Il me semblait qu'à la poésie véritable accédait seule la haine. 1
—Georges Bataille

La traduction des petits textes d'Hans-Georg: la torture, l'impression finale que ce texte m'appartient tout en étant mon ennemi.2
—Hervé Guibert

Discretion and Fury

] In 1947, Georges Bataille published a confidential book entitled La haine de la poésie. For its republication by Éditions de Minuit in 1962, he retitled it L'impossible, evoking the opacity of its former title, which had remained incomprehensible to his readership. À peu près personne ne comprit le sens du premier titre, c'est pourquoi je préfère à la fin parler de L'impossible.3 No less impossible than the first title, the author's concession seems to choke on its desire for accession, in other words, disappointment.

But L'impossible might function as a rejoinder to a form of impassibility, as though a gesture of discretion (and fury, no doubt) at the exposed ossature, just as its remains continue to be invisible. An inside, as it were, turned out. Bataille's public was no more illumined as a result of this accommodation. And a tear had been made visible in the author's vestment.

] The history of translation is full of such correctives. Recall that Jacques Derrida's adoption of the now much-abused term déconstruction, at the time a re-introduction of the vocable into the French lexicon, arose out of the difficulty of translating the German Destruktion. There is almost no trace left now of Derrida's first decision, which was to translate Destruktion—a term more proximately aligned with an architecturally inflected idea of destructuring—by the misdecided and subsequently elided destruction. Embedded in the translative act is not only a subdued destructive force, but an act of concealment, of its own archive, of resistance, why not, to itself.4 [

Contra Translation
(for the admission of light and air)

] I wish to speak ill of translation and of translators.

] Call it a professional deformation, to abuse, for a moment, the French phrase. In the light of the contemporary pious consensus destined to the martyred translator for undertaking the often anonymous traversal of borders between languages, weighted with pacific significance as the rent frontiers of nations are more explicitly bloodied than they have allowed themselves to be in at least as many years as it has been since the recognized tellers of history have acknowledged the existence of concurrent wars on territories extrinsic to their own. Just recently, Europe congratulated itself for the absence of war in its (divisive) lands since 39-45.

] —But one should not overlook blaming translators themselves for the rehabilitation of their image from traitorous, loose-moralled floozies of language, to accredited diplomatic ambassadors, authorized foreign agents devoted to the open smuggling of precious cultural goods across otherwise inhospitable limits. For they are also, in conspiratorial bind with their publishers, responsible, at times collaterally, for the selective transmission of culture, producing such bibliographic lacunae as that which may lead, for example, an anglophone audience to conflate enshrined texts taught in French grammar schools (such as, for francophiles, those written by Mallarmé, Proust or Flaubert, to name but these) with the most provocative exemplars of contemporary experimentation.

] It might be more just to speak of benighted translators. The dark-souled, muddy-minded, compromission of often inscrutable, and not always pleasurable, promiscuities, which places one at odds with and in defense of the works of literature one is given to traducing.

Hervé Guibert, Moi, 1972 © Christine Guibert

Hervé Guibert, Moi, 1972
© Christine Guibert

Truth in Translation

] Translators are none other than the High Ransomers of foreign5 cultures. In the process of holding one culture ransom, they6 find themselves brandishing ransom notes for at least as many of the cultures as are attributed to the languages in which they work, exposing in the process, the foreignness of every culture, and their distance from what they might be inclined to call their own. La torture, writes Hervé Guibert as he undertakes to translate several texts by his friend and photographer Hans-Georg Berger, l'impression que ce texte m'appartient tout en étant mon ennemi.7 And one is quickly under the spell of this admission, replete with it, and complicit with its sentiment.

] It is a signal, among other things, to his undertaker that the rot has already set in. And what rot indeed, with its transmittable indigestions, and sensorial splendors, verging on repulsion, in the exchange value of secreting bodies, such as they are designated and repeatedly repealed.

] But Guibert's pronouncement is retractable. In the subsequent paragraph8 he turns against himself and his willingness to be marshaled into the seductive notion of the translating body as occupying a battle line, conceding a conflation of this toil with an attitude he holds against his own work: Non, l'idée précédente du texte ennemi était séduisante, mais fausse. J'avais par rapport à ce travail l'attitude que j'ai avec mon propre travail, c'est-à-dire qu'au moment où je le faisais j'avais l'impression de rater ce que j'aurais pu faire, le résultat positif n'apparaît qu'une fois le travail terminé.9 Correcting10 his pugnacious impulse with a rationalization about a failure analogous to the labor of writing, Guibert effectively rescues himself from the dangerous fault line about which his body teeters.11 It is a rare moment in the Journal in which Guibert substantiates himself out of alleged disinterest: Mais ce genre de notation, cette recherche de précision ici ne m'intéresse pas.12

Hervé Guibert, Autoportrait. Courtesy of the Estate of Hervé Guibert and Callicoon Fine Arts, NY.

Hervé Guibert, Autoportrait.
Courtesy of the Estate of Hervé Guibert and Callicoon Fine Arts, NY.

] In two paragraphs dedicated to the act of translation (the only instance of this in the more than five hundred pages of the Journal), Guibert calls up possession, uselessness, and disinterest. This lexical combinatory is revelatory of latencies at work in the much idealized task of Übersetzung such as it presents itself, and is almost Wilde in its sentiment.13

] It seems self-evident that if the translator is to be blamed, so is language. In among some of the most confounding words to transpose from French into English is the seemingly innocuous preposition, de. (Prepositional relations offer in fact among some of the most grievous difficulties of translation, in light, in particular, not only of the ambiguities they reveal, but of their exposure of radical differences in semantic armatures. If I were building a boat out of this work, it most surely would sink, or else become a weathervane—in any case, I would welcome the diversion . . . , but never would I be able to claim that it resembled itself). Already, in the brief catalogue of aversions assembled here, the de, most often translatable as of has manifested itself severally, whether in the title of Guibert's journals, Le mausolée des amants, in Bataille's misunderstood indictment of poetry, La haine de la poésie, or in the title of this piece, Hatred of Translation. This isn't a quibble, nor is it an appeal, but the identification of a fault in language that takes the form of a loophole. De is a kind of gallows—whose particularities go too readily unidentified. La photo de Hervé Guibert could just as much indicate a photograph belonging to Guibert, a photograph taken by Guibert, as a photograph in which the author figures—disorienting the location of the now explicitly ambiguous (self-) portrait.14

] De / of marks a demarcation line that is both untransmissible and unapproachable. This is not simple fabrication. An etymological obsolescence embedded in the English word of reveals that "the primary sense [of of] was 'away', 'away from' [. . .]."15 Out of of, away. It is one manner of casting the die. Out of the body that nears its disappearance, as though out of sheer plenitude and starvation for none other than its name. If the body could be figured otherwise, it would be at a permanent horizon beyond the horizon. Not a death, but its pronouncement. In permanent compromise with itself, and in the full allowance of its execution.

] No translator can claim the kind of exclusive proximities upheld on the name of this profession. The preposition alone rejects such a lure, and makes its measure in the way Guibert measured the photograph of the lover-friend: at arm's length, touching, and pushing away.16

] The destructive impulse of language is irresistible. It is a way of hiding the corpse afore the fact. The stinking corpse of the murdered text run backwards through a vitriolic digestive tract, a ritual imaginable as both sodomic and vomitive, in either case, procuring pleasures undivulged, and unhoped for satiation, and always at the mercy of an intruder, oneself.

Hervé Guibert, L'ami, 1979 © Christine Guibert

Hervé Guibert, L'ami, 1979
© Christine Guibert

Truth in Translation (bis)

One imagines oleanders bursting from wax leaves, a winding river recast as a Roman road and plane trees quietly furled against millenary walls, lavender by the road and flamingoes, extravagantly cross with the atmosphere, while storks rap their wooden beaks and dusk settles over herons in the delicate crosshatch of trees. Instead the Roman road proves a putrescent tyranny, circumscribing histories of renewable fascisms and the body catches between a clanking courtyard that claims Van Gogh as its misery and bullrings before the likes of which Hemingway salivated. Balls, I say. Wednesdays, don't walk in the country for the hunters; and the rest of the time stay off the street. At least it isn't summer, the bull's meat, imbued with tranquillizers and Epsom salts to lull it into the bullfighter's saber, will gorge a stomach avid for such victories as only men can wield through this kind of chemical extortion. The studio is double-decked and the wind blows in through the small porthole over the bed in the loft, resurrecting one's ghost to come. At the table on the floor, the books are arranged so as to suggest industriousness, and a tea kettle so as not to have to enter the communal kitchen, with its stink of sardines and the burnt motors of laundry machines, someone's shriek over scorched oil and someone else's progeny. This is Arles, I don't mind saying so, where the last of Guibert's body is autopsied in the final vomiting ache of a stomach cramped and belching over a toilet bowl, the mouth, a mouth in the customary way, sucking at itself, gasping its evacuations swallowed back into the chicken-necked torso of some unrecognizable rake. The trains are full of fakers and between here and the next place, there is a fight between two people and fists striking flesh until someone intervenes striking harder. I cannot find a single notation for the early part of the year, save a lone entry at December: "idiot." The rest is in the body's flight from itself, the unwritten jerk, the way a hand does as it trains itself to do, in the mesmerism of concatenated sleeps rounded to an even insomnia, the way a friend pronounces it, insonnia, somewhere between an execution and a clanging bell, striking the quarter hour, with the mouth hard around it. Well my mouth was hard around it and it didn't prevent me from lurching, the whole text in and out both ends at the same time. It was never a promise to like it, but to lie with it, in the way turtles stop in the middle of the road waiting, maybe purposefully, to be run over, or for someone to come and lift them, gently, in arms that won't smash their shells and rip out their meat, but place them, gently, entrails and all, in the scrub on the other side, so that they can keep racking themselves over the gravel to the next place, a sea edge before the sun rises over it and the pelagic birds come hunting in droves. A translator was always a hunter, as was the photographer until the silver gelatin print was invented—at the mercy of the streams and riverbeds—and hunting, was hunted, like the most prized furs on the backs of living things. You could lie down in a translator the way you lie on a bearskin or a hot stone in summer. It's a short distance to losing one's breath, and touching, it touches what wants only to die, the way the living die, gasping, and choking themselves back. In the end, the abattoir is full of living things, don't be fooled by the signs of death, every living thing breathing in its blood, the way it comes out of the ears and feeds the existing waterways.

Nathanaël is the (self-)translating author of more than twenty books written in English or in French. Recent works include Asclepias: The Milkweeds (2015), Sotto l'immagine (2014), and Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal (2012). Extrinsic translations include works by Danielle Collobert, Édouard Glissant, Hilda Hilst, and Catherine Mavrikakis. Nathanaël's translation of The Mausoleum of Lovers by Hervé Guibert was recognized by fellowships from PEN America and the Centre National du Livre de France.

  1. It seemed to me that true poetry was only reached by hatred. Tr. Robert Hurley.

  2. The translation of Hans-Georg's short texts: a torture, the final [impression] that this text belongs to me just as it is my enemy. Tr. Nathanaël. (Henceforth all translations, unless otherwise attributed, are the author's.)

  3. Almost no one understood the meaning of the first title, which is why I prefer finally to speak of The Impossible. Tr. Robert Hurley.

  4. Out of a concern for (impossible) transparency, I recognize here as well, the inexplicit replacement, in a reprint of our translation (with Rachel Gontijo Araújo) of The Obscene Madame D. of porcine child with pig child—a partial concession to relevant criticism, though we rejected the excessive swagger of pig-boy to maintain at least some resonance with the Christian child of Hilst's implacable derision.

  5. I insist on this particular archaism, the reinforcement of dividing lines that inevitably confound themselves in the mixage of bodies, their transpirations, dripping rotten succulence from their abject pores, perfidiously secretive of infection and hideous in their woundedness, manged, sucked and un-suckable.

  6. I say they though I could just as easily say we—each is its own form of travesty, being neither of each and owable to nothing.

  7. ...a torture, the final sense that this text belongs to me just as it is my enemy.

  8. Le mausolée des amants, it seems necessary to again specify, is written in undated paragraphs, arranged, so the reader believes, chronologically, with an over-arching concern for the novel as a form for the journal, which was not retrieved following the author's death from a musty cupboard at the back of an abandoned house, but devised as a work in itself, a posthumous intention, the majority of which the author typed into manuscript form himself from the extant notebooks. Despite a desire to romanticize these lines as the hidden text of an exposed author, one must resign oneself, alas, (I say alas for those attached to such permanent ideals of fragile beauty) to the recognition that this author had nothing to hide, and in that lies the whole of his secret.

  9. No, the previous idea of the enemy text was seductive, but false. I had in relation to that work the attitude that I have with my own work, which is to say that at the moment at which I was doing it I felt as though I was failing at what I could have done, the positive result only appears once the work is complete.

  10. Correction, pronounced in French, also means punishment, which does not exclude corporal punishment. To be corrected is (also) to be beaten (recognizing here, that the correcteur is also a grammarian...). Thomas Bernhard's Roithamer is surely the most relevant and explicitly convincing example of this tendency in western literature (Korrektur, 1975). The more capriciously detailed the plans, the more intractable the suicide. The house built for the dead, the cone-shaped non-sequitur in the midst of an otherwise protected wood, is none other than a cenotaph—a tomb (if not a hecatomb) that is empty of a body. In this instance, the cenotaph anticipates the architect's rigor mortis, for who else will live in the mortifically abandoned skin of a now unspoken language if not the unsubstantiably disappeared himself.

  11. Of course, the labor of translation may never be pronounced terminated; contrary to a written work, it is in permanent abeyance.

  12. But this sort of notation, this search for precision here is of no interest to me.

  13. Guibert's dismissiveness is inverse from Ortega y Gasset's appeal, in "Miseria y esplendor de la traducción," (1937) to an incompletable Utopian ideal, one that reaches through the knowledge of its foregone outcomes: Parte siempre hacia el fracaso, y antes de entrar en la pelea lleva ya herida la sien. (He is always marching toward failure, and even before entering the fray, he already carries a wound in his temple. Tr. E.G. Miller)

  14. Guibert, himself, troubles this distinction in the catalogue/novel, Le seul visage (Un livre avec des figures et des lieux, n'est-ce pas un roman? — A book with figures and places, is that not a novel?)—see pp. 20 (Moi) and 37 (Autoportrait) for a rejection of the too-facile subjective associations of the auto-retrato. Is not the translator also translated?

  15. Oxford English Dictionary, 2015.

  16. L'ami, 1979.

Banner image: Hervé Guibert, Sienne, 1979. © Christine Guibert.