Rosemarie Waldrop: practise and philosophy of translation

“A student asks what sustained me in translating so many volumes of Jabès. I say: Envy and pleasure in destruction.
I am not altogether joking, Destruction is unavoidable. Sound, sense, form, reference will never again stand in the same relation to each other. I have to break apart this ‘seemingly natural fusion’ of elements, melt it down to–what? The ‘genetic code’ of the work I have called it, following Novalis who contrasts a superficial ‘symptomatic imitation’ with ‘genetic’ imitation.’ It is a state in which the finished work is dissolved back into a state of fluidity, of potential, of ‘molten lava’ (Harold de Campos)–not unlike the ‘state of dissolution’ in which ‘reality is contained in language,’ according to Wilhelm von Humboldt. In this state the translator will be able, with a mix of imagination and understanding, to penetrate into the work and re-create it.

There is pleasure in the destruction because it makes the work mine. It is the same ‘no’ to what already exists that is a crucial part of all making, even a translation. Destruction is part of creation. It provides the energy.
Envy provides the impulse. August Wilhelm Schlegel admits: ‘I cannot look at my neighbour’s poetry without immediately coveting it with all my heart, so that I am the prisoner of continuous poetical adultery.’ Just so have I loved and coveted Jabès work. A work so rich in pleasures, with such scope, such depth that is has fed my own thinking endlessly, has taken me into metaphysical dimensions that are not in my own ‘nature.’ How could I not want to have written it?
Together, I say, these two vices have allowed me to write a work that I could never have written on my own.” p.23

It was compelled by such an impulse that I bought an old typewriter and copied Lispector’s novel Água Viva, to feel what it was like to write something so extraordinary.

There is no better book than Waldrop’s at describing a philosophy and practise of translation.

“When I say I make Jabès work ‘mine,’ I do not at all mean adapting him to ‘my style.’ On the contrary, I want to ‘write Jabès’ in English, write à l écoute de Jabès, write listening to his French.
My translation process always moves through three stages–I should say four, actually, because there is of course a preliminary stage of intense reading, which, together with my first round of writing (interlinear, almost word for word) attempts to understand the work, Antoine Berman is right that a translator’s understanding if ‘different from a hermeneutico-critical comprehension.’ It aims more at retracing the author’s steps, his creative process, than at analysing how the finished product fits within its culture. as Valéry puts it:

Translating . . . makes us try to step into the vestiges of the author’s footprints; not to fashion one text out of another, but to go back from this one to the virtual epoch of its formulation, to the phase where the state of mind is that of an orchestra whose instruments awaken, call out to one another, try to be in tune before the concert.

In the second round, I do not look at the French. I must separate myself from its authority. I treat the mess of the first draft (which is neither French nor quite English) as if it were a draft of my own, though with a sense of the text’s intentionality in mind. I try to reproduce, re-create it in English. The importance of this stage of separation cannot be exaggerated, and I am still grateful that I was very early pointed in this direction by Justin O’Brien.
In the third round, I go back to dialogue with the French and try to wrestle the English as close to the French as possible.
It is hard to say if one stage is more important than another. Each is only possible once I have gone through the preceding one. I can only write an English text once I have ‘understood’ the French. I can only get close to the French once I have a text that can stand by itself as a text in English. With Jabès, much of the work at the third stage has been on syntax, on letting the sentences approach again the length of the French ones, on trying to catch the rhythm of the paragraphs.” p. 27-28

Rosemarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès.

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