Timothy Mathews Blog Post

On the Voices of Love

Or why translate Roland Barthes again?

It’s often said that any translation is an interpretation, and that’s just as it should be. Antoine Berman writes that it’s the destiny of all great works to be re-translated, and Frank Kermode that it’s their destiny to be re-interpreted as the generations succeed and forget each other. It’s true I’ve never really known what a great work is other than one that absorbs me and seems to absorb many others in ways that are hard to enumerate. I’m talking in any case about works of the imagination which includes works of thought. Roland Barthes’s Fragments d’un discours amoureux seems to have a foot in various camps, various ways of writing and approaching the reader, ranging from the fragment itself, which comes to us along hybrid lines from Heraclitus, Sappho, German Romanticism and Walter Benjamin, and including theoretical analysis and allusion, adaptation, improvisation, autobiography and short fiction as well. They all seem to blend, and it’s the blend that matters rather than the distinctions, and all the elements resonate together to live. But, like the sounds of language, resonation is heard in a further blend of the singular and the communal; to hear it is to enter the labyrinths of knowledge bleeding as it does into projection. Which is one way of describing the witness we bear to our times and that we each live in one set of moments and not another.

And translators of the imagination have a particular witness, which is that everyone hears what they can and not what they cannot. It gives to the imagination the sense that Barthes gives to what he calls ‘l’imaginaire’, in his own silent and very living translations of the word in Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Gaston Bachelard and many others. It evokes the imagination thriving on its own limitations while also warning against them, a thought that Sigmund Freud discovers in all of poetry and that surfaces in modern times in the writings of Charles Baudelaire. In the translation I’m writing of Fragments d’un discours amoureux, which I’m proposing simply to call Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, I’m leaving that French word as it is in my English text, and even though Barthes is using a French word in his French text, I feel I’m doing something of the same thing: in some sort of partnership, now triangulated and with the translator involved and insinuated into the intimate relation of Barthes with his readers, I feel sure the meaning of the word ‘l’imaginaire’ will accumulate; or rather the meanings, the passing thoughts and associations that give it breath and life. The same goes for the word ‘jouissance’ in my text, meaning extreme pleasure of a range of kinds; seeing the French word in many different English places, the reader will want to make up her own mind or his as to when it means orgasm and when an impression of the sublime.

There are many inventive and illuminating insights into Barthes’s text in the English version written by Richard Howard shortly after the original publication. Beginning with the title – Fragments: a lover’s discourse: the simple gesture of replacing ‘of’ with a colon captures for me many of the paradoxes of thinking about love in discourse, and about a discourse in fragments. I’ve also appreciated his version of ‘l’imaginaire’ as ‘image-repertory’, which I’ve found helps very much tell the story of the word, its theoretical implications and history, and especially with students: a repertoire of images suggests something that has to be learnt and practised, but each person learns in different orthodoxy in different ways and chooses different things to learn. My own translation of this book is a re-translation only in that it’s being written some thirty-five years after Richard’s, but its story begins I’m not sure where. I do remember reading the book for the first time: I’d taken it away with me to try and launch a project that was still only a sketch, and I became absorbed in every sentence, the varying rhythm of each fragment and the undulations of their sequences. They can be read in any order and still a shape emerges from any of these journeys through the book, long or short.

I also know that a piece emerged that I still don’t know what to do with and which juxtaposes this book with Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme, The Charterhouse of Parma. I’d become fascinated with the kind of melancholic rapture that permeates both books, a sense that not even the sinuosity of love and sex meanders outside cultural codes and a discourse. How could they, and why would we want that, and still want it, when the images floating with whatever compromised spontaneity are still the cause of so much energy; with joy and anxiety coupled together with the unpredictability that’s the hallmark of structure?

I was thinking at the time of the well-known and still awesome scene towards the end of Stendhal’s novel of 1839 where two young lovers in a sea of love, sex and post-Napoleonic politics, with creative energy erupting and decaying everywhere, find themselves communicating across a prison yard with Fabrice spelling out words letter by letter in coal dust on the palm of his hand, and Clélia inserting words of warning and forbidden love into the way she sings popular arias of the time. Needs must, it seems! – in this extraordinary novel of impulse, constraint and ageing. A wildly impossible way of writing and reading… and still it works, but how? Not just because anything can work in fiction, and the more operatic the better, but because this love duet with no music and no-one really there is smothered in signs; and because in fiction, as in life, to communicate at all is to get caught in the labyrinths of what can or can’t be recognised, if not recognised then imagined; with each relentlessly dependent on the other.

Stendhal and Barthes seem to agree that in love as everywhere, everywhere there are signs. And when I embarked on this book as well as Barthes’s other later writing it was writing I was interested in. Like many I already knew that theory needs writing and that to theorise is to write, but I also wanted theory that sparks the pangs of… let’s say extravagance, and its twin, melancholy. As time went by and I became more immersed in teaching as well as reading across the borderlines of French and English, as well as theory and practice, when it came to Barthes students would encourage me and confirm me in the thought that with the passing of time, another writing in English would serve this far-reaching and arresting book. It’s not just hindsight that’s been prompting me, the ever sharper understanding of the way Barthes’s sense of purpose is wrapped in Proust; it’s more that such a dimension has always been apparent, as though writing were hidden in plain sight, its power to move, to generate thought and commitment to life.

A witness-in-translation to the hidden-in-plain-sight, then: it involves idiom and the idiom of the day, another reason to translate more than once. But the plain sight of idiom hides many layers in the pervasive idioms of the day. I feel I can hear the variety of idioms in play in Barthes’s French, but I hear them with an ear belonging to my race, age and class, and aware of the range of French and English I’ll never speak or write. Something of the same goes for Barthes himself, in a situation analogous to any writer’s and to mine as translator, but without any of them meeting. The range of his styles is shaped by the voices in his head that he works with and that work him, and which it is his mission to illuminate along with the experiences of voice in the heads of you and me.  I’m left trying to translate what I hear, knowing it’s filtered through my own life and aware of the distances from all the other idioms flying about in our own time.

My practice has become one of translating what’s on the page, the page like the fragment itself is the unit of reading, thinking and writing, and the practice embraces all the quotation and allusion integral to Barthes’s way of writing in the book. I don’t feel I’m writing a critical edition, although translation is contiguous with writing criticism as I understand them. I’d rather try and write in English what I’m being offered, and mime in English how the various elements on a page of Barthes’s French interact with the others; and so I’m translating myself the translated quotations I’m given to find in that moment that along with other readers. I’d like to enact – show, not tell – something of how the French translations interact with the other French close by. Interaction like relation is made partly in the moment, partly in the moment’s scattering, and this is one of the ways I’m trying to respect writing through translating writing, and the relation-in-the-making of text, translator and reader. 

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