Return to Equinoxes, Issue 7:Printemps/Ete 2006
Article ©2006, Lara Eastburn
Traduire, s’introduire dans l’autre et être introduit en incessant litige. Quel couple ! Traduttore il subit [ . . . ] Ne s’appartient plus. Aliéné, absorbé et ravi, dépossédé de propos propre. [. . . ] Il rend en son langage l’auteur publiable, mais il est oubliable. L’auteur s’ouvre, le traducteur se ferme, le premier s’éclôt, le second se clôt. L’auteur se crée, le traducteur secret. Le traducteur n’est que voix de passage.
-Bensoussan, Confessions d’un traître
In Albert Bensoussan’s Confessions d’un traître : essai sur la traduction, the translator of over seventy primarily Latin American works into the French language poses an unprecedented challenge to traditional translation discourse.1 Withdrawing from the conventional conversation about translation as a product, Bensoussan opts instead in this first person, autobiographical work to narrate the experience and process of translation as creative activity. It is thus in sharp contrast to the common portrayal of the translator – as faithful executor of the work he is by sheer definition “betraying” (traduire, traduttore, traditore) and passive, obedient conduit of the Word – that Bensoussan offers the reader of his first-hand account of translating an unusual image of the translator-at-work. In Bensoussan’s world, as we will see, it is the image of the translator à table.
In Confessions d’un traître, the translator most often describes his process as though it were a romantic dinner for two. In scenes that Bensoussan comes to think of as his own “culte de la table dressée,” author and translator sit down to a meal that stages a human sacrifice during which the author serves himself to the translator in a complicit act of self-preservation and where the translator eats, he tells us, with “amour fou” (20). This is, in fact, the scene that unfailingly repeats itself in the personal accounts of his translating process found in Confessions d’un traître. Relating actual events, Bensoussan narrates the conversational meals he has shared with the authors he translates. The translator travels to the country and home of the author, taking in each of its colors, its smells, its liquors, and the smoke of its cigars. Inevitably, the two discuss the plan for the translation of the author’s book over a meal prepared by the author himself. The foods they eat – here a Cuban plate of eggs and fried bananas, there, the perfumed rice of Peru – are served as sides to the creations of the author’s tongue, as in this example:
Ramon Chao – un des rares Espagnols qu’il m’a été donné de trahir – a dû me faire boire à cuiller l’épais pot-au-feu de Villalba, relevé à l’unto – cette graisse de tripes de porc fumée dans la cheminée et qui n’est là, au coin de l’assiette, que pour donner le goût – avec pour moi la parole enchantée de son Lac de Côme. (21)
Bensoussan here feasts on beef stew with sides of author Chao and of his novel, if indeed these may be discerned, each prepared by the author himself and devoured by the translator “à crocs longs.” The plea addressed by one poet to Bensoussan at a conference, “Mangez-moi et mettez-moi en circulation,” becomes paradigmatic of the author/text’s imperative to the translator. The author, believes Bensoussan, may be the only one, other than the translator, who understands the scope of the service he is be rendered : “C’est pourquoi un écrivain a le souci, aujourd’hui, de savoir comment il sera mangé, par qui et à quelle sauce” (40). Bensoussan’s description of his translation experience relies upon a physicality of language – the ways in which it presents itself to our senses, its smells, textures, colors, and contours – that requires its incorporation and eventual reconstitution within bodies for which the original language has little or no meaning. His personal account of translation as an active and physical encounter with language draws attention to a part of the translating process that its discourse has preferred to ignore in favor of the translator as a channeling vessel. Instead, Bensoussan’s heavy investment in metaphors and narratives of eating locate the work of translation in the body ultimately makes that body visible within a literary tradition in which he has long gone unseen or, worse yet, made to apologize for his base and corporeal interference in a work of inspiration.
Early in Confessions d’un Traître, the translator describes an experience of sacred eating that greatly influences his identification of food with words. His father has just died, and according to Jewish rites, he should begin his formal mourning after the funeral with the symbolic ingestion of a hard-boiled egg. The rounded form of the egg is traditionally meant to remind the griever of the cyclical nature of life – that it does not begin and end, but will continue in new form. Eating the egg further signifies that the mourner has no words to describe his loss. This symbolic food, in other words, recuperates the path by which language cannot, or can no longer, otherwise pass. In the following passage, Bensoussan links this sacred act of eating -- simultaneously symbolic of life, death, and transformation -- with his work as a translator:
Dans la chambre funéraire, après qu’on eut enterré papa, le rabbin me tendit une olive noire toute ratatinée. Je crus que c’était de circonstance. Effectivement, ou plutôt non. L’olive remplace l’œuf, dit le prêtre sans mesurer l’ampleur de l’énigme. De même me nourrissais-je du corps de mes auteurs par procuration. [. . .] Traduire, m’était, osons le dire, eucharistique. (20)
The substitution of olive for egg is in itself a translation, and it is the first of many in just these few sentences. In those that follow, the substitution is, in each case, the replacement of one word for another. The “rabbin” of the first sentence is replaced by “prêtre“ in the fourth, signaling the lexical move from a Jewish funeral rite to a Catholic sacrament.2 In the first, an egg is eaten in remembrance of a father while, in the second, one ingests the body of the Son in whom divine spirit, earthly flesh, and logos, or the Word, occupy the same space. Accordingly, and within this structure, the deceased “papa,” replaced first by the egg, and then the olive, is subsequently exchanged in this short passage for the “corps de mes auteurs.” Both the death of his father and the re-incarnation of a text in another language are in the structure of Bensoussan’s thought two comparable kinds of “passing,” the “carrying over” of a body between forms in which the reasoning faculties of the eyes -- viewing his father’s body or reading a book, for example -- is circumvented, or replaced, by that of the mouth.
A notable divergence from more traditional discourses of reading (and certainly of mourning), Bensoussan’s description of an exclusively oral incorporation of the text is both formed and informed by the baroque tradition of Christian incarnation that heavily influences the Latin and South American literatures he translates. In likening the ritual eating of “his authors” to the Eucharist, Bensoussan summons in the figure of Christ the three-fold meaning of the Latin corpus – body, text, and death – which lends itself so well to his experience of translating these texts. According to Catholic belief, of course; the faithful ingest the host and drink a sip of wine while the priest, who stands in place of Christ, pronounces the transformation of food to flesh, wine to blood – This is my body. Take it in remembrance of me. As the priest speaks these words in Christ’s stead, he places the host onto the believer’s tongue. The eating and the speech are simultaneous in this rite of transubstantiation. Together, they signify the incorporation of Soul into another, living, body.3
Albert Bensoussan does not just eat the authors of the works he translates. He devours them slowly, in a ritual and spiritual act of gourmandise. He savors each bite, chews it long and thoroughly enough to perceive even the smallest of its ingredients, even the faintest of its aromas. And like the cannibal to which he compares himself, he eats with purpose. He eats to insure the continued existence of that which he imagines is passing through his own translating body -- an author, his creation, and the soul they share. If these are not one body, then they make up a holy trinity in Bensoussan’s experience of translation. In his Confessions d’un traître, the ingestion of a literary work by its translator is one of the necessary steps in its life cycle. For, as all bodies must one day return to the earth, all language, too, must return to its source. No matter its present form, language is born, must die and be transformed where, for Bensoussan, all language begins -- in the mouth. Pen, typewriter, laptop aside, explains Bensoussan, L e traducteur “doit parler” la traduction. And speaking, for this translator in particular, is nearly indistinguishable from eating:
On parle avec les lèvres, les dents, la langue, les alvéoles, le palais, la glotte, la gorge. Je sais parler une fois . . . avec le ventre, avec les tripes. Nous emplissons notre bouche de mots, nous les salivons, les savourons et, une fois admis qu’ils sont bons pour nous, qu’ils vont nous faire du bien, nous les avalons. Alors oui, nous mastiquons, nous mâchonnons des mots et c’est cela que nous appelons la parole. (24)
What Bensoussan calls “parole” here is equivalent to what he calls translating. La langue, knows the translator, is not accidental in its double connotation of language and tongue. It is for Bensoussan maternal, the womb of all language, the site of its creation and eventual recreation. It is thus within the mouth of one -- on the tip of a maternal tongue -- that a work is first given life, and in the mouth of another that it is given a chance at a new form, at immortality. The translator takes words on the brink of death – written words, that is – and puts them back into his mouth for another chance at life. This passage of a body, of words, and of life from one mouth to another is what Bensoussan describes in Confessions as “L’Aliment de la Traduction:” Aliment-- nourriture, ce qui se mange, se digère, et entretient la vie.4
Though his paper may sit before him, pen poised in his hand, it is not his fingers that move, that translate, but his lips, teeth and tongue that taste and give new form to the words he molds. One begins to imagine the translator’s mouth itself as a living, breathing, and conscious machine à écrire, from which the typewriter is charged to take dictation. Lest we imagine the working translator enjoying a leisurely, effortless and tasty meal as he types, however, Bensoussan offers us this image of the difficult, stigmatized and even taboo process of the book-altering, flesh-eating translator at work: “Partout, en toute circonstance . . . je déchirais à crocs longs mes lambeaux d’auteur -- j’en ai tellement traduit que ma bouche à cette heure est une double rangée dépeuplée” (20). Bensoussan’s privileging of his own body and digestive system as the primary site of his translating process, even in its most violent moments, is at the same time portrayed by the translator as a physical sacrifice on his part. Just as the author offers his textual body to the appetite of his translator, the translator, in turn, willingly surrenders his innards to the abuses of the “foreign body” he hosts. In a direct and informal address to the imagined reader (curiously singular) of Confessions d’un traître, Bensoussan pauses to admit: “Sache-le, lecteur, il m’est même arrivé de dégobiller au-dessus de ma machine à écrire” (21). No, the translator informs his reader, the process of translating does not follow the same route as the digestive tract. Those translations he considers failures are not eliminated, but remain in his body, “sur le ventre criant famine” (20). The fully digested, successfully translated bodies, however, will eventually reemerge in the translator’s native tongue by way of his throat, and spill decorously from his mouth.
But Bensoussan is careful not to push his metaphors. He is loathe to liken the end of the translating process to vomiting – as we have seen, Bensoussan prefers to call a body in the mouth of a translator parole. He reserves the vocabulary of regurgitation instead for the work of hasty “copistes” from whom spring “une veritable boulimie d’écriture” (109). His use here of the word “dégobiller,” which specifically refers to the vomiting of wine and food taken in excess, appears to signal the degree of simultaneous discomfort and intense pleasure with which the translator takes another’s organic and linguistic bodies into his own. Dégobiller, that is to say, points not to the translating body’s rejection of inferior fare, but to the rich quality of the author and literature he is ingesting and the translator’s own enthusiasm and tempo in processing them. In describing his experience of translating, Bensoussan offers his readers a definition of translation that expands the transfer of one language to another into a process of moving between bodies. Simply put, Bensoussan’s account of his work argues an active and participatory role for the translating body in the work of the translating mind and, as we see here, in the signifying process itself: It is “la base physiologique, à ras de terre, mécanique, voire grotesque ou carnavalesque – salive, postillons, crachouillis, raclements de gorge” (24). This utterly physical, even monstrous work, insists Bensoussan, is the translator’s willing incorporation of another’s linguistic body in order to discern how it will be best presented to, and accepted by, the bodies of its new readers.
His is a singular account that alternately describes translation as processes of ingestion, mastication, digestion, regurgitation and gestation of food, of the words of the text, and of the author himself in which these are passed from one culture, one language, one body to the next from one mouth to another much as a bird feeds its young. Even the act of reading Bensoussan’s text becomes an enactment of the anthropophagic experience it describes. From even the text’s first pages – take for example the passage quoted in epigraph above – and throughout, the reader is surprised to discover herself seated at Bensoussan’s “table dressée,” inexplicably compelled to take his fluid prose into her own mouth, to read his text aloud, taking her own turn at creating, eating, and translating an author.
1 Albert Bensoussan, Confessions d’un traître: essai sur la traduction. (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 1995). Bensoussan’s more well known translations include the works of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Manuel Puig -- perhaps most notably Puig’s “Le Baiser de la femme-araignée.”
2 Elsewhere in Confessions d’un traître, Bensoussan explains that as a child he confused the word prêtre with his father’s position in the synagogue as interprète: “Que si l’on m’avait demandé le métier de mon géniteur, j’aurais alors répondu, nigaud et ahuri d’admiration : grand-prêtre” (83).
3 Philosopher Louis Marin comments extensively on the link between speech and substantiation, principally in La Parole Mangée et autres essais théologico-politiques (Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1986).
4 Dictionnaire de L’Académie française .