Category Archives: translation

Blanchot on translation

In an essay which he has not included in his book, but which is a continuation of its project, La demoiselle aux mirrors [The Young lady of the Mirrors], Paulhan notes that a proper study of the strictest and most faithful kind of translation would provide a method for gaining access to authentic thought. For such a translation would show what transformation, proper to language, expression brings to bear on thought; all one would have to do would be to work out what kind of change the translator necessarily imposes on the text he is translating, and then to imagine within the original text analogous changes in order to work back, ideally, to a thought deprived of language and saved from reflection. Now, as is often pointed out, it seems that the almost inevitable effect on any translation is to make the translated text richer in its imagery and more concrete than the language into which it is translated. The translator dissociates the text’s stereotypes, interprets them as expressive metaphors and, so as not to replace them with simple, abstract words (which would be a further deformation), he translates them as concrete, picturesque images. This is also how all reflection becomes a travesty of ineffable original thought. Immediate thought, the kind perceived for us by consciousness with a look that decomposed it, is deprived of what we might call its stereotypes, its commonplaces, its abstract rhythm. It is false and arbitrary, impure and conventional. All we recognise in it is our own look. But if, on the other hand, we submit it to the rules of rhetoric, if our attention is surprised by rhythm, rhyme and numerical arrangement, we can hope to see the mind restored to its stereotypes and its commonplaces, reunited with the soul from which it was separated. Thought will become pure, it will become a virginal, innocent contact once again, not when it is set apart from words, but within the intimacy of what is said, through the operation of clichés, which alone are capable of rescuing it from the anamorphoses of reflection.
   One might imagine this thought which is revealed in conventions, which both escapes and is kept safe [se sauve] within constraints. But that is language’s secret, as it is Paulhan’s too. All we have to do is imagine that true commonplace expressions are words torn apart by lightning and that the rigours of law found the absolute world of expressions, outside which there is nothing but sleep and chance.

— Blanchot, ‘How is Literature Possible?’ (trans. M. Syrotinski)