rien ne tient en place

A good friend wrote me a few years ago with the subject: rien ne tient en place. I don’t speak French. But google assures me it means: nothing holds it in place.

camus.jpg

One time after class, a professor shared he had been translating books on the side. He found it somewhat entertaining and a good source of additional income. We talked about it for a while and by chance I mentioned I only spoke english. To this he asked:

If I were translating a book, and found a hole in the discourse (or an “odd” transition from one chapter to the next), would you expect me to translate the text word for word, or attempt to fill in the blanks?

Up until that point I had never really considered the latter possibility. I had always expected a completely literal, almost mechanical translation.

So you can imagine how crushed I was when he told me that he had not only added sentences and paragraphs, but sometimes entire chapters. He then went on to explain how translations themselves were largely creative endeavors.

I left knowing I had never really read Deleuze. I had never read Bataille, Witkiewicz, Dostoevsky. My favorite authors were translators.

That night I ordered a copy of La Chute and sat in bed with a French dictionary, and two other translated versions of “The Fall.”

By chance I kept the first paragraph of my translation in a google doc:

May I, monsieur, propose to you my services, without risk of importunity. I fear that you do not know how to make yourself heard by the estimable gorilla presiding over the fate of this establishment. He does not speak, indeed, but dutch. Unless you authorize me to plead your case, he will not guess that you desire a gin. Voila, I dare hope he understood me; his nod must signify he met my arguments. There he goes, indeed, he hastens, with prudent deliberation. You’re lucky, he didn’t grunt. When he refuses to serve, a growl will suffice: people don’t insist. To be king of his moods, is the privilege of larger animals. But I am retiring, Monsieur, happy to have obliged. Thank you and I would agree if I were not playing the unfortunate. You are too good. I’ll install then my glass with yours.

My translation was shit. Complete shit. And though you can kind of follow it, it was too literal. What I realized after this exercise, was that in not speaking French I was not just missing a 1:1 representation of a word, but I was missing an entire mode of thinking–a different way of communicating ideas, and extracting meaning. I could never really approach Camus, until first, I learned French.

What’s more, the liberties that translators were taking with texts, i began to understand as necessary liberties. But even then, they could only ever hope to bring me within a proximity. And this was dissatisfying at best.

I’ve found lots of parallels when moving between languages in computer science.

The last 4 weeks I’ve been writing Ruby. And as my code reviews suggest, I’ve been writing ruby as a Javascript engineer. Which is to say, I’ve been writing a bastardized Ruby.

The more time I spend in Ruby, or Go, or C, the more I see it influencing my general ideas on development and code and the more I see things like “Klass” in Javascript as a translation. A proximity, which is nevertheless dissatisfying.

As I find more time, I’m going to begin studying French again. And with that, C.

Language: rien ne tient en place.

 
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