Words with Borders: Writing from the Oulipo

As the prevailing image used by book reviewers to praise literary translations is that of transparency—limpid, pellucid, crystalline—it seems clear, so to speak, how ready we are to think of language as a window onto meaning. Whatever difficulties a translator may have encountered in carrying that meaning over into a new syntactic, lexical, and cultural idiom, we tend to expect his or her fingerprints to be wiped away by the time the text arrives before us, and for the resulting view to be more or less the same as the view enjoyed by the native reader. For better and occasionally for worse, we tend to be correct.

The Oulipoouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature, a Paris-based literary collective dedicated to exploring how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints borrowed from linguistics or mathematics or parlor games—presents an uncommonly acute challenge to that expectation. To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle, and more often than not these two missions blur together to the point where it becomes impossible to discern where the language ends and the meaning, such as it is, begins.

So, as you might imagine, things get doubly complex when a second language comes into play. Each language is a system unto itself, with its own rules and cheat codes, its own alliances and enmities and tunnels and trapdoors—and since exploiting all of these is the very essence of Oulipian methodology, since language is not only the raw material of an Oulipian experiment but also its demonstrandum, we might ask what, in this context, translational transparency even means. What happens when, to bedevil McLuhan, the window is the view?

The selections in this issue are an attempt to hint, by demonstration, at the range of potential answers to those questions. (For a more thorough consideration, I commend to the interested reader Harry Mathews’s excellent essay “The Case of the Persevering Maltese.”) They’re also meant to hint at the diversity of formal and conceptual convolutions through which Oulipian texts come into being: alphabetical and narrative constraints, exigencies of rhyme and meter, engagements with preexisting literary works or grammatical properties. As such, depending on the text, the project of translation may be an exacting but straightforward affair, or a negotiation among multiple poles that are themselves exacting but straightforward, or an operation of outright rewriting, retracing the author’s footsteps on a perpendicular plane.

In some of the texts here, form guides content without contorting it in particular: the floor-by-floor tour of an apartment building in Ian Monk’s “Melody in A flat” runs for 81 lines of nine words each. Jacques Bens’s irrational sonnets, which divide the form’s conventional fourteen lines into a distribution based on the first digits of pi, are not more difficult to write—nor to translate, at least not outlandishly so—than any other rhymed and metered poem.

But convolutions beget convolutions, and often a given form is a springboard for further constraints that do shape the text directly. Jacques Jouet’s contribution is a conventional sestina in alexandrine verse, but with an additional rule whereby the word ending each line is an anagram of its counterpart in the previous stanza—limiting the field of potential end-words, and thus semantic anchors for the poem, to the small handful that can be rearranged to make six more reasonably creditable words. (Monk’s “Melody” also uses the permutation of the sestina, or rather the nonina, to govern how the narration moves from floor to floor.) Olivier Salon’s “Stations of the Cry,” an impressionistic travelogue modeled after Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony,” likewise contends with a steadily diminishing alphabet as it soldiers on in search of narrative. François Caradec’s curdled adages, on the other hand, use the form of the spoonerism to illustrate what the Oulipian Paul Fournel calls the Canada Dry principle (after the soft drink that has bubbles but isn’t champagne): the text “has the taste and color of a restriction, but does not follow a restriction.”

Michèle Métail’s piece, a theoretically endless chain of genitive phrases, taps directly into a linguistic property and an idiomatic inventory not quite shared between French and any other language. To convey the nature and scope of her project in English, the flow of its x-of-y-of-z construction must be allowed, even encouraged, to diverge from its source. (Métail also uses the preposition de, which glosses as of but can also equate to from and by and so on, between each pair of nouns; to avoid too stilted a reading, Tom La Farge has used the idiomatically appropriate range of connective particles, more accurately preserving the this-is-the-dog-that-chased-the-cat-that-ate-the-rat quality of the original.) And Anne Garréta’s roguish rereading of Proust, which posits that the first sentence of his masterwork is in fact an acronym containing several more sentences found elsewhere in the novel, turns a novelistic investigation into an alphabetical one—whereupon the first sentence of Remembrance of Things Past ceases to bear any useful resemblance to the first sentence of A la recherche du temps perdu. And so it goes from there.

To put a finer point on it: in much Oulipian writing, the pivotal language elements—the end-words of a sestina, the prepositional glue between a series of nouns, the sentence that gives rise to an exponential progression of new sentences—are most valuable for how they were arrived at, what they accomplish structurally, where they can be taken still—their potential—rather than what they signify. If the Oulipian translator chooses to prize this at the expense of fidelity to “meaning,” he or she does so in the belief that the soundest way to bridge the author’s intent and the reader’s experience is not literal but formal, not a window but a one-way mirror. They say translators are traitors, and we are guilty as charged; but then, as Patrick Henry may or may not have said: if this be treason, make the most of it.

All the same, it is to the credit of this issue’s band of traitors that the texts in this issue have made it into English, for the first time, so closely resembling their original French versions in both spirit and signification. I have focused here only on the translators’ challenges, not their successes, but the quality of their work—its resourcefulness, its audacity, its surefootedness along the thin border between lightness and gravity—speaks, and shows, volumes.

© 2013 by Daniel Levin Becker. All rights reserved.