#FitzcarraldoFortnight: This Little Art

Kate Briggs: This Little Art

This delightful, quirky essay about literary translation by Kate Briggs, based on her own translation of Roland Barthes’ lecture notes (but moving far, far beyond that) was the perfect book at the perfect time for me, as I myself embark upon a journey as a professional literary translator. I have stuffed it full of little post-it notes, and will probably return to it again and again. It’s the kind of book that you never really finish reading – it is designed to stimulate your thought and your passion for words, language, for finding the right word.

There are far too many ideas here for me to do them justice, but here are some of the things that most resonated with me:

  1. The translator is always demanding a suspension of disbelief from the reader – asking you to go along with the fiction that these characters are talking or thinking in English, that what you are reading is in fact the language of Barthes or Thomas Mann or anyone else.
  2. Helen Lowe-Porter was Thomas Mann’s first translator into English and at the time her translations were phenomenally successful, but she has since been criticized for making mistakes, for changing things around, misleading the readers. There is a fierce rivalry (as well as comradeship) between translators, especially when it comes to classic writers, because it is quite hard to get funding for a new translation, how hard it is to fight copyright issues and publishers’ interests – and so to see someone else do a far worse translation and thereby block your chances of doing another one for perhaps 20-30 years… But, Briggs argues, who are we to decide what makes a good or bad translation? While it should be possible to correct obvious mistakes and offer alternatives, it should be done in a spirit of improvement – because can we really be sure that we are getting better at translation over time, rather than merely following a current fashion?
  3. Translators may wish to transmit the original author’s voice as much as possible, but they will never be entirely neutral and impersonal instruments. They are always putting all of themselves – their background, experience, personality, emotions, associations – into the final work.
  4. Yet translators need to be humble – the work itself humbles them every single time. Regardless of how much experience you might have translating, you always start each fresh work from a position of not knowing. You are opening yourself up to learning, to interpreting, to being curious and honest and self-critical.
  5. A bit of a reality check: A translator’s work ‘is celebrated if and only if the work she is translating is worth celebrating; there is no celebrating her achievement from that of its original author. As a consequence of this… mediocre translators of successful books sometimes get unduly praised, while those more talented translators translating less visible works hardly get noticed at all.’
  6. Some argue that there is one perfect translator for a particular book – or at least the right translator, who can truly get under the author’s skin. (I have the tendency to believe that about myself and Mihail Sebastian and am somewhat miffed that he has already been translated into English, see point 2 above). But Kate Briggs argues that books don’t come with designated translators, they don’t have built-in protocols or rules that you have to obey for success, otherwise you will be a failure. It’s about a million different tiny choices, and the same translator might make different choices a day or two later.

I hope that gives you a flavour of the book – and yes, it does refer to Barthes a lot, but it was never Barthes himself that I objected to, merely the pretentious young men at university who were forever quoting him as scaffolding for their own hastily built, shoddy work. I’ll end with a wonderful plea for more translated work, which chimes so well with my own beliefs:

Yes… do translations, for the simple reason that we need them. We need translations, urgently: it is through translation that we are able to reach the literature written in the languages we don’t or can’t read, from the places where we don’t or can’t live, offering us the chance of understanding as well as the necessary and instructive expereince of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

David Bowie Book Club #2: James Baldwin

Baldwin and his nephew.

The February read for the David Bowie Book Club was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an essay about America’s racial divide which is sadly still all too relevant today. I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, but only fragments of his great body of essays, both personal and political, which are incontrovertibly fused in his work:

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from his experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.

The Fire Next Time is a slim volume comprising an essay Down at the Cross and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation from slavery which is only a few pages long and acts as a sort of prelude to the other essay.

It’s an amazing and unforgettable polemical read. I was instantly captivated by the blazing passion and fury of the language and the argument. It is heart-breakingly honest and would inspire anyone with ‘fire in the belly’ at the injustice of race relations. In the letter to the nephew, things are spelled out directly and still feel applicable to so many discriminated and vulnerable people within present-day society (the often unconscious white middle class privilege we hear in the media):

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity… I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’

The essay proper is a memoir of the summer when Baldwin turned fourteen and experienced a kind of religious fervour. Why religion? Baldwin is remarkably clear-eyed about using religion as a tool  (or as he calls it ‘a gimmick’) to help him move beyond his background:

I was icily determined … never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me… I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was and limit me that way… Every Negro boy… realizes that he … must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to lift him out, to start him on his way… And it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

However, it is not all plain sailing. The young boy is clearly caught up in the excitement of church, the music and drama of it, but at the same time he is puzzled at the apparent indifference of a white God to the plight of black people. He sees examples of anything but Faith, Hope and Charity, the principles he believed the Christian world was based on. He finds it absurd that people claim to love God only because they are afraid of going to Hell. He sees the paradox of church ministers becoming rich while their parishioners continue to scrub floors and put their hard-earned dimes into the collection plate. He decides there is no genuine love in the Christian church.

The boy grows up and encounters the Nation of Islam movement and Malcolm X, with their doctrine of a black God. Although he feels the anger of the black movement is justified, he finds himself equally alienated by their hatred of all things white. ‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’ This leads to a very powerful examination of what equality really means.

People are not terribly anxious to be equal… but they love the idea of being superior…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no one holds power forever.

Baldwin sets out the arguments so eloquently that it feels wrong to try and paraphrase them. It is such a brief and powerful piece that I would urge you to read it yourselves. It was previously not that easy to find, though, except in volumes of collected essays by Baldwin, but in 2017 a beautiful new edition was launched and won an award (see cover above). I will just close with a beautiful call to something one might call reconciliation:

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Baldwin’s house in St Paul de Vence, France. For more information about the state of the house now and attempts to save it, see this article.

1963 – we are now in 2018, 55 years later. Why is it still so difficult to accept that allowing someone to develop to their full capacity does not take away from any of your own potential? Why do we still have the hunter/gatherers’ mentality of scarce food resources, that if we give away some of our food we will starve? Even when what is often asked of us is not as basic as sharing food, but something like sharing the limelight? Call me naive, but I still think we should unite to save the planet and its weakest souls (animals, children, whatever) rather than fight amongst ourselves.

 

#WIT Month: How to Be Happy by Mme du Chatelet

Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.

The portrait by Latour.
The portrait by Latour.

It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]

In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…

She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.

Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…

The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.
The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.

Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:

I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…

The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).

Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.
Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.

This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.

This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.

So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.

I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.

Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.

For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.

 

My Life Isn’t Open to Revision

This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).

A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.

Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.

motorwaySo full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused.  On the left, a sign beckoned.

‘London’, it said.

‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’

The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me.  Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?

How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.

www.cyprusscene.com
Discarded snakeskin, http://www.cyprusscene.com

The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it.  It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me.  So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.

I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.

I am far from that place now.  Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.