Translator: Olivia Baes | Author: Marguerite Duras | Work: L’homme atlantique | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction
Vous penserez que le miracle n’est pas dans l’apparente similitude entre chaque particule de ces milliards du déferlement continu, mais dans la difference irréductible qui les sépare, qui sépare les hommes des chiens, les chiens du cinéma, le sable de la mer, Dieu de ce chien ou de cette mouette tenace face au vent, du cristal liquide de vos yeux de celui blessant des sables, de la touffeur irrespirable du hall de cet hôtel passé de l’éblouissante clarté égale de la plage, de chaque mot de chaque phrase, de chaque ligne de chaque livre, de chaque jour et de chaque siècle et de chaque éternité passée ou à venir et de vous et de moi.
You will think that the miracle is not in the apparent similarity of every one of the billions of particles of this continuously breaking wave, but in the irreducible difference which separates them, which separates men and dogs, dogs and film, the sand and the sea, God and this dog or this seagull clinging to the wind, and the liquid crystal of your eyes from the painful crystal of the sands, from the unbearable stuffiness in the lobby of this passé hotel from the even dazzling clarity of the beach, from each word in each sentence, from each line in each book, from each day and from each century and from each eternity past or to come and from you and from me.
Duras’ prose is mystery. When you read it as a writer, you want to believe that there is a formula. That if you had this formula, your writing would be as good as hers. You must translate her to realize the formula is not there. The author did not revise her prose; rather, she allowed it to blaze forth without respite. This lack of rest and revision is one that is difficult to retrace while translating her. In any case, with Duras, retracing of any kind would be a mistake. One of the phrases that caused me the most trouble while translating L’homme atlantique was: “cette mouette tenace face au vent”, which I eventually translated as “this seagull clinging to the wind”. L’homme atlantique is the transcribed voiceover to Duras’ eponymous film, and it reads as a series of instructions given by Duras, director, to Yann Andrea, her then-partner and actor. In this passage, the reader is confronted with life’s differences in the form of a list of the many components that make up the movie and book. The recurring seagull (la mouette) may be representative of Duras in that it struggles against the wind, but does not ever give in to it, and, in fact, acquires its grace from the struggle. In my first draft, I stumbled over this seemingly simple phrase, but one which, in French, is subtly beautiful for both its internal rhyme and the overall ease with which it rolls off the tongue. Perhaps more than any of her other texts, L’homme atlantique begs to be read aloud. My initial translation of “this tenacious seagull facing the wind” did not work. Something about ‘tenacious’ in English lacks the oral softness of ‘tenace’ in French. No other adjectives seemed to work either: persistent, stubborn, tireless. All of them felt forced, and none of them played off of any other word in the phrase like “te-nace” and “face” in the original. Yes, “tenace face au vent” glides gracefully like the seagull, and yet, when reading it aloud, I encounter the wind’s resistance in the staccato of the short syllables. I have to use a verb rather than an adjective to keep the seagull closer to the wind, so to speak. When I come up with “this seagull clinging to the wind” I have to read it aloud to be sure. It turns out that my voice as translator can weave together mystery too. It takes one read for me to understand that ‘clinging’ and ‘wind’ work together in quite the same way that ‘tenace’ and ‘face’ do. The gliding of ‘clinging’ and ‘wind’ is met with the resistance of ‘to the’, two short syllables that serve to remind the reader that the wind is a force to be reckoned with, and also the very force that engenders the grace of the seagull’s flight. Perhaps the key to Durassian prose lies in this mystery of the seagull’s flight, smooth against the choppy Atlantic winds.
Olivia Baes holds a BA in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Cultural Translation from The American University of Paris. For her masters thesis, she is exploring the role of creative writing in translation as she translates Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’ particular form of French in his novel Jean-Luc persécuté.