Harry Mathews is the only American member of Oulipo; you can read about his life and work in a lengthy LRB review by Mark Ford. He wrote an essay called “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese,” which was first presented at the French Institute in London in October, 1996, as the third of the St. Jerome lectures, a series devoted to the topic of translation, and it is full of suggestive passages, beginning with the opening fantasia about Ernest Botherby, “the scholar who founded the Australian school of ethno-linguistics,” and his discovery of two New Guinean tribes, the Ohos and the Uhas. I will not spoil the punch line by trying to boil it down here; instead I will quote a few later passages that bear on translation:

A Frenchman says, “Je suis français;” an American says, “I’m American.” “I’m French” and “Je suis américain” strike us as accurate translations. But are they? A Frenchman who asserts that he is French invokes willy-nilly a communal past of social, cultural, even conceptual evolution, one that transcends the mere legality of citizenship. But the fact of citizenship is what is paramount to most Americans, who probably feel, rightly or wrongly, that history is theirs to invent. The two national identities are radically different, and claims to them cannot be usefully translated in a way that will bridge this gap.
I suggest that this gap extends into the remotest corners of the two languages. Elle s’est levée de bonne heure means “She arose early,” but in expectation of different breakfasts and waking from dreams in another guise. This does not mean that it’s wrong to translate plain statements in a plain way, only that it is worth remembering that such translations tell us what writers say and not who they are…
So can the Oulipo help translators in their delicate task?
The Oulipo certainly can’t help in an obvious way. Unless he wanted to sabotage his employer, an editor would be mad to employ an Oulipian as a translator.
A few samples will show why. As our source text, let’s take a famous line from Racine’s Phèdre:
        C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
The literal sense—please be charitable—is, “Here is Venus unreservedly fastened to her prey.”
First translation: I saw Alice jump highest—I, on silly crutches. Explanation: a rule of measure has been applied to the original. Each of its words is replaced by another word having the same number of letters.
Second translation: “Don’t tell anyone what we’ve learned until you’re out in the street. Then shout it out, and when that one-horse carriage passes by, create a general pandemonium.” Explanation: the sound of the original has been imitated as closely as possible—C’est Vénus tout entiére à sa proie attachée / Save our news, toot, and share as uproar at a shay—and the results expanded into a narrative fragment. (Let me give you an example of a sound translation from English to French, Marcel Benabou’s transformation of “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”: Ah, singe débotté, / Hisse un jouet fort et vert—”O unshod monkey, raise a stout green toy!”)…
Simplistically described, translation means converting a text in a source language into its replica in a target language. Both translators and readers know what happens when this process is incomplete: the translator becomes so transfixed by the source text that when he shifts to his native tongue he drags along not only what should be kept of the original but much more—foreign phrasing, word order, even words. The results hang uncomfortably somewhere between the two languages, and a brutal effort is needed to move them the rest of the way.
I learned how to avoid this pitfall. When I translate, I begin by studying the original text until I understand it thoroughly. Then, knowing that I can say anything I understand, no matter how awkwardly, I say what I have now understood and write down my words. I imagine myself talking to a friend across the table to make sure the words I use are ones I naturally speak. It makes no difference if what I write is shambling or coarse or much too long. What I need is not elegance but natural, late-twentieth-century American vernacular. Translating the opening sentence of Proust—Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure—I might write down: When I was a kid, it took me years to get my parents to let me even stay up till nine. (This is actually mid-twentieth century vernacular; but that’s where I’m from, and it’s what I might say.)…

One more thing: both Mathews and the LRB reviewer refer to Carpaccio’s “Vision of St. Augustine,” which contains the titular Maltese. You will want to see the painting; here it is.


  1. I’ve used this Mathews essay to teach translation. I proposed various Oulipian methods the students could use. It actually works quite well to stimulate reflection about the translation process.

  2. Dig it. At any mention of Oulipo I must (and probably always will) throw out a plug for my favorite book: A Void, by a Gaul whom I cannot call by his tag (in this post).

  3. Ack!!! pretend I didn’t write “favorite” above.

  4. We see Perec there.
    (Meet the “e” — eek!)

  5. Hey by the way LH, that reminds me — are you familiar with The Modern Word? It is a resource I think you would find worthy of linking. — And I do not see it on your right-hand column anywhere.

  6. No I’m not, and thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  7. And what about Adair’s translation?
    It shows much facility to transmogrify P’s book wholly avoiding that fifth sign of alphaomigod. Which Adair pulls off almost without turning a hair.

  8. It is breathtaking, truth to say.

  9. Never mind, I give up, no good at this game… :hangs head in shame, slinks off…

  10. It’s surprisingly hard, I concur!

  11. Yeah, this is a very accurate translation, but don’t you think you force the reader to see what you’re translating your way? Don’t you think it’s too subjective? Nobody knows what the author actually means…

  12. Mathews died in 2017: Harry Mathews, Idiosyncratic Writer, Dies at 86.

    Half of Harry Mathews’s novel “The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium” was written in unintelligible pidgin English, which may explain why 25 publishers rejected it. His novel “The Conversions,” otherwise in English, concluded with nine pages in German. For readers groping to unravel the convoluted structure of his satire “Cigarettes,” he cautioned, “There’s no point in looking for it now because no one will ever figure it out, including me.”

    “I’ve always said that my ideal reader would be someone who, after finishing one of my novels, would throw it out the window, presumably from an upper floor of an apartment building in New York,” he told Susannah Hunnewell of The Paris Review in 2007, “and by the time it had landed would be taking the elevator down to retrieve it.”

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t believe that Alice (the archetypal Only Sane Man) ever does say “How can I say what I think till I see what I say?” to the Red Queen or anybody else.

  14. here’s an investigation!

    alice [NOS] is an attribution from, of all people, arthur koestler. the earliest claimed attribution is to walpole, but that was in 1949, 23* years after the earliest appearance that searcher could find:

    “…“The Art of Thought” by Graham Wallas… ‘The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” A modern professed thinker must, however, sooner or later in the process of thought, make the conscious effort of expression, with all its risks.’ ”

    e.m. forster seems to have been the next in the game, and it’s been off the races ever since.

    * of course.

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