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We have been told over and over again at conferences, in articles and works of erudition that translation and treason are commercial twins in Respublicitatis. No wonder this etymological twinning has succeeded in boring us to death, especially for those of us who have listened attentively to the perpetual recuperation of the layers of the past in language. What I say is not meant to encourage another burning of the library at Alexandria; rather, it is to allow words, as they are now taken, as Saussure had it in his DADA days in Geneva, to be expressive of thought and the accompanying music of phonemes.

The function of metaphor here becomes acutely significant: the "betrayal" of the translator, once thought to be negative, has, in an odd Engelian twist, taken on positive values. It appears that betrayal is a game we play as translators as if the semantics of it all did not contain what literature itself as well as commerce and espionage have denied us all along. Thus in a Régis Debray’s mediological perspective, one could say that Calvin Klein betrayed the canonic rules of advertisement when he so indelicately portrayed a group of decadent adolescents on the sides of Broadway buses. Or that, in the Song of Roland, Ganelon had not been properly rewarded for his deed; or again, that a certain Mr. Ames, working for the CIA, but also for the Soviets, had not, imperatively, sacrificed the lives of innumerable agents by doubling his income. The results of doubling one’s duties and affections lead directly to one of the select circles in Hell.

Let me go back historically to the beginning of the beginning to see to what extent this play with metaphor leads to a contemporary reflection on textuality and its specificity, or, in fact, irreducibility: "Yes, Virginia, the ‘original does indeed exist!"

"In the beginning was the word…" So saith the King James version and certainly not the French, which plays on logos. But in the vicinity there appears a Mallarméan tribe or clan with other thoughts on the matter. In our mythic constructs, we have always considered the Tower of Babel as a sign of untoward arrogance, in fact, a disputatious act of such pith that God himself not only struck the tower down but eternally punished that clan by multiplying the communication codes to such an extent that henceforth men would no longer be able to understand each other. This mytheme seems to me to be in need of corrective surgery. In my interpretation, something totally antithetical occurred at that moment: that is, as the Bible indicates, the bricks that were used, I suppose, were books (and here I play, innocently enough, perhaps with a touch of naïveté, with the indisputable alliterative and non-translatable function of langue versus langage, that is, with the literality of the text…)

What are we told about this clan apparently wishing to rival God’s creation? Well, that they could indeed communicate, but that their words were poor. An utilitarian order reigned, thereby forbidding those men from developing a … literature. The original punishment was an apparent universal interdict. Man’s fate, as the Bible records it, is, however paradoxical it may appear, to bestow on himself and on his descendents the greatest gift that was ever invented: the multiplication of literary texts. And thus from Babel to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Biblos becomes the true threat to God’s hegemony.

In this Edenic library, there is one serpent we can name quite quickly: the translator, for he or she is simultaneously able to go in the direction of "right" conduct or, like the worm, eat the word from inside without anyone knowing it, at least not upon first reading. Treason in translation I would suggest is man’s supreme self-mutilation since it prohibits his kind from enriching itself through the transference of texts otherwise remaining illegible.

I have indicated above that there is truly a "way" of translation, a seeker’s guide to perfection, and that is, an ethical stance. I find this explicitly defined by Cicero who accords oratory with philosophical knowledge and thereby connects two otherwise distinct entities. This connection is a moral one, and I would take up yet another metaphor of his as a substitute for translation/treason by noting his view of harmony, or even more specifically, the harmony of the spheres, because it appears to be the absolute case here in discussing the trans/ference or the passage concept. As translators, we move from one sphere to another, passing as we do through time and space, that is, the connection between language and culture, as Henri Meschonnic points out.

What do I mean when 1) I introduce an ethical stance in the act of translation, and through a musical metaphor, that of harmony itself, and 2) indicate the dual affiliation we entertain with the text, semantical and homophonic? In the first, instance, the recognition that, as Walter Benjamin noted, when we translate we provide a second life to the text; not the first! The original is there to prod our imagination, to induce us to listen to its music, to familiarize ourselves with all its complex significations, its ordered and closed system of signs. We look upon the original as did St. Jerome so long ago in his defense of the translator’s fidelity/autonomy when he declared that the spirit of the letter had to be seized rather than its materiality. I partially disagree with the eviction of the material but … the parallel between the impartial designs of the Roman empire and the need to render a foreign text into a semblance of a culturally adapted object here rules with the authority of taste. Nevertheless, within the spirit (especially for one who has translated the Bible), there are definitions, confines, parameters and these dictate their own future.

But the translator is bound by an ethical commitment (a Kantian imperative, one might say); he or she is not gagged. Poetry, happily, complicates this question of transmissibility via an ethical stand for, in this particular domain, the pleasures of the text are partially regulated by a somatic reaction. We "feel" the correctness of our choices and, as a consequence, when we render the original into our native tongue, with alacrity, we justify such "liberties" corporally. As a result, a jouissance elastic clause is introduced via the "making new" of the original, which is an aesthetic mediation of the categorical imperative. Pascal would have condemned this ethical laxness as a Jesuitical turn of reasoning, but I shall maintain that, in the Republic of Letters, this is the one rule one has to follow, otherwise the line of ages will show up on the face of the new text. This is so in the translation of anagrams. I take as my examples Hans Bellmer’s or Unica Zürn’s or again, the anagrams of Michelle Grangaud, a contemporary Oulipo poet living in Paris. To do such poems justice, one has to infiltrate them (spies in the house of love, to recall Anaïs Nin . . .) and regenerate them, within a similar system. When Cicero spoke of the "whole Man," he may have, inadvertently, proposed a theory of translation applicable not only to anagrams, but to the re-foundation of a text in a "foreign" language/culture.

If one of the translator’s dreams is to propose to those who are unilingual access to the vast wealth of the world’s shelves, then in order to facilitate this metempsychosis, the always penultimate version shall entertain the thought of resuscitation in keeping with the ambivalences of new markings.

In my title I mentioned the word theory and, in conclusion, I would like to remember Francis Ponge’s playful adherence to etymology, since theory, the way he used it, meant a single file of individuals, a procession, which is precisely what I see as the true nature of the act of translation: a continuum, a tradition, so to speak, in modern terms, which agrees with the anterior text (though not claiming the original as the master text), and assures its procession into another world, so that those who dared to begin to construct the Tower of Babel would, ultimately, be able to reaffirm their transgression.