SELF-TRANSLATION.

A nice short piece by Ian Monk on the perils of translating your own writing:

…And what good company I was now in—I thought at once of one of my all-time favorites, Samuel Beckett, and how he had continued to write in both English and French, before self-translating his work one way or the other, as required. It was a dream come true. I got down to work…

And what a pain it turned out to be. The further I got stuck into the two texts in question, the more my translations seemed utterly limp and lifeless. And the more I worked over them, the more I felt like some kind of Dr. Frankenstein, with a monster on the slab which was staying stubbornly dead, no matter how many lightning flashes were aimed at its heart. I quickly came to the conclusion that my existence as a writer was never going to be like Beckett’s (for this reason, among a few others…) and if I went on writing in these two languages, then the job of translating them, one into the other, should preferably go to someone else.

(Via the indispensable wood s lot.)

There’s probably a limited audience for the Middle East and North Africa Special Area Collection of the Universitaets- und Landesbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt in Halle, so I’ll tack it on here rather than making a separate post of it, but man, if you’re interested in old Arabic texts, Syriac dictionaries, and the like, check out the list of what’s available online! (Via bulbul’s Facebook post.)

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    Apart from Beckett, there is at least one other writer who managed the feat: Julian/Julien Greene, an American raised in France, who spoke mostly French in early childhood, and later wrote both in French and in English, depending on where he was living at the time. One of his books is bilingual, with pages in each language facing each other, but the texts are not exact translations, and the English pages are usually shorter and less stylish than the French ones.

    Personally, I occasionally have to provide versions of the same text (written by me) in both languages. I find it very hard to do actual translations, I prefer to start the second text from scratch.

  2. International Standards are often published in both English and French, sometimes in Russian. The official view of ISO (which does not stand for International Organization for Standardization, nor for Organisation internationale de normalisation, but was chosen to be remote from both) is that bilingual development of standards from the earliest stages “is of great assistance in the preparation of clear and unambiguous texts.” Northrop Frye said something similar about committee drafts: that when he was puzzled how to express something clearly, he would ask a francophone colleague to say it in French, which generally made the appropriate English wording obvious.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Ah, the famous clarté of the French language! I wonder if there was something like that cliché behind Frye’s observation. Nowadays though, there is a huge influence of English in French, where semi-bilinguals ape English constructions literally, forgetting that French may express things differently.

  4. Ah, the famous clarté of the French language!

    For an LH discussion of this, see the comment thread of the “Poignant” post around March/April 2009 (when it becomes available in the archives)..

  5. Your “Landesbibliothek” is missing an “O”. Sorry to nitpick, but I do love when you post German things.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie-Lucie: “Nowadays though, there is a huge influence of English in French, where semi-bilinguals ape English constructions literally, forgetting that French may express things differently.” I probably do that, but not intentionally. However, sometimes I find myself wishing that my French colleagues would follow the French way of expressing things more closely when writing in English (which they need to do a lot, as nearly all of what they publish is in English). In particular, they’ve discovered that nouns can be used as adjectives in English, and, if you must, a hyphenated pair of nouns, and, if there is absolutely no alternative, more than two nouns, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good or elegant thing to do. I wish I could think of a good example, but at this moment I can’t, though it’s something that comes up almost every time anyone asks me to check something they’ve written. So I’ll have to make do with a rather feeble example. I can, if I want, say “I need to catch a Marseilles-Paris flight very early tomorrow morning”, but it’s no great improvement over “I need to catch a flight very early tomorrow morning from Marseilles to Paris”, and in many similar sentences it would sound worse. The second version, however, is almost word for word what I’d say in French “Je dois prendre l’avion de Marseille à Paris très tôt demain matin”. (Fortunately it’s not true: I’ve done enough flying for this year.)

  7. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Actually, Beckett doesn’t seem to be such a good example of, or role model for, a bilingual author. If I remember correctly, the whole purpose of his writing in French (a language he knew well but was emphatically not a native speaker of) and, subsequently, translating or re-writing in English was to free himself of the constraints imposed by the language. To sabotage Sapir-Worth as it were.

  8. Stu: Here‘s the “Poignant” post. Everything is available now! And you can add comments to any thread, no matter how ancient! It’s a brand new world!

    Luke: Fixed, thanks! But it’s not my “Landesbibli[o]thek,” it’s theirs; I copied the text straight from their website. I’m quite surprised nobody’s noticed and told them about it.

  9. Heh, I’m not a novelist or artist, but on those rare occasions that I’ve tried translating something I’ve written into a foreign language, I end up going back and rewriting the English!

  10. Beckett doesn’t seem to be such a good example of, or role model for, a bilingual author. If I remember correctly, the whole purpose of his writing in French (a language he knew well but was emphatically not a native speaker of) and, subsequently, translating or re-writing in English was to free himself of the constraints imposed by the language.

    After decades of living in France, Beckett doubtless knew and could exercised French beyond the grasp of even most native speakers. His works were a sui generis Franco-Irish creation, not imagined or conceived for a secondary market.

  11. Yeah, I have to agree with Hozho. I don’t see much difference between Beckett and, say, Nabokov in that regard, except that Beckett leaned toward the spare and Nabokov toward the ornate.

  12. Beckett was not trying to “free himself from the constraints of [any] language.” Quite the opposite: he was trying to impose constraints on himself by writing in French. He wanted to escape Style, as he would write it, Style being a somewhat loaded and even private term for him. Simplifying, Style indicated rhetoric, virtuosity, and above all allusion (you could stay in shape reading Beckett’s early works in a library).

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I remember a discussion about this topic quite some time ago. Beckett wrote not only very spare but very colloquial French and I thought that perhaps he had learned French from hearing and meeting people in the streets and in neighbourhood cafés rather than through reading literature. Someone replied that on the contrary, Beckett had a broad knowledge of French literature. I guess he just didn’t let it show.

  14. I remember a discussion about this topic quite some time ago.

    That was this post from earlier this year, and the someone was jamessal.

  15. Someone replied that on the contrary, Beckett had a broad knowledge of French literature. I guess he just didn’t let it show.

    Yeah, that was me — fun thread. Given his aims, it would make sense that his knowledge of French literature — and culture and history — wouldn’t show in his fiction (I don’t remember if he wrote any criticism in French).

  16. Just had some computer trouble and hadn’t seen Hat’s comment or even known if mine had gone through until a moment ago. But thanks, Hat, for linking to that thread: I’d been trying to remember which books I’d referred to the last time Beckett’s relationship with French arose. Plus, it’s a fun thread, with a link (provided by Empty, if I remember right) to a whole performance of my favorite Beckett play, Endgame

  17. Hey, I just had a comment disappear! I’d said that because of some computer trouble (of my own) I hadn’t seen Hat’s comment before leaving mine; I also thanked Hat for the comment, since the thread to which it linked mentioned books I was trying to remember, about Beckett and French, and contained a link of its own to a whole performance of Endgame, my favorite Beckett play.

  18. And now it’s back! Sorry!

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Jamessal, thank you for your previous and current comments! About the post disappearing, I have noticed that the comments take longer to show up here than they did with the old format, so we think they are gone, but they do show up a short time later. We just have to be a little more patient.

  20. Here’s something new to me. The French WiPe on Beckett refers to a “strange phonetic similarity” in a work of Beckett and one of Balzac. Balzac wrote a play entitled Le Faiseur, first performed in 1851 under the title “Mercadet”. Mercadet is a failed businessman who tries to put off his creditors by claiming his associate Godeau will return from India to pay off Mercadet’s debts. Throughout the play the creditors are expecting Godeau to turn up, but he never does. In act 5 somebody (one of the creditors ?) gets fed up with waiting for this Godeau:

    La situation décrite dans Le Faiseur se rapproche beaucoup des crises financières actuelles. Mais Félicien Marceau voyait avant tout dans cette œuvre une étrange similitude phonétique entre En attendant Godot de Samuel Beckett et Le Faiseur, où l’on peut lire ceci à la scène 6 de l’acte V: « Godeau !… Mais Godeau est un mythe !… Une fable !… Godeau, c’est un fantôme… Vous avez vu Godeau ?… Allons voir Godeau ! (Balzac, Le Faiseur)» Félicien Marceau de conclure: « … qui dira le mystérieux pouvoir des syllabes qui, à plus de cent ans de distance, fait écrire à Samuel Beckett : En attendant Godot, et à Balzac sa pièce Le Faiseur, où, pendant cinq actes, on ne fait qu’attendre Godeau2 ?».

  21. I just added a comment that appeared immediately, but with “Your comment is awaiting moderation” added at the top. A few minutes later my comment was gone after an F5. The filter policy seems to have a neurotic anti-Louis-Vuitton bias.

  22. My last comment did not have to await moderation, although “Louis Vuitton” appears in it. The filters are waiting for Louis Vuitton but don’t notice when he arrives.

  23. It looks like the pages for the posts are being sent out with a cache time of 10 minutes, which might explain why you’re not seeing new comments for a while.

  24. What is “cache time” ? What is caching the comments, for so long, for what purposes ? The internet has stuff to say about cache times in the context of an RSS feed, but this is not that. I’ve never seen “cache” in the sense of “hide” (cacher), but I’m willing to learn.

  25. I mean I’ve never envountered the term “cache” having the sense of “hide” in an IT context.

  26. After posting, my comment appeared immediately in my browser, and after a later F5 (not the first later one !) it disappeared.The comment may not (yet) have been “published” in the sense of being visible to others. However, if a cookie in my browser enables the server to return the comment to my browser, and only my browser, why does it not continue to be returned to my browser after every F5 ? Is there some kind of a timeout, and if so, what purpose does it serve ?

    As to “awaiting moderation”: will Hat really be obliged to inspect comments and release them to the comment thread? This will be just as onerous as it was to remove the Louis Vuitton comments. Crown has a WordPress blog at which I have never seen spam appear, and comments are instantly published.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    In French cache can be not only a form of the transitive verb cacher ‘to hide’ but also one of two nouns: la cache ‘cache’ (a place for storing something and keeping it hidden from thieves or animals) and le cache, for which the closest English equivalent might be ‘mask’ as in ‘masking tape’ – something placed (usually temporarily) over something else in order to hide it from view (for instance an undesirable feature in a photograph to be mounted), or protect it (eg from paint). I have seen the word in an IT context but without really understanding what it refers to.

  28. In IT parlance, a “cache” is a buffer. It is used to hold data, obtained from “somewhere else”, that is not expected to change frequently. Thus the time needed to retrieve the data (say from a database at a different site) is expended only once. The software that uses the data takes it from the (local) cache as needed.

  29. the famous clarté of the French language

    In context (which unfortunately I can’t lay my hands on at the moment), I don’t think so: I think any other language would have done as well for Frye. It was more a matter of filtering the thought through some language other than one’s native tongue and thus, as it were, disentangling it from the merely verbal level.

  30. It was more a matter of filtering the thought through some language other than one’s native tongue and thus, as it were, disentangling it from the merely verbal level.

    I sometimes do that. It can be an alarming exercise.

  31. As to “awaiting moderation”: will Hat really be obliged to inspect comments and release them to the comment thread?

    Only occasionally. I have no idea what criteria the system uses, but the vast majority of comments seem to go through with no trouble. (And, oddly, some of the ones it holds up for my moderation are what to human eyes seem obvious spam, mentioning a product in the author line and including spam URLs in the body of the message.)

  32. Don’t miss Stu’s fascinating comment up there (December 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm) about the Godeau/Godot phenomenon! Unfortunately, it spent all night in the moderation queue, so people didn’t see it at the time.

  33. Beckett’s French style also came up here last year.

  34. Ah, thanks, Hat!

    Balzac wrote a play entitled Le Faiseur, first performed in 1851 under the title “Mercadet”. Mercadet is a failed businessman who tries to put off his creditors by claiming his associate Godeau will return from India to pay off Mercadet’s debts. Throughout the play the creditors are expecting Godeau to turn up, but he never does.

    Eric Bentley, writing for The New Republic, was the first critic to make this connection, and Beckett always denied having any knowledge of Balzac’s play before writing his own. It’s my sense that biographers don’t give the impression that Beckett lied much, if at all, about his work; but still, quite a coincidence.

  35. Unfortunately for subscribers only, Hilton Als pans the current Broadway performance of Godot with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2013/12/09/131209crth_theatre_als.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    oddly, some of the ones it holds up for my moderation are what to human eyes seem obvious spam, mentioning a product in the author line and including spam URLs in the body of the message.)

    Perhaps the system picks up those things but doesn’t know whether the message is a legitimate one that includes those as part of the topic (or as what could be a legitimate alias from a commenter) or a way of sneaking spam by hiding it into an innocent-sounding message.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Sorry, I meant to have the quote in italics.

    Another note on formatting:

    When I first wrote the above comment and pressed “Post Comment”, an error page appeared saying I needed to write a comment. It turned out that I had written it inside the “Website” space. I think this happened because the lines around the boxes are (or perhaps just seem) even lighter than the letters in the comment box. I see that the letters in the Name and Email boxes seem to be a little smaller but also more legible than the ones in the Comments box. Is this true, or another optical illusion? The Comments letters could be still a little darker, although far from as dark as the ones in the post and the published comments.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    And of course, I hope it won’t be too hard to get Preview again.

  39. Unfortunately for subscribers only, here’s Hilton Als panning the current Broadway performance of Godot, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

  40. Subscribers of the NYrkr, that is.

  41. Stu, as far as I can make out, the moderation system works as follows: When you post a to-be-moderated comment, the version of the page returned to you contains your comment as well as the warning that your comment is awaiting moderation. However, this version of the page is neither saved nor regenerated. On all future loads thereafter, you get the public version of the page, without your comment, until in the fullness of time Hat approves it, and then it appears in its proper chronological place.

    Marie-Lucie: checking the OED makes it clear that all uses of cache in English as noun or verb are derived from the French feminine noun.

  42. Stu, as far as I can make out, the moderation system works as follows: When you post a to-be-moderated comment, the version of the page returned to you contains your comment as well as the warning that your comment is awaiting moderation. However, this version of the page is neither saved nor regenerated. On all future loads thereafter, you get the public version of the page, without your comment, until in the fullness of time Hat approves it, and then it appears in its proper chronological place.

    My impression as well. That’s why I’d thought my earlier comment disappeared: I hadn’t noticed the moderation notice; then when I reloaded, my comment was gone.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    JC, what do you mean, “your comment is returned to you”? returned where?

    la cache : yes, that’s pretty obvious now, but since I didn’t know the meaning in IT I mentioned the masculine noun and its meaning too. I think that the masculine noun is less well-known than the feminine one since it is used mostly in some technical contexts.

  44. m-l: Returned to your browser. When you click “Post Comment”, the comment is sent to the LH server in compact form, and then a new copy of the page you are commenting on is sent by the server back to your browser. If your comment is not going to be moderated, then it is the new public version of the page including your comment. If it is going to be moderated, then you receive a private one-off version of the page including your comment and the moderation notice, but all further retrievals of the page will return the public version; your comment goes into Hat’s moderation queue. If there is something wrong (like no text in the comment) then you get back a private page indicating the errors, and the server saves nothing.

  45. More stuff I learned recently – Beckett was involved in the French résistance:

    Lors de la déclaration de la guerre, il se trouve en Irlande. Il regagne alors précipitamment la France, préférant « la France en guerre à l’Irlande en paix ». Il participe activement à la résistance contre l’occupation nazie. … Le 30 mars 1945, il se voit décerner la Croix de Guerre avec étoile d’or

    Last month on arte I saw a long documentary on Josephine Baker. She was awarded several medals for her activities in the résistance during WW2:

    Ses activités durant la guerre lui vaudront la croix de guerre, la Médaille de la résistance après les hostilités, et quelques années plus tard la Légion d’honneur des mains du Général de Gaulle.

  46. narrowmargin says:

    I remember reading somewhere that Beckett always used the pronunciation GOD-oh, never guh-DOE.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    (JC, thank you for explaining)

  48. I remember reading somewhere that Beckett always used the pronunciation GOD-oh, never guh-DOE.

    Anthony Page, director of last Broadway production of the play, made that assertion in the Times, and Wikipedia uses that article to support the GOD-oh pronunciation. But I find it hard to believe. Hugh Kenner, who knew Beckett, defends the popular pronunciation in A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. Plus, the title was originally French, and Marie-Lucie will correct if I’m wrong, but GOD-oh sounds even stranger in that language than it does in English — in which it does sound strange. I went to Page’s production and found it . . . pretty good, although even in the director’s preferred context, his pronunciation jarred throughout.

  49. Well, I think we can take it for granted that when speaking French, Beckett would have pronounced it à la française; the question is how he said it when speaking English. Does Kenner actually say that Beckett used the popular pronunciation, or does he just defend it (and of course it is perfectly defensible)? To me, GOD-oh sounds like a natural UK anglicized version (compare GARE-ahzh for garage), though of course no American would be likely to say it.

  50. narrowmargin says:

    Has anyone here seen Waiting for Godot in French, and therefore heard how the actors pronounced it? And would their pronunciation be reliable and a guide?

    As for Balzac, how was his Godeau pronounced in French at that time?

  51. There’s no question how it is pronounced in French (/godo/, and Godeau is exactly the same); the question is how Beckett said it in English.

  52. Does Kenner actually say that Beckett used the popular pronunciation, or does he just defend it (and of course it is perfectly defensible)?

    He says, “‘Godot‘, let it be stipulated, is pronounced Go-dough, accent on the second syllable,” then goes on to point out that it was originally written in French and so we needn’t read any meaning into God’s being in the title. However — and, strange as it may seem, I have been wrong before — Beckett’s biographer Anthony Cronin also claims that Beckett himself “always insisted on putting [the accent in "Godot"] on the first [syllable].”

  53. I don’t know why I italicized “Godot” in the Kenner quote (he didn’t).

  54. I don’t see any contradiction between his stipulating that it should be pronounced one way while himself (perhaps even without realizing it) pronouncing it another. Our linguistic brains are funny things.

  55. “Always insist[ing]” seems a bit more than consistently pronouncing oneself. Then again, Cronin doesn’t explain any further, so it could have been as you describe, without any contradictions at all. I’d like to think so, since I prefer “Go-DOUGH” and like all the writers involved.

  56. narrowmargin says:

    I find the phrase “let it be stipulated” to be ambiguous.

    If one side voluntarily stipulates to the side making a claim before evidence or proof is provided, that side is saying, “OK, you don’t have to prove it, we agree.”

    On the other hand, if one side is asking for a stipulation (or insisting on one) without evidence or proof presented, it’s up to the other side to agree or disagree, leaving the burden of proof on the claimant.

    Perhaps Kenner, no slouch when it comes to wonderful writing and thinking, either took his readers for granted, or, like Homer, he nodded.

  57. I find the phrase “let it be stipulated” to be ambiguous.

    If one side voluntarily stipulates to the side making a claim before evidence or proof is provided, that side is saying, “OK, you don’t have to prove it, we agree.”

    You write as there were only one definition of stipulate, the technical one in law. “Let it be stipulated,” in Kenner’s context, is wholly unambiguous and inoffensive. He uses the verb’s connotation of formal contracts to make his point both strongly and playfully — that is, without sounding snobbish.

    The question is whether he or Beckett nodded in the pronunciation of “Godot” — one pronunciation must be better for the play (and it needn’t be the author’s) — or, as Hat offers, neither of them did and Beckett merely differed in his prescription and personal usage.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    Godot

    I agree with LH that how Beckett wanted the name pronounced and how he pronounced it himself are not necessarily the same, because we usually think we sound good in a foreign language even if our pronunciation is heavily influenced by our own tongue. It is very difficult for English speakers not to stress French vowels, especially those of the penultimate syllable (the one before the final one), and similarly for French speakers to stress the appropriate English vowels.

    Godeau

    With either Godot or Godeau (which are homophones in Standard French, so just hearing the words does not give a clue to their spelling), the two O-sounds are not exactly the same: in the first syllable the mouth is open a little more than in the second. There are still some dialects in which the endings -ot and -eau are quite different, the first one having a distinctly more open vowel (and the final -t may be pronounced). But of course Beckett was not recommending a dialectal pronunciation.

  59. I agree with LH that how Beckett wanted the name pronounced and how he pronounced it himself are not necessarily the same

    So do I. But don’t you think Cronin seems to imply more than that Beckett simply pronounced it “GOD-oh” himself? He’s not necessarily saying more, and in fact I hope he isn’t; but given the quote — “[Beckett] always insisted on putting [the accent in "Godot"] on the first [syllable]” — I’m thinking it’s a slim hope. The answer may lie in James Knowlson’s biography, which I don’t own; he was a friend of Beckett’s (a close one, I think).

  60. marie-lucie says:

    jamessal, it is likely that Beckett did not use the same pronunciation when talking about the French and the English versions of the work. Here the contexts are English speakers’ first- or second-hand recollections of conversations with Beckett in English, in which he is prescribing GOD-o not go-DOUGH for the English version” He needs to specify the pronunciation because an English word of two or more syllables must stress one of the vowels, and since the name is not English, an English speaker needs to be told where the stress is. In French there is no stress problem, so nobody needs to teach a French actor how to pronounce the name.

  61. Yes, M.L., I understand that completely. I was just saying that Cronin’s phrasing seemed to, but didn’t necessarily, imply that beyond saying “GOD-oh” himself in in English, Becket also prescribed that pronunciation. I was asking whether you and Hat thought his statement hinted as much yourselves.

  62. However, if something I’ve said belies my complete understanding, please don’t spare my feelings — point it out.

  63. ‘Godot‘, let it be stipulated, is pronounced Go-dough, accent on the second syllable,”

    Only an American (or Canadian, or whatever he was) would say that.

    To me, GOD-oh sounds like a natural UK anglicized version (compare GARE-ahzh for garage), though of course no American would be likely to say it.

    Damn right. Goddo. We’re speaking English. That’s how it’s always been pronounced in Britain and, I’m pretty sure, Ireland. (Though a few people, including me, may sometimes use the US pronunciation.) Incidentally would Kenner have pronounced ‘Estragon’, the same way?

  64. an American (or Canadian, or whatever he was)

    Irish.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    Rereading the comments about how to pronounce Godot in English, I can’t decide what Beckett “recommended” or “stipulated” since we only have others’ interpretations.

    About Beckett’s Godot and Balzac’s Godeau, the latter a character in a play which Beckett claimed not to know about: It is possible that Beckett casually overheard a conversation. or read something, in which the phrase “en attendant Godeau” (referring to the play) occurred. The phrase could have stuck in his unconscious mind and surfaced later, without him having a conscious memory of where it came from.

  66. Incidentally would Kenner have pronounced ‘Estragon’, the same way?

    My brother played the role once, and he certainly said ES-tra-gon. Personally I think Tarragon would be the best English pronounciation along with VLAD-i-mir (Vladdie and Tarrie for short).

  67. AJP: an American (or Canadian, or whatever he was)

    Hat: Irish.

    Canadian, actually. Hat must have thought the quote was Beckett’s rather than Kenner’s.

    Damn right. Goddo. We’re speaking English. That’s how it’s always been pronounced in Britain and, I’m pretty sure, Ireland.

    It’s funny, only now that you say it so strongly do I realize “GOD-oh” would be the natural pronunciation in British English. It must have sounded funny to me in Page’s play because all the other English was American. Nice to see you again, btw ;-)

    About Beckett’s Godot and Balzac’s Godeau, the latter a character in a play which Beckett claimed not to know about: It is possible that Beckett casually overheard a conversation. or read something, in which the phrase “en attendant Godeau” (referring to the play) occurred. The phrase could have stuck in his unconscious mind and surfaced later, without him having a conscious memory of where it came from.

    That’s certainly a phenomenon with which I’m familiar. In fact, often when I write something I really like — a phrase or simile I think is original — I Google it just in case.

  68. Canadian, actually. Hat must have thought the quote was Beckett’s rather than Kenner’s.

    D’oh!

  69. David Marjanović says:

    « Godeau !… Mais Godeau est un mythe !… Une fable !… Godeau, c’est un fantôme… Vous avez vu Godeau ?… Allons voir Godeau ! (Balzac, Le Faiseur)»

    Fascinating.

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