Tuesday, 14 December 2010

'Death of a translator'

Late, the old Frenchman walked slowly around the body. So much for the Big Sleep. There were heavy shadows under his eyes, a cheap beat-up notebook in his cold left hand. A little smoke escaped his twice-broken nose. Just a kid. He looked at the cheap strap watch on his left wrist. 23:24. Well, that made two of them. His upper lip twitched, could be in wry appreciation - these English and their cheap understated puns.

An urgent and frozen wind blew torn fragments (perhaps you spot a name
- Sancho Panza) through the upstairs room. Quelle tempête! He felt it in his fingers, and in his toes. Wet. Wet, wet, the rain soon got through all this, the books, the body already damp where it lay, bleeding over 'Modern Criticism and Theory', David Lodge, ed. (London, 1988) page 167, red irony seeping into an essay by Roland Barthes (Paris, 1968, tr. Stephen Heath, London, 1977). The author was dead.

Only that wasn't quite it. This was no author, whatever the corduroy and curly hair said. Sure, he had written things down - the variations on a symbolist sonnet now blurring into further illegibility showed as much.

But that wasn't why the Frenchman had come.

Roget's Thesaurus (London, 1953 repr. 1985) and Le Nouveau Petit Robert (Paris, 2007) riffled pages hopelessly at him. This kid had translated!

And when it came to translators, the Frenchman had once carelessly admitted, some dark morning in the long back room at Frank's, maybe three fingers too many down the night's one-last-glass of pastis - when it came to translators, he knew a thing or two.

Very soon you must learn his name, this Frenchman, as he tucks his beat-up notebook into a pocket, still holding the gun in his right hand. It is Pierre Menard. He was laid to false and fictional rest by Jorge Luis Borges, who, despite failings of fact and philosophy, had the admirable ambition to recount Menard's perfect recreation of the works of Cervantes, which consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part and a fragment of chapter twenty-two of 'Don Quixote'. He pushes a torn scrap of sheet through his revolver barrel with a pencil, replaces the used cartridge and turns away from his translator's body.

In Menard's work Borges found infinite subtlety, something rich and strange - where Cervantes clumsily opposes his country's provincial life and chivalric delusion, Menard selects a history disdainful of the brash colour of the historical novel. But even Borges could not contemplate a living writer, when a critic alone could produce endlessly amusing interpretations of the ambiguous worldviews littering the new text. So, buried by Borges, Menard died to the world, and this new project came to be - the translation of his Quixote, those few fragmentary chapters written three hundred years too late. He is stamping outthis project remarkably thoroughly - you cannot say the Frenchman lacks style.

Style and worldview. These are the big problems, far too big to unravel here, just at the beginning of a thought about translating historical fiction (a category which, understood differently, could be broad enough to fit almost anything from a time not our own). Just as Cervantes is, Raymond Chandler is of a time no longer quite our own.

His style is sharp, hardboiled. Names or things - a sharp knee, a half-smile, the breeze - get to be subjects and then act. Objects come next, and modifiers branch right, carefully adding colour without slowing anything up too much. It's a world of decisive actors, and it happened in a simple past tense that held our attention and our sense of immediacy. Nothing came forewarned. Besides the obvious difficulties of paring any language down to that style, and the perhaps impossibility of writing in such an immediate past tense, there is Menard's question. What can it mean, to walk these mean streets, after Batman and Watchmen and Fathers4Justice? Or just with a mobile telephone?

In a moment there will be some puzzle at what's gone on here, as you've read. What tale has struggled to suggest itself; what beast, to steal now from W. S. Graham, have I sent across the space? 'For on this side / Of the words, it's late. The heavy moth / Bangs on the pane. The whole house / Is sleeping and I remember / I am not here, only the space / I sent the terrible beast across.' At first I thought Pierre Menard was the detective, in this little crime short - but that is not his character. He is not the figure of patient explanation. He is the figure of miraculous repetition. Impossible resemblance must flame amazement. Mere translation, however creative a rewriting in another language, is, next to that, the slavish piling-up of so many logs in static imitation. The perfect rewriter must murder his translator.

But -

In the end he didn't know what more he could have said, the cold barrel of the Colt pressed to the base of his skull as the firing pin fell.

Later, when Pierre Menard stepped back out into the Norwich night, he stopped. The wind blew; the leaves hissed resultant.

Every third thought the grave - that's right enough, for us prosperous few.

--- Tom Russell was a literary translator from French to English, a MALT student at UEA, and secret fan of acrostics. Contact:
tomalrussell at gmail.com

ps. Very quickly, just by the way, one dead guy to another, my postcard's on the way to Douglas Adams. (I'm not going to unravel that for you. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you might read his foreword to P G Wodehouse's unfinished book, 'Sunset at Blandings'. It's only four and a half pages long (the foreword, not the book) and you'll be wanting to drop me an e-mail to thank me for pointing it out to you.)

1 comment:

  1. Tom,
    What a great Blog, congratulations to you and Avgi for two great articles. Thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
    Alistair (Russell)