This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.
Guest post by Stephen Ross
Translation, interpretation, metaphor, word choice, feeling. Judgement. Justice. Responsibility. There’s a lot going on in Rivky Mondal’s chapter on Roger Fry’s translations of Mallarmé. A paper that appears to be focussed on the niceties of Fry’s translational choices and the various reactions to them raises myriad large-scale issues, perhaps because translation itself is such a powerful trope as well as activity. Think about it: translation is a mug’s game. An original text sits before a reader who wishes to commute it into different language and yet retain the essence of the original. But what constitutes the essence? The words with the closest denotative meaning? The words with the most proximate connotations? The words that most closely evoke the same affect as the originals? And if this last, then for whom? Presumably the translator can only refer to their own experience. The process quickly comes to appear solipsistic: the translator attempts to produce a parallel version of a prior text in a different language, one that is both newly accessible to readers somehow unable to access the original, and yet productive of the same affects and significations as the original does. At stake is a fundamental confidence that we are all capable of the same responses, that subjectivity is not monadic and isolated, but permeable and traversable: that we can experience what others experience even though we are neither they, and encounter texts that are other than the ones they encounter. A paradox emerges here: we can never be sure that we experience what others experience, particularly if the experience we seek is produced by something other than that which occasioned the other person’s experience in the first place. So we seek something, either a common affect or a common understanding, to be produced by having different people encounter different prompts in the world. The translator undertakes to make this happen.
At its heart, then, translation is a rigorously ethical task, one that must begin from the premise that it will inevitably fail more often than it succeeds. It not only risks but embraces irresponsibility as the price of its commitment to responsibility. In this respect, it enacts the inescapable irresponsibility J. Hillis Miller has traced at the heart of Derrida’s ethics: to be responsible to any one obligation among a legion of competing obligations is inevitably to be irresponsible to all the rest. And yet, as Derrida had it from the start, even “if no one can escape this necessity, […] not all the ways of giving in to it are of equal pertinence” (282). An elemental commitment to communication, to commonality, to connection, adheres to the task of translation, even when it seems to turn on the impossibility of fully achieving any of these. As with the deconstructive principle of iteration, the very attempt to replicate, to repeat, the original depends upon the original’s non-coincidence with itself from the outset. Its very incompletion is the condition of possibility for its repetition, and its repetition is consigned from the start to be repetition with a difference. Or, rather, with a différance. There is, regardless, an ethical stance available in choosing how one fails, in making the effort even though there is no question of final success. The naïve commitment to commonality, to community, is ethical in its own right. It is what drove Fry’s efforts to reanimate Mallarmé for English readers.
Determined to share his experience of Mallarmé with non-French-speaking English readers, Fry innocently begins from the assumption that such readers are enough like him that they will experience what he experiences in reading Mallarmé if he can just produce an accurate enough mimicry of Mallarmé’s words. His choice of literal translation telegraphs this innocence, and marks his effort to be responsible to Mallarmé by adhering as closely as possible to the denotative meaning of the words. This puts Fry in some tough situations, as he takes Mallarmé’s already-challenging French and adds a layer of obscurity by seeking directly correspondent English words and trying to retain the poetic syntax of the French original. The result is awkward, true perhaps to the letter of Mallarmé’s verses, but not to their spirit. The English readers of his translations may get something like a literal transposition of the French words into their English counterpart terms, but they miss the experience—the very thing Fry was most determined to communicate. In his effort to be as closely responsible to the original French as possible, Fry’s translations end up appearing to be irresponsible to the readers for whom they are apparently intended. He privileges one line of responsibility over another, and a concrete fidelity to Mallarmé’s verses over a commitment to reproduce in his readers the same aesthetic experience he has when he reads the French texts. The result is, from the perspective of the reader, simply bad translation.
But who is the reader who thus judges? Perhaps ironically, given its impulse to cross boundaries of illegibility, translations can only be judged by those who have no need of them. Only those with fluency in both languages in play are competent to judge whether a translation is responsible. Their judgement then becomes a matter of meta-responsibility, owing a duty to those readers who are incapable of judging the translation (i.e., those for whom the translation is explicitly undertaken) and to the producer of the original work. All the vicissitudes of translation so quickly laid out just above come into play again, but this time from the perspective of those whose task it is to assess the translation. If Fry as translator attempts to be a responsible reader of Mallarmé (in the name of creating yet more readers for his work), then Harold Nicolson and Justin O’Brien assume the responsibility of judging the justice of Fry’s work. In doing so, they imply that they are at least as capable of translating Mallarmé as is Fry; in judging the translations poor, they suggest that they could do better. A complex dialectics of responsibility thus emerges, in which responsibility flows and eddies around those on whose behalf the work is done, without fully engaging them: Mallarmé writes poetry, perhaps with no idea of translation in mind; Fry translates Mallarmé for those who cannot read French; Fry’s translations are judged by those for whom they were not produced. In each case, responsible reading resides at the core of the operation, emerging as the imperative that drives the activity: Mallarmé feels the poet’s responsibility to write the world into existence, Fry feels the translator’s responsibility both to the poet and to the poet’s potential readers, and Nicolson and O’Brien feel the critic’s responsibility to other translators, and perhaps to Mallarmé himself, to judge whether the translations have met the responsibilities proliferating at every turn. Irresponsibility is the out-sized shadow that tracks these responsibilities, for as soon as any one responsibility is privileged and pursued, all the alternatives are placed on the back-burner, degraded in importance. They may, of course, be resurfaced and re-evaluated in future iterations, potentially ad infinitum as the irreducible difference of the original ensures that any translation, and any judgement of a translation, is ultimately inadequate. Hell, the “original” itself—a term I have been throwing around rather liberally, perhaps even irresponsibly, in this response (the ironies proliferate!)—is primordially different from itself anyway. This is the condition of possibility not only for its iteration in the world, but for our ability to perceive it, to read and think about it, and to offer up multiple competing interpretations of it.
And there’s the crux: interpretation. Translation is a mode of interpretation. It depends on interpretation at the most distilled level—word by word—and advances its reading of the original work through word choice and syntax alone. In this, it is in fact no different from the most abstract of readings, all of which ultimately make their case on the basis of word choice and syntax. Herein lies its paradox: translation, like interpretation, though it depends upon a committed fidelity to the original is steadfastly non-literal no matter how you slice it. The only way for a translation to be truly literal would be for it to reproduce the original verbatim, like Borges’ Pierre Menard reproducing Don Quixote word for word. Even then it wouldn’t be quite the same. Translation, like interpretation, begins from the premise that the original is not self-sufficient, and not self-explanatory: that the original needs explanation if it is to be communicable. Fry translates Mallarmé for the same reason Lacan interprets Joyce: to render legible what is illegible to those without eyes to see. Arguably, it’s the same logic that drives Mallarmé to translate the world into verse in the first place. Certainly, it’s the logic that drives critics to evaluate and judge one anothers’ interpretations. At stake is always ethics, the challenge of how to be responsible in translating what’s on the page into something else, something it evokes, conjures, references, etc.
Herein lies a potential criticism of “surface reading,” “descriptive reading,” “micro-sociological reading,” and “mere reading,” if they are taken at their face value. Such readings appear to eschew interpretation in favour of empiricism. They present as imperatives to stick to the concretely observable, to attempt translation on the literalist, Frygian model. This cannot, however, be accurate. The proponents of these models—Best and Marcus, Love, Latour and Sedgwick, Mitchell, respectively—are no dummies. They know as well as anyone that such “naïve” models are inherently interpretative. They know, too, that the false objectivity that would deny this truth is anti-human, anti-humanist. At stake is figurative language itself—which is to say all language. Figuration is essential to articulation for the simple reason that the sign is never reducible to its referent; it is always already interpretative. Nor is this a limitation; instead, it frees human expression so that experience may be shared across time and space. If we can never be certain that we actually know another’s experience, we have figurative language as common ground on which affect, meaning, connection, ecology in its most expansive sense, takes place. Translation is the sine qua non of community, in this respect. It is the condition of possibility for responsibility and judgement: for justice.
The badness of Fry’s translations of Mallarmé is itself the occasion for this realization. Their awkwardness exposes the mechanisms of translation, its inevitability, and the values embedded in our evaluation of it. As Mondal puts it so eloquently, “Fry shows that literal translation proves better at revealing things about the original than the original is itself” (xxx). Objectively literal translation is doomed from the start; it is not even possible. And yet, the attempt is pedagogical. It instructs us in so much about translation, verse, and the vagaries of attempting to meet multiple competing responsibilities. More, it prompts us to consider inter-subjectivity itself as an ethical predicament, one in which not being able to read the original in its language of composition is not a liability, perhaps, but a chance to forge community. Mondal’s account of Fry’s infectious enthusiasm, of his sometimes annoying insistence that others enjoy his translations as much as he enjoys Mallarmé demonstrates this potential. His decision to privilege the letter over the spirit in translating Mallarmé may look at first like a naïve faith in the convertibility of one language into another. At second glance, though, it offers a chance to think about verse itself as a translation of the world à la lettre, as a fundamentally ethical practice that depends utterly on respons-ibility.
Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. 278-293.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. 2017. Mere Reading: The Poetics of Wonder in Modern American Novels. London: Bloomsbury.
Brann, Eva T. H. “Mere Reading.” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 20 no. 2, 1996, p. 383-397. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/phl.1996.0067.
Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations, vol. 108, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1-21.JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1. Accessed 2 Sept. 2020.
Love, Heather. “Close but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn.” New Literary History, vol. 41, no. 2, 2010, pp. 371-391. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40983827. Accessed 2 Sept. 2020.
Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” Critical Inquiry30 (Winter 2004). 225-248.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2002. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You” in Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Michèle Aina Barale, and Jonathan Goldberg, eds. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke UP.
Stephen Ross is coeditor (with Kirby Brown and Alana Sayers) of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook to North American Indigenous Modernisms, and of a special issue of Modernism/modernity on “North American Indigenous Modernisms and Modernities” (2021). His most recent book is Youth Culture and the Post-war British Novel (2019). Often perplexed, he is thankful to find that confusion can be productive (though it need not be).