When “Translation Magic” opened up shop a few months ago, I asked Jorge Miralles, a translator and writer currently residing in Havana and Miami, about the significance of translating literature and theory from French into Spanish.
This question emerged from wanting to learn more about how individual translators assert their taste and preferences within Cuban publishing that, to a large extent, have been dominated by the state. As I read “The Sound of Horns,” Miralles’s response in the form of a commentary, I was first struck by Miralles’s never mentioning Cuba and rarely using the first person. In a society where the state has attempted to utilize distinct forms of literature for its own agenda, a kind of writing that does not acquire its legitimacy through “being there” defies both the state’s tendency to coopt as well as the market’s to understand “life inside communism.”
Cuban writers’ propensity to value complexity predates the revolution, and corresponds to an embrace of neobaroque poetics, celebrated by authors as diverse as José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, and Severo Sarduy. The latter’s work, like many Cuban writers of fiction and essays who came after him, including Jorge Miralles, was also inspired by contact with poststructuralist theory and its questioning of intentionality and a “stable self.” While it has been only a few months since the Cuban-US détente, Cuban writers and artists may already be exhausted by years of representing the so-called Cuban experience.
Admittedly, when I asked Miralles to speak with me about his role as a translator of mostly French literature into Spanish, especially for the Torre de Letras editions of translations that he founded with the award-winning Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez, I incorrectly gauged what I would “hear.” I expected an explanation of how he got interested in translation and how the hand-sewn books of the publishing arm of the Torre de Letras’ literary and cultural project speak to national literary publishing trends. Instead, I received a literary work that discretely told me some, but not all, of the answers I envisioned. That mistake was perhaps more heartfelt since upon looking back on Miralles’s own creative and essayistic writing. I ought to have recalled my own awareness of his style since some time ago I translated his short story entitled “Wedding Photos,” whose decentered subjectivity creates an airy and mysterious atmosphere, comparable to the one that emerges in “The Sound of Horns.”
Jorge Miralles has been translating L’Alliance de la poésie et de la musique, by Yves Bonnefoy, an important post-WWII French poet and essayist, for the Arena Libros publishing house in Spain and for Torre de Letras. In this text below, Miralles expounds upon the image of Bonnefoy’s horn to explain how he envisions the world of the imagination into which the translator needs to submit his or herself in order to carry out the task of the translation, knowing beforehand that it is impossible to create the same effect of a word in one language in another. In order to encourage readers to feel how translators do in their process, Miralles introduces literary references such as Adalbert von Chamisso’s character named Peter Schlemihl who, having sold his shadow to the devil, dons a pair of seven-league boots to facilitate his exploration of the world. With this idea, Miralles reveals the deep engagement of the translator in a process that also entails literary commentary and critique that privilege some ideas over others.
But, why might Bonnefoy’s “horn” be so important for Miralles as he answers my initial general question? Because, for Bonnefoy, the “horn” in Alfred de Vigny’s and Charles Baudelaire‘s poetry is stripped of its materiality. Miralles takes this further, converting Bonnefoy’s horn into a tool of his own to explore the gamut of resonances that a translator inhabits as he or she plays with words and finally opts for one over another. And finally, Miralles asserts what translation and theoretical writing mean for him and his peers, an assertion of philosophical and literary preferences that bring us into the realm of the imagination and take the everyday and Cuba out of center stage.
– Jacqueline Loss
The Sound of Horns
(Trans. Jacqueline Loss)
Any approach to answering the question of what literary translation is would have to assume the impossibility of an exact relationship among words, and at the same time a fascinating acceptance of their arbitrariness. The fact that words cannot occupy the same place in distinct languages obliges us translators to wander, that is to say, to enter into the space of imagination. There is no greater truth behind words than their infidelity. Something that a treasurer of childlike tales knows very well how to administer. Adalbert von Chamisso’s “seven-league boots” that rescued him and allowed him to travel quickly all over the world are, in a sense, those of a translator.
As children it is as if toys are our boots that allow us to get to know the world that we only later become conscious of through words. It is not quite the loss of that innocence of envisioning a lack of divide between games and reality, but instead an adult way of playing with words that translators try to hide when they move them between one and another language?
After having lost our shadows like Peter Schlemihl, wandering, we enter into a marvelous story… where words, like objects, speak to us of their strangeness and so, abruptly, tired of dealing with that strangeness, we throw ourselves against language as we might have thrown a wooden horse: we disassemble its pieces and only with astonishment we see the springs of an inexplicable object. We seek to discover something at that point where our imagination practically gets tied up with the word, and we lose sight of the “drawer” where the words get lodged.
As words are transported from one into another language, the translator experiences that implicit confusion, that desperation to return to the origin. Literary writing in a foreign language is not more than that disfiguration that must be carried out with the knowledge that a new original is being written. In this way, from here on, the leftovers of old Geppetto’s wood will speak to us more about Pinocchio’s long nose than about any assertion of a truth. Similarly, translators will search tirelessly to smooth over their truths within the meaning of words and yet, will be astonished by the size of their growing noses.
Let’s say that the task of the translator can be compared to another nose–Major Kovalyov’s, even when he or she is lucky enough to be thrown into the Neva. Translation cannot risk its own independence before an original text. It knows about its impossibility, measured by words, but at the same time, it makes of those differences or versions the only possible approach to an invisible original. Like the confidence Gogol’s nose possesses in its sense of smell, the translator possesses an unbreakable obsession, always on the lookout and vigilant.
When Yves Bonnefoy, Shakepeare’s translator into French, in L’Alliance de la poésie et de la musique, warns us of that irrecusable capacity of words and of their formal relationship with the world, he is inviting us to go beyond the invisible, the unknown and to encounter evidence of the impossible. According to him, in Alfred de Vigny’s famous poem “The Horn,” the sound of a horn precedes the call of hunters lost in the woods. Literally Vigny says: “j’aime le son du Cor, le soir, au fond des bois” (I love the sound of the horn, at night, in the depth of the woods). Baudelaire later evokes the “horn” in his poem “The Beacon” in Flowers of Evil “un appel de chasseurs perdus dans les grands bois” ( “A call from hunters deep in the woods!” ) and that he takes up again, in another poem in the same book, “The Swan”: “à plein soufflé du cor” (”sound loud the hunting horn,”) in the forest, where his “soul,” an “ancient memory” is exiled, and Bonnefoy asks ‘why the horn’?
And the image of the object, on the margins of the word, from the depths of the forest, pierces through time and eclipses us. It is deformed in that sound that translators must attempt to hear inevitably in their own language and their own words. Vigny’s horn or Baudelaire’s horn won’t be more than a poor fulguration, frayed in its own materiality, and translators will have to return to the path that Schlemihl embarked upon, crossing half the world with their “seven-league boots” and forgetting their own shadow. If in Schlemihl’s name it was once written, if his fortune was recorded in his very name in Yiddish (Schlemihl means misfortune), if we were to return on a broomstick to mount horses, if we were to want, in the end, to translate, we would have to learn to touch that horn, I think, like one of those hunters.