Confluence (2000)


Anne Malena
University of Alberta

I translate, therefore I write. Poring over the source text I immerse myself into the poetics of its narrative texture. Reading to translate, my mind’s eye apprehends the text and its context as a whole while searching the murkiness of its depths for the key to its beauty and secret meanings. This kind of elaborate, involved reading is akin to contemplation. It is as if I were sitting at the edge of a mountain lake, relaxing into and admiring its surroundings while peering into the water, trying to catch a glimpse of the bottom. The image that the lake sends back, however, contains within it my own image, unstable and transformed, but my own. It is up to me now to resist the temptation of Narcissus and keep at a critical distance from the lake and from my own reflection. But I can no more forget what I saw than erase it. The rapport that I have established with the source text is sensual and answers to the logic of desire. I treasure the link that connects us while recognizing the impossibility and the danger of bringing us too close together. The text is other and must remain so in order to sustain the charm of its opacity. How, then, will I be able to translate it, to transport it, as it were, into another culture without appropriating it and making it my own? Aren’t translators called traitors for good reason? Do they not violate the text’s home ground in order to transplant it into alien soil? As I have suggested, translation, like desire, transcends the binary oppositions these questions presuppose and operates in a fluid zone of intermingling shadows, furtive touches and multiple influences. In attempting to explain here this rather unorthodox view of translation, I seek to put the translator back into translation and to show the positive side of appropriation.

Texts are meant to be read and reading them does not violate their integrity or, if it does when the critic pretends to have penetrated their meaning or laid open their structure, the damage is rarely permanent: the book never reveals all but sets off chains of semiosis forever renewed and renewable according to the varying contexts in which reading takes place. In releasing a stream of voices, those from the text and others external to it, this process inspires other writers to echo or respond to what they’ve read. A map of intertextuality quickly takes shape and, in turn, requires its own interpreters to sort out the multiplicity of its directions, connections and points of departure and arrival. The writer, the reader and the critic all contribute to the drawing of the map since they are part of a social network responsible for the promotion and definition of a given culture. Translators also belong to these networks in spite of the fact that they have traditionally been rendered invisible, their cultural contribution silenced by publishers, critics and teachers of literature.

In reclaiming their right to literary existence, translators are appropriating texts in many ways. Feminist translators flaunt their signatures and, as Barbara Godard says, “the signs of [their] manipulations of the text” (Godard 94), while others, following Lawrence Venuti (1995 and 1998), advocate foreignizing their translations to highlight the cultural otherness of the text and keep from erasing the transformative process the source text has undergone in order to become a target text. Realistically, however, these kinds of political appropriation are fairly limited and usually end up appearing contrived, while making the translated text difficult to read. In Canada, although feminist translation greatly contributed to bridging the two solitudes in the 1980s and to freeing female voices from the domination of male discourse, the kind of transformance (translation + performance) advocated by Barbara Godard-and brilliantly performed in her translation of Nicole Brossard’s Amantes/Lovhers-is rare, extremely demanding of the skills of a translator and difficult to appreciate on the part of a monolingual reader.

The suggestion of solidarity with the author, the text and the context that feminist translators have been talking about in notes, prefaces, articles and books, however, illustrates the possibility of intimate contact between source and target cultures and authorizes the translator to render her own reading visible in her re-creation of the text. This process cannot be restricted to a purely formalist exercise. In her efforts to comprehend the source text the translator learns about the socio-historical context of its production and relentlessly asks herself how best to make it comprehensible to her own audience. Lest this be understood to mean that there is a need for omniscience on the part of the translator, something Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz wrote about in convincing terms in 1985 and that I once believed in myself, let me point out that the translator is perfectly aware that she is herself a product of discourse and that, in spite of any conscious resistance on her part, she is always giving in to norms, be they linguistic, cultural or socio-political. She can, however, “surrender” to the source text, as Gayatri Spivak would have it, and translate it in an ethical way.

In typically Derridian fashion, Spivak spins her argument from the starting point of a play on words. She writes: “By juggling the disruptive rhetoricity that breaks the surface in not necessarily connected ways, we feel the selvedges of the language-textile give way, fray into frayages or facilitations” (178). A note points out that “’facilitation’ is the English translation of a Freudian term which is translated frayage in French.” The translation of the Laplanche and Pontalis dictionary definition of the term frayage/facilitation follows:

Term used by Freud at a time when he was putting forward a neurological model of the functioning of the psychical apparatus (1895): the excitation, in passing from one neurone to another, runs into a certain resistance; where its passage results in a permanent reduction in this resistance, there is said to be facilitation; excitation will opt for a facilitated pathway in preference to one where no facilitation has occurred” (199, n3).

The complexity of the usage of these multiple translations of Freud deserves a commentary of its own. What interests me here, however, is how suggestively Spivak uses the term frayage. According to the Petit Robert, it has a strict physiological definition: “Phénomène consistant dans le fait que le passage d’un flux nerveux dans les conducteurs devient plus facile en se répétant” (826). (Which I translate as “Phenomenon consisting in the fact that the passage of a nervous flux in the conductors becomes easier through repetition”).

Playing on the word in order to explain what she means by surrendering to the text, Spivak stretches it across the linguistic boundary, lessening the resistance of both French (frayage) and English (fray) and facilitating thus an “erotics” of translation. I repeat the quote from above: “By juggling the disruptive rhetoricity that breaks the surface in not necessarily connected ways, we feel the selvedges of the language-textile give way, fray into frayages or facilitations.” Can the connotation of love frayed at the edges still have anything to do with frayage or facilitation, in spite of its apparent contradictory meaning? Spivak goes on: “The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay” (178). What Spivak does here, and very cleverly, is to make her own language illustrate her argument as she is formulating it. She reminds us of the difference between the logic of a text and its rhetoricity. To her it is vitally important that attention be paid to the “jagged relationship” between the two, particularly when translating non-Western works. It is not enough to simply transpose lexicon, syntax and local colour; attention must also be paid to “the conditions of meaning” of the source text. Her own rhetoricity suggests that, in translation as in love, no solid seam is possible to join the frayed edges of logic and rhetoricity while, paradoxically, the repeated passage from one to the other facilitates an ethical translation, one that will respect the otherness of the text.

As Sherry Simon points out in her interpretation of Spivak, this point of view implies an “ambivalent and uncertain ’agency’ on the part of the translator” (144). In surrendering to the text, she gives in to its rhetoricity and limits her own. I find this compelling and helpful in explaining why I found myself restricted in my own rhetorical freedom when I started to translate. I came to translation in the late 1980s, my enthusiasm pumped up by feminist theories instilling in me a renewed love for language and its rhetorical possibilities once the female voice has managed to extricate itself from and deconstruct male discourse. I was going to merge with the text I found suitable for translation, achieve confluence and display my feminist solidarity by rendering it in as provocative a French as possible. In the act of translating, however, I quickly discovered how reluctant I was to manipulate a text for my own ends and how difficult it was to maintain a balance between logic and rhetoricity. Even if you are tuned in to “the conditions of meaning” of the original text, logic is always censoring what you feel and demanding that you submit to the norms of the language.

Regretfully, Spivak does not give concrete examples of what “translating rhetoricity” might mean. I take my cue in the following: “Logic allows us to jump from word to word by means of clearly indicated connections. Rhetoric must work in the silence between and around words in order to see what works and how much” (179). Silence happens to be an important element of the two novels by Kristjana Gunnars which I have translated, The Prowler and Zero Hour. Let me take a few examples from The Prowler to illustrate my own surrender to the text. For my first experience of translation I was very fortunate to choose a text in which the tension between logic and rhetoricity is an important dimension that is even repeatedly made explicit. Silence and narrative gaps mark the structure of both novels but in a much more evocative way in The Prowler. Organized in sections, without page numbers, the narration functions at multiple levels, blending the metaphors of the puzzle and the deck of cards. The picture represented by the puzzle changes each time the cards are shuffled. There is never enough time or enough pieces given to form a complete picture and no stable background can be determined since it shifts from Iceland during WWII to Iceland as a colony of Denmark to Iceland within Nato to the American perception of Iceland to the impressionist memories of a young girl and adolescent to literary criticism and self-reflexive writing to the question of love, love of the Nation, of family, of a man, of writing.

In performing the act of intimate reading advocated by Spivak, I discovered Iceland, not as a historical or anthropological object, but as the shifting image of an experience produced by half-formulated thoughts, multiple points of view, interrupted narratives, polyphony, polysemy and light suggestive poetic touches. I brought into it my own fascination with Iceland, which has held since my childhood a sort of mythical aura, my love of language and literature, a desire to write and empathy for an island nation caught in the web of international events. This baggage, more emotional than rational, both facilitated and hindered my surrender to the text. I was in love with the book from the moment I opened it, and read first the translated epigraph by Marguerite Duras: “The story of my life does not exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.” Then the opening words: “Perhaps it is not a good book, he said, James Joyce said, but it is the only book I am able to write.” Perhaps it is not a book at all, at least not a communicative act in the strict linguistic sense of the term, but a response to an irrepressible urge to express a life, a time and a country, the way one paints or bursts into song, splashing colour on the canvas or modulating melodies for the sheer pleasure of it. It is at that extra sensitive level that I perceived the rhetoricity of The Prowler but, in order to match it, I had to distrust my own and pay close attention to the logic of the text.

After quickly dashing out a first draft, which is also Spivak’s strategy and the most unconscious step of surrendering to the text, I started to keep a journal, examining each puzzle piece very closely, looking for matching clues and possibilities. I drew a list of key words and their variations of meaning with each occurrence. I decided that the narrator spoke in at least three different voices, that of a young girl, that of a young woman and that of the mature writer. I noted how deliberately simple the syntax appeared to be and how deceptive it was since it very much privileged the poetic function over the others. Once I had turned over as many puzzle pieces as possible I organized them according to narrator’s voices and key words, as well as my own sense of possible connections through connotation and imagery. I was then ready to work on an intermediary and a final version, touching up the shapeless and pale puzzle pieces of the first draft with more definite colours and forms. I attempted to fit each fragment into one of the pictures produced by the repeated shuffling of cards, checking whether it might also fit into other pictures. For example, each occurrence of the term prowler deserved its own special treatment according to its immediate context, but each translation had to retain its polysemic quality. In spite of the fact that the English title may have been inspired by the Bernard Malamud’s title of The Fixer, I had deliberately chosen the mark of the feminine in my title because, not only was the narrator a woman, but in French “faire ou aller à la maraude” is a rich polysemic expression. It even has a literary sense referring to plagiarism which, in the context of The Prowler and its translation, evokes the texture and the frayed edges of intertextuality.

This negotiation of the text, as I have just described it, seeks to retain the dynamics of the structure of the original but ends up setting off a dynamics of its own and beyond my control. My initial desire for confluence, where the narrator’s vision of Iceland would have coincided with my own, has been checked by the repeated passage between logic and rhetoricity which has also facilitated an act of translation respectful of the irreducible otherness of the text. Gunnars’ narrator expresses a very complex, difficult, at times painful, at other times celebratory relation to Iceland while, at the same time, refusing to be pinned down for the utterance of any stable truth. As she says, and I invite you for the sake of opacity to seek out for yourselves the meaning of the allusions: “There is a further suspicion that if the truth were to appear it would be a paltry thing in rags. It would be small and bony, taking off its hand-me-down clothing and exposing its embarrassing skin. There would be a fear there, perhaps of a kind of leprosy, and an aura of hopelessness. It would be a speechless thing” (section 156). Ultimately, truth, as rhetoricity, is indescribable and must not be reduced to the logic of its expression. Surrendering to the text means accepting the possibility to be transformed by it and the limitations inherent in that transformation because love is altogether facilitated and frayed.

If we return, by way of conclusion, to the image of the mountain lake I opened with, you will recall that my own reflection in the text of the other disrupted its tranquillity. In paying attention to “the trace of the other in the self” (177), as Spivak would have it, I also become aware of the trace of myself in the other. In other words, if the other always retains a certain degree of opacity, I need to remember and recognize my own opacity, to myself as well as others. In Homi Bhabha’s terms, this is the mark of the heterogeneous which prevents the smooth flow of cultural transparency (see Simon). As a translator I might be expected, and probably have been trained, to be very clear as to how textual transfer will take place from source to target culture. My own complex and heterogeneous identity, however, is a constant reminder of the permeability and heterogeneity of cultures. When I publish La Maraude in Quebec, I am far from having a clear sense of my audience and, as we saw, the text I address to them retains the mark of its otherness, of my own and of its sinuous affective and cultural voyage. Were I to attempt invisibility I would conspire, as Peter Hitchcock states, “to domesticate the foreign text or otherwise to ameliorate its disruptive potential” (172). My desire for confluence has facilitated the process of translation and, in remaining unfulfilled, ensures that The Prowler will continue to intrigue and enchant readers in its new context.


Díaz-Diocaretz, Myriam. Translating Poetic Discourse: Questions on Feminist Strategies in Adrienne Rich. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1985.

Godard, Barbara. “Theorizing Feminist Discourse/Translation”. Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere, eds. Translation, History and Culture. London and New York: Pinter Publishers, 1990: 87-94.

Gunnars, Kristjana. The Prowler. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1989. ---.

---. La Maraude. Trans. Anne Malena. Montréal: Leméac, 1995.

---. Zero Hour. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1991.

Hitchcock, Peter. Dialogics of the Oppressed. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Le Petit Robert. Montréal: Les Dictionnaires Robert-Canada, 1987; 1986.

Simon, Sherry. Gender in Translation. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation”. Michèle Barrett and Anne Phillips, eds. Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992: 177-200.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

---. The Scandals of Translation. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.