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Monday, March 31, 2014

My revoltingly unacademic preface to Mirbeau

Learn French if you really want to read Mirbeau. Learn Russian if you feel that strongly about The Idiot. Translation is a miserable thing. 
Then again, this injunction ignores the main problem with a translation from the 19th century: time. The past is an unyieldingly exclusive set of countries that the likes of you can never even visit, much less become fluent in the local parlance. My dear modern Anglophone, can you even read Shakespeare and really get the shade of every word? Ftt, I can’t. It’s hard enough for two brothers to tell each other how they feel in the secret language they’ve known from the common den. How is a modern person going to tell another modern person what a prodigy manipulating words a hundred and fifteen years ago was trying to say without sounding like a crazy old foreigner?
The first problem is to not make the translation sound like a stilted, sexually frustrated Martian trying to speak Earth languages. In other words you can’t translate things too literally; I’m trying to show you how good Mirbeau was, ideally, not how well I know 19th-century French. (Good thing, since that body of knowledge would fail to impress a speech-impeded hamster.) Then again, wading too deep into the waters that make the translation flow can easily fall into rewriting, and writing over the author. There are some things you can say in perfectly natural French that you can barely approximate using even the most contorted English; that’s the nature of the beast; all languages are incomplete, otherwise painters, like the antihero “Lucien” of the story that follows, would have no reason to put brush to canvas (or whatever it is that visual artists do now). And so the translation monkey must, once in a while, just let the translation sound weird.
 But “language barrier” is an incomplete term; it only covers the gap between two contemporaries. What would you call the other gap I’m translating here? Time is the worst obstacle to “good” (insofar as it can be) translation. It’s one thing to turn modern French into modern English; they’re both stuffed with slang and obscenity, so one fuck in the hand is worth three merdes in the bush; screw it. It’s another to translate any previous time in history to the mass, lemminglike assumptions that our global interhorde makes about narrative and dialogue. For example, what do I do about the fact that Mirbeau’s characters keep on saying “oh!” where we would merdefuck, or the fact that he writes paragraphs that are longer than our attention span for the entire day?
Well, fuck it.
I let Mirbeau have his lack of unchained obscenity, except where it seemed his relatively genteel nineteenth-century characters were so broken down they lapsed into ancestral coarseness; once upon a time, if only for a time, people could accept expression of deep feeling as being genuine without any references to poop or genitals. And I let him have his long paragraphs, with a few exceptions for the sake of dialogue. Mirbeau was a journalist, but our modern semiautomatic rules of journalistic style weren’t fixed yet, perhaps because page design, much less web page design, hadn’t been fixed yet either, and people didn’t need to “break up long blocks of text” to compete with pop-up ads. Deal with it. If your wee head needs a breather, go get a beer. You may need a good deal of it for this book; it’s brilliant, but it’s a killer. You can leave a trail of breadcrumbs to the place where you left off if you really need to.
I even let Mirbeau keep his stacked narratives.
Switching topics to keep your attention for the moment, and dropping the crotchety old man sarcasm gradually as I do so, let the translator for a moment awkwardy assume the mantle of literary critic. An abused term, these days denoting either a gushing blurb writer or a deconstructionist out to destroy a canon; no, I just want to tell you a couple of things that might help you enjoy a text with which I have become almost uncomfortably intimate.
I’ve said Mirbeau was a journalist. Back then journalism and fiction weren’t quite such divergent paths as they seem to have become now, for all but a few trust-fund-deficient and talented, money-hungry few; god damn it, I was going to mention Neal Pollack, and his journalistic works, and his recent absolutely brilliant book Jewball, and this sentence was just rammed into a brick wall by the Jewish money stereotype diptardation. I should have said “men who need to feed their hungry families,” that has a more neutral…[1]
Baaaaah, screw the present and all of its denizens except bien syr you, dear reader of the pre-existentialists (because if anyone would lay claim to that title, he must fight his way around Mirbeau). Let us concentrate again on that stacked narrative, as I run in circles trying to provide useful pre-criticism while avoiding spoilers; I can’t stand forewords that assume you’ve already read the bloody book.
Let’s just say that the strangest thing about this book is that the framing narrative parallels the main narrative in plot, but disagrees with it logically on several key points. And since nearly every character in the book accuses nearly every other of being insane at least once, one would assume that every narrator within is more or less assumed to be unreliable by the ensemble cast itself. But since so much of the text is so close to Mirbeau’s journalistic and autobiographical writing, is any of it essentially unreliable? Augh!
But I fear these mysteries of process may be leading me further from the theme, while I… augh! No! These incongruencies are the theme! They fit perfectly! The theme is the inability of art to grasp life, or for life to encompass art, or the fine line that art walks when it tries to speak to living beings when it speaks from a realm that’s slightly outside life. Or perhaps the real danger is when it speaks from living beings, when it is telling tales—“it” might call them “truths,” in its creepy half-consciousway—that are slightly beyond life. The failure of the framed tale to jive logically with the main story… would the author of Diary of a Handmaiden have done something so random? No, I think the bizarre structure here is no absinthe-sucking paint-eating accident; the mismatched structure fits perfectly into the rotten underbelly of its heroes’ beautiful but impossible attempts to escape from life. As the second-person hero of the interior frame says: You can’t snub life, because life will have its revenge.

I tried to keep the footnotes to a dull roar, and in fact managed to pare them down to one explanation of a character’s sarcastic reference to a contemporary artistic fad. This lone footnote was roughly 85% plagiarized from Dr Pierre Michel of Angers, the greatest Mirbeau scholar my little existence will ever encounter, and the mastermind behind this translation project for lo these many years it’s taken us to finally bring this lost masterwork into the multilingual global economy at last. Mazel tov all around…

Ann Sterzinger

[1] But speaking of Jews, Google the Dreyfus Affair if you want to know what Mirbeau was really most famous for; it happened long enough ago that I can sum it up as an injustice, surprise, surprise. Second injustice: his contemporary writings about a contemporary yet eternal human bullshit problem have tended, subsequently, inasmuch as people remember him, to overshadow his fiction.


  1. Its nice Ann-Harsh.

  2. Good stuff, Ann. I wish someone would translate more Leon Bloy, one of my favourite polemicists and ranters and ravers.

  3. As a part of a final exam in some class or other, I translated some relatively simple Baudelaire poems. (I actually put this stuff on my blog). You've captured something interesting and important. There is always a sort of tension between what you think the original author is meaning, and what you impart to the Anglophone audience. It's the whole signifier/signified dichotomy raised to a higher level of abstraction. Anyway, brilliant article.

  4. Translator's notes are seldom this perceptive and entertaining.

    I get snagged on the second sentence of the second paragraph ("It’s time, the very hostile set of countries that never really embrace anyone anywhere"). It sounds as though you are likening "time" to "a set of hostile countries." Is that the intended meaning?

    1. You got the meaning, but it looks like I'll have to fix for clarity.

    2. Nice fix. Goes down so much easier.

  5. Sometimes translation actually improves a novel. I read Octave Mirbeau’s “Torture Garden” in the old Re/Search version; I didn’t know whether the work was social satire or soft-core sadism. I know what you’re thinking: good writing is always a bit of both … but my thinking was more black-and-white back then.

    At that time, I had access to a good university library, so I decided to inspect the original French edition of 1899 and found the first edition to be an even odder mixture of passages in somewhat different literary styles. The English-language version made the story flow better - and (dare I say it) the translation actually give the fiction greater depth.

    But I still don’t know what to make of Mirbeau.

    1. I hope I at least re-palatized it (to a reasonable degree) for our miserable century...

      Mirbeau sometimes shows glimpses of utopianism through anarchy, but I get the feeling that in his soul he knew better. Check the ending of his most famous book , Diary of a Chambermaid... most of it reads something like a 1990s workzine, but at the end... well, I won't spoil it, but he has a subtle and lovely way of dragging one back to hell.

  6. Ann,

    Have you any thoughts on Walter Benjamin's oft-cited essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’?

    If you're not familiar, here's a pretty smart commentary:

    1. Haven't read it... I'll give it a read and let you know...

    2. Reading the commentary now, it certainly makes me want to get the original... he is very technically correct about languages all wanting to express the same things. I love to get into the nooks and crannies of how they deal with the technical details. Since French was the only option at my near-to-Canada high school, I never really thought about the question of number much till I studied Greek, Homeric particularly... that far back in Indo-European, they still had vestigial traces of the dual! (Three separate forms of everything, not just for one vs. more-than-one, but one, versus two, versus more-than-two!!) When I labored through a year and a half of Sanskrit (a modern person would have to be far more intelligent than I to really get good at that, or start earlier, or be more focused, excuses excuses) I got a glimpse of what the human brain will really do to separate me and you from me, you, him, her, and the rest of the gang...

  7. Spreading this around the AN community, yeah humans need to be done.


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