Three Random Thoughts About Translation

Essay by French writer Olivier Rolin.

Once I heard someone – it was the poet and philosopher Michel Deguy, but perhaps he was quoting another writer – say something which struck me as being surprisingly accurate: a language is not great primarily, or mainly because it is spoken by a large number of speakers; a great language is a language in which one can read most of humankind’s masterpieces. In other words, there is a universality that can be called external, superficial, which is measured by the number of people speaking a specific language. And there is another universality, which can be called internal and is defined by the number of channels that are created inside this language, within this language, by means of this language in order to generate links to global thought. The internal or essential greatness of a language is measured by the number of translations made in that language, the area they cover, their accuracy and their erudition. Arabic, for example, is spoken, in its different forms by a larger number of speakers than French: as such, it is a greater language, externally or superficially speaking. But for many extra-linguistic reasons that we won’t detail here, political, religious and other, a much smaller volume of the works of world literature and philosophy is available in Arabic compared to French. In this second and even more essential sense, French comes out as a greater, more universal language.

As it turns out, I have done translation from Spanish to French. I only translated two books, including a long novel by Eduardo Mendoza, La Ciudad de los prodigios, the City of Wonders. The city of Barcelona was its premise but also its main character along with other human characters. I don’t know if this book has been translated into Chinese, but it certainly would be worth it, as it tells, through the successful career of a tycoon, the villainous and violent tale of accumulated wealth. This is a topic that is not unrelated to certain aspects of today’s Chinese reality, isn’t it? Regardless, I remember I particularly enjoyed translating this book because, as I was facilitating its birth into a language that was different from the original language, it felt as if I wrote it, but without the stress that is typical of writing. Translation brought me the joy of finding the right match, the exaltation that comes once a page has been completed, and not the anxiety that comes along with the work of the original author. I was and wasn’t the author of the book, I was the happy face of this twin character, the author who also presents a tortured face, which has been so often and painstakingly described by Flaubert in his Letters. In his preparatory notes for his classes at the College de France published in his Preparation of the Novel, Roland Barthes very accurately notes the following: “Any great work (…) operates as a desired work, but an incomplete and lost one, because I didn’t make it myself, thus it must be found again by remaking it; to write is to have the will of rewriting, I want to add myself actively to what is beautiful. “ To translate is to position oneself in the middle between the simple reader, who suffers from “having not made himself” the work he is reading, and the writer who decides to write “to remake” the books he has admired. Here remaking refers not to offering another version but to positioning oneself at a similar level of expectation and beauty. The translator, more than the simple reader, less than the writer, “adds himself actively to what is beautiful.”

There is a character in 20th century French literature that I found fascinating: Armand Robin. He was born into a peasant family, became a poet and multilingual translator, spoke or read about thirty languages, including Russian (he translated a number of Russian poets of the 20th century), Persian, et more importantly Chinese. I say more importantly, because in the end Chinese brought a sort of peace to this deeply worried mind. As he was trying to go into exile from himself, and was looking for a kingdom where no help could reach him, he found in the Chinese language, the most difficult and alien place of all, something that would forever prevent returning to himself. Towards the end of his tragic life, it seems he had conceived a project of a book that would mix and intertwine sentences in French and verses from poems in all languages. An ambitious, impossible and polyphonic project, that reflects the contradictory dream of any writer: to find a universal language, on one hand, the original language of the Babel tower myth (Barthes said: “the separation of languages is a permanent mourning”), and on the other hand, to know and feel the beauty inherent to every language, to hear the sound of the orchestra of all human languages, all different from each other, each with its own tone, its own voice.

About Olivier Rolin