A Wordless Coma

A Wordless Coma: The Translator—Passeur or Forger?

by Brice Matthieussent

Better still, the tweaks or shakeups at the beginning lead to others as you make your way step by step through the body of the text, which curiously appears to be without beginning or end, like a continuous curve of writing.

To talk of “the translator” is to imagine an abstract individual shielded from all the contingencies of life and devoted exclusively to an activity – translating – whose homogenous, discernible, and ultimately transparent nature is never in doubt. To talk of “the translator” is to presume that there exists an essence of the translator, a Procrustean bed on which all the individuals who practice this curious activity are melded together in a single, clearly visible effigy – a mummy, a marble or bronze statue. It presumes a Platonic idea of which all flesh-and-bone translators are pale copies, concrete applications, replicas or depreciated translations. Yet can one speak of “the horse” or “the pebble” without evoking generalities that are of little or no use, truisms such as “the horse is herbivorous” or “the pebble is hard”? Do translators (in the plural, considered in their multiplicity) submit to this pruning operation, this lowest common denominator of linguistic abstraction? Or – another non-negligible possibility – do these manifold translators exist merely as exceptions to every rule, as irreducible singularities, when it comes not just to the register of careers, which includes such highly visible and seemingly incontestable professions as engineer, architect, mason, cobbler, etc., but also to the very life trajectory that a given individual is apt to follow? For you might be an intermittent translator, not to say an inadvertent or absent-minded one; you might be the translator of a single book or a single author, or translate for a single publisher. You can make translation your principal activity, or it can be a hobby and a way to relax: there are Sunday translators, just as there are Sunday drivers and Sunday painters. Translation can be your secret garden, your greens or your dessert, your penance, your cross to bear, your stroll in the park, your scales, your workout, your fling or your fix, your prayer or your salvation, your jog, your downtime, your pleasure or your pain (unless, as often happens, the two end up blending together).

To talk of “the translator” immediately situates us in a play featuring other characters, dialogue, a plot, a dénouement. Among the cast of characters met with in this literary play, a play in which the object itself – the book – plays multiple roles (a witness, a scientific control, an indicator, a baton to be passed – in short, un témoin), we can list the author, the publisher, the accountant, the bookseller, the reader, the critic, the censor, the lawyer, the judge, etc. These roles are all played by actors, and the play exists solely through their being interpreted and embodied in a given place (the stage) and time (the duration of the performance). We consequently must agree to imagine this theatrical fiction in order to talk of “the translator”; we must assume the existence of a playwright who has assigned the roles in advance. Yet this author does not exist; no one has ever written this play that is nevertheless being performed over and over again in a discreet, at times even confidential revival, every time a publishing contract is signed and a translator sets to work.

In other words, there are only isolated occurrences of this function, in the mathematical sense of the term. One begins with a set of linguistic elements, known as the “set of departure,” which one subjects to a certain transformation in order to arrive at a set of transformed elements known as the “set of destination”: y=f(x). Every x belongs to set X, the set of departure that is the source text. Every y belongs to set Y, the set of destination that is the translated text. f is the function of translation. Yet here, too, by overgeneralizing – and math is a prime example of Platonic abstraction – we lose sight of the specificity of each application of this function. In fact, we could go so far as to say that there are as many f functions as there are works translated; better (or worse) still, within the translation of a single literary work, there are as many f functions as there are isolated and concrete occurrences of the operation of translation. At every moment in my work, a function distinct from the previous and subsequent ones is underway. In those moments there exist countless micro-operations, which I have no reason to believe possess a common denominator, either for me or for the set of all translators. We consequently end up with a balkanization, the widespread breakup of an act that has definitively lost any identity, any permanence over time. I’ll willingly defend this rather provocative balkanization, and in the same breath, with all the behind-the-scenes discretion of an actor alone in his dressing room, I’ll defend Heraclitus and Nietzsche against Plato, the tangible and ever-surprising twists and turns of life against abstract essence and a petrified, unalterable definition.

To talk of “the translator” is to behave as though he were a character in a play. I will therefore begin by mentioning other characters who play other roles, real or imaginary, starting with the passeur.

In Venice, to this very day, traghetto refers to a kind of rudimentary shuttle that goes back and forth between the banks of the Grand Canal. It’s a black gondola that, slowly and for a meager fee (I’m not sure exactly how much – it may vary from one passeur to another, or according to the time of day), transports a human cargo, a fixed unit of homo erectus uniformly transposed from the edge of the canal to the opposite shore. This ephemeral human merchandise passes before everyone’s eyes like an unending spectacle, a silent and strangely petrified mass in the black gondola of the passeur, who plunges his pole into the muddy water and the sludge.

A passeur is also a local, an indigène, who smuggles a group of men, women, and children from one country to another, flouting the official procedures of legal immigration. He is an outlaw, a man of networks and connections, but also a practical man, a rover whose ignorance or disdain for law combines with an ancestral savoir-faire, a longstanding knowledge of shortcuts, landscapes and seasons, heavenly signs and their meanings. He knows how to read and interpret signs. He is at once soothsayer and rambler, a fox with the cunning to avoid pitfalls, to improvise at the drop of a hat and double-cross all the agents of the law. A trickster, in short, a Robin Hood figure. But he has his dark side, too: the dishonest passeur, the profiteering conman and frequent criminal: the one on the route from West Africa to Europe, for example, who brings his unwitting passengers back to the start, where they are promptly fleeced by his accomplices. Or – another figure of the corrupt passeur – the one known in Mexico as the coyote, who robs Mexicans desperately seeking to enter the US and abandons them in the middle of the desert.

And then there was the passeur who in September 1940 guided through the Pyrenees a certain Walter Benjamin, a German Jew intent on fleeing occupied France to reach Spain, and from there, no doubt, like so many others, the United States, a haven for countless artists and intellectuals hounded by the Nazis. We know the rest: the passeur’s real or feigned betrayal, Benjamin’s despair, his terror of being handed over to the Spanish police, the ring with the poison tablets, the suicide in the mountains. This was the very same Walter Benjamin who had written a crucial text about translation, “The Task of the Translator.”

The passeur is also Charon, the macabre bargeman of myth, who ferries the deceased across the river Acheron in the underworld so that his late cargo may enter the kingdom of the dead.

The gondola, the trek that may or may not end where it’s supposed to, the funerary boat: it’s always a matter of crossing a critical and indistinct space, one that is largely or wholly unfamiliar and often perilous, whether it be the waters of a dark river or a wasted or chaotic landscape. It’s about losing one’s footing before reaching firm ground, trusting an intercessor, hoping to avoid aimless wandering and utter disorientation – the fate of Gerry, in other words, who ventures into the desert despite himself before dying of thirst and exhaustion at the end of Gus Van Sant’s eponymous film.

Another human cargo in great peril: the castaways of Stephen Crane’s story The Open Boat. Together in a dingey on the raging sea, at the mercy of the elements and doomed to almost certain death, these men embody a situation diametrically opposed to that of the Venetians who take the traghetto. Their “passage” is sure to culminate in a second shipwreck, this one definitive. The figure of shipwreck as unfinished, aborted “passage” can likewise be found in a painting by Winslow Homer, Lost on the Grand Banks (1885), in which two men in a flimsy skiff adrift in a tempest are on the verge of sinking.

In each case, people are being transported from shore to shore, from one country to another. The travelers must be kept intact, just like packages or fragile goods that are not to be damaged. The three aforementioned figures of passeur and passage are allegories, more or less exact and suggestive parables of the movement of meaning between languages. This leads to a series of questions: can meaning be carried intact from one culture to another? Can it be imported en bloc? Can we really compare translation to the transfer effected by the Venetian gondolier who, in exchange for payment, conveys his crew of human passengers across the muddy waters of the canal, and who is tacitly bound to deposit them on the opposite bank exactly as they were

Well, why not, after all? This well-known conception of a transfer that leaves nothing behind is precisely the one that makes the translator out to be a passeur. In this scenario, the translator is a handler, an import-export specialist, a transporter of artworks listed on the register of commerce and guaranteeing no damage to the merchandise during the transit from one place (one language) to another. People transport the Mona Lisa from the Louvre to Tokyo, American artworks from the MoMA to the Centre Georges Pompidou, and pieces by Malevich from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg all the way to France, so why not do the same – in other words, without losing anything – when transporting texts from a foreign language and translating them into French? For that matter, the bilingual dictionary adds grist to the mill of this particular thesis: it teaches us, foolishly, that each word of the source language has its equivalent in the target language. According to this reassuring universalist conception of the relationship between languages, the English bread is identical to the French pain, the German Brot, etc. The object, the real thing, consequently preexists the word that designates it, and that word is a simple wrapping that may change color or texture depending on the usages and customs of the country in question, but it is never more than a wrapping, an afterthought, an accessory. Here we come face-to-face with a myth, a fiction, doubtless stemming from the Age of Enlightenment and a conception of all-powerful Reason: the myth, the fiction, of a generalized equivalence among all languages, which are thought to cast their intangible, immaterial veil over an immutable reality that precedes the linguistic faculty. Yet thanks to the likes of Saussure, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss, we know that far from being an object’s wrapping, supplement, or annex, the word instead constitutes it as an object of perception and thought: it is what allows the object to be perceived and apprehended by the conscious mind. Without a word, there is no object. Hence, among the Inuit peoples of the Far North, there exist around 200 words designating what in French we know by the single name of neige (snow), varying according to temperature, consistency, density, freshness, and other subtle parameters of which the non-Inuit is wholly unaware. And, of course, contrary to what the dictionaries would have us believe, bread is not pain any more than it is Brot. We can generalize these observations, for they are not exceptions, but paradigms of a divergence that bilingual dictionaries prefer to downplay.

There is thus no equivalence between languages, no United Nations of meaning or culture. To deny this would be to fall for an outdated idealism’s sleight of hand. The universals dreamt of by the Enlightenment shattered upon contact with what we call the social sciences. And the translator-gondolier of the traghetto sees his passengers undergo a metamorphosis before his horror-stricken eyes; identities crumble in transit, Charon’s dead souls are resuscitated and come back as snakes, bats, horses and peacocks; it’s a zoo where the animals escape their enclosures and wander freely along the paths, a world turned upside down. Nothing passes muster and no one gets past, not even by trying to barge through. The identity of meaning across cultures, what we might call the free exchange between languages and which Benjamin calls “communication,” is a totalitarian fiction invented in order to territorialize affects, to pin them down once and for all by indexing them to our language, literally to petrify them, despite the violence that literature exerts on language.

The translator is therefore not a passeur, unless his transit passes over a dark abyss, charting the muddy waters in a sort of tiny but unending coma, while an impossible plot is hatched in secret, unbeknownst to all including the translator himself, leading everyone – even the translator! – to believe that bread is pain and that any of the 200 Inuit terms will quietly become neige without even putting up a fight. It is by means of this subterfuge, this conjuring away of the abyss, the coma, and the mud, that the trick is performed: what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.

By closing one’s eyes to this muddle that is constitutive of the translator’s activity, one can maintain and strengthen the received notion that the translator is a passeur. I repeat: the ostensibly inert object that he is supposed to pass (just as you make a pass in soccer or rugby, hoping the ball doesn’t turn into a hornet’s nest or a scoop of ice cream, though that doesn’t even cross your mind), this linguistic object that is the very material of translation, far from remaining identical to itself, is constantly metamorphosing and mutating. All bilingual dictionaries lie, or at least reinforce the imposture that is the myth of communication and transparency.

Every translation, every traversal across languages, no matter how precise, rigorous, “faithful,” “literal,” etc., is a trick, a replicant like the ones in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a duplicated organism, absolutely not a clone (a double who is perfectly identical to the original), but a new production elsewhere of the literary play, with different stage directions, a different troupe of actors, a fundamentally new set.

In the literary translation of a fictional work, beyond the text’s informative, documentary aspect which we might call its studium, there exists a vast and essential remainder. We’ll call this remainder the grain of the text and the language, the style of the author and the style of the language, the teneur according to Benjamin and Barthes, almost entirely untranslatable.

Any fictional text is, by nature, untransportable: too many crucial things disappear into the bottomless abyss that separates languages, the murky waters of that divide that is unnamable, unexplored, and doubtless unknowable, for by definition it is the vertiginous site of the absence of words, the empty space between languages. Rather than mobilize Mallarmé and messianism in order to posit, along with Walter Benjamin, the horizon of a “pure language” where languages converge and to which the act of translation points, I prefer to insist on this hiatus, to point to this void unmarked by any constellation of words. Only the translator, I think, grasps this strange place where, for an instant that is endlessly repeated in the back-and-forth between languages, for the duration of that leap over the void (which is not a “leap into the void”), there occurs what I will call a “wordless coma.”

The famous schema of linguistic communication formulated by Roman Jakobson undoubtedly remains valid for unequivocal texts (but do such things exist?) that tend towards pure information, an unadulterated studium, but certainly not for fictional texts, and even less so for poetry. The images of a bottomless abyss, a wordless coma, tiny yet without end, or of murky waters, though they are all somewhat romantic, seem to me more fitting.

So everything breaks: the crates slide around from side to side, striking the iron hull and crashing into each other as the ship moves away from port toward its destination across the raging ocean. And in the hold, other crates suddenly swell and explode without warning, spilling large chunks of material; others begin to smoke, fermenting or catching fire. The chaos is monstrous: it’s a shambles, a cacophony, a veritable Tower of Babel. Far from seeing languages converge on a reassuring horizon or towards a “pure language,” the translator watches them diverge with every second, the void widening beneath his feet. The bilingual dictionary is a reasonable guardrail that shields him from such a vision: keep translating, it whispers, don’t worry, there’s nothing to see, no abyss, no monster, there isn’t any metamorphosis to block the shining route along which I’m guiding you… Somehow one has to keep moving forward despite the mayhem, passing and barging one’s way through, clearing a passage, in order to bring back something of this cargo that is undergoing unprecedented entropy, to preserve some cloudy punctum, an intonation, the shape of a phrase.

Everything is opaque, we are navigating on sight with no radar or automatic translation tool, only the oars of experience and intuition, like the castaways of The Open Boat or Lost on the Grand Banks, hoping against hope to bring the studium into port fully intact and to save something of the punctum

So. If the translator only conveys a sliver of meaning from the text’s initial conception, ought he to revise his ambition downwards and adopt a forced humility, denouncing the illusion of generalized equivalence while admitting himself beaten in advance, even as he is under an “obligation to achieve results”? In short, by lucidly and modestly acknowledging the imposture and impossibility of translation, should he label himself a forger?

To be sure, like the forger, he works in the shadows. For that matter, people are always telling him he is a “man behind the curtain.” Yet over the past few decades, the translator’s role has gradually been gaining recognition, in a juridical sense – he is the legal owner of his text – as well as a literary and symbolic one. And this, despite tenacious and often unavowed resistance, about which I’ll offer a passing comparison: if the author is the book’s mommy, if the work is her little angel, then the publisher is presumably the little sprout’s elated daddy. Where does the translator fit in this precious triangle that has been hermetically sealed against all intruders? Who is this drip, this stray dog, this brigand whose rather sleazy and barely intelligible activities are threatening to break up the happy triangle and disturb the euphoric miracle of birth? It seems we ought to ask if he’s mommy’s (the author’s) lover who is busy making his own baby (the translated text) behind daddy’s (the publisher’s) back. This is an inadmissible scenario for the publisher, who still today is too often gripped by a sole desire, one he is afraid to admit even to himself: to send the intolerable intruder back underground, back to his schemes, his private hell, his putrid abyss, his dark cellar crawling with the materiality of languages that can’t be stacked on top of one another but that remain separated by a gulf.

Nonetheless, the translator is visible – slightly. As such, he doesn’t quite resemble the lover in boulevard theater, who also has to deceive those around him but must do so in strictest secret (apart from the audience ostensibly amused by his antics). And nor does the translator truly resemble the forger, who by definition is bound to absolute invisibility: if you’re a famous forger, you’re either in prison or on the run, and condemned to inactivity either way.

Well, then? Neither passeur nor forger, the translator, according to Yves Bonnefoy, is “the absolute reader.” The man who knows how to read, not between the lines, but in the lines and along with the other lines, those of the book and the author he is translating, but also those of the other authors who come within the orbit of the work he is translating. That said, he is also someone who writes and publishes texts, not under his sole name, but under the heady baroque flourish of a double signature.

We know that the geometrical figure of the ellipsis, with its two foci, constituted a major astronomical scandal that led to the birth of baroque aesthetics. The classical age had been wholly content with the simpler and more reassuring figure of the circle, with its immovable royal center. The translator thus belongs to the baroque age: the text’s trajectory is tied to two poles or foci, to which it is linked by a variable equation of infinite parameters that at any moment is responding to the question: Where is this text coming from? Who is the author? Who is generating it?

The source text is not only read (“absolutely” read, as Yves Bonnefoy puts it), it is then rewritten, reedited, reconstituted according to the fluctuating modalities of the ellipse’s outline. It is a closed curve whose beginning and end meet: you have to have finished the translation of a fiction in order to put the finishing touches on the first page, so that that page can belong fully to the target language. Better still, the tweaks or shakeups at the beginning lead to others as you make your way step by step through the body of the text, which curiously appears to be without beginning or end, like a continuous curve of writing. The translator continues to make his laps, mending the tissue of the text here and there, endlessly trimming and sewing it with a view to presenting it at last, throwing in the towel and arbitrarily declaring the work finished – good as new.

The translator is the gardener who, in order to define the boundaries of his flowerbed, ties a string to two stakes, stretches it out, and traces with a third stake the various positions at the top of the ever-shifting triangle. That outline, that continuous trace, that style, is the geometrical site of all the points thus defined, the regular sliding of the string along the third stake: an artisanal and sometimes jerky operation punctuated by accidents and interruptions, fits and starts, an operation devised through cunning and stemming from a savoir-faire acquired in order to meet a seemingly impossible challenge: tracing that unorthodox curve.

Translated by Samuel E. Martin & Erik Beranek

This essay originally appeared in French in the journal Hippocampe, Issue 14, Summer 2017, pp. 154-159. Many thanks to Brice Matthieussent and Gwilherm Perthuis for their kind permission to publish this English translation.

Brice Matthieussent is the award-winning translator of over 200 novels from English to French, including works by Annie Dillard, Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Denis Johnson, and many others. He was awarded the 2013 Jules Janin Prize by the Académie Française. His novel Revenge of the Translator was published by Deep Vellum in 2018 in a translation by Emma Ramadan.

English translation originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 4, 2023

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