Camus through the Translation Prism

Conor Brendan Dunne is a literary translator and researcher from County Louth, Ireland. His work focuses on experimental approaches to translation (and basically anything else he can get his hands on). In this post, he discusses his recent project ‘Camus Through the Translation Prism’, which explores prismatic translation as a way to unleash the potential of translation and literature.

One of my favourite things about prismatic translation is that it can itself be understood prismatically. It has the ability to absorb insights from various sources and to integrate them into its practices and theories. I’m going to give you an example of this.

While reading Matthew Reynolds’ introduction to Prismatic Translation (2019), I came across the phrase ‘plural signifying potential of the source text’. It was as if a switch had been flipped in my brain. I was immediately reminded of the Oulipo and their notion of potential literature. Why, I thought to myself, has the Oulipian idea of potential never been explicitly introduced into prismatic practice and/or theory? My thesis research question was born.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Oulipo is an assortment of writers and mathematicians founded in Paris in 1960. Its mission is to explore literary ‘potential’ using writing or rewriting ‘procedures’, which most often take the form of formal constraints. When applied to existing works of literature, the Oulipo defines potential as all the possible texts a text could become when subjected to all the possible rewriting procedures. Since its inception, the group has inspired many offshoots, and one of these offshoots is the Outranspo. As its name suggests, the Outranspo is interested, not only in potential literature and (re)writing procedures, but in potential translation and translation procedures.

Where structuralists and poststructuralists have pointed out that to read is already to explore literary potential, the Oulipo and Outranspo have added that to rewrite or translate is to inscribe such exploration, to record it and therefore be able to share it with others. In my thesis, I wanted to add to this again by arguing that a potential-powered, procedure-guided style of prismatic translation could, not only explore textual possibilities, but explore them more widely, deeply and diversely.

Think about it. A single translation can only explore so much potential, whereas n translations can explore n times as much. Similarly, non-standard translation procedures can be used to bring out the least expected sides of texts. Or else they can serve as constants/variables in a series of translation experiments: if literary potential is like Hilbert’s Infinite Hotel, then procedures are the keys that unlock the doors and allow the translator to visit rooms that are, not just diverse, but maximally diverse.

So I went and I made five different prismatic translations of the same source text using five different translation procedures. I can’t include them all here, and the ones I can include I can’t even feature in full, but if you’re interested you can access all five translations in their entirety by clicking here.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my source text:

Je savais que c’était stupide, que je ne me débarrasserais pas du soleil en me déplaçant d’un pas. Mais j’ai fait un pas, un seul pas en avant. Et cette fois, sans se soulever, l’Arabe a tiré son couteau qu’il m’a présenté dans le soleil.

No doubt many of you will recognise these lines. They’re from the final paragraph of the first part of Albert Camus’ novel, L’Étranger (1942), where the narrator-protagonist, Meursault, shoots an Arab man on a beach somewhere outside French Algiers.

The first procedure I used was the dialectal translation procedure. This involves, you’ve guessed it, translating into a dialect. I chose my native dialect, from the rural midlands of County Louth in the northeast of Ireland.

I knew it was fuckin stupid, right? I knew I wasn’t gettin out’ve that poxy fuckin sun by movin a step. I fuckin knew that. But sure I moved a fuckin step anyways, didn’t I? Aye. One fuckin step forward I moved. One fuckin step, like. And lo and behold this foreign cunt pulls a fuckin knife on us. Didn’t even get up off his fuckin hole when he did it. Smug little bastard. And then the sun. Jesus fuckin Christ, man, the sun.

Another procedure I used was the Thalerian procedure. It gets its name from Michel Thaler, whose novel, Le Train de Nulle Part (2004), was written entirely without verbs.

Very much aware, me, of the stupidity of it. Not enough, a step, for an escape from the sun. Nevertheless, a step, a single step forward. And this time, the Arab, without any attempt at an upright position, with his knife out and there in front of me in the sun.

The final procedure I’m going to showcase is the reader-oriented procedure. It involves translating for a specific reader and has no qualms about adapting, adding, deleting, rearranging and/or rewriting the text: the reader is always right. In my case, I translated for children aged three to seven.

            Meursault felt very hot and his mouth was very dry. The sun was so bright that he had to squint, and all this squinting was giving him a headache.

            ‘Hey, Meursault,’ called his friend, Karim. ‘Check this out.’

            Karim held out his new toy. It was a shiny silver water gun.

These translations are a lot of fun in themselves, but what I was interested in was how, when taken together, they explore their source text’s potential. In other words, how do they shine a light on its latent energies and dimensions, in what ways do they approach its textual selvedges? To describe this process of exploring through prismatic translation, and to begin studying its nature, aims and effects, I coined the term prismatic transploration.

Now, as I began to analyse my pentaptych, I quickly realised that I was dealing, not only with a process, but with a product. This product was a kind of literature unique to procedural prismatic translation. I baptised it prismatic translaterature.

I started out defining prismatic translaterature as a series of prismatic translations, like mine, that could alter and enrich the reading experience when read collectively, comparatively and contrastively. But then I remembered that the coloured bands of the rainbow, the rays dispersed from a prism, only appear serially in space. In time they appear simultaneously.

How could I create a strand of prismatic translaterature whose mode of signification would be, not so much serial, as simultaneous? My first attempt resulted in a ‘simul-text’. It involved cutting my five translations into fragments, colour-coding them, and scattering them about the page, where they interspersed freely and appeared as one glorious prismatic tapestry. I named this piece Camus Through the Translation Prism, and you can find it here.

But… it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. It just wasn’t simultaneous enough: the reader could still simply follow the colour-coding and read each translation linearly. I turned to the audiovisual realm for help. In the video version I subsequently made of Camus Through the Translation Prism, I did many of the same things as before. Only, this time, I removed the colour-coding, I had voice actors perform the translations, and I exploited my ability to overlay the visuals as well as the audio. True simultaneity at last! Watch:

Unfortunately, that’s about all the swashbuckling prismatic adventures I can squeeze into one blog post. For those interested, my full-length thesis can be found here, and an essay-length version of it is due to appear in the Journal of Avant-Garde Studies later this year.

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