The writer and translator Lydia Davis (b. 1947) will give a talk on translation.
“We must get to know our own language even better when we are translating. When we are writing our own work, our choices are less deliberate, more involuntary, at least in the first draft. It is our natural vocabulary that springs into our minds. As we translate, it is not our own choice that confronts us, but the choice of another writer, and we must search more consciously for the right words with which to convey it. It is then that we summon all the so-called synonyms in our own language, in the hope of finding just the right one. For of course they are not exact equivalents, they are all a little different, with different origins and different registers.
When we write our own work, we can be spontaneously, thoughtlessly confusing. But when we translate, we have to be deliberately confusing—unless we translate closely and faithfully a confusing original.
And when we translate, as opposed to when we read passively, we can’t simply skip over the things in the original text that we don’t understand.
[…] Here is a note to myself that I probably disagree with, though I am still thinking about it: We translate constantly—whenever we read a text written in a different time or from a different culture. The farther away in time or culture, the greater the gap, the more difficult the act of translation—I now believe we don’t bring it into our own time and culture by working transformations on it, but rather go to it and, through it, enter its own time and culture.”*
From the French, Davis has translated Michel Leiris’s autobiograhy, Rules of the Game; Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way; Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; and a shelf of books by Maurice Blanchot—among them Death Sentence and The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays. Her own economical work, the story collections, Varieties of Disturbance (2007), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), Almost No Memory (1997), and Break It Down (1986) are achieved. For them, she has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a Man Booker Prize, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for fiction and translation. She lives in upstate New York.
Thanks to Scott Nadelson and Stephanie DeGooyer from Willamette University. Davis will read fiction at the University on Thursday, October 24, 7:30pm in Waller Hall, 900 State Street, Salem, Oregon 97301.
It was with Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence (1978) that I had my extended initiation into translating closely and exactly—it was my first experience of translating his work, and in the case of his words one would not dare to paraphrase, to normalize, to recast a sentence; every word and its placement had to be respected. In the years after, until 1991, I translated three more of his novels; a novella; and the selection of essays that went to make up The Gaze of Orpheus.
The experience of translating the essays was one of the most difficult I ever had, in translating. As though the experience were in fact, a piece of fiction by Blanchot, the meaning of a difficult phrase or sentence would often become a physical entity that eluded me, my brain becoming both the pursuer and the arena in which the pursuit took place. Understanding became an intensely physical act.
It was during this translation that I experienced another sort of struggle with understanding: although, in a simpler paragraph, I might be able to follow the thread of Blanchot’s argument from one sentence to the next, I found that I could not summarize, at the end of the page or even at the end of the paragraph, what I had just read. I thought this was my own weakness, some sort of mental deficiency; but when I described it to others, I found that it was true for them as well: it was in the nature of Blanchot’s argument to resist summary. The experience of reading had to take place moment by moment; one’s understanding proceeded like a guide’s flashlight, illuminating one by one the animals painted on the wall of an ancient cave.
The following description portrays a different kind of difficulty in summarizing Blanchot. I was once asked to summarize Maurice Blanchot’s novel The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me for a publisher who needed jacket copy or publicity copy—in other words, to produce a summary comprehensible to a larger audience of a piece of writing very hard to comprehend. Being forced to summarize meant I was forced to identify precisely what was happening in the novel and what moved the action forward. This was not easy in the case of Blanchot’s novel. Here is one perfectly accurate summary, though a brief one: ‘In a house in the southern part of some country, a man goes from room to room being asked the question ‘Are you writing now?’ by another character who may or may not exist.’ This summary would not be appropriate for commercial release.
Another description would be more conventionally acceptable: ‘In a house in a region identified only as somewhere in the south, during seasons that seem to change from autumn to winter to summer, a man moves restlessly, at long intervals, from room to room: he looks out into a garden he remembers with pleasure, he goes to the kitchen for a glass of water, he stands by the stairway, he climbs to the upstairs room in which he says he lives and writes, he returns to the large ground floor room which contains a table and suddenly, now, a large disordered bed, a bed so vast, in the eyes of this man, the narrator—for whom the things of the world have an illusory quality that causes them to shift or disappear constantly—that it might not be a bed after all, but the ground itself, which is why he hesitates to lie down on it though he is exhausted.
‘He looks out the bay windows of the room into the garden again, where a man who may or may not really be there stands looking into the room, though this man does not seem to see the narrator. When he is not moving about the house, the narrator is engaging in a dialogue with his “companion,” who may or may not be another aspect of himself, and may or may not exist outside his imagination, and when he is not moving or speaking, he is thinking.’
In this novel almost nothing ‘happens,’ in a sense. Yet between the two characters in the book, and within the mind of the narrator, a great deal happens, on a mysterious level where abstractions like immobility and light become strong concrete presences interacting and effecting emotional changes in the narrator and between the narrator and his companion.
Throughout the novel, this companion presses the narrator with the question ‘Are you writing now?’ What the novel sets out to explore in the most astounding detail, from within the very center of the narrator’s almost desperately heightened consciousness, is his hesitant approach to the idea of writing, his consideration of the possible effects of his writing, and his relationship to his own words, which themselves become active, concrete presences in the novel, sometimes flying gaily and violently through the house, and sometimes closing about the narrator in a suffocating circle.
In this narrative, in which paradox, and impossibility, are incorporated as perfectly natural elements of the action, an attempt to identify actors and types of action, to separate out concrete actors from abstract and permutations of both, yields these notations:
1. There are concrete actors, such as the narrator.
2. There is concrete action in concrete space, and the narrator declares it positively: e.g. ‘I moved.’
3. There is possible concrete action in concrete space; the narrator qualifies it: e.g. ‘I think I moved.’
4. There is a possible concrete situation; the narrator is even more tentative about it: e.g. ‘I had the feeling someone was sitting in the armchair.’
5. There are actors who are possibly but not certainly imaginary, such as a figure, possibly of the narrator’s invention who may be sitting in the room.
6. There are abstract qualities which perform as actors, such as the narrator’s desire or immobility.
7. There is a concrete interaction but it takes place between one concrete entity and one abstract entity: e.g. ‘I was stopped by my own immobility.’
8. There is ‘concrete’ interaction between things that do not concretely exist, that exist only in the narrator’s mind or imagination—thoughts, sensations, illusions.
9. There is no interaction between the narrator and, say, an imaginary figure; but there is interaction between the narrator and the effect, on the narrator, of that lack of interaction.
This list is probably not exhaustive.