Friday 4 September 2020


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Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel (translated by Ros Schwartz)      {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“What does a language retain of the violence it has been used to commit?” asks Mireille Gansel in this short, thoughtful book about what we could call the deeper strata of languages, their consonance and resilience. After witnessing first-hand the fracture of the transnational Mitteleuropean German by Nazism and the concomitant reduction of its polymorphism to relatively depthless bureaucratic functionality, she asks, “How do you bridge the abyss created in the German language by the barbed-wire fences and watchtowers of history?” But of course, though not without hardship, language is itself the means to overcome the depredations inflicted upon it. As Paul Celan wrote, “Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death bringing speech.” For Gansel, who has had a long career translating poetry into French from German, and also, in the early 1970s, from Vietnamese (as an act of solidarity with the Vietnamese people), it is in language that the struggle for identity, freedom and self-determination must be enacted, and where can be found “the ultimate refuge: poetry as the language of survival.” It is in poetry, not only in the meanings of the words but in the layers of meaning that are inherently structural, in the relationships between form and cadence, between metre and rhythm that form the inner architecture of a language and which can only be reached through poetry (or, rather, of which poetry is the symptom of an encounter), that the particular can act as a universal and translate itself, whole and unchanged, into a particular within the patterns of structure and meaning that form another language. “No word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable,” writes Gansel. The ‘transhumance’ of the book’s title suggests that texts can be enabled to migrate to new contexts just as flocks may be moved to new pastures in order to survive, to grow and to multiply. As contexts change, in time or place or with the rigours of historical circumstance, the requirements of translation change, though the original text remains the same, intact. Translating poetry, for Gansel, is a deeply political act, an inwardly political rather than an outwardly political act: “I learned the accents of an interior language. A language of poetry experienced and shared at the source itself, the very place where it is under threat.” The particularities of a language are unique to each region, each context, each person, and to understand and translate a poem or other text requires great humility, acuity and discipline. “The stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other.” There can be no true translation of poetry without consideration of the breath-patterns, the “ballet of cesurae” that structure the original poem. As she worked more and more deeply, for Gansel “translation came to mean learning to listen to the silence between the lines, to the underground springs,” and the core of a poem is “like drawing a breath, a breath of utterance that was both specific and universal.” A successful translation cannot be achieved without clearing language of its habitual grime and rediscovering “the sensuality beneath the shell of common abstractions.” Each poetry is “a different way of being open to the world,” preserving and conveying quite different and often more subtle freightings of personal and collective identity and experience than, say, folklore or material culture, and at once both more fragile and more robust than folklore or material culture. One of Gansel’s great achievements has been to translate the entire works of the poet Nelly Sachs from German into French. Sachs laboured to heal the damage done by Nazism to Mitteleuropean German, to reinstate particularly a Jewish tincture to the language from which it had been expurgated by the Holocaust, “to join the mutilated syllables,” to make poetry possible in such a way that trauma can be both given voice and overcome, to find once again “that German language, the crucible language of Mitteleuropa, the language on which the Nazi ideology had no grip, because it is a language of the mind, without a territory and without borders and with multiple affiliations, a language that is both supranational and at the same time the sanctuary of each dialect.” Gansel and Schwartz, consummate translators, are invisible stomata through which meaning passes between languages, even when the meaning is, paradoxically, inextricable from those languages. 

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