From Desnos to English via Uqbarian Literature

Tlönslation is a method drawn from Jorge Luis Borge’s description of the language of the Tlönians found in his short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940). In this classic tale, “Borges” comes across certain details about the Tlönians in the eleventh volume of an encyclopedia dedicated to Tlön, including some brief comments on their language. The philosophical systems of the Tlönians described therein are derived from Borges’ own interest in Berkeleyan subjective idealism and the later writings of Fritz Mauthner. Since for the Tlönians, nothing exists outside of perception (meaning there are no “objects,” but only what our human senses perceive), the language of the Tlönians contains no nouns.

From this initial point, the language of Tlön breaks into two parts: in the Northern Hemisphere, instead of nouns, they describe perceptions with the help of adjectival clusters – the qualities of that which is perceived are what differentiate them. In the Southern hemisphere, what is instead fueling the language is transition and flux: rather than adjectival clusters, impersonal verbs and verbal derivations exemplify this mutability.

In Tlönslation, these systems are brought to bear on the translation project at hand. This process by its very nature exerts a violence upon the target language. While it shares elements of definitional literature, a tool we are quite familiar with, it is also akin to « tiers texte » writing, in that it brings a third linguistic system into what is usually a two-system operation. This third-party system could be as simple (or complex) as translating from French to English but observing rules of German syntax; in this case, the third party just happens to be a rather cursory description of an invented, mythical language.
The violence exists solely because of the differences between systems. Generally, when we go from a source language to a target language, the challenge is to stay as true as possible to the source text within the system of the target language. There lies the twist with Tlönslation; the rules of the source language cannot be fully satisfied, as certain invasive proscriptions from the third language interfere.

The results, of course, will differ depending on the three systems at play: those of the source language, the target language, and the interfering system of Tlönian. In French to English tlönslation, I found that the process of replacing the nouns with adjectival clusters and verbal derivations was simple enough in isolation; it was when I went to do so within a larger English syntax that it became quite challenging. It became clear that pronouns and articles were necessary to stop one cluster from melting into the next, and a careful choice of adjective or verb was needed to avoid ambiguous choices that could land in multiple grammatical categories. Of course, all of this led to a fascinating but terribly nerdy conversation among the Outranspians based on the question “What is a noun?” – a question that should never be approached first thing in the morning, nor without a drink in hand.

In the end, I took solace in three things. The first I came across in an Ohio State University article on substantive adjectives, which contained the following statement: “There is, however, one exception to this practice of always meaning ‘people’ when we use a substantive adjective: certain qualities are designated by a substantive adjective which implies a neuter noun or essence.” (see source here) I think that’s what we’re getting at here: if “objects” don’t exist for the Tlönians, it is this “essence” that the senses are interacting with – the essence is both the group of qualities we perceive (adjectival cluster) and the flux and mutability of time we bear witness to (verbal derivations) – our ability to differentiate and the change of this differentiation over time.

Secondly, there is the idea that one of the greatest strengths of translation is its ability to stretch and transform a target language, to offer new possibilities, whether through “deviant” syntax, lexical incursions or uncommon stylistic methods. Proportionately, with tlönslation we’re just stretching a little further and tugging a little harder.

Finally, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. The results of a careful Tlönslation, which seem to improve a bit each time I work at it, are really quite lovely. They don’t read like anything I’ve come across in English, and I suppose that given the filter the original piece has passed through, that is only to be expected. On the whole, I believe it is a wonderful example of the cross-boundaried creative intentions of the Outranspo.

Chris Clarke
August 2016




Original text:

La Caverne (Robert Desnos, from Contrée, Gallimard 2013 [1942-1943])

Voici dans les rochers l’accès du corridor
Il descend, dans la nuit, au cœur de la planète
Le bruit du monde ici se dissout et s’endort
À son seuil le soleil et la lune s’arrêtent

Eurydice est passée par là, voici son pied
Dans la terre marqué mais la piste se brise
La phrase s’interrompt, le serment est délié,
Le cavalier se cabre et se fixe à la frise.

Ces autres pas qui vont ailleurs sont ceux d’Orphée,
L’éclipse est terminée et le ciel resplendit
En nous rendant notre ombre et sa maison hantée

Loin, derrière un fourré d’épines et de roses
La ménade s’endort dans le bois interdit.
Un nuage est au ciel comme une fleur éclose.

Chris Clarke

Chris Clarke was raised in Western Canada, and currently lives in Princeton, NJ.  His translations include work by Raymond Queneau (New Directions), Patrick Modiano (NYRB Classics), and Pierre Mac Orlan (Wakefield Press, forthcoming), among others. His recent Outranspo-related projects include organizing a many-handed translation of an excerpt from Queneau’s “Les Fleurs Bleues” that passes from Italo Calvino’s Italian translation through those of 37 other translators via 6 languages, as well as a collaborative translation of a simultaneous 5-act play by Olivier Salon & Jacques Jouet (w/Emma Ramadan). He was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant in 2016 for his translation of Marcel Schwob’s “Imaginary Lives” (forthcoming, Wakefield Press).