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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Rey

Miscellaneous on translation


Manuscript by Marcel Proust
Manuscript by Marcel Proust

Any migrant moving to a foreign country not as a child, but as an adult, knows that his past is bound to be wiped out. In the host country, what you have done in the previous years, especially when it happens to be linguistically estranged, is forgotten. However glorious or inglorious, famous or infamous, your previous achievements account to nothing. For a surgeon, a dentist, a lawyer, a university professor, the task is the same. You must redo your university cursus from the start, and sit for exams you have already completed in the past. Any migrant will always experience in his flesh the tragedy of Babel when men had been scattered all over the surface of the earth and doomed to speak hundreds of different languages.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Milan Kundera came to France with his wife with the help of his publisher, Gaston Gallimard, still, he was labelled for a long time as a political refugee and when this labelling of courageous political dissident wore off, he had to reinvent himself as a writer, nothing else than a writer in French language. And it took him a long time to achieve it. Any writer who leaves his country and his birth language behind must start all over again. Countries is like families: they favour their own children which lead to a form of patronizing parochialism. Look at Australia for instance, such a small number of books are published in translation. A writer doesn’t exist without a publisher, therefore without readers. This is an ambiguous stand. One writes for oneself and for others. Any artist, painter or musician needs to be seen, listen to, heard, acknowledged. We, I mean writers, don’t seek fame but some form of re-cognition. We are looking for this unique interlocutor to whom we address a unique message to spark a dialogue. In the same manner, the authors of the past have given us their work which keep resonating in us to transcend time and death. And what is the definition of literature, of Art at large, if not this repeated exchange of giving, receiving and giving back, a way to dive into one's soul, one's emotions, one’s inner world, in order to say something one has never said before, something this very stranger we are addressing our message to has never heard? As I was reading Sylvia Plath not long ago, a few lines made me shudder and ponder. Motherhood isn’t my thing, still, Sylvia Plath in these few lines expressed a singular vision of motherhood I’d never read before, namely never thought of before. The newness of her thought was so relevant that it touched my heart deeply. Writing means sharing a treasure and wanting to share a treasure. The gift can be a humble one yet there is no writing without giving with generosity.


I began writing in English after living for many years in Australia. I had the urgent need to share my work with the friends who couldn’t read French, and my husband who is Australian. It was my way to open the doors of my world and let them access my private garden. It was also a means to sublimate my existential loneliness which had become unbearable by then. A way to leap forward and rethink my divided self as a whole. My past as a writer was forgotten, and I was the only one who knew that I have been an author in the past, been awarded, been encouraged by prestigious publishers, been reviewed in Le Monde, been invited on respected radio programs, on France Culture, rubbed shoulders with famous writers -authors you’ve certainly never heard of, but who were extraordinary people. They befriended me or took me under their wing. In short, I was the only one who knew what I had achieved. Readers are essential. They are like a spring rain watering a plant. The writer is the plant. You don't need a lot of readers, but you need a minimum. Claude Simon for instance, Nobel Prize for Literature, said he reached around 2000 people and he was pleased with it. He was aware that his work wasn’t main stream. On her side, Emily Dickinson suffered from lack of recognition. No more than seven of her poems were published during her lifetime. I think it would have been a bitter deception for her. To live with this feeling of failure is a tragedy.


To change language entails more than translating your own work into another tongue. This undertaking is a profound metamorphosis for a writer. You have to let go of your old self while you move away from your roots, from the shackles of your past and from your literary traditions. Writing in English was on the one hand a way to exist as I was falling into oblivion as an author, and on the other hand a way to rehabilitate the language of my father, born in Australia in 1918. He was the ghost of the family. I gave him a voice. It took me many years though. Besides, I never thought I could write in English. When I wrote my PhD which dealt with three European writers who abandoned their birth tongue to write in French, I remember telling my friend Peter Morgan who was my supervisor, that it would never happen to me. Never. The task was too daunting and too hard emotionally.

My paternal grandparents had left France for WA in 1912. But this young couple which had sailed to Australia was an object of mockery. It might be hard to believe, but no one took interest in their past, in their life in Western Australia, and since I’ve lived here, twenty-three years now, no member of my family has paid me a visit. Close relatives had no curiosity for the past of this couple who had endured poverty and exile. People casted a kind of amused if not contemptuous look for those crackpots who had left their village. They were looked at as deserters, maybe. When you love your country, you don’t leave it. That’s what people thought. There were no intellectuals in my family. I come from small business people. Shop-owners. None of them went to high school. No one could appreciate the extraordinary journey my grandparents had endured nor take the full measure of their courage and how they fought hard to survive. My father shouldered this contempt and suffered from it. He was called “the Australian.” My mother despised him. My brothers hated him. My grandparents never tried to explain what it was to be a migrant in 1912 in WA since they knew no one would understand. And people weren’t interested anyway. I experience the same thing when I go back. No one wants to know what sort of life I have in Australia. No one realizes how harrowing in a migrant’s journey. You’ve got to get the picture of what WA was in 1912. It was a vast desert, scorching hot, dry land, a rough place, violent, lots of drinking, brawls, not a place for a woman. My grandmother was eighteen when she disembarked in Fremantle, and what she saw of her new country would have been a disappointing and scary sight. I wanted to break the silence and rehabilitate their journey since no one acknowledged their past. As a child, I heard their stories since they were my foster parents, and I also heard their silent pain. Therefore, I wanted to be their flesh and blood in Australia. Their heir. Step in their footsteps and redo the journey of those everyone deemed as crazy.


When we change language, we don't solely embrace the words of another language. We also embrace its history, its culture, its literature, its foundations, without forgetting the many nuances of its vocabulary. Besides, we don't write as we speak. The written language is another language which takes into account the poetry, the figures of speech, the refining of the style, the aesthetic, the rhythm. It is fundamental to reclaim the foreign language at an unconscious level in order to experience what we write to generate an emotion through the choice of words. Emotion is a way of conveying ideas as Ariane Mnouchkine says. If you access people in a place of sensitivity, you will trigger their understanding, maybe their compassion. Watching a movie like The Father allows you to understand what it is to be incapacitated by dementia. Watching a movie like Wit, also written after a play, allows you to understand the tragedy of a helpless patient in a hospital, ill-treated, regarded not as a human being but as a case amidst many other cases, and robbed of her dignity, even in her death, without being supported by the love of a few friends. Composers and painters don’t have this problem. Their language is universal unlike words which carry an emotional charge. Julia Kristeva in her essay Foreigners to ourselves states that the words are anchored in the unconscious of the body. Let me give you an example. It happened in one of my dreams. I was carrying an acquaintance of mine, lets’ call her X, who happens to be a writer. This person offered in the past to help me to further my literary career, yet she never did what she promised to do. Now in the dream, X was telling me that she knew the woman I was about to meet, an influential one on the literary scene. It also happened that I was carrying X’s body under my arm. She was dressed in white. Her body was as limp as a piece of damp cloth. I won’t explain the many things that happened on the way, yet as soon as I awoke, I wondered why her body appeared as a piece of damp fabric. In French, a spineless person is called a “chiffe molle”. Chiffe is the old French word for “chiffon” meaning rag. And “molle” means shapeless, squashy. Which was exactly how X behaved in real life: unable to keep her word and be helpful. Therefore, the unconscious stores the connotations etched in the language, and in this case, the dream proves that the French words overrode the English ones. Hence, when you write in a foreign language, you have to be able to draw from this emotional pool. It requires a lot of reading, of reflecting, of knowing the words and their nuances well, intimately I would say.


Writing in two languages simultaneously is where I am at now. For the last six to seven years I imposed on myself a difficult regime of neither reading nor writing in French. I only read English, Australian and American literature. It was demanding and frustrating, I must admit. Now I started reading French literature again. Beckett’s journey is inspiring for me and gives me much hope. He wrote in English, then in French, and at one stage, he was stuck in a difficult situation. He self-translated, from French to English and vice versa, and finally in his last period, he wrote either in French or in English depending on what he wanted to express as he would have chosen the tonality of his music. It is a question of rhythm as well. How fast do you want to write? From this time on, Beckett made up his own language, a hybrid tongue borrowing to Irish and French. He no longer cared too much about grammar, freed himself from constraints, found the liberty to write as he wished. Art works in this way. The writer or the artist has to abide by certain rules so as to learn first, and then, he can free himself and find his voice. By writing in French, Beckett wanted as well to escape his culture, his past, his demanding mother, the oppression of Ireland. The language carries our past. The mother tongue is who we are.


For me, the novel is long dead. The genre I feel close to is a deconstructed text, an assemblage of vignettes, a post-modern patchwork of thoughts which includes a "stream of consciousness". Many authors keep writing novels. The majority of them do. They adopt a storyline with characters. Why not? For me, this is a misunderstanding. The greatest novelists don’t tell us a story. Marcel Proust, Antonio Lobo Antuñes, Dostoyevsky, Wilde, Milan Kundera, Marguerite Duras. They stage what Kundera calls "experimental egos." It is an ego, their ego, projected into a human experience. François Mauriac said it in another way which inspired me when I started writing as a teenager. He says roughly that he took a part of his being, of his self, and applied a magnifying glass to it to bring this part of a multiple self into play. The novel in France has been looking for a revival for a long time. The novelists in the 80s invented a “new novel” in an era called by Nathalie Sarraute the “era of suspicion.” And Nathalie Sarraute wrote a revolutionary form of text with her “tropisms”. Still, she confessed that she felt alone back then. No one was really interested in her experimental work. Today the economy forces many authors to plough the very same ancestral furrow. Publishers don’t want to take risks, meaning losing money, and the novel in its conventional cloth, with its storyline, its characters, maybe a crime here and there, a bit of sex to spice it up, the novel as a form an entertainment, sells well. “I read to relax,” I heard a lady say at the librarian the other day. As for me, I don’t read to relax. I read to be transported into someone else’s world and to learn, to gain knowledge and open my conscience to new ideas. I remember reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook when I was very young, and something clicked in my mind, some doors opened to new thoughts dealing with the difficulty to be a woman. It made me reflect later on my status as a young woman. I also read Blaise Pascal Les Pensées, I was very young. Lucky me if I understood half of it! Nevertheless, the reading introduced me to Pascal’s mystical world, and I could relate to it. Even if my thoughts were still inarticulate, I felt in my heart what he was talking about. I also read to get to know the very person called the author and befriend him or her although we’ll never meet in real life. I’ve been befriending Patti Smith lately, such a generous writer, an admirable poet, and I find difficult to let go of her since we became friends. I go from one book to the next, happy to meet her again, to recognize her from afar clothed in her black coat and watch cap.


Does Michel Houellebecq write novels? He stages his “experimental egos.” For those who know Michel Houellebecq, one can easily see that all his characters -lost souls, tormented self, alcoholic, suicidal, lone wolves, attracted to young girls, afraid of mature women- are part of who he is. He defends himself from being a racist and a misogynist, but his characters are he. Michel is an endearing man because he doesn't lie, he doesn't play a part. He is out of place in a world where he has no place. “I was not made for this world.” This is what the postman Cheval says at the end of Nils Tavernier's film. Michel Houellebecq, I dare say, is a man who is not made for this world. Writing is his crutch which helps him to stay alive. Staying alive is the title of one of his books of poetry. Being a writer is a vocation. A voice is calling you and you can't run away from it. And if you ask me if writing could be a substitute for psychoanalysis, I’ll say yes, insofar as it makes it possible to function in the world and appear like someone who is more of less adjusted. Writers, artists, are endowed with multiple senses. They capture everything, see everything, are hurt by everything, bleed for every thought. Through each book written, we move forward. The reader is not the same when he has finished reading a book, I mean not an entertaining book but a book of literature. The book changes him but the writer experiences also a kind of metamorphosis. You are not the same person at the end of a book as you were at the beginning. Each book we write changes us. It allows us to let go of negative emotions. We understand, we articulate our thoughts and then we shed them like a dead skin.


Without life, without real life, without being confronted fearlessly with existence, there is no art. Michel Houellebecq states that a writer is someone who has “things to say.” I think a writer is also a being who lives with passion and takes risks. He bequeaths his experience, his suffering. The writer is not afraid to suffer to transform his pain into literature. For example, books which do not take the risk of suffering, of giving with generosity, books which are amusing, entertaining, or just playing with words, do not interest me. They bequeath nothing of the author. You have to give a lot of yourself when you write. Look at Balzac. The man could write up to twenty-two hours a day. He had a small bed at the printer’s, slept two hours and got back to work. Look at Jean Genet. Even though he suffered from a throat cancer, he refused to take pain-killers for he didn’t want to fog his mind while writing his last book. Look at Proust, he wrote himself to death. Literally. You know, they lived up to the treasure they have received. Writing is a vocation. A gift. A jewel. It’s very precious. It is very similar for a pianist who interprets a piece of music. If he gives nothing of himself, he will not produce any good sound. You have to give a piece of who you are when you create. You offer yourself as an offering to be devoured. There is a sacrificial side, a Christ-like side to any artist. Michel Houellebecq is consumed from within. He gives himself as food to be devoured. This is his strength, his majesty and his weakness. When he talks about the sexual misery of some men, he knows from experience what he's talking about. He says that there are rich and poor people in our society, but there are also sexually rich men -the good-looking, tall and strong- and the poor, the ugly ones and even if they are superiorly intelligent, it does not change anything. They are ugly and women aren’t attracted to them. That’s the reality. He knows that form of loneliness. He is very generous, shy, not cynical or contemptuous. Always on the verge of breaking like a piece of crystal, as Virginia Woolf said: she felt like a fragile bird on a branch. Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Milan Kundera. Look at their lives. Running away from the spotlights. Declining interviews. Being courageous enough to stay away from the busy world in a world where you’ve got to be seen if you want to be successful.


Otford, 12/06/2022



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