Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style
This all begins in private, with Gustave Flaubert's correspondence.
On 24 April 1852, Gustave Flaubert – an unpublished novelist, who had abandoned one novel, and recently begun another – wrote a hopeful letter to his mistress, Louise Colet.
'I've imagined a style for myself,' he told her, 'a beautiful style that someone will write some day, in ten years' time maybe, or in ten centuries. It will be as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science, with the booming rise and fall of a cello and plumes of fire'. And five years later, on 12 December 1857, after his first novel, Madame Bovary, had finally been published, Flaubert was writing to a fan, whose name was Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, and still saying roughly the same thing: 'You say that I pay too much attention to form. Alas! it is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don't know what either is without the other.'
Ever since Gustave Flaubert finally published his first novel, some novels have been explicitly as well written as poetry; they have shown the same care as poetry for style, and form. Every word in these novels has the same weight and poise as a word in a poem. And this is not without its problems.
The novel is an international art form. As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry, therefore, as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one. Or, as Milan Kundera wrote in the introduction to the fourth, but still only penultimate, English-language translation of his first novel, The Joke: 'Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art.'
This book – which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters – is about the art of the novel. It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.
Warsaw, 1937: Witold Gombrowicz Writes a Review
In 1937, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote a piece for a Warsaw magazine – Kurier Poranny – on the French translation of James Joyce's novel, Ulysses. Sorrowfully, he did not think that Ulysses was really translatable. Meditating wistfully on the happier position of the English-speaking reader, he offered his own paradoxical and contrasting position, that while the 'perfection and power of this complex style' made it obvious how good – even in translation – Ulysses was, the dual language gap still prevented 'more intimate contact'. And Gombrowicz ended his piece with an irritable flourish: 'It is annoying to know that somewhere over there, abroad, a previously unknown method of feeling, of thinking and of writing has been born whose existence renders our methods completely anachronistic, and to tell oneself that only purely technical obstacles prevent us from having a deep knowledge of so many new inventions.'
Ulysses had made Polish novelists outdated: Gombrowicz could see that: but in French, his second language, he could not precisely see how. The technical details, he argued, escaped him.
But I am not sure that this is true. If style were purely a matter of technique – if form and content, as Flaubert sometimes thought, were the same thing – then perhaps Gombrowicz might be right. But style is not purely a matter of technique, which is why translation is still possible.
That is the subject of this book.
Often, I wonder if the idea of the untranslatable is really hiding a secret wish for translation to be a perfect fit, and this wish conceals a corresponding wish for style to be absolute. Whereas there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles. Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.
Like the example of Witold Gombrowicz himself.
About ten years later, Gombrowicz would be in exile – from the Nazis, and then the Communists – in Buenos Aires. In 1945, his friend Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti gave him an allowance to translate his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish. Ferdydurke, which had come out in 1937, the same year as his essay on Ulysses, had made him famous in Poland. This translation eventually became the preserve of a dedicated group, led by the Cuban novelist Virgilio Piñera and the Cuban writer Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, as well as Gombrowicz, over eighteen months. The translation took place during sessions in the chess room on the second floor of the Café Rex, Gombrowicz's favourite café in Buenos Aires. According to one of his early collaborators, Adolfo de Obieta, the translation was therefore inherently amusing: it was charmingly amateur – 'transposing from Polish into Spanish the book of a Polish author who barely knew Spanish, assisted by five or six Latino-Americans who scarcely knew two words of Polish'.
No Polish-Spanish dictionary existed at the time. 'It was an experimental translation in macaronic Spanish,' recalled Tomeu. 'At that time, he already knew some Spanish. Later, he spoke it well but always with a very strong accent. We therefore discussed each sentence under every one of its aspects: choice of words, their euphony, their cadence and their rhythm. Witold's observations were always pertinent.' The translation came out in April 1947, accompanied by a defensive note from Piñera, who worried that the unwarned Spanish reader might impute the language's oddness to a lack of competence on the part of the translators. No no, he argued. It was all a matter of Gombrowicz's new and different manner of envisaging language in the original Polish. (Which Piñera, of course, could not read.)
But he did not convince the public: Ferdydurke was not a success. It bemused its new Latin-American public.
The history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form – and also a history of errors, a history of waste.
Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Léon's Living Room
While Witold Gombrowicz, in Warsaw, was fretting at the French translation of Ulysses, James Joyce was making things even harder. In Paris, Joyce was completing the novel which was being serialised in the small magazine transition as Work in Progress, but which would finally be called Finnegans Wake. Famously, this novel is hardly even written in English: itself a description of a dream, Joyce wanted the English of his novel to mimic, in its language, the operations of a dream. Just as the images in dreams are dense with over-determination, so the language in Finnegans Wake, therefore, Joyce hoped, was unstable, impacted, polyglot. So that the reader of its first instalment would have been unpleasantly surprised to discover a style that made puns with more than one language, and had a sentence like this: 'What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods!'
Maybe, with Finnegans Wake, Joyce had reached a point of stylistic density which could not survive any transition to another language – a realm of pure poetry, a nonsense style. Perhaps Gombrowicz was right. Maybe translation was finally impossible.
But maybe not.
In 1930, Joyce agreed to supervise a translation into French of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Work in Progress: the translation had been begun by Samuel Beckett and his French friend Alfred Péron. Beckett, however, had gone back to Ireland after completing a first version of the opening pages. His work was then revised by a group of Joyce's friends: Eugene Jolas, the editor of transition; Ivan Goll, a poet; and Paul Léon.
Léon (whose wife, Lucie, was a family friend of Vladimir Nabokov) was a Russian émigré, who had left Russia in 1918: he had first gone to London, and then, in 1921, had arrived in Paris. He was a lawyer by training, and literary in his tastes. He soon became a kind of secretary to Joyce.
At the end of November 1930, after the first draft of the French translation had been completed, the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault was instructed to meet Joyce and Léon in Léon's flat. At Léon's round table, they would sit for three hours, starting at 2.30 every Thursday, and go through the translation.
(And I hope that the Léons kept this table for a while, because then it would be the same table at which, eight years later, in 1938, Nabokov would sit with Lucie – as she helped him with the English of his first novel written directly in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.)
Joyce smoked in an armchair; Léon read the English text and Soupault read the French, at the same time, breaking off to consider any problems. After fifteen of these meetings, they reached a final draft. This was sent to Jolas and Adrienne Monnier – Joyce's friend, who had published the French translation of Ulysses – who suggested further changes. The finished translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 May 1931.
There is no need to understand French to hear how talented this translation was. A lack of French is fine. Joyce shocked everyone with his care for sound over sense. In its new language, he was more concerned to preserve the form than the content.
Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep
Can't hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can't hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won't moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia's daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Tellmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep, this time in French
N'entend pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chance, trotinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n'est past rentré? Quel père André? N'entend pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de, Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombre faucons écoutent l'ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, Nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant riviérantes ondes de, courtecourantes ondes de. Nuit.
Occasionally, the sense, and its connotations, has to alter. But this is so that the rhythm of the words, the sentences' musicality, can still remain. The style, even of this work in progress, is still there.
Yes, the history of the novel is a history of an elaborate but international art form.
Paris, 1929: Samuel Beckett Writes an Essay
And it is also a history of waste.
The first mistake in this book was Witold Gombrowicz's. The next, related mistake was made by Samuel Beckett.
As he was writing Work in Progress, Joyce decided that a campaign might be necessary in order for his impossible novel to receive the criticism and reception it deserved. Or any reception at all. A group of his friends and fans in Paris therefore wrote a small, if dense, book of essays – Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress – which was published in 1929, ten years before Finnegans Wake finally came out.
In his contribution to this book, Samuel Beckett – who was fluent in both French and English – wanted to show how Work in Progress was, contrary to popular opinion, not difficult to read at all. Beckett's idea was that the bourgeois, unintelligent reader was probably baffled by the novel's reinvention of the twin relations between language and reality, and between content and form. Normally, according to Beckett, in conventional novels, the form and the content were different things – but in Joyce's Finnegans Wake, he argued, his prose tetchy with italics, 'form is content, content is form'. And so he came up with this catchy conclusion: 'His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.'
But Beckett's conclusion is not just catchy: it is also impossible.
A sign is not the same as the thing it represents. Because this is the case, it is possible to create more and more precise signs – since the gap between the sign and real life is infinite. And this is why there are values in literature – marking the moments when novelists working in the art of the novel invent more precise styles. Often, it is true, the more precise a style, the more form and content are inter-related. But this intertwining of form and content does not entail that a style is so precise in its relation to real life as to be the thing it is describing. All novels, after all, are smaller than real life. They are all miniaturisations. They are never real life itself. Real life is always elsewhere.
And this is why translation is always still possible. The style of a novel, and a novelist, is a set of instructions, a project: it is never able to create an entirely unique, irreplaceable object.
The novel – this art of the precise, the authorial, the deliberate – is also an art of repetition, of reproduction.
That is why I prefer the hopefulness of less programmatic, more carefree experimentalists than Samuel Beckett.
In 1930, the Czech writer Adolf Hoffmeister came to see Joyce in Paris. He wanted permission to translate Anna Livia Plurabelle into Czech. And just as Joyce had preferred a translation of sound over sense in French, he advised Hoffmeister to do the same thing in another new language: 'poeticise it with the greatest poetic freedom that you can give it.' The crucial thing was to re- create the dazzling effect: 'Create a language for your country according to my image. Viktor Llona in transition posited the thesis: language can be made by a writer. In this case, also by the translator.'
A translator, like a novelist, needs to have not just a talent for languages. A translator also needs talent.
All styles are systems of operations on a language for the contrivance of effects: they are like machines. And these stylish machines are therefore also portable. Machines, after all – like cars, or typewriters – can be imported anywhere.
St Petersburg & Rome, 1842: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
The hero of Nikolai Gogol's story (or novella, or short novel) called Coat – which Gogol wrote in Russian, while living in Rome – is called Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin.
This name – this name! – requires translation. This name must always be sadly remembered, whenever a reader becomes hopeful that translation is happily possible.
In Gogol's Coat, Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin's mother is presented with various suites of names for her newborn baby, all of which she rejects. These names form a crescendo, an accelerando. At first, the three names are Mokky, Sossy and Khozdazat. Then she is offered Triphily, Dula and Varakhassy. But she rejects these as well. When she is finally offered Pavsikakhy and Vakhtisy she, understandably, snaps, and decides to simplify. So she gives the baby his father's name – Akaky, thus becoming Akaky Akakievich – Akaky, son of Akaky.
If these lists are compared with the lists in Gogol's drafts for this story, then the precision of Gogol's comic sound-effects can be heard more clearly, in surround sound. The first trio (Yevvul, Mokky and Tevlogy) and the second trio (Varakhasy, Dula and Trephily) were not so different. But the final duo, in the draft, was Pavsikakhy and Frumenty. And Frumenty is much less funny than Vakhtisy – it does not have the musical repetition, the ugly clash of consonants, which Gogol invented in his final draft of Pavsikakhy and Vakhtisy: it is much too normal, and various.
Gogol put a lot of care into his hero's names. And Akaky's name, the most ordinary thing in this story, is untranslatable, because it is the root of so many jokes in the Russian, which are not jokes in any other language.
The story of Coat is all about the most ordinary of characters, an office-worker, a copyist. He is unoriginal, Akaky. And in the same way, Coat is a story whose music is based on small words; these small words are normally unnoticed, like Akaky himself; but Gogol noticed them.
Excerpted from "The Delighted States"
Copyright © 2007 Adam Thirlwell.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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