Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Translator David Bellos on Learning from Georges Perec

This past Saturday, translator David Bellos had a great piece in the Wall Street Journal on what translating Godine's Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec taught him:

Among the people I thank for their help at the end of my new book about translation is Georges Perec—a French writer famous for having written a whole novel without the letter "e" in it.

Perec never met me and never knew he had helped. But he most certainly had—he taught me how to attend to the craft of writing, and for me that means: how to write.

In Chapter 51 of Perec's masterpiece, "Life A User's Manual" (1978), the character Valène imagines a painting of the apartment house in which he lives with its façade removed, showing all its street-side rooms with their contents and the characters who lived there. The project is laid out as an inventory of items numbered from 1 through 179, and each "item" is a summary of a story told elsewhere in Perec's 99-chapter novel.

I was translating the novel, so I had to locate the stories to which the lines referred. But in doing so I noticed (thanks to some prompting) that each line of the inventory was exactly the same length. Exactly 60 keystrokes.

On top of that, the inventory is separated into three blocks, two of them consisting of 60 lines and the last one of just 59. The "great compendium," as Perec called it, thus consists of three squares, the last one slightly defective.

A traditional use of such letter-squares is to smuggle a message by making the letters of one edge spell out a key. Sure enough, the "left diagonal" of square one (reading the last letter of line 1, the second-to-the-last of line 2, etc.) was constant—"A." The second letter square had "M" in the same sliding position, and the third had "E." Together, they spelled out AME, the French word for "soul"—a term that the avowed rationalist Perec doesn't use anywhere else in his novel.

For a couple of months, every day in the late afternoon, I tackled this fiendish challenge. It had to be done: It was obviously the heart, or soul, of the book. I invented training exercises, using squared paper to write any old thing in expressions exactly 60 characters long.

Eventually, I became almost adept at this skill. Then I looked at the stories to which Perec's lines referred and began to compose summaries in English to fit the rule. I was making progress.

I called on Perec's German translator, who had been one of the writer's close chums. He showed me what he had done. He'd chosen ICH (German for "I") to replace AME, because no German word for "soul" has three letters.

There was my solution! Latin EGO translates German "Ich" directly, and in English can also be considered close to "soul." Es, Gs and Os are common letters in English and can often be moved around in a phrase (verbs give you "–ed" and "-ing" to play with, and "of" can be massaged into any position). I sweated and struggled, but I pushed on. It came out all right in the end.

That's how Georges Perec taught me to write.

He set a puzzle that forced me to acquire a fuller grasp of the units of the writer's craft—words, and the letters from which they are made. By the time I finished translating Chapter 51, I could have written 60-character lines to summarize just about anything.

Twenty-five years later, I was asked to translate the French and Hebrew text explaining the meaning of "righteous among the nations" for a plaque at the Shoah Memorial (Holocaust Museum) in Paris. I was able to do it in such a way that the English was precisely the same length as the French, so that it fit neatly alongside, allowing viewers to feel that the two texts were "the same."

Such applications are rare, but to my mind, the mastery of this peculiar skill has served me well. The muscles that I grew to translate Perec's "great compendium" have gone on helping me to meet challenges I face in translating other texts—and in writing my own.

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