Translating In Transit: Writing - by Proxy!
Bernard Hoepffner

Ce qui m'étonnait c'était qu'it was my French that disintegrated first. (11) [1]

       This magic sentence caught me unawares one afternoon during the late sixties as I was browsing through the fiction shelves of the Swiss Cottage Library in North London. It described exactly what I was feeling at the time; however, what surprised me was that c'était mon français qui s'était désagrégé en premier. My grasp of English could not, at the time, have been up to the complex system of puns and allusions displayed in the novel, although it possibly decided how I would enter the language and how I would later wallow in it.
       Since then, In Transit has been a frequent companion; in the same way that, in nineteenth-century novels, it was through the Bible that the children of the poor were taught to read and write, I somehow learned to read English «in transit». The slow poison of the multilingual punster had entered my bloodstream.
       And it was natural enough that, fifteen years later, with English as my main language, and trying to find a way to make a living in France, I decided to translate the novel into French. From Brigid Brophy's agent in France I found that little interest had been shown in her work. Publishers wanted a coherent oeuvre, not a (delightful) surprise at each new book. Three books by Brigid Brophy had already been translated and published in France (without much commercial success): Flesh in 1963, The Snow Ball and The Finishing Touch in 1967.
       The translation took me a year's worth of evenings and week-ends. I had no idea about the problems of translation, and thought my task would be simple enough: translate the first sentence, then the second, und so weiter until the Fin. Of course, it didn't work out like that - and now, ten years later, working full time as a translator, I wonder whether this particular translation will ever be finished.
       It remains unpublished - I still have the typescript and, every so often, browse through it, change a word, a sentence here or there; I never found a French publisher who wanted to bring it out. Twenty-seven have refused the translation so far (twenty-eight now, another «non» came today in the post). Most of them have read it, but none of them liked it. Still, it was a good introduction for me - I now work for a number of them. I continue to hope, and from time to time show the typescript to someone.
       The replies I got would make a fitting introduction to the translation. Most of them were derisive, one of them was even insulting. One publisher answered that «we only publish textes littéraires, thus you will readily understand why we are unable to take it on» (?); another wrote that «this endless semantic magma is nothing but a huge unfinished draft». These rejection letters make depressing reading - no reflection, I think, on Brigid Brophy's work, but rather a commentary on the state of publishing in France. It reminds me of the letters to and from publishers at the beginning of Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, which is still untranslated in France (I believe it was after encountering Brophy's name in Sorrentino's novel that I checked whether In Transit had been published in France); in 1865, Victor Hugo wrote, in his preface to his son's translation of Shakespeare, «When you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look on the translation as an act of violence against itself.» Brigid Brophy's novel may well be so un-French that it is only with violence that it can be made to enter the field of French literature, violence both to the novel and to the French. Publishers possibly forget that a language evolves most when alien concepts and points of view force themselves into it.

It is a well-known cliché that translators are failed writers who get their own back by «falsifying» someone else's text, by making it theirs, by appending their name to that of the author (the translation by l'Abbé Prévost of Richardson's Pamela appeared in Prévost's complete works, with no mention of Richardson's name [apparently, though he did in fact translate Clarissa, Pamela was translated by someone else]). Translating is writing; it is writing while under a strong constraint, that of producing a text which, paradoxically, is at the same time completely different and exactly the same. The constraint inherent in translation is necessarily at variance with one of the «laws» governing Oulipian constraints: «A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint», [2] since it cannot, by definition, be described in the translation itself - (while «Translated by...» might be considered to be an elliptical description of the constraint, it does not belong to the text, but to what Genette calls the «peritext»). When I translated In Transit, it was partly because I wanted to make it mine, partly because I wanted an excuse to read it in depth, to spend a long time studying it. At the time I started work, the image I had in mind was that of someone being taught how to dance: the movements are directed by a teacher until they have been copied, transferred, until they have become part of the student, then only can the student leave the teacher's waist and shoulder, and, with luck, recreate the same movements, the same figures, but alone now, without direct guidance. This image I quickly dismissed, the task in question being both simpler and much more complicated. To begin with, after an exchange of correspondence with Brigid Brophy about some points that remained unclear, I went to see her to talk about the book; the greatest shock came when she told me the book had taken her six weeks to write - it certainly didn't take me just six weeks to translate. An other shock came later, when, as we were arguing about whether the subject of a particular sentence should be feminine or masculine, I said naïvely, defending the feminine, «After all, you wrote the book, and you're a woman»; she became very angry - she was not the «narrator».
       Translation is, as I said above, writing under constraint, and translating In Transit was writing under two other constraints [3]: firstly there was the gender of the narrator, and secondly the density of puns and literary allusions.
       The greatest constraint was presented by the narrator. Never - except when there is a split into a feminine and a masculine personality - should the reader be aware of Pat's gender. This creates different problems in English and in French, and it is of little importance to try to work out in which language the constraint is more difficult to overcome (e.g. personal pronouns in both languages, possessive pronouns in English, adjectives and participles in French); it is sufficient to know that when writing the book, the author, if faced with a particular problem which seems impossible to solve, can always choose an alternative formulation (decide to remove a word, a sentence, a paragraph, scrap the whole book even); this solution is not available to the translator, who must translate each sentence as it was written, more or less each word, but unfortunately not as it was written (Pierre Ménard was not a translator). However much translators would like to embroider, to leave their mark, they have to follow the text as it stands. [4] The problem with a constraint that does not apply in the same way to both languages is that it forces one to veer away from the text. To take just one example, the adjectives applied to the narrator, innocuous enough in English, are gendered in French. To take a single instance, in the sentence «The problem was the more acute because I was alone in a concourse of people.» (12) «I was alone» would normally be translated by «j'étais seul» or «j'étais seule» depending on the gender; this being impossible, another construction had to be found: «Ma solitude au milieu d'une foule de gens ne faisait qu'aviver le problème.» (25), which would retranslate back into English as «My solitude in a concourse of people made the problem more acute.» A different sentence although not a mistranslation. Numerous examples show that, in the case of a translation of In Transit, the French text will rarely be, through the simple test of back-translation, a strictly faithful translation of the English original. A count of the adjectives used in the translation would certainly indicate that a great number of them (at any rate a greater percentage than is normally found in a text written in French) do not change according to gender (propre, aimable, etc.). In most cases, the passé composé was also ruled out as the auxiliary être requires a past participle with an «e» if the subject is a woman, or, if the verb is constructed with avoir, the object (if the object is the narrator) cannot not be placed before the verb («Il a regardé Patricia», «Patricia, quand il l'a regardée»).

Vous êtes triste? Tick:- masc. O fem. O. Strik(e) out whichever does not apsly. J'en suis content(e). (41)

To a certain degree, with such a book, the translation becomes a recreation and an exercise in commensurability, given that what is added at one point should be subtracted somewhere else, otherwise the French text will end up twice as long as the original.
       As concerns puns (and literary allusions), a similar rule had to be observed; that is to say, whenever I came upon a pun (i.e. every other line), I had to decide whether or not it was directly translatable. For example: «Our programme: - Undo the Normative Conquest.» (27) can be translated without hesitation as, «Notre programme: - Détruisons la Conquête Normative.» The distortions are small, the translation is faithful. Other puns appear at first to be of the same kind: «Are you Spanish? no spinage.» (28) can be translated by «Êtes-vous Espagnol? non, épinard», although the alliteration has been lost; «Êtes-vous Espagnol? non, espanté» would thus seem a little better, if one accepts the replacement of «spinage» with an Occitan word meaning surprised (here again, the test of back-translation would show a definite shift from the original). A few lines further on, «flig-flag» might, at a stretch, be Frenchified into «papillon-pavillon»; but «Polish? What, me? I'm Punish.» (28) can only be changed, if the original text is to remain as a palimpsest behind the translation, into «Luxembourgeois? Qui, moi? Je suis Calembourgeois.» However, Brigid Brophy did not write «Luxemburger», but «Polish». Is a translator to be allowed such liberties (even when, as was my case, the author had agreed that there would be no explanatory footnotes, and that I was free to transpose)?
       Then there are puns which seem impossible to transpose into another language, which, even after hours of exploring one's mind, other people's, and dictionaries of every sort, remain intractable with no acceptable equivalent in French (some of those have remained in my mind like a kind of dangling reference): the sentence «Cynoscephalae, ladies, sigh no tom-moore» (27), where allusion is made to a) «dog-headed Irish slips» two lines higher, b) the battle of Cynoscephalae, c) «Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more» from Much Ado About Nothing, and d) Thomas Moore, the author of patriotic Irish songs, cannot be given (or at least I have not so far been able to give it) an equivalent in French, and so it stands today: «Cynocéphales, Mesdames, sinon ce falot tom-moore». In the case of untranslatability, my solution was to put a «-» beside the recalcitrant words in my draft, and wait until, further on, something in the text brought to mind a pun that Brigid Brophy (or so I told myself) might have made had she written the book in French, and there I would place a «+» (in the example above «---» and a reluctant «+»); and thus I tried to have the same number of puns in the translation as in the original novel, and to construct these puns along similar lines of connotation. This is a makeshift solution, I am aware, but the only other solution was to declare the book untranslatable; and this, of course, was out of the question. One expedient that is often used by translators is that of the footnote, which either explains the pun, the allusion, or admits defeat: «Jeu de mots intraduisible en français. N.d.T.» This I could not countenance, In Transit does not contain footnotes, nor should the translation; translators' footnotes too often constitute a means to show off their erudition, to demonstrate that, even if one particular allusion could not be translated, the translator had not failed to recognize it.
       There is another aspect of puns that the translator should never forget: a pun, like Bottom's dream, «hath no bottom». This is obvious throughout the book: the pun «I - eye» is played upon with endless variations, but how different is the French, where «je» has to be conjugated with «jeu» (game, play). Words appearing to have a straightforward meaning are difficult enough to translate, as one never knows whether they may not contain another meaning of which the translator is unaware (a student who was asked to find words to which the suffix «able» could be added, came up with the «word» «t», which gave him «table»; thus, in a way, every word can become a fissure into nonsense); but when the word obviously contains a pun, it opens up a gaping hollow, difficult to «Stepaside» (40). The task of a translator may be seen as resembling that of a soldier trying to cross a mined field, some of the mines may be buried so deep that they will never explode, others only at the tenth crossing, while most of them may simply be duds. The reader/translator should be wary of each step he takes on apparently safe ground; he should crawl across slowly, and a magnifying glass may possibly help: «Now a magnifying glass is a better thing because you can look at it and what you see when you look is a third thing altogether.» [5] The magnifying glass may well create a new problem: it is a tool that the translator, as a reader, has polished until it becomes the vision itself; the buried meanings thus exploded may never have been in the author's mind.

Is there such a thing as an untranslatable book? Would In Transit be an example of untranslatability? This is exactly the sort of question that would provoke a number of translators into wanting to translate it. It has been said about a number of recent works written by well-known authors that their sentences are instantaneously translatable, a sort of instant language: in their kitchens, the translators simply add the hot water of their language, stir gently, and the text immediately comes out as though it had been written in that language. A book that resists translation is a book that probes the limits of language, that attempts more than a linear story, that enters language and tells its story from inside. In Transit is one such book.
       What may have annoyed French publishers about In Transit is the outrageous punning; the reader, coming across, for example, puns such as «with the cubic face of Piero angels. ('Angelico?' 'No. Ann Jellicoe')», might feel like saying, «Can't you Don-leave it?» Punning, in this book, is not gratuitous (is it ever?) The constant, outrageous punning is also a way to broach the problem of language, to make the narrator and the reader conscious of each word's multiple connotations, to foreground language. When reading, the particular meaning of each word has to be chosen from among all its possible meanings before going on to the next one. This is normally an unconscious activity, and reading differs from crossing a mined field in that it is usually sufficient to persuade oneself that there are no mines in order to reach the other side - the last page - unscathed; punning opens up this activity to the conscious mind (one might imagine a translator who would look up every word in a bilingual dictionary and chose a translation without bothering about context: «Cherchez la femme» thus betrayed as «Fetch the lady» [6] and reading/translating becomes more than a simple high-speed journey meant only to take you from A to B: «I cruise, my jaws wide open to snow-plough in the present tense, the plankton of experience.» (13)

The dismissive reaction of so many French publishers to In Transit (En Transit, as they read the translation) made me examine anew the reasons why I enjoy the novel. The most immediate is the pleasure of reading a master of the art of writing at various levels, the simple pleasure of working out the puns, of guessing what was being alluded to. It is also a book in which one can lose oneself. In my case, at any rate, the narrator's voice took over from my own self and drowned it entirely - or did my own self already speak the same language? In her article «The Novel as a Takeover Bid» [7], Brigid Brophy wrote, «We give our attention to any work of art: to the novel we give our whole conscious minds, and meanwhile we lose the use of them ourselves for our own egoistical purposes.» Would rational, Cartesian individuals who saw their Ego as monolithic and distinct from what was outside themselves not thus be frightened to lose that certainty, or to have to accept, even for the short time it takes to read a novel, that the Ego might not be such a simple and indiscerptible entity? Further on in the same article, Brigid Brophy adds, «I think one's own Ego may actually be jealous of the novelist's Ego which drives it out. And certainly I think one's own Ego may feel weak - that is, childish - at letting itself be driven out.»
       In Transit will thus be difficult reading for those who cannot accept a) that the reality before our eyes is far less real than is commonly accepted, and b) that language and words, i.e. the tools whereby we recognize reality, cannot be grasped as we would grasp a gouge or a chisel. When we examine reality, we are in fact observing language. To quote Harry Mathews, writing about Joseph McElroy, «The ambiguous nature of words is shared by what they designate.» [8] In In Transit, from first to last, the reader is forced to accept that words are shifting objects, and that one should not be too hasty in establishing a rock-like foundation for their meanings: «I resolve to live in in-transit.» (28)
       Although language - like water (or, more exactly, like treacle) - always runs through the narrator's fingers, various methods are used in the novel to try to staunch the flow momentarily and thus enable Pat to analyze «the eyedentity of the soul» (30). At every turn the narrator stops in order to attempt a grammatical analysis of English, often comparing it to other languages and to the means at their disposal as a faithful description of reality:

Call yourself a logical language, French? The masculine King Arthur had a feminine table femininely round? I got that it was female first time round, thanks. And anyway it isn't. (42)

By placing language against the backdrop of various fictional forms (pornography, adventure stories, opera, television dialogue, science-fiction, etc.) Pat hopes that some meaning will be disclosed; but every attempt proves to be a failure: «What my grand test had tested was the nature of pornography, not of me.» (102)
       Also, by delving into the past, into a semi-Irish ancestry, the narrator aims to pin down the reason for the predicament, to find out where and when ambiguity became the rule, where and when the solid world of childhood became quicksand. In a paper written for the New Statesman in 1965, entitled «Am I An Irishwoman?», Brigid Brophy wrote: «However, the voice of that rationality within me knows very well how to answer the voice that nags me. The correct reply is "Nonsense, [...] I'm no Irishwoman." » [9] Yet her father was an Irish novelist, and, although she admits he knew little Irish and that she herself knows even less, there is enough alienness in her to make her refuse univocal monolinguism. This imaginary ancestry also includes those Irish writers who helped to make English what it is (Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien, etc.). For them language was a mire from which language could be admired; their language was coloured, if not by Irish itself, at least by its foreign lilt. «No codding: I think it's because we haven't quite a native language that our tongues tend to trip over their roots.» (34) By definition, translators would tend to t/drip over their roots, as they are torn between at least two languages. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the nineteenth century philosopher and translator, wrote this, about translation: «it is an act that runs counter to both nature and morality to become a deserter to one's own mother tongue and give oneself to another.»


1. Numbers following quotations refer to pages in the original edition of In Transit, Macdonald and Company, 1969. [>]

2. Jacques Roubaud, «The Oulipo and Combinative Art», New Observations N° 99, January/February 1994, p. 9. [>]

3. With Georges Perec's novel La Disparition (written without the use of the letter «e»), already translated in various languages, and published last year in England with the title A Void, the translator has to go even further: writing (inventing) to a large extent has to take over from translating. [>]

4. At one point only was I able to leave my mark, after translating the following note, «straightforward commercial pornography: and what's wrong with that?" - Brigid Brophy" (97), I could not resist adding a sentence of my own, which I integrated into the translation: «Pourquoi ne traduit-on pas d'autres oeuvres de cet auteur? - Bernard Hoepffner». After reading the translation, Brigid Brophy sent me a note: «Welcome to the pages of the book!» [>]

5. Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman, Picador, 1974, p. 118. [>]

6. Valery Larbaud, the multi-lingual French writer and translator, wrote that «all translation work consists of weighing words. On one side of the balance are placed, one after the other, the words of the Author, while on the other we try out successively an indeterminate number of words belonging to the language into which we are translating the Author, and we wait for the moment when the two sides are balanced.» Sous l'invocation de Saint Jérôme, Gallimard, 1947. [>]

7. Brigid Brophy, Don't Never Forget, Jonathan Cape, 1966, pp. 93-100. [>]

8. Harry Mathews, «We for One: An Introduction to Joseph McElroy's Women and Men», in Immeasurable Distances, The Lapis Press, 1991, p. 261. [>]

9. Don't Never Forget, p. 315. [>]