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.
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 Debrays
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 ones 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!"
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 Gods 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. Mans 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 Gods 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 mans 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
seekers 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 translators 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 Bellmers or Unica Zürns 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
translators dreams is to propose to those who are unilingual
access to the vast wealth of the worlds 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 Ponges 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