Thursday, October 21, 2010

On the Vanished Translations of Georges Perec's La disparition

A Vanishing: A Void, Vanish'd!

I recently re-read (for this) the published English translation Georges Perec's lipogrammatical novel La disparition, A Void (translated into English by Gilbert Adair). (A lipogram is a literary work that consciously omits a single letter of the alphabet; Perec's novel, and Adair's translation, omit the most common letter in both English and French, e.) This time through, I was very conscious of the quality of the translation.

Now, writing a lipogram is obviously difficult -- you must avoid many if not most common words -- thus translating a lipogram into a lipogram is doubly difficult. The original author has merely to guide his story to avoid topics that would require forbidden words; the translator has no such freedom, and must find a way to express certain concepts even if they contain e. Thus Perec's novel deals a lot with sleep and death -- whose French equivalents, "dormir" and "mort" are e-less; Adair had to find ways around this. That he was able to do so at all was remarkable, and his translation has got a lot of praise -- largely, I think, on "dancing bear" principles ("it's not how well it dances but that it dances at all"). And the first time through I was impressed very much for that reason.

But in the meantime I read an essay by Ian Monk -- like Georges Perec, a member of the French literary group the Oulipo -- called "On G. Adair's A Void" (it's at the link, but you'll have to scroll down or search for Adair; it's down a bit). Monk's review -- itself a lipogram in e -- basically pans Adair's translation for being unfaithful to its text. He cites four examples to make his point; here's the third:
Original: "Portons dix bons whiskys à l'avocat goujat qui fumait au zoo."

Adair (p. 39): "I ask all 10 of you, with a glass of whisky in your hand - and not just any whisky but a top-notch brand - to drink to that solicitor who is so boorish as to light up his cigar in a zoo."

This, similar to our "That quick brown fox is jumping onto a lazy diva", is a familiar typist's workout and should contain all symbols from A to Z (barring, naturally, what it cannot contain in this book) and is also an important, but vain indication to Anton Vowl's pals as to what is going on. Not only is this translation's volubility absurd, but it also lacks all of four symbols: m, q, v and x. How about: "Quick! pour six whisky drams for an unjovial solicitor bringing cigars to a zoo." If not, Anton Vowl's post scriptum is void of any point.
It seems, to me, a pretty damning critique. And this time around I found myself constantly wondering about the translation and checking (despite my oxidized-to-the-point-of-nonexistence French) the French original. There were certainly unfaithful passages (although there were also some pretty clever solutions, it seemed to me, and a few touches that were added but which struck me as very worthy additions). And there was the occasional omission -- for some reason, the prefatory poem is entirely absent from Adair's version. (I've posted an English version, see the link.) But what else can one do (besides learn French) -- I mean, it's not as if two people are going to produce lipogrammatic translations of Perec's fun but (let's face it) quirky and hardly-Harry-Potter-territory novel. Right?

Well, actually, I just found out that that's wrong. In fact there are two other English translations -- plus a few fragments by yet another translator. That's the good news. The bad news is that neither of the others have been published.

The translation situation is summed up by this note from David Bellos's article -- now 17 years old and quite outdated (note that he refers to the Adair translation as "pending" -- from the Review of Contemporary Fiction (vol. 13, no. 1), "Appendix: Georges Perec in English". Bellos writes:
La Disparition. Paris: Denoel, 1969. The first fragment of Perec's lipogram-novel to appear in English was in Harry Mathews's article "Vanishing Point," in American Book Review (November-December 1981). Further passages translated by Harry Mathews appeared in "That Ephemeral Thing," New York Review of Books, 6 June 1988. A translation of the whole novel by John Lee, entided Vanish'd!, and another translation by Ian Monk, remain unpublished. Extracts from John Lee's translation appeared in 1988 alongside his article "On translating La Disparition" (see below), and Lee's English versions of Perec's lipogrammatic translations of well-known French poems were published in PN Review (Manchester, UK) 15.6 (1989): 18-19. Gilbert Adair's translation, provisionally entitled A Void, is due to be published in London by Harvill in 1993.
So two translations -- done, it seems, prior to (or at any rate concurrently with) Adair's -- exist. But they aren't published, save for the excerpts from the apparently-uncompleted version by Oulipian Harry Mathews -- and save for the noted excerpts from Lee. For the Lee, the cite is to The Times Literary Supplement, 2 September 1988 (I haven't been able to track it down yet); a few brief excerpts of the translation were also published, subsequent to Bellos's bibliography, in the journal Palimpsests, no. 9.

What else can we learn about them?

Well, the main source of information seems to be a later issue of that same journal Palimpsests; issue 12 devotes several articles specifically to the comparison between the Adair and the Lee translations. Unfortunately, the journal is published in French -- which means that for pretty much anyone who can read it, the issue is moot save as a matter of literary theory and intellectual interest. Nevertheless, a few pages of one of the articles -- Sara R. Greaves's "Une traduction non plausible? La Disparition de Georges Perec traduit par John Lee" -- is available through Google Books, and a footnote to the first mention of John Lee's translation Vanish'd! gives some useful bibliographical information, useful even to those with heavily oxidized French:
On peut consulter cette traduction non publiée à L'association Georges Perec, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Paris. Il en était question dans un numéro précedent de Palimpsestes: "De La disparition de Georges Perec à Vanish'd! de John Lee: la traduction traduite". Paris: PSN, 1995: pp. 105-115, ainsi que dans mon memoire de maltrise, "La Traduction d'un Lipogramme", visible également à l'Association Georges Perec. L'autre traduction est d'Ian Monk, et n'a pas non plus été publiée.
So unless my French is betraying me, it seems that you can go to the Arsenal Library in Paris and read Lee's Vanish'd! there. (Why it hasn't been published isn't clarified.) But Ian Monk's translation -- which Greaves, like Bellos, gives no name for, although a number of web sites claim that it is called A Vanishing -- is n longer going to be published ("n'a pas non plus été publiée") and it's not clear why. A real pity, since I'd really like to read Monk's translation in particular.

If you scroll down in Greaves article, you can read a few snippets in Lee and Adair's translations, which she quotes as she compares them. One of the bits she quotes is the fourth sentence whose Adairian version Ian Monk critiques in his essay.

Another scholarly article, Alison James's "The Maltese and the Mustard Fields: Oulipian Translation", is not online, although you can read a summary here, and if you belong to an academic institution you might be able to access the entire thing. James quotes both the first and the third of Monk's four examples. Here's what she says about the third (i.e. the sentence which I previously quoted Ian Monk's discussion of): important plot development is based on Perec's adaptation of a common pangram (a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet). The French sentence "Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume" ("Carry this old whisky to the blond judge who is smoking") becomes the e-less version "Portons dix bons whiskys à l'avocat goujat qui fumait au zoo" ("Carry ten good whiskies to the ill-mannered lawyer who was smoking at the zoo"; 55). This note in Voyl's journal leads Amaury Conson to track down the lawyer Hassan Ibn Abbou at the zoo. Adair's translation expands the sentence, retaining most words from the original while displacing some of them: "I ask all 10 of you, with a glass of whisky in your hand—and not just any whisky but a top-notch brand—to drink to that solicitor who is so boorish as to light up his cigar in a zoo" (A Void 39). Adair circumvents the constraint by using Arabic numerals for the number 10, while shifting its reference to the number of listeners (thus avoiding the problematic plural "whiskies"). This solution respects the novel's general constraint (the lipogram) although not the supplementary local one (the pangram). On the semantic level, it adapts the sentence's meaning, but retains the element required for the novel's plot (the lawyer who smokes at the zoo).

Lee also opts to keep the number 10, but by adopting Roman numerals is able to preserve the (pseudo-)pangram, with an X that functions both as number and letter: "Quick! X hot tots of brand whisky for an unjovial solicitor smoking at Paris zoo!" (36-37). Of course, this sentence is unlike Perec's in that it does not resemble a familiar English pangram. So Lee adds an ironic parenthesis: "(viz. a quick brown fox jumps at this lazy dog, as any typist will know, but such a translation would play havoc with our story, wouldn't it?)" (Vanish'd 36-37). Lee's double lipogrammatic pangram not only makes the wordplay more explicit than it is in Perec's French text, it also identifies itself as a translation and comments on the gap that separates it from the original text. It ironically hints that the translator, far from being a "lazy dog," is a faithful one who is forced to choose between different loyalties: to plot, to constraint, to meaning.
I will say that while I agree with Monk's critique of Adair's version, I'm not particularly enamored of Lee's either. It's really too bad that Ian Monk's seem to have vanished into a void.

...and that's all I've learned about the vanished translations for now. I must admit I find the life-imitating-art disparition of the two other versions more frustrating than amusing. I'd like to read them! Or, at the very least, read in them. Publishers -- why not bring them out?

In particular, if anyone knows why Ian Monk's translation is unavailable even to scholars (in contrast to Lee's which can at least be seen if you haul ass over to the Arsenal Library) -- or knows of any way to contact him to ask! -- I'd be grateful if you'd leave the information in comments.


Barry Deutsch said...

It's possible that La disparation is suffering under the same problem as The Second Sex: the English-language publisher owns the right to publish an English translation, and sees no reason to allow any other translations to be published.

Stephen said...

That sounds distressingly plausible.

David Bellos said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stephen said...

David Bellos -- an honor to have you stop by my humble blog!

And thank you for the information! I did not mean to say that Ian Monk had disappeared; I meant to say that Ian Monk's translation of La dispiration had disappeared, i.e. that it wasn't going to be published. My apologies if I wasn't clear about that.

Unknown said...

I've jut been told, rightly, that my emali address appears on this blog - could you please it take it off??
Thanks, Ian

Stephen said...

As per Ian Monk's request, I have deleted the David Bellos comment that included his email address.

For the record, though, the rest of David Bellos's comment was as follows:

Ian Monk has certainly not disappeared! He lives in France, writes in French and in English, and is a member of Oulipo. He can be contacted at [redacted].