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«The Elusive I Jane Brierley Meta : journal des traducteurs / Meta: Translators' Journal, vol. 45, n° 1, 2000, p. 105-112. Pour citer cet article, ...»

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"The Elusive I"

Jane Brierley

Meta : journal des traducteurs / Meta: Translators' Journal, vol. 45, n° 1, 2000, p. 105-112.

Pour citer cet article, utiliser l'information suivante :

URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/002142ar

DOI: 10.7202/002142ar

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Pour communiquer avec les responsables d'Érudit : info@erudit.org Document téléchargé le 25 November 2016 08:46 The Elusive I jane brierley Translator, writer and editor RÉSUMÉ L’auteur partage avec ses lecteurs les connaissances acquises lors de la traduction d’une autobiographie et traite de théories récentes sur ce genre littéraire. Elle termine avec une brève analyse de quelques passages tirés de deux traductions de La Vie de Henry Brulard de Stendhal.


In the light of knowledge gained in translating autobiography, the author reviews recent critical theory concerning the genre, and looks briefly at two translations of Stendhal’s La Vie de Henry Brulard.

MOTS-CLÉS/KEYWORDS Stendhal, autobiography, memoirs, literary translation Early in my literary translating career I chose to do an autobiographical work (de Gaspé 1988). While a great fan of this type of literature, much of it in translation, I had never considered it particularly as a genre and certainly never as one that required any special analysis. I soon discovered, however, that autobiography has aspects that are unique to it as a genre, and that the ability to recognize and understand the nature of these aspects is immensely helpful to the translator. This knowledge has also been useful in translating fiction and in recognizing passages where deep emotions may surface in fictional circumstances that clearly connect with some very personal experience on the author’s part.

The great challenge for literary translators is to transmit the imaginative impulse behind the prose they are dealing with. They must understand the nature of what they are translating and be sensitive to the criteria that, according to critical theory, define the genre and give it depth. This is not the place to discuss nuancein translation; most readers of Meta are aware of the difference in underlying meaning that can be made by the choice of one word or phrase rather than another. I would, however, like to share some of what I have learned.

Translating autobiographical works, or parts of works that reveal themselves as deeply intimate, puts literary translators in a special position. They have a double responsibility. Not only do they need to know what is being said in the superficial sense, they need to be especially sensitive to underlying currents, to the writer’s unavowed aims or preoccupations, and to the influences that surrounded him or her at the time of writing. This sounds like a tall order, but often translators develop this sensitivity because the author is a favourite and they have read much of his or her work and understand the period and the milieu. What many people don’t realize is that the analysis of just what autobiography is all about has become something of a science in the last thirty years. The quest for “the elusive I,” as I have called it, has

Meta, XLV, 1, 2000106 Meta, XLV, 1, 2000

developed into a scholarly sub-genre. This has been fostered by the virtual explosion in modern literature of the number of real autobiographies, as distinct from memoirs, in addition to the now common phenomenon of first-person narration in fiction generally which has made us take this kind of writing for granted. Autobiography must be easy to write (and to translate), we think. The writer merely assembles his or her thoughts and starts. It sounds simple. We shall see.

Imagination It is often the case with writers of fiction that, unable to express certain deep emotions, they funnel them, consciously or unconsciously, into their literary work. This has led to a branch of literary criticism that has produced many fascinating books in which the sources of events and states of mind are traced to circumstances of the novelist’s life—often based on material that comes to light long after the subject is dead and perhaps forgotten.

We have a keen interest in the why and wherefore of writers’ lives especially—a need to know where in the world they get their ideas. The writers themselves may protest that these are works of imagination, exasperated at their readers’ lack of this faculty. “We made it up!” they cry, protesting that fiction is really a pack of lies and would we please give them credit for their ingenuity instead of insinuating that they merely dribbled bits of their life story onto the page or into their computers.

Imagination plays a central role in life, said the great Canadian teacher and literary critical theorist, Northrop Frye. We use it in to interpret what is said to us. For example, “suppose we’re talking to… a woman… who’s in a difficult mood. We’re faced with the problem: does what she is saying represent her actual meaning, or it is just a disguised way of representing her emotional state of mind? Usually we assume the latter but pretend to be assuming the former.” He points out that in society’s eyes “the virtue of saying the right thing at the right time is more important than the virtue of telling the whole truth, or sometimes even of telling the truth at all” (Frye 1964: 136-7).

“True” autobiography Why am I discussing fiction and imagination in a study of autobiography, you may ask? To begin with, we need to understand that autobiography is a kind of fiction (or “faction” as someone has observed).Writing autobiography requires the author to make the same kind of artistic effort as a novelist. (“What!” you say in shocked tones.

“They make it up?”) Well, not exactly. But, as Frye explains in Anatomy of Criticism, “Most autobiographies are inspired by a creative, and therefore fictional, impulse to select only those events and experiences in the writer’s life that go to build up an integrated pattern. We may call this very important form of prose fiction the confession form, following St. Augustine, who appears to have invented it, and Rousseau, who invented a modern type of it” (Frye 1957: 307). Incidentally, we shouldn’t be surprised by the process of selection, whether conscious or unconscious, when viewing one’s past. Modern critical theory allows us to feel comfortable with unconscious selection—what John Livingston Lowes, quoting Henry James, called “the deep well of unconscious cerebration” (Lowes 1927: 56).

107 the elusive i But this is not all. Not only must there be a creative impulse at work, building up an integrated pattern out of selected events, resulting in “design.” British literary theorist Roy Pascal sees the genre as combining design and truth. “There must also be the need for, and the sincere attempt by, the author to represent a true picture of his personality.... Factual truth is not the yardstick by which to judge an autobiography,” he says, and goes on to enlarge on this phenomenon (Pascal 1960: 189-95).

Autobiography and memoirs I mentioned earlier that autobiography and memoirs are not the same thing. Pascal points out that in genuine autobiography, “attention is focussed on the self, in the memoir or reminiscence on others.” However there are wheels within wheels, for in genuine autobiography, even when the author appears to deal with others, “the ostensible form and intention come to serve a different and truly autobiographical intention, since all these identities, these other people, become forces within the writer and are referred back, implicitly more than explicitly, to the writer, whom their impact shapes and who develops in subtle response to them” (Pascal 1960: 8).

Another theorist, Philippe Lejeune of France, has written extensively on the subject of autobiography. A groundbreaking work published in 1971, L’autobiographie en France, traced the history of the genre in France and set forth criteria for judging whether or not personal reminiscences constitute a “true” autobiography. It is Lejeune’s belief that writers of autobiography have been much influenced by the similar writings of others. In other words, when faced with the task of how to write about themselves, they adopt and adapt techniques that have been used previously, rather than just dashing it off, as one might a diary entry or a letter. He lists a number of authors who figure as forerunners of the genre, before it was taken so triumphantly in hand by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions.

Among these forerunners was a now forgotten woman, Marguerite-Jeanne, Baronne de Staal (1684-1750), whose Memoires de Mme de Staal-Delaunay, giving an intimate view of French aristocratic life, appeared in the middle of the eighteenth century. This Mme de Staal is not to be confused with that swashbuckling lady of letters, the famous Mme de Staël—Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baroness de StaëlHolstein (1766-1817). Mme de Staal was not herself noble, but became a sort of lady-in-waiting to the powerful Duchesse de Maine who arranged her protégée’s marriage to provide her with a position and an income, and generally bossed her about in a fond but imperious manner.

This book was widely read at the time, and according to Lejeune provided the model for describing individual sentiments and behaviour or manners from the subjective perspective in personal memoirs. He notes the influence of the new romanesque (novel-like) language of authors who used a narrator to tell their tale in the first person. He is referring to the popular British epistolary novels and the French “memoir” novels that appeared in the first half of the eighteenth century. Mme de Staal used this convention to recreate “the experience in life of a sensitive soul,” but with a difference—for here the narrator truly was the author. Quite apart from the glitter of court life and interaction with the great people of her world, what Mme de Staal transmitted to her readers was an engaging sense of involvement in her own modest life, with all its emotions, trials and small triumphs.

108 Meta, XLV, 1, 2000 The success of Mme de Staal’s work coincided with a new view of the individual

in Western European thought, stimulated by the rise of the bourgeoisie (Frye 1957:

307; Lejeune 1971: 13, 65; Pascal 1960: 21). The new concept recognized the uniqueness of the individual and of each person’s experience. Rousseau, of course, took this concept to a new plane with the writing of his Confessions.

Writing about I It is perhaps difficult for readers in the 1990s to appreciate a writer’s hesitation to talk about himself or herself, accustomed as they are to a literary convention in which the first person is predominant. Yet a truly great French writer like Stendhal was almost unable to bring himself to do so. “What eye can see itself?” he asks. The idea of writing about himself is “inviting,” he records at the beginning of his Life of Henry Brulard, published fifty years after his death. “Yes, but that frightful quantity of I ’s and me’s!” he wails. “They would be enough to put the most kind-hearted reader into a bad temper.” In the very next paragraph he repeats his anguish about “writing his life”: “I have had it in mind many times… but I have always been discouraged by that terrible difficulty of the I’s and me’s which will make the author odious; I do not feel that I have enough talent to get round it” (Stendhal 1955: 6-7). Luckily for us, he decided a few paragraphs later that the current taste (or lack of it) would have changed sufficiently in fifty years, and that it was worthwhile writing about himself after all, if only for a distant future audience. This question of taste is explained by one of his translators, Matthew Josephson, who noted that, “When the Romantic movement in literature (which he had helped to launch) began to embody excesses of style and an intellectual fuzziness that he could not abide, he stood forth as an anti-Romantic, addicted to dryness and factual precision. This was enough to earn him anew the opprobrium of critics who were in fashion” (and who had long been panning his books) “for alleged bad taste and subversive ideas. His books were little read by the public, and he was being forgotten in his own time” (Stendhal 1949: 7).

Stendhal’s agonizing over whether or not to write about himself demonstrates an interesting phenomenon about autobiography: its writers have difficulty approaching the subject of themselves. (The self-styled Baron de Stendhal’s real name was Marie-Henri Beyle and Brulard was a maternal family name. Referring to himself as Henry Brulard may have been a device to help him write with greater ease about himself.) This, however, was only one aspect of a hesitancy that was particularly marked as the genre developed in the early nineteenth century.

The autobiographical pact Among the criteria that Lejeune applies for judging a true autobiography is the presence of what he calls “the autobiographical pact”—a statement of purpose early in the work that he or she intends to write his or her personal story. This statement is an apologia, as we saw with Stendhal, a defence thrown up against the reader/critic, who might bring charges of vanity or self-love against the author. Acceptable reasons for writing about oneself are put forward—instruction, providing a model for others, or the interest of the author as a representative of a class, generation or type. One of the few exceptions, says Lejeune, is Rousseau, who in his Confessions unabashedly states that he is interesting simply because he is uniquely himself.

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