On Strangeness Remaining Strange

From an interesting review of a very bizarre (and good) novel, The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector:

Sousa invites the reader to “imagine a Portuguese text that transmits a much greater sense of potential language chaos than does the translation,” noting the loss in his translation of some ambiguity and idiosyncrasy. His rationale appears to be that the struggle of translation is one that simply cannot be won: the strangeness of Lispector’s language is simply too foreign. The best a translation can do is somehow to invite the reader to “imagine” how much more strange is the original; it cannot actually restage or enact the effect of this strangeness. . . .

If Novey’s version is an improvement, it is not necessarily because she is more faithful to the original text or even because she better evokes its transmission of a “potential language chaos,” but because she does not seem to see the struggle as something that can be won or lost. Where Sousa beckons towards a confusion outside the grasp of his translation, Novey intends to highlight the dissonant chord that hers shares with the novel. It may not be the same strangeness of Lispector’s original, but how could it be? If strangeness is to remain strange, can it be translated accurately? Can it even be anticipated? (If our anticipation of a potential strangeness proves correct, how strange could it have been?) The struggle that informs these questions, not their solution, is what Novey attempts to translate: hers is not an invitation to imaginative wholeness or transcendence, but an admission of imaginative poverty. Her translation may be unavoidably inadequate to the experience of the original text, but exploring this inadequacy is itself the point of the original text. In this way, the strangeness of Novey’s translation, which comes at the expense of precision and immediate clarity, is of a piece with the narrator’s attempt to translate the strangeness of her experience.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Strange Harbors A few weeks ago I reported on an interesting event put on by San Francisco’s own Center for the Art of Translation. They’ve recently published...
  2. Alison Entrekin on Near to the Wild Heart This site is, if anything, now a collection of links to Clarice Lispector media. Here is Alison Entrekin, translator of Near to the Wild Heart...
  3. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Invasion Begins The Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell reviews are coming fast and furious. The NYTimes and The Washington Post have allocated space in their Sunday book...
  4. Bookselling Is Getting Strange We're definitely in flux. From Publishers Lunch:...
  5. Five New Clarice Lispector Translations Benjamin Moser, author of a great biography of Clarice Lispector (Why This World) has gotten New Directions to re-release five Lispector novels in new translations....

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