Calling the Ship by a Different Name

Calling the Ship by a Different Name: Translation in Boone & Glück’s La Fontaine (1981)

by Kit Schluter

The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for to-day’s.

—Samuel Beckett, Proust

The story goes like this. When King Theseus arrived in Athens after a particularly harrowing voyage home from Crete, his fellow Athenians decided to preserve his ship in the port for a number of centuries as a relic of his good fortune. Over time, the seawater and salty air took such a toll on the vessel that each and every one of its parts had to be successively replaced until nothing from the original remained. Plutarch describes the implications of all this in his “Life of Theseus,” where he recalls that the Athenians “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” Now that not even a fingerprint or stray hair of the king remained either on deck or under, now that all the wood used in its construction had been cut from trees planted after his death, could they still rightly call the ship by the name it once bore, or should they call it by another? Each differing response to this question reflects a differing ethic, a stance toward identity. Those who reply yes are just as correct as those who say no, just as are those who believe that the question is not posed in search of answers, but of contemplation. Such is the nature, after all, of paradox.

The thought struck me recently that every translated book, too, is a ship of Theseus. Letter by letter, word by word, these works are rebuilt entirely with new materials, following the contours of their precedent. And yet, although not a single word remains from the original (aside from the occasional flourish of an exotic little gracias or bon appétit), one commonly reads translations instrumentally, in order to gain access to their otherwise-inaccessible originals. So, the same question applies here as does to the ship of the Greek: can the translation be considered “the same thing” as its original? In practice, the author of the original is still named as the author of the book in translation, though the translator is the one who has chosen every word that now represents this author’s original effort. As a translator, you’re either fortunate or particularly demanding of respect if you get that little “translated by” nod on the book’s cover. And even then, it’s printed in a contractually specified fraction of the font size used for the author’s name. Until not long ago, Penguin Books was setting the industry standard by printing a translation of such a canonical work as Gide’s Fruits of the Earth without so much as acknowledging its translator, and, if you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought Gide himself had simply decided to put his English-language schooling to good use for something other than translating Shakespeare, and written a book in our tongue.

If translation is supposed to provide direct access to the original, then translation, as a project, defrauds. The access allowed to this original by a translation is interrupted; it offers no passage from the shore of one language to that of another, but reflections on the surface of waters troubled by ships glimpsed from the near shore. The ideal translation would be an original, sitting one moment beyond the reader’s grasp, the next rendered suddenly legible in its own language: bilingualism, or magic. But we don’t all have such time or patience to learn new languages; so we have to make do with calling the rebuilt ship by its first name. This may be functional, but “making do” is never as simple as it seems.

As it stands, the best we can hope for is that a translation put an equivalent (not equal) pressure, an equivalent stress, on the target language as the original text put on the source language. And while we inevitably mourn some aspects of the original, unforeseeable new traits tend to be revealed by the translation. The words of every book swim in a sea of subtexts, and from among this multitude the translator inevitably has to choose an angle. The practical question then becomes one of deliberately focusing one’s efforts and shoring up a deliberate remnant. The translator has to ask, what aspects do I want to make absolutely sure to retain? Rhyme scheme? Meter and music? The play of register? Humor? The vowel sequence? The shape of words in the foreign alphabet? That is: for the preservation of which aspect(s) of this book am I willing to labor at the expense of the others? How can I compensate at another moment in the text for the wordplay in this passage here that is unavoidably lost in translation?

I’m writing this essay at Daniel Levin Becker’s house in California, so I feel inspired to turn to the Oulipo for some inspiration. Besides, those are the books on hand. In his 1997 essay, “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese,” Harry Mathews considers a number of both classical and strange Oulipian translation techniques. He also writes of his own personal approach to translation, which leans on the vernacular. Of this process he writes,

I begin by studying the original text until I understand it thoroughly, then, knowing that I can say anything I understand no matter how awkwardly [hello, Wittgenstein!], I say what I have now understood and write down my own words. I imagine myself talking to a friend across the table to make sure the words I use are ones I naturally speak. (…) What I need is not elegance but natural, late-twentieth-century American vernacular. Translating the opening sentence of Proust—longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure—I might write down: when I was a kid, it took me years to get my parents to let me stay up til nine.

How do these two sentences offered at the end—the French original, and the English translation—express the world, the speaker? Do they offer the same expression? In Proust’s, we witness the solitude of a late 19th-century childhood in France, his trademark blend of self-reliance and the bittersweetness of isolation. In Mathews’s, however, we hear a voice speaking at that postwar American juncture of slick brattiness and the kind of anti-authoritarianism which might equally lead a child to blame his parents for all his lack of freedom, and/or to grow up and move to the Florida Keys. From where do these cultural discrepancies arise? The play of difference and equivalence that hangs between Proust’s original and Mathews’s translation reveals that by vernacularizing in translation—that is, localizing its language in a particular place and time—one also vernacularizes its thought, migrating into the translation ideologies foreign to the historical and cultural contexts of its source. And so concludes our OuLiPian detour—although there is something helpful in the playful “unfaithfulness” of Mathews’ funny little Proust translation that might help us to arrive at what I began these thoughts in order to talk about in the first place: translation in the context of New Narrative writing.

New Narrative writers have been deeply invested in translation, both traditional and experimental, and have widely innovated in both divisions of the field. The movement (if we can call it that) and its proximates have offered no shortage of “faithful” translations, which have helped shepherd into English a number of major thinkers from other languages: we have Gail Scott’s Brossard; Rob Halpern’s Perec; Bruce Benderson’s Guyotat, Robbe-Grillet, and Tony Duvert; Bruce Boone aka X’s Bataille and Quignard, to name a few. But more importantly to the unique fabric of this constellation of writers is the manner in which they have routinely repurposed translation and used it as a tool for the production of both introspective original material and outward-reaching exploration of other authors. To give a few examples: Kathy Acker’s Propertius and Rimbaud; Kevin Killian’s Schwob; Brandon Brown’s Catullus and Baudelaire; Glück and Boone’s La Fontaine. If we were to expand the scope to include New Narrative’s adaptations of works using playful appropriation, the writing of the list would go on until long after my bedtime (et je ne me couche pas de bonne heure). New Narrative’s use of translation as a tool to critically investigate, rather than “faithfully represent” original works of foreign-language authors, is what I would like to turn my attention to.

For the ways they borrow, steal, maim, glorify, eulogize, mock, disregard, elevate, update, reembody, and jeer at the works of other authors, New Narrative’s experimental “translations” can often feel as if they had very little to do with the practice of translation as we traditionally think of it. Theseus’s ship is no longer going by the same name. But as said above: all representation in translation is troubled, bound to come up short in some measure or other. Unburdened by traditional approaches to authorial representation, these translations play freely with this distance, this dissonance, between original and version, choosing to preserve, over formal constraints of rhyme and meter, a text’s attitudes, discourse, and sometimes its problematic qualities which reveal themselves contextually over the years, always begging the question, like Borges’s Pierre Menard, of how the same statement may differ in meaning over time, across contexts. It teases the limits of what we might consider to be representative of an author, exploring discursive frictions between historical moments, rather than working toward an illusion of a work’s “literal meaning.”

At first glance, this may seem a faithless, even cheeky, mode of translating. (Would Catullus ever have said, “Poets are very seductive. So daily, so teen” (Brown, § 22)? God, I wish.) On closer inspection, however, these works offer an equally faithful, perhaps simply a more critical, kind of representation of the author. Their faith is revolutionary: a devotion to decrypting literary history’s coded inheritances, and keeping one’s comrades informed against the glossed-over ethical shortcomings of literary icons. This faith is placed in critical discourse, always making sure to unpack any statement before accepting it. And there is no clearer example of this faith than La Fontaine by Bruce Boone and Robert Glück.

“Theseus and Ariadne,” Stefano della Bella, 1644

La Fontaine is ostensibly a modern translation of fables and tales, originally in verse, by the late 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine. To this day, nearly every Francophone child in the world is made to study and memorize his rhymes and morals; the idea being that it will help them grow a moral spine. But do the morals of 17th-century France apply to life in 2021? Do or can ethics translate that way between eras? While much of Boone and Glück’s book does in fact give the old college try at bringing the work’s literal sense into English, La Fontaine also uses translation—or that New Narrative variant of the practice, which the translators dub “alteration”—as a pretext for performing an operating-table-style critique of the poems. More than a hermetic comment on the teachings of a single fabulist, La Fontaine is a self-aware jab of the notion that morals can (or should) be uncritically sustained—“translated,” rather than “altered”between eras. (Call the ship by a different name!) In every translation there are at least two languages present: a visible language, and its shadow; the silhouette cast by Boone and Glück’s Jean de La Fontaine is, let’s get right down to it, not a flattering one.

Like Aesop, his spiritual father before him, La Fontaine uses animals to act out his moral lessons, for the supposed universality of their symbolism: lions stand in for the strong; wolves for the wily; sheep for, well, the sheeple. Shifting the interpretive framework of the tales from La Fontaine’s theological and supposedly “universal” (read: social Darwinistic) views, which would have a cat represent old age and a mouse youth, Boone and Glück vernacularize the moralistic fables into a 1980’s queer Marxist-Feminist context which, more cuttingly, has the cat represent the privileged and the mouse the underprivileged. In La Fontaine’s original “Pig, Goat, Sheep,” the pig en route to his slaughter cries, “help!”; in the translation, he invokes the revolutionary mood, shouting, “Resist! Resist!” In the original version of “The Abbess,” a tale in which a nun is informed by a male doctor that she will have to have sex in order to save herself from illness, the abbess’s struggle is meant to exemplify the repressiveness of religious faith; in Boone and Glück, this nun and her fellow sisters’ lives are allegories of the exploitative violence performed daily by men against women. Such violence on the page engenders kindred violence in the world, our translators suggest; contrary to what Barthes said of Sade, in La Fontaine, when written the word “shit” does stink. Revolutionary literature needn’t tread down the already down-trodden, that is, but raise them up, wipe them off, and give them empowering examples to follow.

La Fontaine establishes a symbiotic relationship between classical translation and experimental alteration. Alteration occurs when Boone and Glück hone in on the anti-revolutionary subtexts of La Fontaine’s language. And so, as much as it is a translation of the Fables, La Fontaine doubles as an essay against that very book, folding the task of critique into the translator’s to-do list. What traditionally “faithful” translation of a poem by La Fontaine, for example, would include the statement, “La Fontaine’s progressive anti-clericalism does not move me. Isn’t it like revolutionary sentiments that mask contempt for women and gays?” In this aside the reader gets a glimpse of the increasingly critical discourse that has grown around La Fontaine since his day, which understands his once-lauded “bawdiness” as cheap dunking on the subaltern. La Fontaine’s anti-clerical Libertinism may have won him a seat among the French revolutionaries of his day, but in our own, the scope of revolutionary inclusivity has expanded: on our ears, his rape jokes fall flat; in another era, they may not have been read as rape jokes at all. Who’s to say? All we know is that such things do matter in our time; we’ve chosen our sympathies the best we can.

Is such commentary as Boone and Glück’s not equally essential to forming an understanding of La Fontaine’s tales as, say, hearing his virtuosic rhyme schemes echoed in Marianne Moore’s translations? Are more traditional translators’ word choices, which often work to hide La Fontaine’s more troublesome qualities, equally reflective of an integral part of the original? Let’s briefly compare Boone and Glück’s translation of a passage from the tale “Brother Phillip’s Geese” with a(n uncredited) 19th-century translation, to see alteration at play. For context, the tale tells of a man whose wife passes away, and as a result he goes with his son to live in seclusion, never telling his child of the existence of women. Here is the original French, followed by a “literal” translation of Fontaine’s lines:

Sa femme disparut s’envolant dans les Cieux,/ Le monde lui fut odieux:/ Las d’y gémir, et de s’y plaindre,/Et partout des plaintes ouïr,/ Sa moitié le lui fit par son trépas haïr,/ Et le reste des femmes craindre.

[His wife disappeared, taking flight for Heaven,/ The world was hateful to his eyes:/ Tired of lying there and complaining/ and hearing complaints on all sides,/ his other half made him, through her trespass,/ despise and fear all other women.]

Here is a 19th-century translation (unattributed in publication):

His partner’s death produced distaste of life,/ And made him fear to seek another wife.

Here is Boone and Glück:

The child’s mother died at childbirth, you see, and out of grief the father fled with him to a remote forest. The result was, the father became a misogynist (34).

Here, Boone and Glück do not translate single words with single words, but instead with phrases, full commentaries upon single words’ discursive significances. Here, we are tickled by the bluntness of the political commentary, which has been prioritized over La Fontaine’s verbal play. The musicality of the second translation comes clearly at the expense of discursive accuracy. The first offers little of music, just dry semantic conveyance. All three, however, are useful: multiple translations, each fragmentary when left on its own, can be used to triangulate a more complete imagination of the late 17th-century French original in 20th/21st-century English.

Every radicalism has oversights which are revealed by history; any posture of revolutionary universality is never more than a generation away from being revealed a cumbersome sham, but we do our best. Likewise, authors tend to be incapable of perceiving their ethical shortcomings, and La Fontaine, an author like any other, suffered this fate. In the preface to this tale just mentioned above, the original of which is a lengthy apologia directed at any woman who should “misinterpret” it as sexist, Boone and Glück translate La Fontaine as saying, “Me, La Fontaine, one of the leading liberals of my day, a sexist? Puh-lease!” (33). Boone and Glück, noting La Fontaine’s shortcomings, admit they have no pretensions to purity either. Their tenure as ethical judges is contingent on their moment; ethics are bound to follow the whims of time, and the superiority of their position, they understand, is already slumping toward obsolescence. They ask, “What can you do with literature of the past? Save it? It’s often disgusting; and how impossible to accept anyone’s blind spots, particularly the past’s. […] If it’s better for us, that will all change in a hundred years. Trust history on this, not us. You always live with your times. We hope you like it” (34). They offer a creative solution to this problem: their playful alterations of La Fontaine’s fables not only offer a brilliant original work, but keep a historical figure present in today’s literature while also holding the original work accountable for the shifting nature of its claims across history. The result is unexpectedly empathetic. La Fontaine is no easy, ahistorical dismissal of a problematic figure simply because his ideas don’t agree with modern times, but a profound engagement with troublesome materials that provides an interesting model for how to move on from the past without letting go of it or letting it off the hook.

So, readers, the moral of these words:

Be careful if, today, you publish
for tomorrow they might call you rubbish,
when blunders gone unseen by you
are all that’s left a-shining through.

Robert Glück (left) and Bruce Boone (right) in San Francisco

Kit Schluter (Boston, 1989) is author of Pierrot’s Fingernails (Canarium Books) and translator of Rafael Bernal’s His Name Was Death (New Directions Publishing, forthcoming), Olivia Tapiero’s Phototaxis (Nightboat Books, forthcoming), and multiple books of fiction by Marcel Schwob (Wakefield Press). He lives in Mexico City. [Image: Portrait of Kit Schluter by Félix Vallotton]

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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