Evolutionary Translation


“Yet with lyric verse as charged as Celan’s, the translator enters its evolution. Hölderlin knew this vis-à-vis Sophocles, Rilke vis-à-vis Valéry, to name the German poets whom Celan prized. In After Babel George Steiner writes about translation at its fullest, saying the process culminates in restitution: something is given back to the source in return for what is lost. After all, the act of translation repeats an original poem with a difference: each line of verse in English, reflecting backward towards its origin, is scrolling one line closer to the future.”

John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

Paul Valéry – Pure Potential

“The ‘value’ of a written work is purely potential – what a reader might make of it, according to his voice, his intelligence, his current state etc.
A ground to be cultivated. –
For potential is the work […] value of the reader.
The most powerful work would be the one that could provoke the most intense developments in the least adequate reader. But that would prove nothing as to the quality of the author – which can only be measured by the resistance of the reader. And then, the specific properties of the said reader and those of the author come into it too.”

– Paul Valéry – Cahiers/Notebooks 2.

One day I plan—there are always plans—to do more than dip into these notebooks. In a way there is almost too much richness within the pages of this wonderful set. I recall from years ago his reflections on inner dialogue and have pages of notes somewhere, also of his theory of literature.

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.


11 Mar 2014

All writing is autobiography. My blog, I discovered today, comprises almost 300,000 written words of autobiography, a meandering through my library. There are sufficient words for three good-sized books. There are more words than make up Middlemarch, which I’m reading, and at that familiar stage when I don’t want a book to end. This is not to draw any comparisons between Middlemarch–or any other novel–than my unedited stream of consciousness. I write this blog in order to retain more of what I read, and to participate in a conversation about literature. It surprises me that so many of my blog’s readers live in the U.S., more than double the number from U.K. I read mostly European novels, few American ones. I never expected to write so much on my blog, to be writing here for over nine years. The novel I’d like to write is spread over seven notebooks and will probably never come together into a single form. I am firstly a reader, living my life through living so many lives in addition to my own. As Paul Valéry observed, “If each man were not able to live a number of lives beside his own, he would not be able to live his own.”

Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.