The Artist on her Trapeze: Barbara Wright's 99 Variations on a Theme by Raymond Queneau

Sometime in 1957, Barbara Wright took a school exercise book in which she had been writing out some personal thoughts in Italian, opened a new page, and wrote in capital letters: EXERCISES IN TRANSLATION. There followed a pencil version of the first of Raymond Queneau's already famous Exercices de style, later overwritten in blue biro.

Barbara had already translated two short stories by Queneau, as a commission: At the Edge of the Forest and The Trojan Horse. But as she said to a Belgian scholar in later years, once she had translated some Queneau, she was hooked. She had corresponded briefly with the writer in 1954 over those first translations, but did not yet know him personally. So it was with obvious trepidation that she dared to send him the first batch of the exercises, to see what he would think, in the early summer of 1957.

Barbara was a meticulous translator, and I guess a meticulous person altogether when it came to words and facts. She always consulted friends in France and elsewhere on obscure or difficult points, and only pestered her authors as a last resort, with queries that nobody else seemed able to answer. But the Exercises in Style was an exercise in a different kind of translation. The work consists of 99 variations, ranging in length from a paragraph to three pages, on the same trivial, futile story of a man who treads on toes in a Paris bus and then some time later gets upbraided for having his overcoat button in the wrong place. The variations play with a range of different literary devices, from rhetorical techniques such as homoteleuton, apocope, and synchysis, to poetical forms (sonnet, haiku, alexandrines), games with language register (pompous, vulgar, bureaucratic), and with languages themselves (Italianisms, sound-translation into English), and to changes in effect (reactionary, apologetic, hesitant). The initial question in Barbara's mind was, very obviously: can such a language-based, formally structured, and apparently nonsensical work be translated? What is the meaning of a translation of such a work? Would the author even want it to be translated? That is why she sent her first trial versions to Queneau himself, asking him if he wanted to see more. He took a long time to answer. She must have been pretty encouraged to get this reply in tiny neat handwriting on a tiny sheet of paper with the nrf letterhead:

23 août 1957,Chère Madame,Je suis très impressioné par votre entreprise. Je ne suis pas moins curieux de voir le résultat. Aussi, s'il vous était possible de me communiquer non pas "some of the translation", mais l'ensemble, ce serait pour moi d'un bien grand intérêt. Je suis impatient de voir comment vous avez résolu les problèmes de traduction qui se posaient.
[Dear Madam, I am very impressed by your enterprise. I am equally curious to see the result. So if it is possible for you to send me not "some of the translation" but the whole of it, it would be of the greatest interest to me. I am impatient to see how you have resolved the translation problems that were raised.]

Within a few weeks Barbara had finished a substantial draft and sent it to Queneau in two batches. He took a while to reply this time as well:

13 novembre 1957Chère Madame,. . . Il me semble que tout cela est excellent. Je dois dire même que je suis saisi d'un inexprimable saisissement devant la réussite de ce travail. Je me permets de vous en faire de bien immenses compliments. J'avais toujours pensé que rien n'est intraduisible, j'en vois là une nouvelle preuve.
[Dear Madam, . . . It seems to me that all of this is excellent. I should even say that I am seized with inexpressible astonishment at the result of this work. Please accept my immense compliments. I had always thought that nothing is untranslatable, and here I see new proof of it.]
Barbara continued to polish off exercise after exercise over the winter, and by the spring she was down to her last few queries, which she finally sent to Queneau in April. For each piece, she carried on writing her drafts by hand in follow-on exercise books—the red ones you used to get at the post office in England, with the shiny back cover printed with tables of Imperial weights and measures, including furlong, chain, scruple, and fathom (the last two at least well suited to the translator's task)—on the right-hand page only, in pencil first, then overwriting in blue biro, and annotating herself in red and blue crayon, especially when she had to count up occurrences and repetitions.

Barbara knew French very well, of course, but there were many things in Queneau's erudite and playful games that pushed her toward the resources all translators use—dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference works. From her notes on facing pages we can see that she used the OED for definitions, the Gradus ad Parnassum for information on rhetorical figures, and Harrap's for French words she didn't know. We can see that she didn't know funambules, acculer, and canicule—rather odd gaps for a scholar of French such as she was, but reassuring to the rest of us, for we all have to look things up some of the time.

Barbara translated the majority of the 99 exercises "straight," that is to say, playing exactly the same game as Queneau. A text in French telegraphese can be represented pretty directly in English telegraphese, and a begging letter in French makes a begging letter in English, it's just the words, the rhetoric, the formulae, and the tiny linguistic touches that constitute the tone of whining that have to be exchanged. Indeed, the most striking thing about the work and its translation—we now have to say, its translations, because the Exercises has appeared in dozens of languages—is how transposable nearly all of it is. In fact, unbeknownst to Barbara, a German poet, Ludwig Harig, was proceeding along exactly the same lines as she at almost exactly the same time, in Saarbrücken. But for some of the texts, Barbara struck out on her own. And this is where it begins to get really interesting.

Exercices 29, 30, 31 and 32 are retellings of the story in the main French tenses in which a story can be told: passé indéfini, present, preterit, and imparfait. As the distinction between preterite and imperfect is barely grammaticalized in English, Barbara decided to replace this set with her own variations on English story-telling verb forms: past, present, reported speech, and passive. The last two are therefore in effect Barbara's own variations, and do not correspond to anything Queneau invented (though he could have, of course: there are many more exercises than the 99 in the book, but on that, more later).

It was when she was faced with Queneau's exercise in hybridized prose—when the object of the exercise was to show French so to speak in bed with Latin, Italian, and English (exercises 70, 81, 83, and 84)—that Barbara followed her own natural and stupendously witty bent. For Queneau's Anglicism exercise (70), she showed how English can play the same game in a mirror:

Un dai vers middai, je tèque le busse
is replaced by

One zhour about meedee I pree the ohtobyusse
Even more curious and clever is her rewriting of Queneau's macaronic, Sol erat in regionem zenith. Why, you might ask, should a text written in Latin need to be translated at all? Because Queneau's bad Latin is a mask for French, and Barbara has to turn it into a mask for English. So the original Autobi passebant complete turns into Omnibi passebant complete. Even better: Sancti Lazari stationem ferramviam passente by . . . , since it is not chemin de fer, but railway, that requires misrepresenting. In fact, Queneau was particularly interested in the transformation of the Latin text and provided Barbara with various famous examples of nineteenth-century English macaronics, one of which, in view of the winter that preceded my writing this piece, really needs to be quoted:

Anno incipiente happinabit snowee multumEt gelu intensum streetas coverabit wislidas . . .
The most famous and spectacular of Barbara's reinventions are exercises 83, 84, and 96, where she replaced, respectively, Queneau's Italianismes with "Opera English," his homophonic translation Pour Lay Zanglay with "For Ze Frrench," and Queneau's Paysan with "West Indian." These are all real "Exercises in Translation," as the whole original manuscript is called: Barbara sought and found a target language, functionally equivalent to the object-language of the original exercise, and trained herself to write in that register, dialect, or discourse, depending on the jargon you want to use.

Reading the manuscript of the Exercises is for me personally a fascinating experience, because I see in it an example of something I myself experienced many years later: faced with a paradoxical, strenuous linguistic challenge, the translator by dint of trying, and then of letting go, actually learns to write and to become himself or herself, from the very process of learning to translate a given text. I do not think Barbara would have learned how to free herself from the original sufficiently to write "Opera English" if she had not already been formed by the practice of translating the preceding 82 exercises, which serve exactly as Queneau intended them to: as exercises, training routines, and practice.

Barbara's exertions were nearly over by the summer of 1958. The book was published by Gaberbocchus Press, a small London publishing house run by the extraordinary Polish poet, novelist, and filmmaker Stefan Themerson, with whom Queneau was in fact well acquainted. Themerson did the book proud. He allowed Barbara to commission a French composer, Pierre Philippe, to write the music for the Exercise entitled "Ode," which is something you will find in the English edition but not the French. Themerson illuminated witty, anthropomorphic initials for the title of each Exercise, and devised a photocollage permutation of Queneau's face for the frontispiece. Visually, Barbara's Exercises in Style is a more accomplished book than the Gallimard original.

It is also a historic monument. It marks the start of Barbara's fame as a translator, the start of a warm and fruitful relationship with Queneau and his many chums in the Collège de 'Pataphysique and the OULIPO, and through them, her acquaintance with Eugen Helmle, Queneau's principal German translator, who helped her with later Queneau volumes . . . and who also helped me, many years later, when I started to translate Georges Perec. But it also preserves texts that have effectively disappeared in France. That is because Queneau reissued the Exercices de Style in 1973 and replaced a number of the original pieces with new exercises. Specifically, Exercices 61, 63, 66, 67, 69 were dropped and replaced by those now printed as Ensembliste, Définitionnel, Tanka, Translation, and Lipogramme. So Barbara's English translation is now the only place (apart from scholarly libraries) where you can read two of the permutation exercises (61 and 63), and those entitled "Reactionary," "Haiku," and "Feminine." When the English translation was reissued in 1981, Barbara chose not to follow Queneau—she did not translate the five new pieces and left the old ones where they were. So the English Exercises in Style has, as it were, grown apart from its apparent source text. It stands now not only as a perfect example of the creative translator's art, but as a trace of otherwise vanished fragments of Raymond Queneau.

In fact, Queneau did not write only the 99 exercices de style that are in the published book (or the 104, if you add the extra five of the 1973 edition). In a 1963 luxury edition of the work, he appended a list of "123 imaginary exercises," a list which paradoxically includes all the 99 published in his 1947 first edition—but excludes two that he wrote in 1954 especially for the launch of a record of the musical version of the texts sung by the Frères Jacques. The idea of the Exercices, once invented, has endless potential.

Used by permission of the author and Dalkey Archive. Barbara Wright: Translation as Art is now out in bookstores. 

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