A Matter of Attraction

Louis Jolicoeur is a prolific author, translation scholar, and former head of the translation program at Université Laval in Quebec City. He is also an experienced literary translator who has shepherded many authors from Spanish and English into French, including Uruguayan luminary Juan Carlos Onetti.

La sirène et le pendule (L’instant même, 1995) is an elegantly written, insightful consideration of the translator’s craft that sets out a compelling and somewhat unorthodox theory of translation. For Jolicoeur, the translator’s job is to translate not only the text but its author. He gives translators a great deal of autonomy. And above all, he stresses that the alchemical process works best when driven by a deeply felt attraction for an (ultimately unattainable) literary object.

Louis Jolicoeur sat down with Pablo Strauss to discuss his thoughts and his book. The interview has been translated from French (and occasionally Spanish) and slightly condensed. ≈


Your book is called La sirène et le pendule : Attirance et esthétique en traduction littéraire. Could you explain the title?

The siren, for me, represents attraction: the object of an attraction that is unattainable, and is attractive for that very reason. In the introduction of the book I discuss this Romantic notion of the beautiful as ultimately unattainable.

The pendulum is another image that represents the back-and-forth we’ve seen through history, between very literal translations and very free ones. It’s a pendulum that never stops swinging.

And where would you say we are today? Have we found a happy balance somewhere in the middle?

I’d say there have been times, recently, when we’ve reacted and swung too far toward literal translations. You can still find remnants of that movement. I’ve seen translations where, under the pretext of respect, we end up with texts so literal they can be almost incomprehensible.

Is there an element of convenience in this? Yes, it may be respectful, but it’s also the easiest, least time-consuming way to translate.

Most people who have espoused this approach have done so after long and serious reflection. I don’t think they’re just trying to save time. It’s really out of respect for the original text. There was a true movement of extremely literal literary translation that went way too far in my view, a highly cerebral approach that ignores the effect of the final translation. These translators followed an intellectual principle, but they weren’t very concerned with the effect the final product has on the reader, whether it’s readable or not.

My view is quite simple: translators must think first and foremost of the reader, and seek to reproduce an effect as similar as possible to that of the original, the effect reading it might have had on the original reader.

La sirène et le pendule was published twenty years ago now. Have your ideas changed?

No, on the fundamental questions – the effect, attraction, and the author – my ideas haven’t really changed. I’ve noticed in various forums that people can be resistant to the notion of “translating the author.” It’s not fashionable these days, especially in literary studies where since thinkers like Barthes, Ricoeur, Derrida, and Foucault, we like to think that the author is dead, and the text is sovereign. As a translator I find that idea absurd. It may serve us well in theory, but as translators we are practitioners, even if we’re informed by theory. And as a translator I translate an author, first of all.

“Translating an author” for me means much more than just knowing the author’s life. Where is the author from? An Argentine author is not a Chilean author, and that means the language is different, the historical references, the political reality… I need to know exactly where the author is from: what country, what city. When they lived. Because the same text written by someone else is not the same text.

When I translated three books by Juan Carlos Onetti, which was formative for me, I had to keep in mind that Onetti was a friend of Sabato, Borges, Arlt – important Southern Cone writers. Knowing this helps us better understand the type of metaphors he uses, references, irony, his games, the way he plays with language; you understand that he read French writers, especially Camus and Sartre. All this is indispensable.

Is it a question of putting yourself into the author’s head?

You need to understand all the author’s influences, because that’s the only way the effect of the author’s text can be understood.

Above all, and I learned this from Onetti, you have to understand the work at a structural level. If you have an unreliable narrator you make connections between the examples where the narrator proves unreliable, and above all you don’t reveal things that aren’t meant to be revealed. That would destroy the author’s games, and makes the novel completely uninteresting. But to do that you have to know who Onetti is, know that he likes to play games, know where he’s coming from. He’s not the only rioplatense writer of the time playing with us in this way; they were all doing it.

That’s what I mean when I say we “translate an author.” We have to thoroughly understand their literary project and reproduce it. It can’t be a literal translation because I want my reader to have the same chance of figuring out the game they are playing as the original reader. If I don’t achieve this my translation is a failure.

And in the book you are clear that you don’t mean getting to know the author personally. You say this is at best pointless, at worst dangerous.

If there are ambiguities in the book, my role is to preserve, not elucidate them… There are times when it may be useful to ask the author about small details. But on principle I feel it’s best not to. With Onetti this was true. When I met him he was a seriously unpleasant. We’re talking about a man who spent the last five years of his life in bed, though he wasn’t disabled. He just didn’t see the point in getting up.

I went to meet him, in Madrid, to ask him some questions. “Señor Onetti, on this page in your book there’s a Señor Bidar, and then later there’s a Señor Billar; Bidar, Billar. Is that intentional?” “None of my characters play pool,” (billar) he said. “Not play, I said, the character is named Sr. Billar.” “There’s no character with that name,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

So I called Christian Bourgois, the publisher in Paris, and asked them to fix the error. And when I got to Paris to collect my payment for the translation I went to the publishing house and Christian Bourgois said he had a four page letter from Onetti, in Spanish, could you translate it for me. I started reading it to him, this four-page letter. “Dear Mr. Bourgois, Your young Canadian translator, whose strange last name I have unfortunately forgotten, murdered one of my characters…” The letter was a classic Onettian reverie: “Let us hope that as long as this translator lives he is haunted by the ghost of my character…”

I translated the letter for Mr. Bourgois, and explained how I had been to see the author, asked him the question, and more.

C’est pas mal quand même, comme histoire,” he answered. “It could be a short story.”

Onetti was trying to tell me to figure out what he was up to and leave him alone. And since then that’s been my policy with the writers I translate.

When others translate my own [fiction] writing, I try to do the same. If there’s a glaring mistake I’ll fix it. But I’m always a little worried that by fixing one thing I may break something else.

As an author you have to be careful to avoid destroying the work. The work belongs to the translator. As an author, by intervening I take the chance of damaging something structural, and the structure belongs to the translator.

You distinguish clearly between the author as creator of the work, and the person who wrote the work.

I realize that my idea – on the one hand the author is central, but on the other it’s best not to ask questions – isn’t widespread in Canada. When I’ve spent time at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre it went against what everyone else believed – but I continue to believe this, wholeheartedly.

The translator has greater autonomy in this view, it seems.

Yes. Translations belong to the translator. No one else can understand the work they are creating, as a whole.

Does that mean sometimes accepting a translation that may be further from the original?

Yes. In my Onetti text there may be 15 examples demonstrating that the narrator is not credible. We don’t have to reproduce all 15 exactly. What counts is that the reader understands what’s going on.

All that matters in the end is that the overall degree of humour, or irony, or what have you, is reproduced.

Which is why you talk about the “effect” of the translation.

Yes. When I’m teaching and we do a side-by-side comparison of a few pages of an original and its translation, I warn my students that it’s a totally artificial exercise. It’s easy to find problems, infelicities. We have to remember that we may find the solutions further on. It’s the work as a whole that counts.

So in a jury situation, for example, I like to start by reading 25 pages of the translation, and then 25 pages of the original, to give me the time to see what the translator is doing. Too many people are too eager to point out mistakes, to say “didn’t you see this here, this is wrong.” That’s not what interests me. The overall feeling is much more important.

Let’s talk about the idea of attraction. Could you explain the concept as it applies to translation, as you use it in your book?

Attraction, as I use the word, means more than just liking a book. It means that you like the book and want to enter into a kind of symbiotic relationship with the author driven by the desire to reproduce what he or she has done. When this happens attraction becomes a powerful motor driving the translation.

I was struck by this idea. It’s not one we hear every day: instead we seem very focused on the idea of skill, competence – perhaps we don’t think enough about the idea of attraction, of loving the book. It sounds almost amateurish, in the best sense of the word.

In the academic world it can be a tough idea to defend. But whenever I talk about it people are interested. We can’t ignore the practical side of things, we have to keep two feet on the ground. But in an ideal world we can strive for this 19th Century, Romantic ideal of attraction.

There are examples of translators who are so totally attracted they’ll dedicate their lives to a single author. Like Richard Zenith, with Pessoa.

Antonio Tabucchi also, with Pessoa. He didn’t only translate: he also said that his own original writing is an attempt to reproduce Pessoa.

You can see that there is a metaphor at play here that is almost erotic. But there are lots of ways to reproduce a work: you could write a play, retell the story to your neighbour, write a new work inspired by the original.

A translation is, in a sense, the perfect love. Because you are really staying in the shadows of the object of your love. You’re like an anonymous labourer, working so that others can enjoy the work you love. A worker at the service of the work.

It’s a modest profession. You aren’t in it for glory. You are working so that others can experience the same attraction you felt. And that’s why attraction drives translation, reaches beyond debates about literal versus literary translation.

The logical, Cartesian side of your personality doesn’t balk at this this notion of attraction?

I’ve been teaching translation for twenty years and I haven’t changed my mind. I still believe in the centrality of attraction. My students are surprised sometimes, but I do my best to explain, how attraction can drive you to want to reproduce the effect of the original. I believe it works.

If you set out to reproduce an effect that truly marked you, that hit you hard, that seduced you (to use a metaphor), there is a good chance that your translation will be better. You can still do a fine job translating a text you like less, approaching it as a technical task. But when you are attracted there’s another layer.

Your book contains a fascinating discussion of the relationship between enigma, doubt, and beauty.

Beauty is at the origin of attraction – we’re attracted to that which we find beautiful – and we often find beautiful that which is enigmatic and inaccessible. By possessing the thing you find beautiful, you compromise its beauty, in a sense. It loses something. For the beautiful to remain as beautiful, you can’t have it. Because once you have it, there’s nothing left to desire.

I’m also interested in the enigmatic side. Because as I said earlier, we shouldn’t elucidate the text’s ambiguities when we translate, but rather reproduce them.

By removing ambiguity we remove the beauty of the text. Ambiguity is the very foundation of our modern notion of beauty. In modern art what is hidden is more beautiful than what is revealed.

Do you think these notions can apply to non-literary translation as well?

It’s not exactly the same thing, but even in non-literary translation there’s always an author somewhere. If you have a press release you still have to take into account who wrote it, who its intended audience is, etc. There are different definitions of literary texts; one way to look at is that any text that has multiple layers of meaning can be approached as a literary text.

You’ve been teaching translation for a long time. How does theory connect to practice in your teaching?

I think theory is useful. You have people who translate with no theoretical scaffolding. And you have the other extreme, theorists who never translate. I am always surprised, at international conferences say, when I ask a colleague who has made an interesting presentation: “What is it you translate?” And the answer is “I don’t.” How can you have a theory of translation when you’ve never done it?

I believe my theory applies to most types of texts. A legal text, for example, will often be purposely written to leave the widest possible room for interpretation, with intentional ambiguity. And medical writing is very rich in metaphor – sometimes to soften the facts of the matter, sometimes just to make it more pleasant, make the writing richer.

I think attraction can be the base, even if it’s less strong in a non-literary text. It remains the starting point for everything – the enigma, the mystery, reproducing the author’s text – it all grows out of attraction.



translation theory  ≈  translation practice  ≈  literary attraction  ≈  the enigmatic and the beautiful  ≈  Juan Carlos Onetti  ≈  asking the author  ≈  the autonomy of the translator