Surprised in Translation

By Vincent, Shelby | Style, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Surprised in Translation


Vincent, Shelby, Style


Mary Ann Caws. Surprised in Translation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006. xi + 145 pp. $25.00 cloth.

Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, is a well-known translator of such surrealist and modernist French writers as André Breton, Rene Char, Stephane Mallarmé, and author of many works on twentieth century avantgarde literature and creative perception, with particular emphasis on the intertextuality of art and poetry. Her new book is a celebration of oddness and uniqueness in translations that come about as the result of some sort of slippage from the mimetic into the non-mimetic. Caws asserts that slippage surprises, and her joy in these unexpected surprises is threaded throughout this slim volume. In this personal and autobiographical book, Caws devotes a chapter each to Stepahane Mallarmé, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and Yves Bonnefoy, and analyzes instances of slippage found in translations of and by these avant-garde authors, including some of her own translations. Through these studies, Caws reveals her passion for translation, the role it plays in her life, her own personal translation standards, and what she values in translation. Throughout the text she argues for risk-taking and boldness in translation, especially by means of slippage into the non-mimetic, and against strict mimesis, which she condemns as dull and "boring" (9). Her prose is effervescent and yet elegant, rich with a satisfying fullness and depth. She engages the reader with an energetic, non-linear, circular, and expansive style of writing, reminiscent of those she reads, writes about, and translates - the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Modernists. This text would be of particular interest to students of translation studies and literary translation, novice and established literary translators, and students and scholars of avant-garde literature.

Caws begins this text with a story recounting one of her own experiences of a form of slippage: One summer, suffering from vertigo in Provence, she underwent what she believed to be a "salmon maneuver" [Ia manoeuvre saumon] - a surprising maneuver performed by a doctor, during which the patient is taken, quickly and forcefully, from an upright seated position to one in which she is laying on her side with her head turned so that her nose is pointing toward the ceiling; this is meant to "readjust the little hairs in the inner ear" in order to relieve a particular type of vertigo ( 1 ). Another surprise followed some months later when she learned that this maneuver was invented by Dr. Sémont [Ia manoeuvre Semont] and had nothing whatsoever to do with salmon. It was a case of mis-hearing and misinterpreting, almost certainly accompanied by an erroneous internal visual image of salmon. This, then, is the genesis of Surprised in Translation, wherein Caws contends that the perfect salmon maneuver would be "finding something through a mistake or long-shot, and finding it all the more convincing through this slippage" (4). And, as she argues throughout the text, more interesting.

Caws may be to some extent informed by Jacques Derrida's deconstructionist notion of the unavoidable and fatal slippage that occurs between the signified and the signifier, resulting in multiple interpretations and the negation of all meaning, as well as the conceptions of Antonin Artaud, a French avant-garde poet, dramatist, essayist, and artist (also one of Derrida's influences) who was preoccupied with the limitations and inadequacy of language and rejected mimesis in theatrical work. Caws' conception and usage of slippage, however, celebrates the phenomenon and rather than conceiving of slippage as a negative event that pronounces the futility and impossibility of translation [Derrida], she embraces the slippage that occurs between the signifier and the signified and between one language and another. …

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