Remaking Ourselves in Translation
by Trask Roberts
Translation is no longer quite the dirty word it used to be. Our outmoded conceptions of the term associated it at best with laziness (“Oh, you can’t read Flaubert in the original?”) and at worst with deception and trickery (I will not trot out that old Italian chestnut, but feel free to think it here). Thankfully, a growing interest in the work of translators, both within and beyond the confines of the academy, has shed new light upon and valorized those brave souls toiling between languages.
And with the shine of this newfound respect for the ingenuity and originality of the work of translation, a new possibility has emerged: to look down and investigate the shadows cast by the translator. What space do those of us imbibing words and recasting them as our own take up in the textual and real worlds we find ourselves in? We know that the long-sought ideal of seamless or invisible translation (which is nevertheless alive and well!) has hindered the possibility for understanding what can be gleaned about an original text from its translation. But as these constraints are loosened, critics and translators can better understand not only the original text, but the skin-and-bone creature bringing it into a new language. An appreciation of translation has finally led us to an interest in the translator.
As a result, this century has seen the flourishing, it not the birth, of a distinctly modern genre: the translation memoir. A number of well-known translators such as Gregory Rabassa and Jennifer Croft have penned memoirs detailing lives lived between languages—If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, A Memoir (2005) and Homesick (2019), respectively. These works, and those of their peers, interrogate the boundaries between writing and reading, and between author and translator. But they also offer their readers an acutely introspective take on the labor of translation itself—the turning of pages, scratching of pencils, and clicking of keyboards. In this sense the authors are able to recenter themselves as the protagonists of their stories, rather than the narrators of someone else’s. The translator of a literary touchstone might ask, “Who am I to translate such a work?” But through their experience, the translation memoir distills the question to the ever more complex, “Who am I?” These translators interrogate the potential for crafting identity through translating and how reanimating the words of another helps to know oneself.
But in this growing trove of translation memoirs, notably absent are the writers who translate their own work. The subset of translators for whom the words of this other are in fact their own are left to deal with the resulting Rimbaldian question of how to proceed when not only is the je an autre but the rascal is also an auteur. To my knowledge, a self-translation memoir has not yet been published—it appears the closest analogues are academic journal articles, like those by linguist Tomoko Takahashi. This is not to say, however, that self-translators have not written personal essays and even autobiographies, but the kind of attention paid to the work of translating, the kind that we see in translation memoirs, appears to be absent from these texts. And yet, despite translation’s absence from the drive of the narrative, it occasionally emerges in the form of a new life for the text. That is to say, certain of these writers translate their self-writings, occasionally with surprising results. Consider, for example, the case of Franco-American author Julien Green, who wrote an autobiography in English, Memories of Happy Days, and then later wrote a separate four-volume autobiography in French, which, though taking the same life as its subject, can hardly be considered a translation. To confuse things further, Green then translated his English autobiography into French. In such a case, we have to wonder, (what) was Green translating? This web of text leads us to a number of questions, but perhaps of greatest import for us at present would be this: what is the source text for such a writer translating their autobiography? The originally published text? Memories? And what can translation teach us about autobiography?
Translation and autobiography are not so distant as they may appear at first glance. Of course, both may be understood under the umbrella of adaptation: one from life to the page, the other from one language to another. But perhaps more interestingly, they both share the bête noire of the question of fidelity. Nothing can derail the success of either project faster than being accused of being unfaithful to the source. Regardless of the motivation or intention of the writer or translator who takes a certain amount of liberty, critics are quick to attribute it to malice, incompetence, or a dash of both. In the world of memoirs and autobiography we have even seen such spectacular implosions occur in real time. Recall a 2006 airing of Oprah when the memoirist James Frey revealed that he had fabricated large portions of his memoir about drug addiction and recovery, prompting Oprah to say, “I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” And as for translations, we might recall the drama of Deborah Smith’s English translation of Han Kang’s novella The Vegetarian—“Han Kang-gate” as one reviewer in The Guardian termed it. A pan of the work in the New York Review of Books, where the reviewer confesses to not knowing whether he was lambasting the original or its translation, led to a statistical critique finding that in just the first section of the work, 11% was mistranslated and 6% omitted. One Korean reviewer, sharing Oprah’s term, deemed this a betrayal to the English reader. Following this controversy, Smith defended her work, asserting, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the charge of infidelity is attenuated in certain circumstances, for example in poetry, or when the translator is already famous in their own right—think, for example, of Ezra Pound translating “Cathay” without any knowledge of Mandarin. But without a doubt, those who have managed to most deftly duck the sword are self-translators. When confronting differences (they would likely be called mistranslations for anyone else) between versions of the work, we simply understand that this is what the authors really meant. For them, we view translation as correction, revision, or rewriting. As for omission, consider that Samuel Beckett’s English translation of his novella Mercier & Camier is nearly one third shorter than the original! As far as I know, no one has yet referred to Beckett’s work as a betrayal of anglophones. The halo of authorship glows brightly enough to shield even the translator.
Admittedly, anger over inaccuracies in memoirs and autobiographies is rooted typically in both marketing, i.e. how the book is sold to the public, and in the profile of the person who pens the work. We are more willing to forgive, and even expect, inaccuracies or poeticizations in the memoir of an artist than we are in that of, say, a politician, despite the fact that this hardly corresponds to our perceptions of the rectitude of these two figures. To explore one specific example of a creative truth teller we can locate at the intersection of all this—artist and diplomat; writer and translator; infidelity in both autobiography and translation—I propose the aviator-cum-author, Romain Gary. The history and myth of Romain Gary serves as an interesting example of the role of self-translation in autobiography and the effect on one’s life of translating that very life.
Though he boasts an impressive bilingual oeuvre, Romain Gary’s status as a self-translator has never attained that of his more well-known peers, a Jorge Semprún or a Rabindranath Tagore, for example. It is a cause Gary himself never helped, having consistently pulled the wool over his readers’ eyes, and even those of his publishers, concerning the identity behind the authors and translators of his works. Indeed, Gary’s best-known ruse was winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most distinguished literary award and one only granted once in an author’s career, twice. He was given his second under the pseudonym Émile Ajar, one pseudonym among others—Bogat, Deville, and Sinibaldi round out the rest of the gang. But less attention is paid to the numerous gambits Gary employed when it came to his translations—he invented pseudonyms not only to mask his authorship but also to mask himself as translator or bilingual author. From the very beginning, Gary’s writing inhabited both English and French, neither of which was his first language. He composed his first novel, Éducation européenne, in French, but published it in translation while still in England during the war. Though this translation was not his own, Gary learned quickly and, thanks also to the help of his first wife, writer Lesley Blanch, began composing directly in English. In some instances, as is the case for his novel The Talent Scout, Gary composed and published in English but credited a translator, who never existed, for the English novel. The French original, every bit as imaginary as this translator, would be written subsequently.
The translator of The Talent Scout, John Markham Beach (who, as of the writing of this essay, remains the attributed translator on the Wikipedia page for the book), would also go on to translate Gary’s autobiographical work, Promise at Dawn—somehow even Gary’s imaginary friend’s output can put many of us to shame. Gary’s autobiography moved from French to English, and then from the page to the screen, twice: there was an original film directed by Jules Dassin in 1970 and a second by Éric Barbier in 2017. Each takes as much liberty with its forebearer as Gary does with the facts of his life. As some have pointed out, Gary seemed to write his story with the silver screen in mind, eschewing facts for cinematic moments and even borrowing storylines from canonical literature. Gary explained of his work, “This book is autobiographically inspired, but it is not an autobiography. My artistry inserts itself between the event and its literary expression… every truth reduced to its artistic truth.” Two excellent biographies with telling subtitles, Romain Gary: A Tall Story and Romain Gary, le caméléon, written respectively by David Bellos and Myriam Anissimov, detail the discrepancies between these two types of truth in the work and their function in the mythmaking of the author. As Bellos explains of Gary, “He was seeking to create a character called Romain Gary.” The success of this enterprise meant that these two Romain Garys cohabitated, all the while collaborating on new identities to attach to their novels. It should be noted that even the name Romain Gary was a creation: the writer’s name at birth was Roman Kacew.
Gary’s exaggerations, fabulations, and revisions are thus not merely in the service of keeping us turning the pages. His life story, even if one sticks to the verifiable facts, was a whirlwind of adventure, war, travel, and passion, and thus hardly needed help to appear epic. Perhaps for this reason, many of the more romanesque creations are centered on his mother, like the striking story of her letters which we now know to be Gary’s invention. In Promise at Dawn, Gary details for the reader the regular missives he receives from his mother throughout his wartime activities and the effect they have on him. It is not until the conclusion of the novel that we, along with the narrator, learn that Gary’s mother, knowing she was dying, wrote him years’ worth of letters and had them sent at regular intervals by a friend, allowing her to maintain a postmortem correspondence. Gary’s translation pushes the envelope even further on this fabricated episode by appending to the book a reproduction of one of these messages from his mother. The novel’s aim, enhanced in translation, is to sketch an alternative narrative for Gary’s coming of age; thus the book creates another sort of fidelity to the source, an artistic truth.
When looking into the specifics of Gary’s movement from La Promesse de l’aube to Promise at Dawn, it is clear that Gary is prone to addition. Even outside his translations, the revised editions of his novels often included, for better or for worse, new chapters or sections. In the same vein, Gary’s translation eschews revision for addition. Both Gary-translator and Gary-autobiographer are iconoclasts, refusing the authority of the past. In translation Gary locates new material, new fodder for his own myth, using the original text for inspiration, just as previously he had taken his own life as inspiration for the autobiography. Unlike with a standard translator, the source text is a mixture of a memory, invention, and to a lesser degree, the original. One example of this addition is in the English version of the text, where Gary inserts an entire chapter recounting the history of Mr. Zaremba, a Polish painter who enters into a relationship with Gary’s mother but whom scholars are unable to locate in Gary’s past. Though the original sees no trace of the artist, Gary translated the episode from English into French for the 1980 edition published by Gallimard. Gary’s English version would also see the addition of a defense of French values (we can imagine it was aimed at the same American audience for whom Gary published an ode to de Gaulle in Life Magazine in the time between writing the French and English editions of Promise at Dawn) as well as a critique of psychoanalysis (a longer critique would later be found in his artistic manifesto Pour Sganarelle). These changes, unlike the episode with Mr. Zaremba, are not translated and included in the 1980 “definitive” French edition.
But why add these episodes and ideas only to later retract them? We might find a hint in the other modification Gary makes between French and English editions of the novel. In the first chapter Gary outlines the existence of three gods which his mother would often describe to him as a sort of cautionary fairy tale: Totoche, god of stupidity; Merzavka, god of absolute truth; and Filoche, god of mediocrity. His mother explained that these beings follow us our whole lives, waiting for a moment of weakness to seize us, and that it is the challenge of great men to defeat them. It is the story of this battle, we are told, that Gary recounts in the text: “We are old enemies, they and I, and it is of my battle with them that I shall tell here.” Interestingly enough, in English, Gary includes a fourth god—Trembloche, god of acquiescence and servility—which he does not bring to the French definitive edition. Of course, we cannot know whether Gary’s mother ever described Trembloche or the others, but this god does seem to be precisely the one at work in the type of translation that Gary soundly rejects. Trembloche suffers a double defeat at the hands of Gary, who first invents him, demonstrating a lack of servility to the original, and then suppresses him, showing no acquiescence to the English version! Perhaps this coup in translation led Gary to declare victory over this particular god, tossing him aside for all future tellings of his tale.
Gary’s translation thus offers him an essayistic style of writing, trying out new ideas and scenarios as though the movement from one language to another was temporary—one draft out of many. There can be no crafting of narrative, just as there can be no translation, without artistry. And it is perhaps in part thanks to Gary’s many languages—he spoke eight fluently—that he was able to harness language as a tool for detachment from strict adherence to fact. Each language acquired created the possibility for renewal, and few of Gary’s acquaintances, perhaps only his mother, knew him in more than one of his languages. It thus should not surprise us that the story he tells his English reader would not match perfectly that which he tells his fellow Frenchmen. As David Bellos writes, “There is a sense in which Gary’s whole career—in real life as in writing—can be seen as an exercise in translation, carried out with unequalled inventiveness and passion.”
Gary’s self-translation and style of telling his own story pushes back against the dictum that translation, like autobiography, must begin where it ends. That is to say, to write my autobiography, I begin at the beginning, in order to find myself at the end just as I left me. In translation as well, I must take what has been made in order to begin anew, hoping to eventually write my way back to where the text finished. Conventional wisdom tells us that to reject this is to be unfaithful, to spurn the fidelity at the heart of, and constitutive of, these enterprises. But of course this conception of translation and self-writing ignores the fundamental changes that take place in the course of writing. To tell my story is to change my story, just as to translate a text is to change that text. Self-translators often do this unabashedly, offering us an alternative model, a sort of blueprint out of the trap of fidelity. The freedom we permit the self-translator gives us a glimpse of the possibility for the rest of us of tossing aside these shackles and writing life anew, again. In the case of Romain Gary, Promise at Dawn offers the promise of a recurrent dawn, whether in life or on the page. It is a dawn that wrests control away from the end of the story, eliminating its ability to dictate the beginning. Perhaps the lasting effect of translation, of having translated, is newness, of understanding that renewal is not only possible but necessary, and that there is never truly a final draft to your story.
 Though earlier examples of translators penning memoirs exist, I have yet to encounter any that place translation at the center of the project, as we find in the recent examples of translation memoirs.
 Other authors who have penned such works include Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Ariel Dorfman, and Karen Blixen.
 Such statistical studies of (mis)translation are often controversial as there does not exist some objective authority on what an acceptable correspondence is between languages. This report does, however, point to a number of instances where an argument for nuance seems impossible: anbang (main bedroom) rendered as “living room” or pal (arm) as “foot,” to cite just two examples.
 This is evidenced by Hollywood’s renewed interest in Gary. A biopic of the author, not an adaptation of Promise at Dawn, is currently in the works and will reportedly star Nicolas Cage in the title role.
Trask Roberts, currently based in Paris, is a Ph.D. candidate in French and Francophone studies at the University of Pennsylvania and is interested in all things translation. Find him on twitter @roberts_trask.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 4, 2021