Translation as transhumance

Being wordy people, translators often turn their hand to writing their own work. From David Bellos to Edith Grossman, many of the big names in the field have set down their thoughts about their craft in articles, essays and full-length books.

Blending their experiences with broader theoretical reflections about what it takes to transport meaning from one language to another, these works are often enjoyable and illuminating. Nevertheless, they can feel daunting to readers not directly engaged in working with words. Consisting largely, as they often do, of the writer’s efforts to find the terms to express the mechanisms of their art – to translate the concept of translation – these meta-narratives sometimes feel a little inward-looking, as though they can only be grasped fully by fellow practitioners.

As a result, when award-winning translator Ros Schwartz contacted me about her translation of French translator Mireille Gansel’s book Traduire comme transhumer (which hits the British bookshop shelves as Translation as Transhumance on November 1), I hesitated. A translation of a book about translation? Where would it all end?

The publicity material that accompanied the book wasn’t calculated to dispel my reservations. According to its opening sentence, the work I held in my hand was ‘half-memoir, half-philosophical treatise musing on translation’s potential for humanist engagement’. My thoughts strayed to the translation of the Boris Akunin mystery I had just downloaded to my Kindle in advance of the Russian superstar coming to the Folkestone Book Festival next month – surely it would be more fun to put this worthy volume aside and crack on with a highfalutin tale of murder in nineteenth-century Moscow?

Luckily, Translation as Transhumance proved to be nothing like the dry, self-referential treatise I feared. Instead, what I discovered when I turned to the first page was an urgent, human work, blending together lived experience with insights so precise that they would make booklovers of all stripes gasp.

The writing is often exquisite. Presenting her memories and the reflections they inspire in a series of brief chapters, many of which run to no more than a page, Gansel (through Schwartz’s lens) has the knack of pulling us into a scene with a handful of words. We are there with her, beside her father’s armchair, on the night she first discovers the magic of unspooling the meaning in the letters that used to arrive from relatives in Budapest; we stand in the spartan rooms of her elderly relations dispersed across Europe by the cruel events of the twentieth century; and we discover the life-saving power of the work of Brecht as she relates her youthful encounter with it.

The immediacy of these descriptions means that we not only understand Gansel’s argument that human experience is encoded into words; we feel it too. Her portrayal of the way history has devastated and rebuilt the German spoken by many of Europe’s displaced people is as moving as it is beautiful:

‘This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.’

Language, we learn, bears the marks and scars of those who have used it before us. Even innocuous-seeming words can, with a little probing, be made to bleed.

Using this passionate engagement with the inner significance of words as a starting point, and tying it to detailed examples from her career, Gansel presents interpretations of translation at the end of many of her chapters. Several familiar tropes appear – bridging and smuggling both feature. But Gansel quickly leaves these behind, encountering and moving past image after image in an effort to elucidate what she does with words. Translation is an attempt to reach the language of the soul. It is an effort to communicate a work’s humanity. It is a ‘seismograph at the heart of time’. It is, as the title suggests, akin to the seasonal movement of flocks from pasture to pasture in search of nourishment.

Each of these formulations is illuminating and yet none of them entirely encapsulates the writer’s meaning. In many ways, that is Gansel’s point: language shifts constantly as words accrue associations that gradually bury others, such that a phrase written now will read very differently to someone encountering it in fifty years’ time.

As such, true translation must be a living, ongoing process; a constant effort to find the mot if not exactly juste then at least acceptable. It is for this reason that we need retranslations of classic works. And, yes, it is for this reason that there will always be room for new publications of translators’ reflections on their craft. If only they could all be as powerful as this.

Translation as Transhumance (Traduire comme transhumer) by Mireille Gansel, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2017)