Friday, February 11, 2011

11/02/2011; or, Two Translations of Two Paragraphs of Le Grand Palindrome de Georges Perec

What dates count as Palindromic dates depends on the dating system you use: in American usage, today is not a Palindrome, but in European usage (which puts the day first) it is: 11 February 2011, aka 11/02/2011.* (I think the European system makes more sense than the American, but not as much sense as the Chinese, which apparently puts the year first: 2011-02-11.)

But since today is a palindromic date in European countries (one of only 60 they get this millennium (we Americans get a more paltry 36 in the same period)), I thought I'd mark the occasion by briefly mentioning a work which has often been called the greatest Palindrome ever written, by the French novelist (and member of the literary group the Oulipo) Georges Perec, "Le Grand Palindrome".

Perec's "Grand Palindrome" is 5,566 letters, and about 1000 words, long. In it, Perec -- a man given to word games in his literary works, as fans of his novel La disparition will know -- attempted to write a Palindrome that was not simply a series of words that read the same in both directions, but one which was, in some sense, a literary work.

I will admit I haven't read it. My French is too weak to be called shaky, and this is hardly very clear. As Perec's (generally admiring) biographer noted: is undeniably difficult to read. Knowledge of the constraint disarms critical faculties; when you know that it is a monster palindrome, you tend to see nothing but its palindromic design. At Manchester, in 1989, doctored photocopies and unsigned handwritten versions were given to students and teachers of French who were asked, respectively, to use it for the exercise of explication de texte and to mark it as an essay. Perec's palindrome barely made sense to the readers. Some teachers took it for the work of an incompetent student, while others suspected that they had been treated to a surrealist text produced by "automatic writing". Those with psychiatric interests identified the author as an adolescent in a dangerously paranoid state; those who had not forgotten the swinging sixties wondered whether it was LSD or marijuana that had generated the disconnected images of the text. Readers seem to project their won positive and negative fantasies onto Perec's palindrome, as they do onto other difficult, obscure and unattributed works.

-- David Bellos, Georges Perec: a Life in Words, p. 429
But the first and last sentences have been translated (not as palindromes, just for their plain sense (such as it is)) -- not once, but twice. So I thought I'd share them with you here.

Here is Perec's opening paragraph:
Trace l’inégal palindrome. Neige. Bagatelle, dira Hercule. Le brut repentir, cet écrit né Perec. L’arc lu pèse trop, lis à vice-versa.

Perte. Cerise d'...
Here's how Bellos translates it in his aforecited biography (p. 430):
Trace the uneven palindrome. Snow. A trifle, says Hercules. Unadorned repentance, this piece born [of] Perec. [If] the bow of reading is too heavy, read back-to-front.

Loss. Cherry...
And here's how the same words (save for the two at the end) are translated by Perec's friend and fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews (as given by Martin Gardner in his book Penrose Tiles to Trapdoor Ciphers... and the Return of Dr. Matrix (p. 83)):
Trace the unequal palindrome. Snow. A trifle, Hercules would say. Rough penitence, this writing born as Perec. The read arch is too heavy: read vice-versa....
And, of course, reading backwards in the French (and respacing and repunctuating the words, to be sure) gives us:
.... Désire ce trépas rêvé : Ci va ! S’il porte, sépulcral, ce repentir, cet écrit ne perturbe le lucre : Haridelle, ta gabegie ne mord ni la plage ni l’écart.
Which Bellows translates:
Desire this dreamt-of death: Here goes! If it bears, entombed, this repentance, this writing bears not on lucre. Strumpet, your trickery has no bite on range or space!
Whereas Mathews translates it:
Desire this dreamed-of decease: Here goes! If he carries, entombed, this penitence, this writing will disturb no lucre: Old witch, your treachery will bite into neither the shore nor the space between,

...comparing those translations, and imagining each of them as palindromes of their mates is, I suspect, as close as non-French readers can get to experiencing Perec's "Grand Palindrome". Probably not the biggest loss ever, I'll admit. But one that I will also admit saddens me just a little.

Happy 11/02/2011!

* There are still other results if you use only the two-number abbreviation for the year, of course. See the above links for all the obsessive details you could wish.

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