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Translating Beckett

The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters will be published in October by Cambridge University Press. The Cahier series, which I mentioned a little while back, will be publishing a pamphlet by George Craig on his experiences translating letters for this volume, titled “Writing Beckett’s Letters.”

I would highly recommend this Cahier to anyone interested in Beckett, translation, or writing. What Craig does is to use his translations as a focus through which to draw a number of apparently divergent but in fact related threads: these would include handwriting (and an author’s physical interaction with a text); particular, in-depth translation questions; failure and futility; the uses of intellectual and cross-genre collaboration; the effects of writing in another language; and the ways in which the effects of writing in another language are transcended.

This is quite a bit of ground for a long essay that comes in at 36 pages (with illustrations), but Craig impressively remains light on his feet while treating each of these subjects with rigor. His method is to use many short, overlapping sections to build up a related set of ideas about Beckett’s writing and translation.

For instance, the section in the middle titled “International Language” moves like this: it starts with the idea of a pan-European language before dismissing it as unworkable, then praising those who:

not only take up this learning [of multiple languages] with enthusiasm who indeed rejoice in that gradual widening of their hold on more than one language, but create a supra-national situation in which they speak or write these languages in ways that suggest a new kind of pan-Europeanism: a recognition of each separate reality and its relation to other linguistic traditions.

Beckett is the outstanding example of such a person.

The section then concludes by bringing this back to the letters: whereas Beckett conceived of his books strictly in just one language, in the letters “the text may move from one language to another. It is, quite simply, his natural utterance: something increasingly strange to the largely monoglot English.” (italics in the original)

The way I have quoted this, the reference to the “monoglot English” appears gratuitous, but it is actually a foretaste of a subtle point Craig makes two sections later about English linguistic imperialism vis a vis Ireland. As such, it gives some indication of how this essay ties itself together, building up something complex and substantial.

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  1. Nabokov on Beckett's French From a nice essay on Beckett in the Boston Review: This thought coalesced into a conviction. Thereafter, Beckett, who so valued control over his work...
  2. Beckett Centennial The New York Sun has some info on Grove's forthcoming boxed set of virtually all of Beckett's works. Grove Press, Beckett's original American publisher, has...
  3. Beckett and Sartre and Philosophy One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess. When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence,...
  4. Why Beckett Left English Wyatt Mason argues that Beckett “chose to write in French to escape the mastery he had in English,” and draws on a letter from...
  5. Writing Beckett’s Letters They’re publishing volume 2 of Beckett’s letters in September. In the meantime, you should have a look at this Cahier, by the volume’s editor on...

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