to rely on.

I was asked to write a definition for a word without knowing which one. I had no hesitation. The more arduous a task, the more it fills me with joy. If I’d been given a word, I would’ve felt some pressure; I would’ve felt trapped. Now that I’ve briefly surveyed the entirety of the lexicon, I feel free as if I were being carried in a hot-air balloon.

Is it a masculine or feminine-gendered word? From my point of view, this question is of no concern. Besides, it’s not uncommon for a word’s synonyms to be of the opposite gender.

A fairly long period of gestation preceded its creation, only serving as proof that we really needed this word. Yet, does the fact that we lived without it for a long time prove the contrary? In reality, it’s like all words, with good and bad attributes, capable of protecting a thought as much as betraying a meaning.

The hot-air balloon ascends higher and higher. Occasionally I am overcome by vertigo when I reach this height where everything is emptiness and blue sky.

The word will grow old, because even words as firmly established as “eternity” go out of fashion, and today can sense that they’ve had their day. The word will renounce an active life and no longer be visited except by old retired professors.

The hot-air balloon goes higher and higher. Only a moment ago I saw birds resembling accents circonflexes flying around me. Now I see nothing, except for the murky mass of words beneath me, and in the distance the shimmering sea. I think I can make out, on the other side of the sea, some Greek words. They must be the names of islands.

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 two of Alexakis’ novels have appeared in English translations. 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 of Alexakis’ short stories forthcoming from Delos in the autumn of 2019.


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