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Translating Rimbaud's Illuminations

Translating Rimbaud's Illuminations

by Clive Scott

Translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations is a critique of the assumptions which currently underlie our thinking on literary translation. It offers an alternative vision; extending the parameters of literary translation by showing that such translation is itself a form of experimental creative writing. It also provides a reassessment of Rimbaud’s creative


Translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations is a critique of the assumptions which currently underlie our thinking on literary translation. It offers an alternative vision; extending the parameters of literary translation by showing that such translation is itself a form of experimental creative writing. It also provides a reassessment of Rimbaud’s creative impulses and specifically his prose poems, the Illuminations.
In the expanding field of translation studies, a brilliant and demanding book such as this has a valuable place. In addition, it also provides some fascinating ‘hands on’ translation work of a very practical kind. Published as a sequel to the author’s Translating Baudelaire (UEP, 2000), it will become part of the canon.

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University of Exeter Press
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Translating Rimbaud's Illuminations

By Clive Scott

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2006 Clive Scott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-950-5


Translation and Creativity

Reflections on a Relationship

This book is interested in 'traductologie', as defined by Antoine Berman: 'La traductologie: la réflexion de la traduction sur elle-même à partir de sa nature d'expérience' (1999: 17) [Traductology: translation's reflection on itself, based on its nature as practice]. Although reflections such as these are theorisations of translation practice, they have no theory in view; and they have no theory in view partly because they share Berman's belief that a general theory of translation cannot exist, 'puisque l'espace de la traduction est babélien, c'est-à-dire récuse toute totalisation' (1999: 20) [since the space of translation is Babelian, that is, resists any totalisation], but more especially because translation is about relationships with texts, changing, multiform and heterogeneous relationships, which concern the psychological and existential situation/predicament of the translator more than they concern the linguistic proximities and distances between two texts. Quite simply, translation is first and foremost an act of writing; the ST is not so much to be translated as to become an episode in a writer's life and perhaps a crucial instrument in a writer's apprenticeship. By virtue of its linguistic incompleteness ('Les langues imparfaites en cela que plusieurs' (Mallarmé 2003: 208) [Languages being imperfect in that there are several of them]), the ST forces TTs into existence and, in so doing, forces the translator to define himself as a re-writer of the ST. Translation is never less than a reflection about language; but most especially, it is a reflection about language as a potentiality of expression for a particular translator-writer.

It is not difficult to bestow on translation the status of a creative act, particularly when we can view translation as an integral part of the writing activity of any creative writer. Robert Lowell tells us that translation was for him a way of negotiating the creative doldrums, of, we may assume, finding a new creative wind; of Imitations, he writes: 'This book was written from time to time when I was unable to do anything of my own' (1971: xii). Emily Salines (1999: 19–30) shows how different kinds and degrees of translational activity nourished Baudelaire's 'original' output. And Michael Alexander (1997: 28) reminds us that 'There is for Pound no distinction between his own work and his translations'. But while the evidence of practice makes creativity unproblematic when we consider the author-translator, we are confronted by a tangle of controversy when it comes to identifying and locating creativity in the conduct of the translator-translator.

We might identify four inbuilt transformational dangers in translation which militate against its literarisation. First, the TT (target text) tends to make the ST (source text) more intelligible. Myriam Diaz-Diocaretz is surely right to point out that, in 'standard' assumptions about translation, the target text (TT) will be more communicative than the source text (ST) simply because it must, in order to be clear, derive from specific interpretative moves:

Communication, a property not predominantly present in the poetic language of the ST may take over the primary function of an aesthetic work in translation, because a literary work exists, obvious as it seems it must be mentioned, only for those who can understand its language (linguistic code). When translating a poetic work, one of the primary purposes is that it must be done in such a way that the text is made accessible and intelligible—on the level of competence—to the receptors.

(1985: 10)

However, Diaz-Diocaretz is also prepared to envisage a TT which diverges significantly in its meanings and effects from the ST:

While the readings of the source-text engender interpretative operations, the translator produces an equivalent text in the receptor-culture which will, in turn, furnish a new chain of significations that perhaps did not belong to the original response. (1985: 2)

This begs questions about 'equivalent text' and does not sit entirely comfortably with Diaz-Diocaretz's identification of the translator as an 'omniscient reader' (1985: 16). It seems, with its 'perhaps', to allow for an element of the aleatory and to accept as inevitable that the TT will activate 'a new chain of significations' (thanks to the interferences of the translator's subjectivity). In the end, it may seem that Diaz-Diocaretz is rather evasive or equivocal about the relationship between the translator as omniscient reader and the translator as 'acting writer', who co-produces an already existent 'text' and in so doing gives it a new identity. One might equally find a rather awkward discrepancy between Diaz-Docaretz's espousal of a Jakobsonian view of the 'poetic' as self-reflexive, or self-regarding, at the same time as she pursues a pragmatics-based agenda ('[The translator] seeks to understand the orientational features of language which relate to the situation of utterance' (1985: 25)). I take these contradictions, or positional uncertainties, to be symptomatic of an approach to translation which wishes to marry the taxonomic, the linguistic and the literary, rigour and thoroughness with an acknowledgement of creative caprice.

If translation seeks to increase textual accessibility, then its manner of achieving this is crucial. The second transformational danger of translation is the conversion of the linguistic/textual into the metalinguistic/ metatextual. Translation is an interpretation of, and response to, a given linguistic configuration, not to a set of putative pretextual phenomena. The creativity of translation all too easily becomes assimilated to this hand-to-hand struggle with grammatical and syntactical resistances, connotations, tonal ambiguities, in the ST. In such instances, the ST is a given—i.e. it is assumed to have achieved its expressive ambitions, to say what it wants to say—and the translator's art is all in the consolidation and communication of that given. But we have no reason for making these suppositions, other than that there is no reason to make the contrary supposition. I am trying to promote a creativity which relates to text rather than to language, to whole-text rather than to localised problems within it, which is unpredictable in its operations but explicable in its effects, which is not constituted by sets of responses so much as by an overriding textual perception or enterprise.

The third transformational danger concerns the relation of form and content: translation, inevitably, tends to spring them apart, for reasons outlined by Yves Bonnefoy:

We must understand that writing, the act of writing, is in itself an unbreakable unity whose formal operations are conceived and executed in constant interaction with, for example, the invention of the images and the elaboration of meaning. [...] But this necessary freedom is not, unfortunately, within reach of the translator. In his case, meaning, the whole meaning of the poem, is already determined; he cannot invent anything about it without betraying the intent of the author. Consequently, were he to decide to adopt the alexandrine or the pentameter, this regular pattern would be for him nothing but a frame to which the meaning would have to adjust itself, obliging him to pure virtuosity.

(1979: 377)

This is perhaps to underline the need for the translator to reimagine the ST as a total creative enterprise, and is one of the reasons why, in the wake of Bonnefoy, I have promoted free verse as the ideal translational medium: quite apart from the arguments about free verse's inevitable organicity (is this battle too easily won?), free verse constantly confronts the translator with formal decisions (about degrees of metrico-rhythmicity, lineation, lay-out, rhyme) which ensure that no frame becomes a justification for certain linguistic collocations, and that each structural configuration is sense-giving. In the present work, I have, if anything, attempted to take a further step towards the indissolubility of form and content, in opting for versions that, in one way and another, abut concrete poetry.

The fourth transformational danger relates to the proposition that poetry is designed to maximise the materiality of language. At the moment, the materiality of a text is what is seen as constituting its untranslatability. Robert Frost famously declared that: 'Poetry is what is lost in translation'. But his immediately following remark is not so frequently cited: 'It [poetry] is also what is lost in interpretation' (Untermeyer 1964: 18). Denied access to the materiality of the ST, translators cut their losses, concentrate on the translation of meaning, by interpretation; the materiality of the ST is 'retrieved' by means of salvage operations: equivalence, compensation.

But we should remind ourselves that linguistic materiality is not itself a stable value, but is subject to constant historical re-negotiation. If we looked to the eighteenth century, we might argue that linguistic materiality related to aesthetic decoration and to rhetorical ingratiation, to the auditory fluency of text (euphony); in the nineteenth century, to subliminal pantheistic kinships, to verbal instrumentation ('correspondances'), to alternative syntaxes, to the projection of the paradigmatic on to the syntagmatic. Today, we are perhaps more persuaded that linguistic materiality makes manifest the anarchy and uncontrollability of the human organism, in eruptions of -lalias (echolalia, coprolalia, glossolalia), in Tourette's syndrome, in the pulsional upbubblings of the semiotic, in all kinds of psychosomatic revelation. This materiality is a vital channel of the reader's engagement with the text, of a psychphysiological engagement which makes reading an inevitable rebellion against interpretation, with its sanitising, ordering and cerebrating conduct. This book seeks to pursue translational strategies which have linguistic materiality as their constant focus. Interpretation cannot, should not, be dispensed with: it is the means whereby works are made public and susceptible of collective debate. But we should recognise that interpretation is, in many senses, a failure of reading, a loss of psychophysiological contact with the text.

Interpretation has been attacked from several quarters (for example, Sontag 1994[1964]; Culler 1981; Meschonnic 1999). Susan Sontag's first move, for example, is to distinguish between the experience of art and its theory, suggesting that theory has overly concerned itself with questions of (detachable) value, with the way a work of art can justify itself, and more especially with the way it can justify itself by what it says (1994: 3–4). Sontag's references to the codedness of interpretation and her call for an erotics, rather than a hermeneutics, of art (1994: 14) slips us easily across to Barthes. We might want to locate his objections to interpretation in his attitudes to the lisible and we would be right to do so inasmuch as the activity we imagine as the contrary of interpretation, reading, is an activity designed to recover the scriptible of a text. Translation is often a performance of the lisible in that it is designed to promote not just the ST, but a certain critical vision of the ST.

But the particular Barthesian assault on interpretation that I wish to summon is that enshrined in the punctum/studium duality (1980) (if we are allowed to transfer this from photography to literature). Studium is that corporate and culturally average relationship with the object (photograph), an interpretative relationship designed to make the object instructive, and to draw on a common, already acquired body of cultural expectation. With studium, interpretations are already predicted by the corpus of knowledge from which they emerge. Punctum installs a confrontational relationship with the image, where the confrontation itself cannot be defused or solved by interpretation, although it may involve recognition. It is unpredictable, it lacerates, pricks, is visceral, and has no outlet in discourse; it belongs to the dark of the individual, to involuntary memory, to desire, to the singular, to the non-cultural and non-coded; it fractures the 'unariness' of the object. Punctum cannot be planted in a work; it is what the spectator/reader adds, but is already there.

Sontag's 'Against Interpretation' suggests other ways of outwitting interpretation. One of the solutions lies in the cinematic, in the production of images whose speed, fluency, metamorphic relationship and directness of sensory address, prevents the engagement of any interpretative mechanism:

Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be ... just what it is. Is this possible now? It does happen in films, I believe.

(1994: 11)

The possibility of translating Rimbaud cinematically, and the interpretative implications of such a move, are explored in Chapter 4.

Closely related is the solution through the senses: 'What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more' (1994: 14). Sensory involvement with the text releases us, as film does, from the 'itch to interpret'. And if anything in Rimbaud's own writing might warn us against jumping too quickly into the interpretative free-for-all that his poems have generated, then it would precisely be: 'Cette langue sera de l'âme pour l'âme, résumant tout, parfums, sons, couleurs, de la pensée accrochant la pensée et tirant' (letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871) [This language will be of the soul and for the soul, synthesising everything, perfumes, sounds, colours, thought catching hold of thought and pulling].

Ironically, Rimbaud's wild, subversive, scandalous writing finds itself enmeshed in, incapacitated by, the web of concessive interpretation. Interpretation, foxed, finds its way into polysemy (x could be a, or b, or m, or y), only to discover polysemy as a founding literary virtue. This self-multiplying analysis is, in many senses, a product of silent reading in that it does not involve the body and does not have, or want, to make up its mind. Ultimately we may feel that interpretation in Rimbaud's work has become self-defeating; accounts are multiplied and either leave the reader bemused by the prospect of paying his money and taking his pick, or require some generalising superordinate synthesis, beyond the individual text, which will reveal an underlying Rimbaldian stylistic policy, or a network of generical subsets. These latter strategies belong to what Todorov would call 'la critique paradigmatique' (1978: 243–4) [paradigmatic criticism], but they have their staunch defenders.

At all events, the great 'advantage' of translation is that it has no generalising refuges, and certainly does not seek to generate an increasing critical distance from the individual text, a distance itself generated by the proliferation of alternative readings. Instead, it seeks to take the reader back to the text qua text, that is to say as something prior to interpretation, where potentiality does not mean itemisable alternative readings, but a maximised capacity to mean. Translation is not what tells us what Rimbaud is all about; translation is what suggests to us ways in which we might most profitably read Rimbaud, and in such a way that the space/time between ST and TT is fully taken into account, made evident, made visibly active in the TT. If we are to make Rimbaud more intelligible, it will not be by straightening his 'crooked' texts, but by articulating the sense he makes for our own time, and thus the sense we make of ourselves. Peculiarly, interpretation only takes that décalage into account implicitly; 'Rimbaud' slips effortlessly back into Rimbaud.

On the basis of these transformational dangers, and in the light of certain goals which, I believe, translation should set itself and which this book sets out to pursue, I would lay out the following founding propositions.

1. Founding propositions

1. That the primary purpose of literary translation is not to mediate between readers and texts in languages they do not know. While translation in this guise might be a subordinate element in the network of translational functions, it should not, as largely at present, act as the superordinate function. The superordinate function of literary translation is to promote translation as literature, or the literature of translation. In this sense, the translator has more important obligations to translation itself than to the source text (ST); the habit of conceiving of the ST as the locus of translation's moral debates with itself has diverted translators' attention from their 'obligations' to their medium and its development. Assumptions are made that literary translation simply exists and that our first task is to understand its relations, hierarchical and cultural, with 'first-degree' literature (polysystem theory, and so forth; see, for example, Lambert 1998: 130–3); in fact, the literature of translation has to be made with each translation.


Excerpted from Translating Rimbaud's Illuminations by Clive Scott. Copyright © 2006 Clive Scott. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Meet the Author

Clive Scott is Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, and a Fellow of the British Academy. His publications over the last few years include Translating Baudelaire (University of Exeter Press, 2000); Channel Crossings: French and English Poetry in Dialogue 1550-2000 (Legenda, 2002); The Spoken Image: Photography and Language (Reaktion, 1999); The Poetics of French Verse: Studies in Reading (Clarendon, 1998).

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