Ethical Material: Rosmarie Waldrop Translates Edmond Jabès

Ethical Material: Rosmarie Waldrop Translates Edmond Jabès

by Janani Ambikapathy

Translation cannot bypass the constraint that defines the practice…

Translation theory often gets a bad rap for its abstract claims in a field that prides itself on being attuned to the tangible materiality of language. Even ‘beautiful translation theory’ cannot charm Eliot Weinberger, who thinks ‘there are the laws of thermodynamics, and there is cooking’ (OS 60). A translator re-produces a writer and their work in another language and culture – this is as gratifying as it is daunting. Most, if not all, translators abide by an ethical framework even if they don’t spell it out in the translator’s note. On good days, the scholarship on the ethics of translation unsettles assumptions, and on other days, it seems to exist to meet departmental objectives. A theoretical examination of ethics (of translation) will not necessarily ‘jar us out of unexamined assumptions about the art of translation and the role of the foreign in our lives’, writes Peter Cole (MST 3). For Cole and Weinberger, theory remains separate from (if not irrelevant to) practice, and breeds academic bureaucracy. While the split between theory and action is the very foundation of academic institutions, it is the intangibility of doctrines for a process reliant on ‘mysteries of sound, that eros of cadence and linkage, that intimate aspect of breath and articulation’ that irritates many translators (MST 12). Is it possible to enact an ethic at the level of the word, syntax, and sound? Or, as some translators fear, will ideology get in the way of aesthetic reception? Perhaps the problem calls for a different method: one possibility is to tease out and examine an ethical principle at work in a translated text – where there is access to the translator’s thought process, there might be some answers too. 

In L’étranger intime, Evelyn Dueck analyses four French translational approaches to Paul Celan. She is prudent about the political and historical details of Celan’s life and clear-eyed about the shortcomings of reading a writer as defined by their circumstance, never allowing Celan’s work to acquiesce to the catastrophe. Her own approach is philological: she analyses the word ‘Ginsterlicht’ from one of Celan’s more famous poems ‘Matière de Bretagne’. Neue Bremm, a Nazi torture camp, was located on the German-French border in 1943-1944. In Old High German, ‘bremm’ suggests thorn, and in Lorrain, a regional language, the word refers to a species of the genista plant native to the region. As Celan refers to ‘thorn’ twice in the poem, Dueck thinks the word ‘Ginsterlicht’ should be read as ‘a transposed evocation’ of the given historical facts, which neither the poem nor the poet has the obligation to define. For her these facts act as ‘interpretive keys’ and should be introduced into the reading as ‘constituent semantic fields’ which link ‘the evocations of landscape to those of suffering and memory’ (EI 271). Dueck is frugal with historical details – she uses them like signs or clues; they do not provide cause, merely a point of entry. 

‘Ginsterlicht’ is frequently translated from German into French as ‘Lumière de genet’ or ‘Lumière du genet’.  The ‘du’ and ‘de’ of the French translation imply a certainty – light of the plant or a light typically associated with the plant. Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, whose translations of Celan Dueck favours, suggests that the evocation of a landscape is important to the poem. Michael Hamburger translates it as ‘Gorselight’ in English. There are nearly 20 compounds of ‘gorse’ in English: Gorse-bud, Gorse-slasher, Gorse-covered, Gorse-bird, etc. You only need common sense to understand the types of attribution here: ‘Gorse-slasher’ is unlikely to build nests in thorny shrubs, and ‘Gorse-bird’ is probably not a gardening tool. But the odd pairing of gorse with light brings to mind a coarseness, some secrecy, a dim landscape in early spring.

I want to make a distinction here between reductive criticism and reductive translation: it can be frustrating, for a translator as much as a critic, to confront literature’s lack of immediacy when a text is marked by catastrophe and persecution. Sometimes an (over-) emphasis on the immediate circumstance of a writer is an act of solidarity. It is distressing to be a mute bystander (or worse, complicit) to another person’s oppression, and one facet of essentialism is an impulse to overcompensate. There are several caveats to this line of thinking, but I can at least claim this: translations are never cynical even if criticism can be. 

A contemporary of Celan, if less well-known in Anglo-American circles, Edmond Jabès was born in 1912 in Cairo to an affluent Jewish family and fled to Paris during the Suez Crisis. He wrote several volumes of poetry including Le livre des questions, translated into English by Rosmarie Waldrop as The Book of Questions. Critics have been inclined to read Jabès as a poet of the Holocaust, but more commonly as a mystic. There are obvious reasons for this: the doctrinal elements in his work, his Jewish identity and proximity to the Second World War, but I wonder how much that characterisation is also driven by a desire for easy solutions. To call Jabès’s work complex is an understatement. It is circuitous, self-referential, and delights in paradoxes that could have you eating your own tail (or head). One way out of this trap is to defer to divine logic. If Jabès is read as a mystic, his pronouncements can be assigned any religious meaning. But bringing god to bear upon a literary text is a circumvention of interpretive labour. The arcane has no logical limits; its limitlessness obviates reasoning. As Waldrop says more than once, ‘Jabès is not a mystic. He is not even a religious writer in the narrow sense. In Jabès, the transcendence is empty. His “God” is a metaphor and does not exist’ (LA 127). As his translator, she takes the riskier reading route: godless, and full of cryptic rabbis. 

Her advance, much like Dueck’s, is measured, scrupulous and wary of overdetermination as much as underdetermination. The Book of Questions opens with an epigraph: ‘You are the one who writes and the one who is written’ (LA 1). This is best understood as a premise for Jabès’s personal mythology of language. It is his belief that language is given to its own will. His lines assemble in particles, fragments – sounds and syllables ‘govern the course of the sentence, the direction of thought’ (LA 69). A word shares a common letter with another word, and that becomes the basis of their familiarity and combined appearance in a sentence. He burrows into words to find other words – a hidden resemblance, a covert inhabitation, or sometimes an unexpected death. Take, for instance, ‘Privé d’R, la mort meurt d’asphyxie dans le mot’, which Waldrop translates as ‘deprived of the air of its r, la mort, death, dies asphyxiated in the word, le mot’, where death finds itself dead in the word (LA 6). The air (R) is pressed out of death, and the consonant escapes, leaving behind the corpse of the word. She notices that the plants in the book are picked for their tendency to sound like other plants: tilleul, teille, and tille. 

One of the characters in The Book of Questions, Sarah, makes a journal entry on the 21st of June (year unknown). The entry is distressing as she ponders her passing through a play on ‘dure’, ‘la durée’ and ‘durer’. The last line on the day is ‘Je suis plus dure que la durée’, which Waldrop translates as ‘I am more obdurate than duration’ (BOQ 239). I am stunned by the obstinacy of ‘obdurate’, its tenacious perch sealed by the syllables left intact. Jabès is attuned to the affinities between words – Waldrop writes via the ear ‘à l’écoute de Jabès’ (listening to his French). She says that finding the ‘rhymes, assonances, alliterations, homophones, puns, permutations of letters’ is so pleasurable to him that it is contagious (LA 69). The contagion is effective. The diminishing gap between sound and thought easily closes in on me. She watches him ‘walk, slowly, hands crossed in the back’ taking ‘steps sown by the desire of words to come together, the rhythm of question and further question, the cadence of commentary’ (LA 1).

For Waldrop, ‘Edmond Jabès listens to the language, thinks along with it and finds that language is thought’ (LA 120). But there is more to this than rejecting the subordination of sound to thought: he commissions a breach between the perceiving mind and perceived language. His thinking-language mirrors the human mind (and its operators: ears, throat, eyes, mouth) – it is attentive; it can conceive (even hope!) of the writer and constitute him. Jabès is only a listener and a catalyst who ‘allows the words to come together’ according to ‘their own law’ (LA 100).  One of the rabbis in the book, Reb Ferhat, worries: ‘If I get dizzy facing the page which trembles in my hand it is not because of its whiteness but because of the white words hidden which wait in line to appear. Will I recognize them? I am bewildered. It is so easy to make a mistake. Not to let one word kill another; to find the hoped-for word which, in turn, hopes for me, its page and passage to flight. We share our luck’ (BOQ 202). The language has as much at stake here as the writer – they share their misery and destiny. 

As Waldrop rightly identifies, this is a paradoxical state: ‘the writer is at the origin of the words and yet depends on them for his own existence’ (LA 126). This sentiment can be understood in metaphysical terms, but Waldrop prefers a paradox. She reads it as a variation on the ‘genetic paradox’ (the chicken or the egg?). Here is another example from the Book of Yukel: ‘And yet I am at the origin of their [words’] existence. I am, therefore, the man who conceived the verbal being which will have a fate of its own on which, in turn, my fate as a writer depends’ (BOQ 224). For him the origin (of man, book, commentary, or chicken) is a paradox that is also the beginning of poetic thought; it is a mechanism that startles you into thinking and makes you conscious of perception – a precondition to being a poet. 

Even the critics who read Jabès’s books as negative theology, or nihilism, leave behind a connection to god by way of his rejection or refusal. It is not that Jabès’s truisms are unrelated to loss of meaning after the Holocaust, or his attempts to align religious persecution with atheism. Rather, it is that his work is not a direct representation of his exclusive personhood, and if you paid close attention, you would see there are no trapdoors back to god. Between Jabès’s experiences and his work there is a clever and astute prankster who demands the translator’s allegiance. 

Waldrop suggests a thought experiment, within the limits of the genetic paradox, to grasp the creator’s absence. Imagine you are the creator of a world so convincing that you started to believe you were a fiction, and a creation of another imagination. Then this doubt about the reality of a creator ‘posits another creator outside the work, rather, an infinite series of creators.’ The linear chain would consist of numerous gods, each more real than the previous, and the original creator would be deferred into an infinite distance. Nevertheless, there exists a powerful creator who is postulated, and connected to the work you are reading (or creating) through a series of attenuated forms. In contrast, Jabès’s doubts about the creator ‘[do] not relate to a reality (or fiction) outside the work, but to the reality of the words within it’ (LA 125). The writer writes the words that create him – there is no ‘outside’ to the book: ‘A commentary that invents its own pre-text. A creature that invents his creator. A signifier that invents its signified’ (LA 126).

There is a near-mathematical precision to Waldrop’s process: she devises a formal system in which Jabès’s statements are inferred as self-contained, consistent, and true. She does not break away from the world of the book to reach for another fiction (or reality) to rationalise the insides of the book. If, at first glance, this sounds like a tenet of New Criticism, whose proponents believed texts are autonomous and ‘closed’, that ‘everything that is needed to understand a work is present within it’, there is an obvious difference, the one between a translator and a critic. A critic has a whole vocabulary at her disposal to draft an interpretation whereas the translator is restricted to the words used by the author. In practice, there is a lot of flexibility, but even an experimental translation cannot get away from the source text. In criticism, a ‘close reading’ that does not account for history or context can be reductive, but in the translator’s hands, it obtains the opposite effect: the text is not pinned to its immediate context, the translator introduces an awareness of time’s passing. She clears the way for ‘historical, lived time’ to produce ‘new translational meanings’ (b2).

Translation cannot bypass the constraint that defines the practice: the untranslated text and its insides. This necessity precludes essentialism (or other forms of cynicism) that criticism can indulge. If the critic and the translator are both in the business of producing an image of the writer for the reader, Waldrop’s Jabès comes to us not diminished by context, but responsive to the prospect of a historicised reading. The influence of knowledge on method or action is hard to track – in translation studies as much as in sociology. But if there is a lesson to be had (for criticism), it is that translation obliges us to recognise a literary work’s implacable individuality without having to trade it for context or vice-versa. Translators have long won the ‘method wars’ (NLH).

Works Cited

Cole, Peter. ‘Making Sense in Translation: Toward an Ethics of the Art.’ In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, ed. Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Abbreviated as MST.

Dueck, Evelyn. L’étranger intime: les traductions françaises de l’œuvre de Paul Celan (1971-2010). Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014. Abbreviated as EI.

Felski, Rita. Introduction. New Literary History, Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2014. Abbreviated as NLH.

Gillespie, H Susan. The Possibility of Translation. boundary 2, Volume 48, Issue 1, February 2021. Abbreviated as b2.

Jabès, Edmond. The Book of Questions, Volume 1. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1991. Abbreviated as BOQ.

Waldrop, Rosmarie. Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002. Abbreviated as LA.

Weinberger, Eliot. Outside Stories 1987-1991. New York: New Directions, 1992. Abbreviated as OS.

Janani Ambikapathy was born and raised in Chennai. She got her Ph.D. in English at the University of Cambridge. Her essays and poems have been published in Modernism/Modernity, Modern Poetry in Translation, Lana Turner, Datableed, The Rialto, and Visual Verse, amongst others. Two of her poetry pamphlets are forthcoming from Veer Books and Materials. She is currently working on translations of Akkananuru, an anthology of classical Tamil poems from the 3rd century CE.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 18, 2022

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