T. E. Lawrence in the Forest of Translation

T. E. Lawrence in the Forest of Translation

by Samuel E. Martin

A process which wounds us to-day may to-morrow bring forth a marvellous constellation of molecules. The indestructible elements whirl unceasing in the universe, moving from an out-worn structure to a new one, dissolving and amalgamating without rest till they rejoin the everlasting silence – whence they will leap out again to like adventures.

In what follows, I’d like to come at the question of translation indirectly, by way of what is a mistranslation of sorts, or at least a deliberate malentendu. Of all the theories that have sprung up around the dedication “To S. A.” of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of the Arab Revolt, the most enduring – and convincing – identifies the mystery person as Selim Ahmed, the young Syrian boy with whom Lawrence had become infatuated before the war. I would not so much venture a theory of my own as note a pleasing homophony: we could hear the three syllables as spelling out an infinitive, almost a kind of dictionary entry, and see the ensuing book as a supreme illustration of what it means to essay. (Lawrence, for his part, appears to have preferred reading Rabelais to Montaigne, though Victoria Ocampo points out the intriguing proximity between his insistence that his book presents the story “not of the Arab movement, but of me in it” and Montaigne’s assertion in the Essais that “myself am the ground-worke of my booke.”)[1]

Curiosity deepens when we come across these lines from Ichabod Charles Wright’s 1840 rendering of Dante’s Paradiso, a standard Victorian-era version with which Lawrence may well have been familiar:

O ye who fain would listen to my song,
     Following in little bark full eagerly
     My venturous ship, that chanting hies along,
Turn and behold your native shores again;
     Tempt not the deep, lest haply losing me,
     In unknown paths bewildered ye remain.
I am the first this voyage to essay;
     Minerva breathes – Apollo is my guide;
     And new born Muses do the Bears display.[2]

One can scarcely imagine a more fitting epigraph for Seven Pillars: a simultaneous nod to the Muses and to the goddess of war, and exceptional deeds framed as a cautionary tale. Yet in the end (or perhaps I should say in the beginning), Lawrence’s invocation of the Muse would come, not before his own tale, but rather in his 1932 translation of the paradigmatic adventure story that is Homer’s Odyssey. Which is to say, of course, that Lawrence is and isn’t the one doing the invoking. Indeed, “I am the first this voyage to essay” is precisely what no translator of another’s work – let alone the translator embarked on the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy – can claim. Someone has been there before you – has, in fact, made the there that is before you. “Translation,” observes Antonio Tabucchi, “is not the work, it is a journey towards the work. The translator is Ulysses, he who makes the crossing and brings the book on the journey, and takes it elsewhere.”[3]

“Those who boast of their travels and adventures should think over this journey and its conditions,”[4] counsels Lawrence’s “Odyssey” in turn, as if in conversation with Tabucchi, except that Homer is no longer anywhere to be seen. For in 1923, between completing Seven Pillars and essaying the voyage from ancient Greek to modern English, Lawrence translated another odyssey, this time from the French. “L’Odyssée,” sure enough, is the first chapter of Adrien Le Corbeau’s novel Le Gigantesque, a miniature epic recounting the life cycle of a California redwood, and the travels in question are those of the seed from which the tree eventually sprouts. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth continuing as we began, namely by allowing Lawrence’s words to point us down unexpected byways, and reflecting on the “journey and conditions” of translation that led Le Gigantesque to become The Forest Giant.

While I am decidedly not the first to follow this road, there haven’t been many others. Lawrence’s official biographer Jeremy Wilson, who along with his wife Nicole in 2004 produced a sumptuous facing-page edition of Le Corbeau’s novel and Lawrence’s translation, expressed bewilderment at the dearth of commentary on the text, which the intervening years seem to have done little to remedy. No doubt the silence stems in part from the author’s reputation as a second-rate novelist, insasmuch as he is remembered for anything at all other than having been translated by Lawrence of Arabia. Somewhere behind the pen name Adrien Le Corbeau, at any rate, stood the Romanian-born writer and pasticheur Rudolf Bernhardt (1886-1932); Le Gigantesque, published in Paris in 1922, was the second of his three novels. French critics held it in sufficiently high regard at the time to consider it for the Goncourt Prize, which may have been how it ended up on the desk of the British publisher Jonathan Cape the following summer. Cape duly offered it to Lawrence, who readily agreed to translate the book and made no further inquiry about the author. A simple lack of interest on his part, perhaps, though it’s tempting to imagine that he spotted Le Corbeau for a literal nom de plume and refrained from probing a fellow writer’s secret – for Lawrence, too, was seeking refuge from the public eye. When The Forest Giant was first published in 1924, the translator’s name appeared as J. H. Ross, the pseudonym Lawrence had previously adopted during his abortive stint in the RAF.

Whatever kindred feeling Ross/Lawrence may have had at first for Le Corbeau/Bernhardt swiftly evaporated as the work progressed. On July 8, 1923, the disgruntled translator wrote to Cape, “Sorry for making a mess of it: but it’s infuriating to find second-class metaphysics, and slip-shod writing, on so extraordinarily good a theme. I’d like to wring Le Corbeau’s neck.” A similar outburst accompanied the completed manuscript a few weeks later on September 13: “Damn Adrien Le Corbeau and his rhetoric” (xi). Harsh though the letters sound, they are echoing a celebrated French literary credo. Paul Verlaine’s “Art poétique” (1874) incites would-be versifiers to “take eloquence and wring its neck! (Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou !)” Lawrence, an ardent francophile who had read Verlaine, is unlikely to have missed the connection. Even more striking, though no doubt unconscious, is the parallel with Lawrence’s namesake in reverse, the Anglo-Welsh author Edward Thomas, who had written to his friend Robert Frost in May 1914 of his desire to “wring all the necks of my rhetoric – the geese”[5] shortly before his turn from prose to poetry. Thomas and Frost were then in the process of formulating the poetic creed they called “the sound of sense,” which consisted of rejecting verbal artifice in favor of the common language and rhythms of everyday speech. Lawrence’s variation on Thomas’s avian theme – substituting a French crow for English geese – would be a triviality had he not gone on to elaborate an aesthetic position uncannily close to that of Thomas and Frost. On October 4, 1923, within weeks of completing his translation of Le Corbeau, Lawrence wrote to Edward Garnett, who, like Frost, had been a close friend of Thomas:

Do you know that lately I have been finding my deepest satisfaction in the collocation of words so ordinary and plain that they cannot mean anything to a book-jaded mind: and out of some of such I can draw deep stuff. Is it perhaps that certain sequences of vowels and consonants imply more than others: that writing of this sort has music in it? I don’t want to affirm it, and yet I would not deny it: for if writing can have sense (and it has: this letter has) and sound why shouldn’t it have something of pattern too? My sequences seem to be independent of ear… to impose themselves through the eye alone. I achieved a good many of them in Le Gigantesque: but fortuitously for the most part.[6]

Setting aside tenuous biographical resemblances between Lawrence and Edward Thomas (“a book-jaded mind” is an apt summary of the latter’s mental state in 1914 after a grueling decade of book reviews and thankless editorial commissions), it’s intriguing to see Lawrence defending something like the look of the sound of sense, yet without explicit acknowledgment that he has adapted Le Corbeau’s work. “My sequences…” “I achieved…” Lawrence’s markers of musical writing would indeed appear to impose themselves through the I alone. So how exactly did he approach the translation of Le Gigantesque?

The first thing that catches the eye in a comparison between Le Corbeau’s and Lawrence’s respective versions is how much shorter the translation is than the original. In order for the two to align on the pages of the 2004 Castle Hill Press edition, frequent spaces of anywhere from one to five lines have been left between Lawrence’s paragraphs; his giant redwood breathes and sings very differently from its French counterpart. The discrepancy is at least partly down to English being a more economical language than French; even a 20% contraction is not all that unusual in a French-to-English translation. Yet here it’s not simply a question of mathematical ratio, for Lawrence has substantially reshaped Le Corbeau’s book, chopping up tall trunks of text into shorter paragraphs and recombining their constituent sentences. In her recent book Traduction et violence, Tiphaine Samoyault argues that “translation destroys the original,” positing a conceptual model “that acknowledges the destruction and distortion [effected by translation] but makes them the very conditions of the text’s survival in another form.”[7] In the case of The Forest Giant, we can imagine a total annihilation that is somehow a controlled burn at the same time, clearing the way for new growth. Here is Lawrence, destroying and remaking Le Corbeau: “Creation is so leisurely and so retiring that it makes little impression on us. It is destruction which is the striking thing, because it is quick and clear and violent. An instant destroys a thing which we have long seen living and developing. A tree many hundreds of years old is crashed down in a minute by lightning” (41).

The chapter in which the preceding sentences occur is called “The Law of Balance,” a theme that undergirds much of the book. The speaker (less of a narrator, more of a musing metaphysician) insists that “the universe takes shape as a harmonious whole” in a grand scheme unknowable to humans yet visible to an “all-creating Eye” (25) – and, it would seem, to the speaker himself. Authorial creation ultimately gives way, of course, to translational destruction, and Lawrence’s eye imposes its own shape and sequences on the world of the text. It’s difficult to resist the impression – heightened by the facing-page edition – that the original book anticipates, even invites, its eventual translation, as though this particular ecosystem’s law of balance implied The Forest Giant taking its place alongside Le Gigantesque. The two are effectively what another chapter title calls “contrastes identiques”: “I would say that this inexplicable symmetry is one of the laws which govern the seen, and probably also the unseen, world. Ideas, beings, things, phenomena of all kinds exhibit to us much the same beginnings, similar developments, and parallel endings” (45). Reinforcing the sense of equilibrium is Lawrence’s tendency to translate many of Le Corbeau’s interrogative structures with declarative sentences, producing a call-and-response effect across the two versions. Hence, in a digressive meditation on love as a universal force, when the French text asks, “Sommes-nous cependant justifiés de le croire notre œuvre exclusive, c’est-à-dire le résultat de nos seuls moyens?,” the English text answers flatly, “It is a moot point whether we are right to believe it exclusively our work, a sentiment evoked by our own means” (90-91). Phrase by phrase, we are witnessing Le Gigantesque cease to be Le Corbeau’s exclusive work in order to become Lawrence’s in (not quite) equal measure.

Such is the force of personality exerted by the translator that the tone of The Forest Giant at times approaches that of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Prior to undertaking the translation, Lawrence had spent the better part of three years writing and revising his memoir, so it’s hardly surprising that certain cadences should have lingered from one book to the next. The effect, in any case, is that one can find oneself conflating the two narrative voices – and when the speaker of The Forest Giant turns his attention to human warfare, seen here as yet another example of the universe’s “terrible law of compensations” (67), it’s all but impossible to avoid imagining his words in Lawrence’s mouth. So it is that the translation engages in an implicit dialogue, not only with Le Corbeau’s original, but with Lawrence’s own writing. In one of the most notorious and shocking passages of Seven Pillars, Lawrence and his Arab troops slaughter a column of retreating Turkish soldiers in retaliation for the latter’s massacre of women and children in the Syrian town of Tafas: “In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”[8] The Forest Giant, meanwhile, contains the following rumination, doubtless inspired by Le Corbeau’s own experiences in the trenches of the Western Front:

There leap to our minds a thousand reasons against war, whenever we need them. Only when the crisis comes and the clash of peoples is prepared, then human beings savagely acclaim it. They burn with a sense of battle, a madness which comes upon them from without and masters them, so that they can speak only with its voice. […] When the storm has passed we are astounded and rather horrified to look back on our bloodthirsty record, and like a river sinking back into its bed after a flood, we return gradually to our habitual peace and quietude: – too late, alas! for the will of the gods has been done and humanity has paid its bloody tribute to their law of death. (69-71)

Lawrence’s biographers have consistently highlighted his propensity for mythmaking; some claim that he derived masochistic satisfaction from exaggerating the more sordid episodes of his book. Whether or not Lawrence’s role in the carnage at Tafas was as he describes it in Seven Pillars, it strikes me that passages from The Forest Giant such as the one just quoted end up prolonging his ceaseless self-interrogation, perhaps even self-abasement. We know that Lawrence came to be contemptuous of Le Corbeau’s writing, but it may not be altogether far-fetched to see something like a sign of recognition in his desire to assimilate Le Gigantesque through translation.

True to the book’s meandering nature, I’ve managed to make it this far while saying next to nothing about the ostensible star of the show: neither Lawrence nor Le Corbeau, but the tree, the forest giant itself. Its implausible fictional life span (7000 years, twice that of the oldest known sequoia – another doubling effect!) is as long as the text is short, and within those 100 pages it is often obscured behind the speaker’s cosmic ponderings. Yet propping up The Forest Giant are numerous sequences in which vivid description combines with narrative verve to evoke the stages of the tree’s life, beginning with the Homeric journey of the seed as it is swept along by the elements:

The pine-seed was carried by the river in devious courses, thrown up on the bank, snatched away by the wind, rolled over the plains, cast up the mountainside, tossed back into the fields, led here and there for an incalculable time, the sport of inapprehensible caprice. A hundred times it nearly fell into a spot favourable for taking root, and as often it was driven away from its goal by forces apparently hostile. (17-19)

Once the initial odyssey is concluded and the seed settled, the sequoia flourishes over subsequent chapters before succumbing to old age, its particles absorbed by the surrounding environment. The headiness of that atmosphere is replicated by the thick prose. Lawrence tautens Le Corbeau’s syntax, and while his choice of nouns occasionally verges on preciousness – in places he prefers ichor to sap and afflatus to cloud, and he has a soft spot for the word nescience – his verbs remain lively throughout. It’s especially startling to see a “lightning-stroke jazzing across our eyes” (111); could there be a more apt embodiment of the visual music on which Lawrence so prides himself in his letter to Edward Garnett?

For all the pains he took with his translation, Lawrence’s tree fell with few people to hear it. Sales of the book’s first edition were underwhelming, and it might have faded into oblivion had it not been for Lawrence’s sudden death several years later, which prompted a hasty reprinting that likewise sold poorly. Yet the story of The Forest Giant doesn’t quite end there. It so happens that when Lawrence was thrown from his motorbike on May 13, 1935, he was returning from having dispatched a telegram to his friend Henry Williamson, best remembered as the author of the children’s classic Tarka the Otter. Lawrence had been one of Tarka’s earliest champions when the book appeared in late 1927, and the two men entered into a correspondence about the finer points of literary writing. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Williamson ever read The Forest Giant, and certainly not during the preparation of Tarka, for in fact both books were begun in June 1923. It’s consequently all the more remarkable to find that the second paragraph of Williamson’s novel contains the narrative arc of The Forest Giant in miniature, condensing the story of a crooked oak tree from its origins as an acorn to its fall across a river in Devon:

The cleft of its fork held the rains of two hundred years, until frost made a wedge of ice that split the trunk; another century’s weather wore it hollow, while every flood took more earth and stones from under it. And one rainy night, when salmon and peal from the sea were swimming against the brown rushing water, the tree had suddenly groaned…[9]

Book-plate illustration from the 1932 edition of Tarka the Otter
Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of C. F. Tunnicliffe

The hollow of the fallen tree goes on to become the otters’ holt and the seed of a new narrative. Between The Forest Giant and Tarka the Otter, then, there is not a line of influence but instead a balance, a redistribution of elements and forces, as though Le Gigantesque had undergone a second metamorphosis beyond Lawrence’s translation.

One wonders whence came the particles which composed the giant tree, from what previous embodiments, and into what shapes they reassembled after the pine was dead. What had been green in the tree might be black or transparent when next its elements took visible form. […] A process which wounds us to-day may to-morrow bring forth a marvellous constellation of molecules. The indestructible elements whirl unceasing in the universe, moving from an out-worn structure to a new one, dissolving and amalgamating without rest till they rejoin the everlasting silence – whence they will leap out again to like adventures. (179-181)

(Dare I add that among the birds chattering above the otter holt at Tarka’s birth is a jackdaw, whose name, it could be said, is a pseudonym of corbeau?)

[1] Victoria Ocampo, 338171 T. E. (Lawrence of Arabia), trans. David Garnett, New York, Dutton, 1963, p. 50.

[2] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. I. C. Wright, London, George Bell & Sons, 1883, pp. 307-308 (emphasis mine).

[3] Cited in Liz Wren-Owens, In, on, and through Translation: Tabucchi’s Travelling Texts, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2018, p. 135.

[4] Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant, trans. T. E. Lawrence, Fordingbridge, Castle Hill Press, 2004, p. 3. Hereafter to be cited in the body of the text.

[5] Elected Friends: Robert Frost & Edward Thomas to One Another, New York, Handsel Books, 2003, p. 10.

[6] Cited in The Forest Giant, p. xiii. Less than four years later, on March 1, 1927, Lawrence proclaimed to Garnett that “Edward Thomas wrote very fine poems, and some almost perfect prose” (The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, ed. David Garnett, New York, Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1939, p. 510).

[7] “[Ce modèle] admet la destruction et la déformation mais [il] en fait les conditions mêmes de la survie, sous une autre forme, du texte” (Tiphaine Samoyault, Traduction et violence, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2020, p. 67, translation mine).

[8] T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, New York, Anchor Books, 1991, p. 633.

[9] Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter, London, Puffin Books, 1995, p. 4.

Samuel Martin teaches French at the University of Pennsylvania. He has translated works by several contemporary writers including Jean-Christophe Bailly and Georges Didi-Huberman; his translation of Didi-Huberman’s Bark was a co-winner of the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. 

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Success! You're on the list.

Comments are closed.

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑