In tribute to the great translator George Craig, who died in March of this year, Music & Literature is publishing the following excerpt from Writing Beckett’s Letters, Craig’s reflections on the process of translating Samuel Beckett’s letters from French into English for Cambridge University Press. Writing Beckett’s Letters was originally published as no. 16 of The Cahiers Series (Sylph Editions, 2011).

PREFACE

Some fifteen years ago I was asked by the editors of The Letters of Samuel Beckett (then only a project, although based on the express wish of Beckett himself) to act as translator from French to English. I was coming to the end of an academic career teaching French, and was delighted at the chance to put such skills as I had in the service of a writer for whom I had boundless admiration. It happened also that I was Irish, and familiar with Beckett’s world, above all with the paths by which his linguistic idiom, in both English and French, had evolved. No one should make such a claim unless he or she recognises that acquaintance, however detailed, brings no certainties – except one: that anyone offering certainties about language in general or translation in particular is either knave or fool. On the strength (or, as Beckett would probably have said, the weakness) of this conviction, I set to. 

All except the crassest or boldest of translators live in the shadow of ‘traduttore, traditore’ (‘translator, traitor’). The only thing that can ease the discomfort and the guilt is the excitement of actually translating: setting up a body of words which, for better or worse, can stand for the original – and close the circle of engagement. For of course most translating is of complete works. No such comfort, however temporary, for the translator of Samuel Beckett’s letters. Always behind the translator’s shoulder is the man who could so easily and to such effect write his own letters in his own, native English. Worse, the letters are not a finished work, its overall shape settled by Beckett himself. On the contrary, they are the record of his arguments with himself (and others) about what such a work might be; and the arguments change with time. For the translator, quite simply, the task is impossible; and that is in fact a liberation. There is no ideal from which one’s attempt is a falling away, no discoverable way of doing it better. What follows here is an assemblage of links: to this moment or that, this memory or that, this bearing or that. All have their origin in words of Beckett’s. The map they create is of the unpredictable variety of tone and preoccupation to be found in the letters.

‘Correspondence’, as Beckett practises it, is less the carrying out of a known task than a continual discovering of what in fact he wants to say, and how best (or, as he might put it, least badly) to say it. 

George Craig, 2011 

 

BEGINNINGS

Between 1948 and 1952 there took place a particularly remarkable correspondence: that between Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit. In the course of his life Beckett wrote something approaching 20,000 letters. Fascinating as many of these are, they offer nothing that can match this explosion of words. But then Duthuit was not just any correspondent: he was a highly cultured and intellectually rigorous art historian and critic, with total confidence in his own judgement. For Beckett, recognising these qualities and drawn by Duthuit’s impatient refusal of cultural orthodoxies, he represented something close to an ideal interlocutor: someone to whom, in the areas that mattered, anything could be said. 

These voluminous letters are in French. Beckett’s years in France – at first in Paris before the War, then, during the Occupation, in hiding in the South, finally, after the Liberation, back in Paris – were a time during which, slowly at first but with increasing urgency, the move to writing in French took shape. The risks were huge, but by the mid-1940s the impulsion was irresistible. It issued in two bodies of writing: the early stories and Molloy; and the letters. Duthuit, aware of Beckett’s deep love of painting, wanted him to write about the artists whom they admired. Beckett, always uneasy when asked to produce formal criticism, wrote to make clear his ambivalence: the fears and the enthusiasm. He needed to believe that Duthuit could receive all this, and answer in kind. Small wonder that, when the signs were that Duthuit was indeed that kind of interlocutor, Beckett came close to idealising him: ‘j’ai d’autres amis mais un seul Georges Duthuit. Je le sens. Je le sais’. (‘I have other friends, but only one Georges Duthuit. I feel it. I know it.’) Within the freedom that this allowed, he wrote huge swathes of excited and extraordinary prose. With the confidence that this brought, his ability to follow the other promptings, to write on the other blank page (the stories, the novels, later the plays) grew more and more assured. 

Like all idealisations, it eventually failed. For reasons that are unlikely ever to be wholly clear, Duthuit drifted away from Beckett. But the essential had been achieved. Beckett had established himself as a French writer. 

 

Samuel Beckett in 1965. © Gisèle Freund, via Encyclopædia Brittanica

Samuel Beckett in 1965. © Gisèle Freund, via Encyclopædia Brittanica

‘IL ÉTAIT EXALTÉ’ 

Thus Beckett’s publisher Jérôme Lindon in discussion with me, when reacting to the prose of the letters to Duthuit (‘He was over-excited’). But more is at issue than mood or degree of excitability, for here Beckett is urgently engaged in first-hand discovery of what he wants to say on a question of incomparable importance to him. A crude version of the question Beckett is wrestling with might be: how can I best explain to this powerful and sensitive art critic (Georges Duthuit) why Bram van Velde and Jack B. Yeats matter more to me than the other painters whose work I admire? Every attempt he makes sets up new difficulties, new possibilities of misunderstanding. No worked-out response predates this letter, these letters; the work is being done in the letter(s). But Beckett is the first to see the dangerous implications of this emphasis or that, and is in there with the correcting pen before any emphasis has had time to harden into a statement or claim. 

 

THE LETTER AND THE TEXT 

One of the most prominent elements of those televised costume dramas so popular with British viewers is the preoccupation with the detail of life ‘below stairs’: the careful setting out of hierarchy and function. There may be chaos in the kitchen, but no hint of this or any other irregularity must appear in the servants’ direct dealings with employers and guests. Discretion, to the point of near-invisibility, is what is required. Anyone editing or translating Beckett’s letters would be ideally qualified for a part in one of these dramas. What must appear on the literary equivalent of the dining table or silver salver is an offering both appropriate and instantly usable: in this case, a clean and easily readable text (and where required its translation). This is something very remote from the origin of that text: the actual documents written (by hand or on his typewriter) by Beckett himself. 

It is not in the fixities of print that we shall see Beckett in action – turning to this person or that, in this or that mood or degree of readiness – but in the surges of words, the crossings-out or underlinings, the marginal additions and postscripts. The letter is a physical reality: a visible record of what happened when he acted on the prompting to write to someone. Almost always, it is written rapidly, often in bursts, with pauses between the bursts. And ‘rapidly’ means, in practical terms, ‘without reference to legibility’. Beckett is the first to recognise how difficult his hand is (‘my Ogham’), and the letters abound in promises to be more careful, to do better. But these are like New Year resolutions: well intended, but never binding. The only exception (and without it we would not have had any letters, since they would never have reached the intended recipient) is the address: there we will see a fine clear hand – and sizeable lettering. 

As translator, seeking to come as close as I can to the movements of thought and feeling, I am often faced with a scurry of strokes, some barely rising above a straight line, at the moments of greatest intensity. Needing most to be sure of my ground, I am confronted by opaque matter, in which it is not even certain where one word begins and another ends – or, just as important, which language these ‘words’ are in. In the worst case – excited letters to a very close friend who, for one reason or another, has had to move away – even the attempt to be legible disappears. The reaction that follows will be familiar to lovers of cryptic crosswords, as an obstinately asserted reading forms a prison (‘it has to be that, yet it can’t be that’). We may not be recognising the language in which the passage is written (Beckett never signals change of language, and such change is extremely common); or we may have been undone by his writing one word in two blocks, where for example there is a bulky consonant. (The reverse is also possible, of course: one apparent word for two intended ones.) 

Short of publishing the letters as written, and converting every reader willy-nilly into an editor, there exists no good option but to issue a clear text. Yet the reader is less generously treated by this policy than the term ‘clear text’ might suggest. Beckett, that inveterate answerer of letters, only occasionally wantedto write to someone, and even then there was usually a practical justification for it. Once, and once only, in all the letters I have read have I found an unprompted beginning, when he says to Georges Duthuit, ‘J’ai envie de vous écrire. C’est ma seule excuse’. (‘I feel like writing to you. That is my only excuse.’) This greater or lesser distaste, the waxing or waning of each particular experience of distaste, can be glimpsed in the manuscript letters – in variations of spacing, of speed (with its inevitable effect on legibility), of length; afterthoughts, changes of tone, discontinuities – and is the visible representation of what Eliot called ‘the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings’. 

 

ENIGMAS 

Once in a while, in one of Beckett’s letters – particularly in those to Georges Duthuit – something turns up that is not so much difficult as impossible: something offering no hint of how it might be resolved, or even understood. In its simplest form, first. Beckett is no great admirer of the novelist Raymond Queneau. Duthuit has suggested that Beckett might include something translated from Queneau by Beckett in an anthology he is preparing. Beckett says first ‘Est-ce absolument nécessaire?’, and then quotes a few words: ‘La servante, qui s’était [illegible worddans la cuisine . . . ’, about which he writes ‘Translation: Who had wanted . . . ’ I can think of no French word that could both represent the illegible word and carry the meaning ‘wanted’. The construction with ‘s’était’ narrows drastically the range of possibilities; what follows must be a past participle, but no participle of the verbs of wanting (vouloir, désirer, avoir envie) could fit this syntactic frame. Nor could those participles which would fit, such as ‘enfuie’, give any sense of wanting. Where to turn? 

George Craig at the launch of  The Letters of Samuel Beckett ,   vol. II, at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Barbe, Paris, 2011.

George Craig at the launch of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, vol. II, at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Barbe, Paris, 2011.

Beckett has no love for the Apostle Paul (‘ce salaud de Paul’ – ‘that bastard Paul’), but grants that, at moments, his writing can almost match that of the Prophet Isaiah, whom he does admire. To Duthuit he quotes a long passage that ends ‘There is a natural body and a spiritual body’. Then he adds, ‘Autre chose quand même qu’Albert Bayet et Pierre Bénard’ (‘A bit different all the same from AB and PB’). Undistinguished translators of the Bible into French, perhaps, a two-man team? In fact, Bayet was a sociologist at the Sorbonne, who occasionally wrote on religious topics. Bénard was the editor of the satirical and anti-clerical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. What can have put these two in Beckett’s mind, as representing presumably everything that the King James Bible was not? Why should he link the two men? 

 

CHANGING HORSES (1) 

And we all know where you’re not supposed to do that. First check: has this really happened, or am I giving in to a prompting from somewhere else, perhaps just a temporary preoccupation of my own? Second check: what difference would my changing the translation make, to the particular word or phrase, or to the letter more generally? The commonest direction of change is that of greater clarity, the most obvious kind of service to the reader. But the text being considered is, for its own reasons, unclear, even opaque. Novelists are not expositors. Where do letters stand, in this perspective? Clarity may be an unquestioned good in business letters, or in letters to someone hardly known. Between intimates, no such norms apply. 

 

‘AUDITIF’ 

Beckett’s letters to Georges Duthuit abound in strange, unexpected things, but there can be few stranger and more unexpected than the moment when he announces: ‘Curieux combien on est acculé au mot “écouter”, nous qui ne sommes tout de même pas des auditifs.’ (‘Odd how often we are driven back on the word “listening”, we who are after all not ear-people.’) No one can read Beckett’s novels or stories without being made aware of the play of voice, of speech rhythms, of breath groups. This is the man for whom every syllable in every play mattered: who, through rehearsal after rehearsal, attended to delivery, to voice quality, to vocal range. We are made aware in the letters of his delight at having found the actors Jack McGowran and Patrick Magee, to whom he could hand over his work without hesitation, in the certainty that they could produce the sound-patterns he wanted. 

But Duthuit is not just any recipient. There is the fact that he is French: the letters form part of Beckett’s first major correspondence in French, and it takes place in the period where Beckett’s urge to make French his literary language is growing in force. And then he is an extremely active and opinionated art critic, who can spot a talent. The talent he spots is Beckett’s extraordinary awareness of – and familiarity with – European painting, and he tempts (even lures) Beckett into writing about it. The inevitably visual aspect of this, coupled with the excitement and pleasure that Duthuit’s encouragement has given him, surely prompt this apparent shift of perceptual allegiance. It will not recur. 

 

FIRST LOOK

It is April 1954. I am in Paris. I have just read Malone meurt (the second novel in the sequence MolloyMalone meurtL’Innommable). I am overwhelmed and yet, mysteriously, elated by it. At first, I don’t know what to make of this. I have been asked round for a drink by a woman with strong literary interests. I tell her about what I’ve been reading, the overwhelmedness and the elation. She says that it sounds very strange, and asks where the elation could have come from. Suddenly I see, and the words come tumbling out. Beckett has invented a name (Saposcat), and this name fills me with delight. I know, in some peculiar yet commanding sense of that word, that this is a triumph for Beckett: that he has lovingly mouthed this alien construct – these consonants, these vowels, in this order – and quietly lodged it in the public domain, where no French reader will query it. This name (with its diminutive, Sapo) can stand for his whole (outsider’s) enterprise: creating in the space of French. 

A year earlier, just before I left Trinity College, Dublin, for France, my tutor handed me a note: a letter of introduction to his old friend Samuel Beckett. I was too timid to take up the opportunity. But I did make his acquaintance – in the terrain he might have preferred: written words. 

 

‘ÉCRIRE SUR’ (‘WRITING ABOUT’) 

Few words can produce a quicker reaction from Beckett than ‘critic’. But what is at issue is much more than his dislike or distrust of professional commentators, well documented though that is. The phrase above, from a letter to Georges Duthuit, is the final, astonishing part of a refusal to write an appreciation of Bram van Velde that Duthuit has asked him to write. It runs: ‘Je ne peux plus écrire de façon suivie sur Bram ni sur n’importe quoi. Je ne peux pas écrire sur’. (‘I am no longer capable of writing in any sustained way about Bram or about anything. I am no longer capable of writing about.’) 

If we could take that as a literal confession of limitedness (‘I used to be able to do this kind of thing, but I can’t any more’, or ‘I tried doing it, but I see now that it’s no good just trying’), we could perhaps pass on from it without further comment; rather as if he had said ‘I find my German isn’t up to it any more’. But what is being said here, even when we allow for the qualifying ‘in any sustained way’, amounts to ‘I can’t do criticism’. That too is perfectly possible and untroubling in theory: why should he not keep away from the business of criticism, as he shies away from discussions of contract or promotional activities? But that is not what the letters tell us. In these we find judgements in plenty, short and long, favourable and unfavourable, often delivered with total confidence, sometimes hedged about with disclaimers, but always clear and careful. Accounts of what might be wrong with a performance are a particularly rich example, as are his occasional responses to younger writers’ requests for reaction or guidance. Very occasionally his response to this or that is dauntingly abstract and extended, and we might start to wonder if after all we have got it all wrong. Then, a letter or two later, a correspondent asks if he has read this or that critic or philosopher. Beckett backs away at once: either he hasn’t read him or he has tried and been defeated. Even Maurice Blanchot, one of the very few critics of whom he speaks with real approval, will lose him by being, in Beckett’s view, too theoretical.

What sense can we make of these apparent contradictions? It might be better not to think of ‘making sense of them’ (with the implicit claim that we can see farther and straighter than Beckett), and recognise instead that they are simply (or complicatedly) indications that Beckett, in his own long search for what it is he wants to say, instinctively and properly backs away from any fixed position. 

 

RUNNING INTO THE BUFFERS (1) 

Moments when thought goes this way and that, pauses, restarts, and fails. Towards the end of one of his huge letters to Georges Duthuit, Beckett, over in Ireland to be with his dying mother, writes: ‘Je guette les yeux de ma mère, jamais si bleus, si stupéfaits, si déchirants d’enfance sans issue, celle de la vieillesse’ (‘I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age’). Heartrending indeed, but posing no great problem for the translator. Then a sentence later the original letter reads: ‘Je crois que ce sont les premiers yeux que je voie. Je ne tiens pas à en voir d’autres’. ‘I think they are the first eyes that I . . . .’ That I what? The temptation is to go for ‘have seen’, leaving the reader free to add an explanatory note: ‘the first he has ever properly looked at’, or something of the sort. But he could have written ‘que j’aie jamais vus’, which would mean precisely ‘have seen’. And then, the verb is indeed ‘voir’, not ‘regarder’. He can’t possibly be saying that he has never seen eyes before, can he? Or expect us to supply the ‘real’ meaning: ‘looked at’? And all this leaves out what the words actually say: ‘que je voie’ – first-person singular of the present subjunctive. So we can’t even rescue ourselves by a temptingly brilliant adjustment: ‘the earliesteyes’, for that would be a matter of historical fact, requiring only an indicative, ‘que je vois’. I am driven back on ‘that I am seeing’, but silently adding ‘properly’. We all know what territory he is in; but not where he is standing. I have run out of track. 

Anticipating what lies ahead for himself and Duthuit, Beckett continues, to his friend: ‘Moi, je sais mal combattre. On fera peut- être quelque chose en ne pouvant combattre. Après tout c’est un talent répandu, celui-là. Dans la mêlée, bien sûr, pas au-dessus, poilu peu poilu indifférent aux causes.’ (‘I am no good at fighting. Perhaps we can do something by not being able to fight. After all, that is a widely shared talent. In the free-for-all, of course, “poilu peu poilu”, not above it, indifferent to causes.’) The word ‘poilu’ in standard French means ‘hairy’, and ‘peu’ in this collocation means ‘not very’, but ‘poilu’ in 1914–18 slang means ‘soldier of low status’, ‘private’ (someone from what the British army refers to as ‘Other Ranks’). Somehow I must suggest this self-mockery in military terms, and so I take up the secondary meaning of ‘rank’ (foul- smelling, offensive) to go with the primary (ranker: man in the ranks). So, finally: ‘rankest of rankers’. Well, yes, but... 

 

BECKETT’S FILTER 

If there were an opposite of ‘hype’, what would it be? Exactly what is needed here: a way of pointing at a quirk of Beckett’s: his continual scanning of descriptions of human behaviour (particularly his own) for signs of flattery, or indeed of anything complimentary, and the replacement of these by correspondingly unfavourable descriptions. All writers search, one supposes, especially since Flaubert and his insistence on ‘le mot juste’, for the ‘right word’. Beckett in his last published text ends: ‘What is the word’. For him, there could never be a rightword. 

A letter to a friend gives news of Beckett’s progress: it is beginning to look as if a particular literary venture is almost complete. The expectable French would be that it was ‘en bonne voie’; for Beckett it was ‘en mauvaise voie’. Translating, I have to bypass ‘well on the way’ and move to ‘ill on the way’: the secondary meaning (‘sick on the journey’) reinforcing the refusal of confidence. 

Reaching for a representation of himself and his French, Beckett focuses on ‘un fort des Halles’ (a strapping, brass-lunged, ‘alpha male’ butcher’s boy from the stalls of Les Halles) and comes up with this exhortation to himself: ‘coule français de faible des Halles’ as the best he can hope to produce. English has no direct match – Smithfield does not seem to have generated a comparable popular mythology – and I find myself retreating to mere paraphrase: ‘flow freely, weedy French’ – what a ‘faible des Halles’, if there were such a creature, would offer. 

Beckett suggests to his publisher Jérôme Lindon that Mercier et Camier might, if Lindon is really determined to publish it, be included in a volume to be called Merdes posthumes. (He has just said that he would not want this piece to come out ‘de mon simili- vivant’ – ‘in my imitation lifetime’, on the model of the French ‘simili-cuir’, ‘imitation leather’.) 

Setting out, enthusiastically and energetically, on some project, Beckett finally has, as he puts it, ‘the bit between his false teeth’. 

 

CHANGING HORSES (2) 

Any English or Irish person over 50 is likely to have been taught at school by someone more (often much more) than five years older, who will have been taught by someone . . . and so on back to at least the time of Matthew Arnold. But usage changes over time. Beckett was born 25 years before me, his teachers proportionately before that; and he lived through two World Wars, against my one. Beckett’s language is the set of his words for those experiences: the long continuities of academic discourse, the irruptions of strange new elements in wartime, and the continual recourse to other languages. Approaching Beckett’s letters in my 70s, I have to ask, first, to what extent the set of my words overlaps with his. In the late 1940s, Beckett is still writing ‘to-day’ and ‘to-morrow’, still as often as not preferring ‘they do not’ to ‘they don’t’. How soon, if at all, will he adopt the more recent forms? ‘If at all’ is important: one may not only not take up a new usage; one may actively dislike it. These questions reappear whenever anyone sets about translating Beckett into English, and response will continue to change over time. 

 

NO RESTING PLACE 

If you can’t be sure of the text that you propose to translate: confident, that is, that the words you are looking at (and by implication the alphabetical symbols with which they are formed) are indeed those written by the author, your prospects are not good. What is required is a mixture of luck, patience, memory, and openness; what is to be avoided is rivalry. 

And supposing that I do eventually see what is being said – this word, these words in this sequence – how far on am I? Not much farther than when I am reading words that are not in doubt. For now I am facing a difficulty of a quite different kind: an invented word, an idiosyncratic usage, word-play. This time, unlike the relation between illegibility and importance, the difficulty may occur in what is usually seen as no more than elementary social requirements framing the letter proper: names, addresses, styles of greeting. A letter to Georges Duthuit opens: 

Mon cher vieux Georges
Assez de ce vous garou, veux-tu? 

At the time, the choice between ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ was a serious one, governed by surprisingly tight guiding rules (something once standard practice, now a matter of choice). Here Beckett judges that the apprenticeship is over: formality can move to intimacy. But what we read bypasses all contextualising. The change in relation is proposed in a phrase of Beckett’s invention. There is no ‘vous garou’, but there is a ‘loup-garou’ (werewolf; the ‘bogey-man’ of children’s stories and nursemaids’ warnings). Beckett here banishes the bogeyman ‘vous’. So far so (relatively) easy. But how to render into English a shift (formal to informal) which has no direct or even approximate equivalent in modern usage? Two possibilities: record the expression as untranslatable, and write a note of the kind I have just given; or try to find an expression that does draw on English resources. My choice was the old Quaker refusal of conventional politenesses, which at least raises the issue. There is no matching Beckett’s brevity, but an echo perhaps, both of the meaning and of Beckett’s bold joke: ‘Shall we stop the scraping and bowing, and go for thee-ing and thou-ing?’. 

 

LETTING GO

In the mid-1970s, the TLS sent me for review Beckett’s Pour finir encore et autres foirades: a small collection of short pieces. I read and reread the high-density texts, came to terms with these new utterances, contrived some sort of review, and dutifully posted it off. Time, quite a lot of time, passed. The (apprehensively) expected galley-proofs failed to appear. Then a small package was delivered, sent by a senior TLS figure. It contained a copy of For to end yet again, and a handwritten note. It appeared that, by some inexplicable confusion, my galleys had been dispatched to an American political historian. Now the senior figure wanted to know if this text was ‘different from Pour finir encore’. If I could have answered that question, everything that needed to be known about Samuel Beckett would be known. 

I had read hardly more than a page of the English text before registering unease. I hurried past the passage which seemed to contain the immediate cause of this reaction, and, without any clear notion why, calmed down. That calm lasted until the next disturbing moment or passage, a page or two later. Something was the matter, but I was having great difficulty in formulating it. I made myself stare at it, speak it, then close my eyes and recite it, concerned only with its sounds and rhythm. ‘They carry face to face and relay each other often so that turn about they backward lead the way. His who follows who knows to shape the course much as the coxswain with light touch the skiff.’ This is his translation of ‘Ils portent vis-à-vis et souvent se relaient si bien qu’à tour de rôle ils ouvrent la marche à reculons. A celui qui la ferme revient qui sait le soin de gouverner un peu comme par petites touches le barreur le skiff.’ The word-ordering in the French makes the meaning immediately clear, with a distinctly Latinate flavour. But the English? 

The syntax has gone beyond what English will allow. That perception prompted in me the still more unwelcome extension: Beckett’s English is going, from that title on. Why the ‘For’? It doesn’t fit with modern English usage. It does fit with Irish usage – but not educated usage. This is rural Irish. 

Over the next few months I worried intermittently about all this. I had no wish to talk to anyone about it. I had to fight my own battles, and could hardly bear to think about what was happening. Then, one day, the whole edifice of fear and doubt collapsed: undermined by the one person who could achieve this, Samuel Beckett. It was his latest published work, That Time, with its powerful evocation of a young man’s world – and English word-world. Now I could even admit to what I had been fearing. And the fears had gone. 

 

George Craig was born in Belfast in 1931 and studied at Trinity College Dublin and the École Normale Superieure in Paris. After working as a journalist, translating Russian broadcasts for Agence France Presse in Paris, he joined the University of Sussex, where he taught French for thirty years. He translated and co-edited the four volumes of Beckett’s letters published by Cambridge University Press.

Banner image: Title page to Writing Beckett’s Letters (Sylph Editions, 2011).