Portrait of the Translator as Chameleon

Bernard Hœpffner

Artwork by Jiin Choi

The Translator as an Original

One of France’s cultural treasures was a translator. Bernard Hœpffner, who died last May, began translating more or less professionally at about the age of forty, first with Catherine Goffaux—they collaborated on the French edition of Robert Burton’s enormous
The Anatomy of Melancholy, over two thousand pages and three volumes—then, following their separation, on his own, making a living from it, and to increasing acclaim. At the end of his life, the recipient of major prizes, he was one of the most esteemed Francophone translators of difficult English fiction. He died with new projects in the works and some translations already finished, still looking for homes in an increasingly profit-driven literary market.


On May 8, the BBC reported, “A search involving lifeboat crews, the coastguard and police was launched on Saturday following reports of a man clinging to rocks at St David’s Head,” a windswept headland in southwest Wales by the Irish Sea. “He has been described as white European, aged in his 60s, of lean build, with a long face, short hair and distinctive white-coloured eyebrows. He was wearing a dark coloured day rucksack, dark blue/black trousers and a dark blue long sleeved shirt or jumper. Police said, based on his accent, he was not thought to be from the UK.” The search turned up his shearling jacket with some money in it. It wasn’t until June 9 that the body of the missing man finally washed ashore in the town of Tywyn. The numerous obituaries of Hœpffner appearing in the French press at the end of May, after his brother Jacques announced his disappearance on his website, make no mention of suicide. In all likelihood, he was carried off by a wave while hiking in a spot he knew well from having made his home there decades ago.


As tragic as his end must have been, he would have appreciated the story, one of his many friends remarked in a memorial held in Paris on June 7. In its light, the autofictional fragments presented here—excerpted by their author from a longer, unpublished French manuscript and offered in his own liberal translation—open another dimension, one where reality and fiction eerily intersect before ultimately going their separate ways.

What’s in a name? Some “speaking names” given to characters in fiction divulge more than others. But what they say can remain unclear. The surname Hœpffner chose for his alter ego, Ramsey, happens to be the name of an island, virtually uninhabited, just off the coast of St David’s Head. And so we are left with a mystery worthy of the melancholy Burton, that “antic and personate actor” who predicted (some said staged) his own death. Was it pure happenstance, cosmic coincidence, or a singular act of self-creation? None of them translatable by the word suicide.

—S. D. Chrostowska

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.
—Jorge Luis Borges

It is often repeated that translators have no tongue of their own since they talk with someone else’s; however, it could also be said that their tongue is in fact long and coiled, enabling them to catch everything around them so as to feed on it and make it part of their own substance. This latter proposition can go some way towards explaining how translators can be said to have written dozens, even more than a hundred books, and by very varied authors.

The translator is a jocund and wanton chameleon, a pilfering, purloining, nimming, filching, and pleonasmical fool, graduated in madness and sporting on a tightrope, push-pulled into contradictory directions.

If translators resemble chameleons, it is not only because, like camels, they have to spend months crossing the desert, have to reach green pastures to be paid, have to roar like lions in order to be given the money due to them, but because chameleons, etymologically, are “lions on the ground,” “dwarf lions”; because until the Renaissance they were thought to feed upon nothing but air; because of the turncoat quality of their skin (Mandeville said that, “He may chaunge him in to alle maner of coloures that him list”). Translators are habitually paid such a pittance that they too must live on air; they change the coat they wear according to the author they translate; they contort themselves into every imaginable shape. Translators must be twenty parts and persons at once, must temporize and vary like Mercury (the planet), be good with the good, bad with the bad; have a several face, garb, & character for every one they meet; they are of all religions, humours, inclinations, fawn like spaniels, “with an obsequiousness feigned and deceitful,” rage like lions, bark like curs, fight like dragons, sting like serpents, they must be as meek as lambs, grin like tigers, weep like crocodiles, insult some and yet others domineer them; though here they command, there they crouch, tyrannize in one place, are baffled in another, wise at home, and fools abroad to make others merry.

The above words of Robert Burton were translated, more or less, into French by Ramsey, and here they are again translated, in a manner of speaking, back into English, which explains why they differ from the original, as much in fact as Burton’s translations diverged from their originals. And if translators are to feed not on air alone, but on a variety of authors, their nourishment—books—need to be alive so that they may be converted into living matter. For this to happen there must exist a deep sympathy, “a familiarity of matter,” an umbilicality between translators and their source texts, as Thomas Browne implies when he writes:

And first concerning its nature, to make a perfect nutrition into the body nourished, there is required a transmutation of the nutriment; now where this conversion or aggeneration is made, there is also required in the aliment a familiarity of matter, and such a community or vicinity unto a living nature, as by one act of the soul may be converted into the body of the living, and enjoy one common soul.

Translators do ingest, and some of us like to, even need to, ingest the words of others. The translator is the plagiarist par excellence—as was Robert Burton, who said of his Anatomy of Melancholy: “’tis all mine and none mine. As a good housewife out of divers fleeces weaves one peace of cloth, a bee gathers wax and honey out of many flowers, and makes a new bundle of all, sipping everything in flower-filled glades.” Thus the translator enjoys, to use the words of William Shakespeare and Christopher Smart:

Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon his sun-burned brain,

And he, who kneels and chants,
Prevails his passions to control,
Finds meat and med’cine to the soul,
Which for translation pants.

The translator converts others, authors, into his own substance. As Philip Sidney puts it: “by attentive translation, as it were, he devours his authors whole and makes them wholly his.” Once they are converted into another substance, in the guise of another language, the translator ceases to be transparent: he has made himself a coat of many colours, un hoqueton bigarré, as this coat was so beautifully translated in Castellion’s Bible.

The abiding image of the translator is, then, of an unstable and even schizoid ouroboros, eating himself while expanding outwards, plagued by contrary urges. This image in some ways resembles the Renaissance translator—arguably the golden age of translation, when Lucian was being translated by Erasmus, Montaigne by Florio, Plutarch by Amyot, Plutarch from the French of Amyot by North, the Bible by Tyndal, Luther, and Castellion. To quote Jonathan Swift, it was: “a time about which we can be persuaded that the translators of Bible were masters of an English style much fitter for that work than any we see in our present writings.” It is true that their position was more comfortable—let’s temper this assertion: it appears to have been secure. For they did not seem to have much doubt over their activity: they give hardly any sensuous suggestion of hesitancy, of the necessity for choice, of static irresolution; they are a long way—or at least they appear so—from Joyce’s “twosome twiminds.”

Renaissance translators were constructing a coherent European network of philosophy, reflection, and literature, while at the same time, more or less consciously, they were helping to create the languages of their respective countries. They worked alongside writers who were also, to a great part, translators themselves—or, more precisely, adaptors. Amyot wished for a French Plutarch, Florio an English Montaigne; Screech’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, some twenty-five years ago, is faithful to Montaigne’s French, while Florio’s embroiders and neologizes (twenty percent more words than the original) and helps create a new English language that he meant “to perfect with the addition of the French and Latine.” The modern translators have to contend themselves with fidelity to the source text. Translators of Swift, of Goethe, or of Leopardi need not be the equal of those great men: they are only required to translate them well and, if they are successful, it will be said that they are the worthy sons-in-law of Swift, of Goethe, or of Leopardi.

Joyce most probably has a female translator in mind in Ulysses when he asks to “Tumble her. Columble her. Chameleon.” As she is “The ugly duckling of the party, longcasted and deep in keel.” And in Finnegans Wake the chameleon is shown to be a “covenanter” who “translace(s) into shocks of such as touch with show and show.”

If it is true that we are being transformed when reading books written in our own language, how much more when we are reading translations from other countries and other languages. Through translation we are confronted with other cultures, different means of expressions—if the translators do their work properly, some of the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of those cultures will enter our conscience and change us, we will be more open, more tolerant; and for this we have to thank translators, who are linked to the source as well as to the target languages. They (sometimes) choose books to translate, they read them, ingest them, digest them, and then egest them.

One might think that they could leave it at that, forget the text they have just translated, pursue their task, choose another text, and go on from book to book, a bumbling crew at their apish antics, humble vehicles, poorly paid vessels for this apparently fairly plain and straightforward operation which consists in the transmuting of one kind of food to another. But it does not work out like that, at least for some: these authors, these books, these texts the translators have to scan, peruse, scrutinize down to the last word, last sign, last comma; then they also have, after transmutation, to type, proofread, and publish—in short possess them.

A translation is written by the translator, not by the original author; when translators do not allow themselves to write and content themselves with mere translating, the result could be said to be “traduced into jinglish language for the nusances of dolphins born,” this being a criticism by Joyce of a never written “Anthology of Dolphin Poems” translated by a certain Dr. Mullion Basto, mentioned in a book by Gilbert Sorrentino published forty years later—a rather convincing example of “plagiarism by anticipation.”

If the author can be considered to be a lion, then the translator is a dwarf lion, however, in Robert Burton’s words, “A Dwarfe standing on the shoulders of a Giant may see farther than a Giant himself.”