in other words

by Heather Cleary

If there’s one thing translators and theorists of translation love to discuss, debate, and ultimately disagree about, it’s the extent to which a translated work should sound “natural” in the target language. It’s been a hot topic since at least 1813, when Friederich Schleiermacher presented his two opposing methods of translating—the first being to move the source text toward the reader by standardizing its usage in the target language, and the second being to move the reader toward the source text by preserving those images and constructions that might seem out of place in their new habitat. The latter has been championed by scholars like Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti—who advocates this “foreignizing” approach over and against the “cult of fluency” which, he claims, masks the ideological interventions that shape the  work as it passes from one literary system into the next—as well as Gayatri Spivak, who sees it as an ethical imperative for those translating into “dominant” languages. On the other side of the fence are usually the translators themselves (as much as I hate to repeat the reductive opposition of theory and practice, it seems to play out this way, in this case), who want to highlight the literary value of the text; this often means making it, bluntly put, sound good.

But what happens when a certain foreignness is already present in the original?

Reading Sergio Chejfec, I’m always struck by the way his prose both deflects and draws the reader in, never allowing complete immersion in the narrative: whether explicitly or implicitly, the medium in which the story is told is under constant scrutiny. In other words, I’m struck by the way Chejfec’s language is never “natural.” He discusses this aspect of his work in a beautiful essay titled “Simple Language, Name,” which hinges on the capaciousness of the word “nombre” (both “name” and, grammatically, “noun”). The piece begins with a reflection on the necessary illusion of linguistic transparency, and then delves into the particular kind of access to personal histories and collective traditions that surnames allow.

It turns out that Chejfec is an imposed appellation: like so many before him, his father was forced to translate his name to one more in keeping with local orthography and pronunciation (for those of you who are wondering, parsed in English it would be Chay-feck) when he immigrated to Argentina. This primal alienation permeated his relationship with language: having adopted Spanish as an adult, Chejfec’s father was forced to express himself in the coarsest of terms. In the process of his translatio, he lost his nouns along with his name. Chejfec’s own prose style, he writes, emerged in response to the frustrated terseness he witnessed at home, to the deficiencies his father saw in his own usage.

There came a time when I decided to distance myself from everything my father’s speech and writing represented, from that strange, personal, and incorrect tongue, in favor of one I deemed more viable. In reality, I had no choice. But my father’s way of speaking was also my own, just like his writing and his misgivings. The result was an artificial language that I forced myself to adopt. I went out of my way to write in an obsessively cerebral style, as though I didn’t just want to exhibit a certain complexity and literary aptitude (this was the most explicit part, also the most obvious and naive) through long, difficult, and largely unvaried passages, but also to construct a baroque and ponderous style that was everything my father’s limited, but true, language was not. A similar structure, though one built with radically different tools and materials. […] This sense of foreignness, of seeing my writing as something outside me that writes itself, to which it is my role to attach ideas, is a constant for me.

Though the essay is predominantly about Chejfec’s experience of writing and language toward the end of his father’s life, the passage above might just as easily describe the sense of linguistic estrangement that pervades The Planets, out this week with Open Letter.

For one thing, there’s the bio/bibliographical proximity of the period on which the essay centers and the composition of the novel. More significant, though, is the notion of writing in—and through—the shadow of another’s voice. Just as Chejfec suggests that his adopted style bears the marks of his father’s speech, the narrator’s language in The Planets is haunted by that of his childhood friend, identified only as M “(M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters),” one of the thousands lost to state violence during Argentina’s Dirty War. The book, which weaves the narrator’s reflections on the friendship and its loss together with anecdotes told by M and his father, and almost clinical glosses of what has already been recounted, is in some ways one that M might have written, had he lived; at the same time, it can only exist in his absence.

The story about the pair of nomads absorbed me just as much as the one about the eye. Unlike me, who was unable to describe the events of the previous day except in the most confused terms, M abounded in stories and anecdotes that not only concerned him directly, relating to his own experience like the episode of the eye, but also encompassed broader, more diffuse—and therefore more debatable and controversial—material, which reached him from who knows where to adopt a new form through his voice. This is why it is clear to me that, were he still alive, he would have been the writer, the novelist.

In this sense, the project of the novel is the telling of a “story without an ending”  (without any definitive proof of M’s fate, the experience of his loss can have no conclusion) by means of a language the narrator senses is only partially his own. Name and noun converge here again, as the years of fruitless searching for any mention of M among the lists of the deceased demonstrate the final cruelty of the dictatorship’s strategy of abduction and misdirection: having forcibly seized the bodies of its victims, the state enacted a similar violence upon the way their stories could be told by indefinitely prolonging, and exploiting, the proliferation of questions where answers were so dearly needed.

Shaped not only by the narrator’s struggle with a tragedy impossible to circumscribe, but also his ambivalence with regard to his own “adopted tongue,” the language of The Planets flits in and out of the familiar. As a complement to the complex rhythms of the prose, conventional phrases and constructions are often rendered nonstandard by the replacement of a single term, forcing the reader to reflect on the constellation of meanings implied not only by the word on the page, but also by the one that was withheld. This is characteristic of Chejfec’s writing, though it is especially pronounced here.

Holding the reader at arm’s length from the medium of its telling (the early image of the narrator attempting to read a newspaper and seeing only splotches of ink comes to mind), The Planets is therefore marked by a certain—productive—dissonance. That is, it strikes a minor note. For this reason, among others, translating the novel was not so much a matter of pulling a text or pushing a reader, but rather one of situating the work at a remove from colloquial English that was comparable to its relation to colloquial Spanish. Because from this vantage point just beyond the familiar we can observe, through the narrator’s dance with the shadow of his lost friend, the fundamental unnaturalness of the natural.

Postscript: I hear Margaret Carson is translating the entirety of “Simple Language.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for that (as should you).