Tiphaine Samoyault, Traduction et violence (Paris: Seuil, 2020), 204 pp. 18€.
This is a compact book, which draws on a vast range of material and condenses the author’s long engagement with processes and theories of translation, both as a translator1 and importantly as a teacher and supervisor of graduate research in translation studies in some of France’s most socially and linguistically rich universities.2 Also significant for the corpus that underpins this brilliant, spirited book is the dexterous ease with which the author moves from a tradition of translation studies anchored in German idealism, for which Antoine Berman’s L’Epreuve de l’étranger (1984) constitutes a foundational act, to late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century Anglo-American criticism, marked by postcolonial studies.3 Samoyault theorizes these different genealogies usefully and with succinct precision towards the latter phase of the book, moving from Berman, through Pym, Meschonnic to Spivak, in the chapter entitled ‘Traduction et communauté’.4 Yet what emerges most conclusively from her analysis here, as throughout the book, is what she frames as the common limitations of an ethical conception of the translational act, variously oriented towards equality, fidelity, justice, or repair. In contrast to an imperative of responsibility - whether to the foreignness of a language, to the singularity of a text-subject, or to the specificity of a culture - what Samoyault chooses to foreground are the ‘antagonismes fonciers’ that any loosening of a text from its presumed integrity entails.5
Her critique of the ‘positive’, ‘generous’ potential of translation to found a planetary community forms the overall arc of the work and carries the forthright coupling of translation and violence that announces her project.6 But this is far from a single thesis book, and though it is sustained throughout by the same pressure on a celebration of diversity, by a questioning of the language of ‘negotiation’, even a cautiousness in the wake of some of the possibilities opened up by a celebration of ‘theorising’, it moves through three quite distinct phases.7 These phases themselves reflect the accretive and reflexive complexity of Samoyault’s work across the broader span of her career. In this respect, Translation et violence has the force of a salutary polemic and the historical depth that confirms, in its own unfolding, the inadequacy of any putatively definitive word on translation, while giving the reader some fascinating new propositions with which to work.
The initial phase is conditioned by the structural convergence of ever more efficient translation algorithms and the now firmly established value of translation within ‘post-political’ cultural policy.8 Where the first tends mechanically towards consolidation of dominant forms and pairings of languages, gradually squeezing less standard usages and vectors of interchange from a globalized fund, the second operates through softer, often persuasive or confirming commitments to plurality. The chapter ‘Traduction et consensus démocratique’ identifies the latter in a range of formulations plotted through the auspices of UNESCO and the European Commission, but also in the work led by Barbara Cassin and the editorial position of ex-minister of culture and founder of Actes Sud, Françoise Nyssen. While nourished by worthy sentiment, the mobilization of translation as a ‘global language’ is, Samoyault argues, always also prone to tune out the structural imbalances in resources with more or less self-conscious intention to shore up the prerogatives of post-imperial powers. Though threatened by its mechanization, translation is today an established and, in some contexts, protected mediation in the supply chains of information, as well as being a cherished cultural value, and this makes the position of the translator very different from that of the pre-computer, pre-translation studies era. It is in the face of this combined evolution with its undertow of possible complacency, that Samoyault pitches her intervention.
The book proceeds to justify this position of relative ‘antagonism’ through a series of chapters that work through the implications of translation in situations of military and political domination (in the Spanish conquest of South America, in the French subjugation of Algeria), to the constitutive ‘undoing’ that translation effects on any given text. With passages that return to key scenes of ‘translation’ - from Art Spiegelman’s radical recasting of the Nazi concentrationary universe in Maus to Antonin Artaud’s reinvention of Lewis Carroll, from Primo Levi’s testimonial writing to Julia Smith producing the Women’s Bible, from the multiple translations of Georges Perec to the contemporary poetics of Jacques Roubaud and Yves Bonnefoy - this middle section of the book establishes a landscape of variable achievement. The pages move fast across the examples, underpinned by a range of Anglo-American and French scholarship, with the cumulative effect of both throwing open the stakes and seizing on a range of specific ways in which the testing relation between translation and original crystallizes into a pattern that supports a larger conclusion.
While the range of exemplification is dynamic and exciting, the middle part of the book also bears the huge shadow that the reckoning with the Holocaust cast across all critical thinking in the latter third of the twentieth century, from the gradual reception of Benjamin’s work through the likes of Berman, to whom the book repeatedly returns, to Batia Baum’s translation from Yiddish of a 1944 document written by Zalman Gradowski, a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz.9 And it is in this context that the questioning of translation’s reparative potential and its capacity to effect justice comes most fully to the fore. In a very fine discussion of Primo Levi’s work, relayed by a passage through Jacques Derrida, Samoyault interweaves the act of testimony and the act of translation. Both acts are conditioned, she argues, by the imperative to stay as close as possible to the facts of the world as to the reality of the text while projecting them towards an as yet unknown and unknowing horizon. Translation, like transmission, will always maintain ‘le deux comme deux, qui ne se résorbe pas dans l’un’,10 forever at one remove, or ‘injuste’, in a sense of both inadequate and inaccurate. Yet while this measuring of translation’s capacities against the paradigmatic trauma of the camps sounds a long and deep note within the core of the book, the conclusion it steers towards opens the demonstration back up to a differential apprehension of violence. And one of the great values of this book is the way in which it develops a corpus of translational ‘knots’ that reflect what other critics have approached as the ‘entangled’ histories of violence across spaces and times.11 Identified as places of blockage, of tension and obstruction, these knots also offer possibilities for a loosening of unsuspected meaning and a recasting of relationalities between spaces, and between languages.
The middle section closes, then, on a beautiful encounter with a Creole translation of Marcel Proust that renews and transforms the Samoyault’s deep familiarity with the original. But it is in the final three chapters that she really takes up the work of thinking translation beyond its inherent antagonisms. She does this with a proposition that foregrounds procreation as a means of displacing not just the paradigm of responsibility, but also that of autonomous creativity. This will lead her too towards a more general position on what conditions of contemporary literature are today. Building out of a set of sociological observations about the huge part of translation work that is done by women, as well as the combined minorizing of translation and of women’s work, Samoyault parses the secondarity of translation as a form of birthing, a birthing that is painful, laborious, fully constrained by the contours of the ‘maternal’ body, bound in the very unbinding that allows a new life to emerge. The language of this part of the book is vibrant and telling, opening up an almost secret pocket in Walter Benjamin’s endless cited ‘Task of the Translator’12 before finding its succor in a Bonnefoy translation of Yeats. It is also through this ‘sexualizing’ of the discourses of translation that Samoyault draws explicitly on her experience of listening to a reading of her own translation of Molly Bloom’s final monologue.13 As one ‘leg’ in a relay of women’s voices, between orality and textuality, which begins in an act of ‘translation’ by the male author James Joyce, she finds herself given over to being what she is not, both secondary and primary for the moment of that listening to her own translation.
But if the gradual alignment in the final stage of the book between translation and writing offers a useful articulation of the transitivity of contemporary literature, which critics such as Alexandre Gefen have foregrounded as the defining characteristics of contemporary literature,14 the more surprising final perspective that makes this book a rewarding read to the end is the switch back to the increasing place of mechanization in the mediation of our lives. For while ‘birth pangs’ as metaphor - and still the embodied experience of giving birth for the vast majority of women in the world - contribute a sharpening lens through which to define contemporary processes of production, enabling us to analyse them as analogous with the bearing of new generations, the development of assisted procreation will inevitably spell the end of the specifically ‘female’ nature of this process. That is but one version of the ‘violence’ that has occupied Samoyault throughout, the violence of change.
Arguably the procreative configuration also brings ethical questions of responsibility back into the frame, and the polemical drive of the first part of the book evolves in this respect into a more open-ended interventionism. It is also perhaps through this figure of procreation that we can delineate what strikes this reader as particularly characteristic of her work, which is that she draws so deeply from the local ‘maternal knee’ of her long attachment to reviews such as PoeSie, and the French translation ‘scene’ around it, while casting her attention wide to the future. In the process, she communicates a strong underlying sense of what her own thinking owes to the great fact of publicly funded universities, still playing their role as spaces of possibility - despite the ever-greater hostilities of our life worlds - in an age of generalized migration where the force of change is also demographic and restless.