“Translation and Trajectories: On Benjamin Fondane and Restoring the Writer’s Voice” (Andrew Rubens)

eSharp, University of Glasgow, no. 21, 2013 (“Silenced voices”)

Un jour viendra, c’est sûr, de la soif apaisée,
nous serons au-delà du souvenir, la mort
aura parachevé les travaux de la haine,
je serai un bouquet d’orties sous vos pieds,
– alors, eh bien, sachez que j’avais un visage
comme vous. Une bouche qui priait, comme vous.
Préface en prose, from Exodus by Benjamin Fondane (2006, p.153)

The mention of silenced voice immediately provokes an emotive vision of the individual political prisoner in her or his cell. The abstract principle of freedom of speech comes to mind, as does the defence of both prisoner and principle by organisations like PEN or Amnesty International. Yet PEN themselves also campaign on another form of silence which receives far less attention: the difficulties many voices have in being heard, including, sadly, those of political prisoners, because they do not speak in English. For every Nadzedha Tolokonnikova, there are countless others whose words are cut off. The question of what is lost in translation is perhaps of secondary concern to that of what is being lost by not being translated.

This applies much more widely than for prisoners of conscience alone. The 21st century is witnessing the triumph of linguistic imperialism. A sharp decline in foreign language learning among English speakers is going hand-in-hand with a dearth of translation into English, a ‘crisis’, according to ‘Research Into Barriers To Translation And Best Practices’, a 2011 report by the Global Translation Initiative, which is ‘alarming, because it points to the cultural isolationism of the English-speaking world’. Linguistic marginalization is often a function of political control, as has most explicitly been seen in colonial and imperial configurations. Indeed, the hegemony of English is at least in part a direct result of the influence of the former British Empire and the de facto American one. This dominance is underwritten by technological imperatives like the ubiquity of English on the internet. Voices are being marginalised not only for speaking minority languages like Navajo or Basque but also major ones such as Arabic or French. The effect is as overwhelming as it is largely unnoticed. The site of the European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (www.ceatl.eu) states that only around 3% of all books published in English are translations.

This dangerous silence affects academic discourse as much as any other area. It is less common than it once was for academics to be bi- or multi-lingual, especially since obligatory language courses have been dropped at undergraduate level. Strange as it may seem in an era of internet communications, it is probable that a great deal of important research languishes without recognition or profitable exploitation because of failures to translate. This is sadly ironic in the specific case of Modernist studies, considering Modernism’s visions of internationalism and eclecticism. The pushing of, say, Czech surrealism to the margins implies a linguistic bias of cultural memory as much as a geographic one.

However, even in the early 20th century, members of the international avant-garde were already alert to the subtle processes of linguistic imperialism. In 1925, the editors of the Romanian avant-garde magazine Integral, including the Franco-Romanian writer Benjamin Fondane, printed an editorial decrying the lack of co-ordination between the various European movements. The magazine was itself created with a vision of synthesis between such movements and published articles and poems in French, German and English as well as Romanian. Building on Integral’s concerns that the Romanian display at the seminal 1925 Paris world exposition left visitors completely unaware of the modernist activities taking place in that country, the editorial called for the creation of an international modernist association (Anon., 1925).

If individual voices can be important in a political context, this is also true for critical discourse and for creative literature. This is clear, for example, with Holocaust narratives such as those of Irène Némirovsky or Anne Frank, speaking from beyond the grave (and beyond the statistics), resurrected lost voices which, through their very individuality, allow the reader, to a degree, to touch the reality of a major event. The international consideration of their texts is dependent upon the work of their translators. In literary and academic discourse, editor, critic and translator share the function of disseminator, which underscores the fact that the silencing of one voice can also have wider ramifications, as a gateway to other voices is barred. Individual texts are not simply of merit in and of themselves. They also participate in the conversation of writing, giving the reader different perspectives on historical events, other writers and literary and social contexts. Publishing, translating and commenting ‘lost’ authors can open up whole new vistas and take the conversation in new and valuable directions.

This is perhaps most obvious in the case of translation, where the reception of a certain voice into a different language is so clearly mediated by the disseminator, such as Baudelaire’s Edgar Allan Poe in France, which gave Poe a completely different status from the one he held for anglophones. A translation can also, therefore, quite literally create a new voice for others to respond to. Translation overlaps with commentary and criticism as well, where one influential interpretation – for example, Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel in France – can dominate. Just as multiple translations approach the original text and re-frame it, differing critical interpretations are vital to approaching authors and texts, each new voice enriching existing voices as well as being valuable in and of itself.

The voice of the Benjamin Fondane (1898 – 1944) has been affected by various configurations of silencing. His physical voice was literally silenced in the Holocaust. His voice as a writer, as the rest of this essay shall discuss, met various obstacles to its realisation. Further, the unique voices he gave to those he caused to speak through his writing – in his writing on Rimbaud and Baudelaire, for instance, and especially in his promotion of the Russian philosopher Leon Shestov – went unheard as long as his work did. Finally, and perhaps crucially, his work has been under-translated, although, alongside the republication of his work in French, this is changing. Martin Stanton has referred to him as ‘surely the most under-estimated intellectual of the 1930s’ (2002)… [PDF]