From the Translator: Content with Constraint

By Tom La Farge

The question most on a translator’s mind, when working on an Oulipian text, is, do you translate the constraint or the content? Can you do both: follow both the potentiality unleashed by the constraint and the text actually on the page? Can you offer the reader both an absorptive reading of a text-in-itself and the generative sense of potentialities unleashed by consciousness of the constraint?

The constraint-or-content dilemma came up for me when I was translating the two columns of nouns in Michèle Métail’s “L’infini moins 40 annuités” for this issue of WWB. The list is to be read by passing from each word to the next and, in the space between the two, hearing the phrase from which both occur. One such phrase will come into your mind as you go from “moth” to “star” and another as you move on from “star” to “film.” The progression of Métail’s content is linear, but the potential is constellative, since you could have passed from “moth” to “death’s-head” or “balls.” It’s a matter of the conjunctive phrases that you can remember or imagine.

The phrase that will occur to you is one part of each word’s connotations for you, based on your language experience. We don’t all have the same language experience, and there’s even less overlap in the case of French speakers and English ones. I was faced with situations in which two French words formed a connotative linkage that was not available in English. Métail passes from le martyre to la rue to le coin. Le martyre means martyrdom, and Paris has a Rue des Martyrs with at least one coin, or corner. I don’t know of a Martyrs’ or a Martyrdom Street, except as the title of a book by the Iranian Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet. There’s a Gallows Street in Dromore, UK; I couldn’t see it as a connotative bridge for anyone far outside the neighborhood of Dromore.

I opted instead to use the little arrows and notes that you will see in the text, and with those crutches deployed, to stay as close to Métail’s vocabulary as I could. I made this decision for two reasons. First, Métail is a highly conscious poet, and connotations are at the heart of her art. She invented the filigrane, a procedure that creates text out of the words in all the phrases in which a given word occurs except that very word. Compléments des noms is her life’s work, forty years’ worth so far. Second, her list is a rigorously sequential poem. Each word was chosen from the range of possible connotations awakened by the word before it, with a view to the word following it. To remove any word from the sequence would have been like removing a stone from an arch.

I see a place in the spectrum of translations both for those that bring the original over as completely and faithfully as the translator’s language-skill allows—the sort of translation that asks for absorptive reading—and for those that indicate the strangeness of the original and their distance from it by means of some sort of apparatus. That latter sort requires a second order of reading, of notes or translator’s parentheses. But in the case of constrained writing I believe that keeping alive the potentiality of the original, the sense of the translation’s not having exhausted all reading possibilities, is a real value.


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