Monday 6 August 2018

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, tr. Ros Schwartz

Here is something like a translation memoir, the story of Mireille Gansel’s multiple and changing relationships to various languages and to the act of translation. The author begins, in delicate prose, with stories of Hungarian and German in her French childhood. Gansel comes from a Jewish mitteleuropäische family spread across exiles in Europe and Israel, who speak Hungarian (which she does not understand as a child, but loves to hear her father translate aloud) and the German of the pre-Nazi Austro-Hungarian empire. She writes beautifully about the inflections of Czech, Yiddish and Hebrew in her relatives’ accents, their language as a relic of history. Her translator Ros Schwartz has given us a polished rendering, letting the author’s precise and considered voice shine through and always staying this side of kitsch, but I would have expected no less from her.

Gansel learns German at school and goes on to study it and eventually translate its poetry, but for her, language is a literary medium that has a deep association with the individuals who speak it. Transhumance means taking sheep from one pasture to another, but every time I read it the word human stands out – a productive misunderstanding. Writing about the poets she has translated, Gansel tells us very personal stories about them. How she discovered their work, what happened when they met (if they were still alive), what influenced them, the melodies of their verses and voices. Her repeated query is: How was I to translate this? Each writer necessitates a different approach. It seems almost to be a question of passing a poem between two human beings, and to do so Gansel seeks a close understanding of the work and its creator, spending time with them and then finding the fitting place to translate.

Gansel writes fascinatingly about her work in Vietnam on Vietnamese poetry, taking a new tack as bombs were falling during the 1970s. Her translator Ros Schwartz told me: “A good translation doesn’t colonise the work but preserves the joys and beauties of its ‘otherness’ without resorting to weird foreignization.” Gansel herself quotes the translator Nguyen Khac Vien’s guiding principle: “‘Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality.’ An approach that meant liberation from all forms of exoticism, appropriation, and the cultural and spiritual annexation characteristic of the translations produced under colonisation.” She does just that, not only in her translations but in the way she thinks about poetry and people, moving directly from the Vietnamese To Huu’s lines on casuarina forests to Brecht’s thoughts on the near-criminality of talking about trees in difficult times – though conditions are very different in a country stripped of vegetation by Agent Orange.

To help her work on the texts of minority language-speakers in the Vietnamese mountains, she looks to field ethnology gathering spoken language in the Alps, “absorbing the rhythms and cadences of those words and voices, discovering an entire register of expressions, accents and constructions.” All this helps her to understand the nature of orality and form. People, I understand from her working method, are human wherever they are. That shepherding metaphor has at its heart a sense of less crossing but rather ignoring and defying boundaries. Over its long history, German has been spoken across shifting political borders and overlapping with other languages, as Gansel points out, making the notion of pinning language to nationality a fallacy.

That helps, I’m convinced, to reclaim German from its abuse by fascists, as Brecht did and as many exiled writers attempted, including Nelly Sachs, whom Gansel translated with great care. It’s hard for me to judge her work in this instance without understanding French; by necessity, the book uses various translators’ English renderings, which vary in effectiveness. But the questions she raises, of how to capture Sachs’s dense Hebrew-infused poetry, are fascinating. In the face of repeated right-wing calls for everyone living in Germany to adhere to an ill-defined Leitkultur, asserting a pluralist vision of German language, literature and culture is still a key task. The “German-speaking world” is a place where many languages are spoken, now too, and where those languages permeate each other to produce exciting writing, influenced far more widely than by any standard canon. Mireille Gansel reminds us that the world is more complex and wonderful than those who call for a single dominant national culture would have us believe.

That, and her lessons about taking great time and care over the human aspect of translation, will stay with me for a long time to come.