University of Nicosia, Cyprus
Edited by José Francisco-Fernández and Mar Garre-García
Edinburgh University Press, 2021. 280 pp.
The two 2021 edited collections of essays titled Samuel Beckett and Translation and Translating Samuel Beckett Around the World contain the ripe fruit of original scholarly work written in response to the presiding topic of the 5th International Conference of the Samuel Beckett Society ,“Samuel Beckett and Translation” held at the University of Almería in May of 2019. In the foreword to Samuel Beckett and Translation, José Francisco Fernández and Mar Garre García appropriately explain that translation is “not just an ancillary feature of [Beckett’s writerly] activity, but a central aspect of his essence as a writer, one of the pillars of his poetics, and a method to engage in a practical and fruitful way with his texts” (2). With a deep sense of indebtedness, the editors clarify that Sinéad Mooney’s 2011 monograph, A Tongue Not Mine, contains the earliest traces of this significant paradigm shift in Beckett Studies. Like Mooney’s monograph, Samuel Beckett and Translation includes original work that efficaciously dissects well-known controversies and explores new critical discrepancies which can be said to spring from the characteristically “palimpsestic quality of many of [Beckett’s] books” (3). As Nadia Louar and José Francisco Fernández have put it, Beckett’s “linguistic restlessness” triggers off “the comings and goings between different genres and different media” (9). Likewise, the editors claim: “we want to immerse the reader in this abrupt territory identified by Mooney. Once the systematic knowledge of Beckett’s translation has been mapped out, our aim is to explore the contradictions and inconsistencies that remain” (8). The use the verb “immerse” is most appropriate here since each individual contribution does manage to engross the reader in intriguing hermeneutic cross-pollinations, “the comings and goings” (my emphasis) between Literature, Translation and Genetic Manuscript Studies.
In traversing, then, the volume’s table of contents, we find thirteen chapters, distributed across three thematic sections: “Beckett’s Self-Translations”, “Beckett’s Translations of Other Authors” and “Beckett’s Poetics of Translation”. The fourth section, “Commentary”, comprises unique contributions by three renown translators of Beckett’s works: Antoni Libera, Gabriele Frasca, and Erika Tophoven. The final section also features Alan W. Friedman’s personal account on “what it means to translate Beckett” (10).
As regards the five chapters which constitute “Beckett’s Self-Translations”, we can say that each uniquely attests to Rainier Grutman’s claim that Beckett “turned his manuscripts into bilingual laboratories” (quoted in Fernández and García 2021: 76). Taking the latter metaphor into account, we witness how each author debunks the assumption that the assemblage of bilingual textual bodies could have been based on a single, predictable formula. Specifically, through a meticulous examination of the redrafting process of all five sections in the Pas moi manuscripts, Shane O’Neil foregrounds, in chapter one, a variety of translational methods, which truly evince the inventive subtlety with which Beckett re-enacted “the original text’s breathlessness and its complex rhythmic patterns” (27) into the French text.
In chapter two, Olga Beloborodova alerts us to the pitfalls of assuming that Beckett sweepingly applied what she calls the “impoverishment strategy” to all the self-translations of his later works by investigating the different genetic histories of Play/Comédie and Film. Her findings are crucial because they help us understand that over time, Beckett’s systematic bi-directional self-translation of his oeuvre” had resulted in the development of a French style of writing “at the very least equally idiomatic and ‘rich’ as [that of] his mother tongue” (51). Consequently, both case studies, according to Beloborodova, cast a bright light on the way (self)-translation should be regarded: to wit, “as a constitutive part of a bilingual work’s genesis as a whole” (50).
Echoing the aforementioned position, the author of chapter three, Waqas Mirza, claims that “the study of Beckett’s translations is far from being an exact science” which could yield definitive readings (56). Mirza’s chapter, however, shifts our attention from Beckett’s plays and film to prose – namely, to the Trilogy. Mirza demonstrates that pronominal differences between the French and English versions of the Trilogy influence “the representation of the protagonists’ minds and discourse” (69). To provide an example, Mirza maintains that in Molloy, “Beckett’s translation of the [French] first-person pronoun” into its English equivalent results in “a more fragmented and less assertive English self than its French counterpart” (69). Such an interpretation is of critical importance in that it unfolds several ontological possibilities underlying Beckett’s translational decisions.
Unlike the three previous chapters which focus on Beckett’s plays and film, Sławomir Studniarz’s article concentrates on several poetic compositions written and translated by Beckett in the period immediately preceding and following WWII. What can be noted here is that Studniarz’s minute exposition of the various degrees of acoustic, semantic and struactural (non-)equivalences between the French and English versions of each poem reads overall like a musical score. With regard to Studniaz’s findings, we learn that Beckett’s highly “sophisticated” orchestration “of sound and sense patterning” in the French versions is not found in their English counterparts with the “sole exception of ‘elle viennent’ and ‘they come’” (87). Studniarz aptly discusses self-translators’ poetic liberties in “rewrit[ing] their originals” – an act, which in the words of Rainier Grutman and Trish Van Bolderen, “in turn, can lead to a reversal, or at least a downplaying, of the hierarchy that normally favours the original over the translation, with neither version taking precedence” (quoted in Fernández and García 2021: 88). This key thesis, then, seems to align Studniarz’s chapter with Beloborodova’s own piece in which she claims that Beckett’s epigenetic revisions of Play and Film were triggered by the need to translate them into French.
The last chapter in Part I, by Pim Verhulst, stresses the importance of analysing “Beckett’s bilingual poetics of self-translation” (91) through the lens of collaborative translation – a dimension which has received little critical attention. In fact, Verhulst’s use of the phrase “collaborative (self-)translation” crucially refers to Beckett’s and Robert Pinget’s creative decisions while translating Embers into French. Verhulst’s comprehensive study of extant documents – like Beckett’s correspondence with Pinget, the latter’s unpublished memoir, and successive drafts of Cendres – illustrate that Beckett’s rather bold revisions (whether in the form of additions or subtractions) took into account “matters of radiophonicity, intertextuality and style” (94). By contrast, Pinget’s approach seemed more reserved, aiming primarily at sense-equivalence.
Part II of this volume, titled “Beckett’s Translations of Other Authors” includes two first chapters on Beckett’s English translations of poems originally written in Spanish and two final chapters dedicated to Beckett’s English translations of other authors’ works written in French. To be more specific, in Chapter 6, Patrick Bixby brings to the fore a largely overlooked critical encounter between two Nobel Prize winners, Gabriela Mistral and Beckett, and the possible impact this could have had on the latter’s creative work. Indeed, Bixby encourages us to interpret Beckett’s translation of “Recado Terrestre” as an indirect critique of the “resurgence of humanist ideals in the postwar years” that Mistral seems to have aspired to (110). As Bixby argues, Beckett’s translation choices in “Message from Earth” – written, notably, after Waiting for Godot – intentionally portray a speaker who is skeptical of the restorative powers of the spiritual return of Goethe in a desolated world (120).
While Bixby’s object of study is “Recado Terrestre” – a precedent”, as Fernández and García call it, “to Beckett’s ‘Mexican Poems’” (12) –María José Carrera, in Chapter 8, takes up for discussion a number of “haikus, ideographic verses and ‘Mexican’ poems” (124) composed by José Juan Tablada and included in Octavio Paz’s Anthology of Mexican Poetry. Through a close reading of manuscript sources and the annotated commentary in Seán Lawlor and John Pilling’s edition of The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, Carrera explains why the task of rendering an anthology of Mexican poetry into English, commissioned by UNESCO, must have been formidable to Beckett. Her findings prove that the difficulties Beckett faced, stemmed primarily from “a lack of important contextual information (missing titles and illustrations, standardised formal outline)” rather than from being unaware of “the Mexican origins of the poets or the Mexican content of the poems” (136). In spite of these challenges, Carrera argues that Beckett’s English translations are “extremely successful ones” (136).
As mentioned above, the last two chapters of Part II are dedicated to Beckett’s English translations of works written in French. Chapter 8, by Amanda Dennis, shows, in particular, how Beckett’s early translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” challenge its grounding on lyric’s putative ability to give readers direct access to the speaker’s thoughts and emotions. According to Dennis, Beckett’s translation effectively subverts “claims to subjective immediacy” by unpacking the intertextual nodes which constitute the original poem (141). Beckett’s acute sensitivity to and adept handling of sound patterning (especially through repetitions) in his English translation turns our attention to the “materiality of language” (150) and the sociocultural luggage it bears across time; this notion, Dennis affirms, runs counter to the central axis of Rimbaud’s lyric project: “to have slipped free of time into an ecstasy of more flexible temporalities” (148).
Chapter 9, centred on Beckett’s English translation of Sébastien de Chamfort’s eight aphorisms, does not strike a dissonant cord genre-wise from the previous chapters of Part II. The reason for this lies in the fact that Beckett condensed and versified Chamfort’s prose texts to accentuate, according to Engelberts, in a “wry – or perhaps comic way” – that harmony is no longer present or conceivable after WWII” (167). While his act of turning the French aristocrat’s maxims into verse violated conventions of form, Beckett, nonetheless, maintained the maxim’s raison d’être and made it more relevant to the modern reader since, as Engelberts remarks, “hope appears to be banned and the rhythms, rhymes and regularities of verse are used solely to sing irregularities, and filth” (167).
In Part III of this volume, titled “Beckett’s Poetics of Translation”, the authors of the four chapters which constitute it provide multiple coordinates that help us see more clearly the centrality of translation in Beckett’s creative and critical writings. One such coordinate that John Pilling discusses, in Chapter 10, concerns the dualisms that Beckett observed in the world and the refuge which translation temporarily afforded him (178). As Pilling claims, “[e]very ‘occasion’ of translation offered Beckett an opportunity to address and reassess the apparent fixity of a priori conditions of possibility” (190). Along similar lines, in Chapter 11, Dirk Van Hulle elaborates on how Beckett not only detected, but also created further dualisms or splits – as the ubiquitous presence of the “doppelgänger” (194)in his works attests. Van Hulle further explains that self-translation became more “a way for Beckett to show than tell” how the motif of the doppelgänger, “which denote[d] self-perception and self-awareness work[ed]” (195). In Chapter 12, Fábio de Souza Andrade talks about “a poetics of appointed misencounters”, that is, a “a route of programmed near collisions, on which [Beckett’s] notion of an unabridgeable gap between perception and expression, language and experience, subject and object […] builds up” (210). However, for de Souza Andrade when (self-)translation is viewed through the lens of such poetics, it becomes a vehicle for “continuous recreation [and] autographic self-rectification” (210). In Chapter 13, Martin Schauss looks at translation from the perspective of Beckett’s political reaction against nationalistic attempts to appropriate language and asserts that “translation and Beckett’s multilingualism play a key role in registering the very problem of politics in his work, displacing the already unstable cultural referents once over” (233).
In the second collection of essays, Translating Samuel Beckett around the World, the editors, José Francisco Fernández and Pascale Sardin, clearly build upon the core premises which underpin the composition of the other volume. The establishment of such common ground strengthens one of the editors’ main arguments that “the intermediate space in Beckett’s writing” – caused, as discussed above, by the incessant bidirectional motility of words among languages – “is, in fact, occupied by the languages and cultures of the world, all of them effectively contributing through translation to creating that far distant murmur which is so familiar to readers of his work” (xv). According to the editors, the proliferation of that “far distant murmur” brought about by the translation of a Beckett text into a “third language” would correspond with the technique of “estrangement” (xv) which he employed extensively in his writings after switching to French.
Although Fernández and Sardin acknowledge that there have been earlier forays into the ways Beckett’s oeuvre has been received worldwide – The International Reception of Samuel Beckett (2009) is mentioned as such an exemplary title – their volume of essays manages to reveal new research horizons; for instance, by showing “the linguistic and sociocultural challenges of translating Beckett into languages other than French, English and German”; by accentuating the role which “Beckett’s friendships with some translators” played in “shap[ing] the landscape of translation of his work in some languages” (xiv); or by indicating that the success of a foreign author is dependent upon the existence of a democratic state as well as a receptive “publishing industry” and individuals who are willing to actively support avant-garde practices (xiii).
Even a brief overview of the way the book is structured evinces the different research territories that have been opened for the first time or that have been traversed under a new light. Specifically, the essays are separated into three sections according to Beckett’s reception: in Northern Europe (Iceland, Sweden and the Netherlands); in Southern Europe and South America (Spain, Italy, Argentina and Brazil); and finally, in the Middle-East and Asian countries (Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, India, and China). Moreover, the appendices at the end of each paper, which chronologically register Beckett’s works which were mainly translated into the language under investigation, constitute an invaluable reference source for further comparative studies in the future.
These two volumes undoubtedly stand out from earlier works which also deal with the translation and reception of Samuel Beckett’s texts worldwide. Despite their different aims, both Samuel Beckett and Translation and Translating Samuel Beckett around the World carve new research paths. In addition, when read together, one finds intriguing connections which may encourage new collaborations between scholars. To give one brief example, Pim Verhulst in chapter 5 of Samuel Beckett and Translation emphasises the need for more research on Beckett’s collaborative self-translations. This is an issue that Onno Kosters partially addresses in chapter 3 of Translating Samuel Beckett around the World by showing that Beckett’s friendship with Jacoba van Velde had a great impact on the translation history of his works in the Netherlands. What this last example also implies is that the methodological paradigms, deriving from Genetic Translation Studies would be extremely useful in critically reassessing the translation histories and reception of Beckett’s works in countries beyond the ones already covered.
Feldman, M. and Nixon, M. eds. (2009). The International Reception of Samuel Beckett. Continuum.
Louar, N., and Fernández, J. F. (2018). “Introduction.” Samuel Beckett Today /Aujourd’hui, 30(1): 3-4. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/18757405-03001012
Mooney, Sinéad (2011). A Tongue Not Mine: Beckett and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.