Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. März 2006

9.4. Translation and Ideology
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel Aviv University)

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Problems in the Translation of Belle du Seigneur

Jack I. Abecassis (Professor of French Chair, RLL, Pomona College, CA, USA)


This paper springs from a single footnote in my book Albert Cohen, Dissonant Voices, where I expressed dismay at a particularly faulty translation of perhaps the most crucial phrase in the novel Belle du Seigneur, Albert Cohen’s magnum opus.(1) The stream of consciousness fragment in question here reads as follows: «Je veux aimer tout de mon peuple fleurons biscornus de sa couronne je veux tout aimer de mon peuple et même les chers grands nez mosqués de mon peuple [...] et je veux aimer les dos de mon peuple»,(2) which the distinguished translator David Coward translates as follows: "they are the unsightly jewels in their crown I will treasure my people and everything about my people even the large and lovely much-mocked noses of my people yes...I will treasure the bent backs..."(3). My argument hinges on the semantic and pragmatic differences of "Je veux aimer" versus "I will treasure." I intend to show that this semantic slippage represents a significant departure from Cohen’s intent, especially in the precise context in which it was uttered.

Before discussing the difficulties in reading and translating Albert Cohen’s grand novel, let me say a word about translation and ideology. It is a common place, but one which cannot be too often repeated, that translation is by its very essence a form of interpretation, that the shift from "I want to love everything of my people" to "I will treasure my people" is not a translation but a tendentious (mis)interpretation, - that come what may a translation conveys the translator’s understanding of the original text. This seems obvious, almost inevitable, since before translating the first sentence, consciously or unconsciously, one must have a global understanding of the signification of the work as a whole; one must have the sense of the text: every part understood in terms of the whole, and the whole in terms of the parts. We are seemingly enclosed in this hermeneutic circle, where our subjectivity insinuates itself into the verb of the original author. The inherently heterogeneous is digested by enzymes of the same. Otherness is reduced to Sameness; the strange to the familiar. The unheimlich, domesticated.

Biblical translations constitute perhaps the best case in point. Take for example the Hebrew sixth commandment Al Tirzach (Thou shall not murder), which erroneously becomes the Christian Thou shall not kill [King James Bible] or, for a more recent example, the erroneous theological underpinning of Levinassian philosophy, Tu ne tueras point (thou shall not kill at all/never - taking on the force of an unconditional, de-contextualized categorical imperative). Robert Alter’s introduction to his superb translation of Genesis abounds in examples of flagrant contre sens of this type which cannot be dismissively explained along philological lines, for certainly all translators of the Hebrew Bible know that Hebrew possesses two distinct verbs for killing: harog, which means kill.... and Razoach, kill without justice, that is, murder, which is the word used in the sixth commandment.(4) The semantic slippage can only be accounted for on ideological grounds.

To be sure, one can always fault any translation with variance in semantic nuances, stylistic tone and musical rhythm. And perhaps nowhere else is translation more of a fool’s errand than in the case of highly colloquial streams of consciousness. But there are specific inflection points, points of cardinal importance, even in streams of consciousness, where the translator’s bias becomes naked, as if unveiled, explicit,--as if good faith cedes to desire and/or resistance to meaning, and translation becomes interpretation in the sense of corrective rewriting.(5) Resistance to these singular inflection points misses the gist of the original text altogether, rendering it perhaps readable at a certain superficial level but, at least to my mind, unintelligible in a deeper sense.

Now, Belle du Seigneur, is a particularly enigmatic, multi-layered, convoluted novel in which Cohen pushes the limits of dialogism, polyphony, heteronomy to the extreme. In this mature novel Cohen could not give free flight to his ambivalence about Judaism as he did, for example, in his earlier play Ezéchiel, and for which he was publicly rebuked. The mature Cohen went about his task in a crafty manner: he manipulates the reader’s desire by the usage of an overarching and, at times even hypnotic romantic plot, while relegating the more disturbing content to the novel’s underbelly - its extended streams of consciousness. The overt romantic plot involves the seduction of Ariane, a married Geneva-born Protestant aristocrat, by an up-and-coming Sephardic Jew named Solal, followed by their lyrically passionate and in time tragic love affair, ending in a double suicide. Interwoven into this conventional plot are hundreds of pages devoted to extensive parodies of bourgeois mores; biting satire of the corrupt ineptness of the League of Nations during the 1930’s; the occasional highly comical incursions into Geneva from Corfu of Solal’s backward uncles and cousins (Mangeclous and Les Valeureux) and their comic encounters with Europeans; the description of the constitutional Judeophobia of European elites; long soliloquies of metaphysical Jeremiads opposing paganism to Judaism. Romance set against a historical background, à la Stendhal; erotic obsession set against the angst of jealousy and boredom, à la Proust - that is in essence the standard account of this novel found in normative books of literary history.

But, in my reading, the normative account, in which French criticism has reduced the radical heteronomy of Belle du Seigneur into a Judeo-Oriental epigone of French narrative, only comprises the visible dimension of the novel: the chateau without its underground, without the cave--Cohen’s favorite chronotrope. This is why the oft-repeated comment that Belle du Seigneur is a novel about everything is a truism eluding nevertheless the disturbing core of the novel, which for me at least, consists in a minute examination of Solal’s rapport to Judaism and Jews, his attraction to and repulsion from Jews as well as his attraction to and repulsion from Europeans. This is the novel of and about catastrophic Jewish subjectivity. If Cohen’s novels are an epigone of anything, they would be the baroque flamboyant echo of Kafka’s version of catastrophic Judaism. But in Cohen’s sinuous and cavernous narrative, this catastrophic dimension is strategically relegated into either seemingly out of sequence dream-like episodes or, more typically, the extensive streams of consciousness, which often constitute stand alone chapters, sometimes over twenty pages long, written as a single sentence without any punctuation. For the typical reader, the extended stream of consciousness is numbing, unreadable, indigestible - and therefore a perfect textual cave in which to hide the disturbing truth. Think of Cohen’s usage of the stream of consciousness device as a counter-discourse to the overarching romantic narrative. Here is an obvious example of how the stream of consciousness undermines the manifest narrative: The naïve reader may think that the feminine protagonist, Ariane, represents a fervent adherent of the religion of heterosexual eroticism and romantic illusion (the narrator often compares her to Anna Karenina), but in fact a careful deciphering of Ariane’s first stream of consciousness proves exactly the opposite: She is in fact more lesbian than heterosexual; she viscerally abhors the male body; she conflates copulation with bestiality. Likewise, Anna Karenina’s literary counterpart, Don Juan--that is, Solal--, gives expression in his own streams of consciousness to the identical abhorrence of genital sexuality. So the Don-Juan-seducing-Anna-Karenina level of the plot, to wit, the standard interpretation of Belle du Seigneur, its most available level of signification, collapses when juxtaposed to its discursive underbelly, the stream of truth, stream of consciousness. It should be noted that this reading of the stream of consciousness, as in the case of " je veux aimer tout de mon peuple ," does not depend on symbolic interpretation, where a chain of metonymies coalesce into an allegorical metaphor. Rather this reading patiently examines the literal meaning of the discourse; a discourse which is literal but rather inaccessible in the sinuous depth of a twenty-page sentence. Understood in this manner, the work of the translator is to be particularly attentive to the nuances of this subversive counter-discourse, especially, as we shall shortly see, to clearly signaled inflection points within it.

In the second half of Belle du Seigneur Solal and Ariane become chic refugees, though for some 850 pages the reader is left in the dark as to why Solal no longer functions as the under-secretary general of the League of Nations. Ariane herself, who accompanies him in his errant existence, as they drift from hotels to villas back to hotels, does not know that her under-secretary general has become a pariah--and she with him. Cohen is crafty here, folding a novel about the Shoha in the garment of Romance. One chapter, however, right in the middle of the book stands alone, disconnected from any previous events or characters. In Berlin, Solal is beaten by Hitler Youth and is rescued and dragged into a secret cave at the request of a monstrous, hunchbacked dwarf, named Rachel, who horrifies and repels Solal. The reconciliation between Rachel and Solal takes place by means of the mise-en-scène of a Purim play in which Rachel becomes Esther and Solal, Mordechai. Only through this historical and liturgical abstraction can Rachel escape Solal’s visceral contempt. But this dream-like, or rather nightmarish surreal chapter stands alone, as if suspended in the very middle of the novel: for the next 250 pages, the narrator does not reveal how and why Solal was in Berlin, nor how he escaped, and no event or character from this chapter would be mentioned for the next 250 pages, and then only in the depth of a sinuous stream of consciousness. It is thus easy for the reader to simply pass over this pivotal chapter; to ignore it altogether, which is exactly what the critics did when Belle du Seigneur was published in 1968 and became an instant cause célèbre in Parisian literary circles. In fact, there is only a single passing mention of the dwarf Rachel in about three dozen extensive book reviews and critical essays. In the normative account of Belle du Seigneur, Rachel, and all that she represents, simply has no place - it is the unspeakable of the text.

The Berlin episode and its correlative, the Rosenfeld stream of consciousness, constitute the linchpin of the real plot, for they explain the why, where and how of the whole novel. The Rosenfeld episode is particularly striking, especially in the dramatic way it is set up by the narrator. Solal and Ariane are at the low point of their misery as outcasts continuing to play the comedy of love, though no real affect is left. To keep Ariane busy, Solal rips one of his shirts, so that Ariane can keep herself busy, sewing in front of him. They are both silent. The end looms near, and they both know it. At this point, while his gaze is riveted on Ariane, Solal launches himself into an extended stream of conscious, but one in which the stakes are high. "Je vais tout te dire sans danger de perte de prestige puisque tu ne m’entend pas » (BdS, 873). This is finally the moment where the readers might be able to connect all the points in this convoluted narrative. The critical antennae of the translator should be set at their maximum receptivity, maximum rendering of nuance. In the next few pages, Solal explains to the reader how his trip to Berlin spurred him to use his position to plead for German Jewry; how he encounters indifference and cynicism, the rational for the indifference being that "saving Jews from anti-Semitism will spur even more anti-Semitism elsewhere" so that it was in the name of love that Rachel and her uncles (the Silbersteins) and their like were consciously abandoned; how his insistence, sometimes even impolite, precipitated his fall from grace, loss of French citizenship, and various other humiliations.

But curiously, after explaining how he lost everything on account of his militancy for Jews, Solal sinks into a long anti-Semitic delirium, "O ma gentile couseuse patiente discrète lui raconter mon histoire Rosenfeld pour l’amuser non c’est une histoire rien que pour moi" (BdS, 890). In this five-page delirium Solal describes a visit of a family of Rumanian Jews to his house, the essence of which can be paraphrased as follows: You invite Mr. Rosenfeld to your house; he comes too early with the whole family in tow: wife, son, daughters, grandmother. Rosenfeld is a Rumanian Jew with a thick accent. Everything about him is crass; his manners, pushy. His children are prodigious. They speak so many languages and play so many instruments and would like to exercise such and such professions. They snoop in your medicine cabinets, compare medications, give you advice on constipation. They open your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator and criticize your stock of provisions, insist on giving you the best recipes for salted cucumbers, gefilte fish, apple strudel, kugel, hashed liver; they show you how to drink tea correctly. They leaf through books in your library, dispute everything: if you prefer Racine to Corneille, they take the opposite view. They criticize your apartment, what you paid for it, its location; they wonder aloud whether you pay your taxes in full; they suggest an excellent surgeon, a professor they personally know, for an operation you might need, according to them; they declare your authentic personal affect fake; their daughters, gangly and silly, giggle awkwardly eying you as a possible match, and so on and so forth.(6)

This delirium is then followed by an equally long and equally profuse historical praise for the Jews, which explains in essence why they cannot be as graceful, patient and discreet as Ariane, that woman sitting and sewing in front of Solal. So in these juxtapositions or radically heteronymous fragments of a single stream of consciousness, we finally have the precise narratological, rhetorical and pragmatic context for the phrase: Je veux tout aimer de mon peuple. Here we find the explicit verbal crystallization of the real subject of Belle du Seigneur, namely Solal’s ambivalence and suffering for being a Jew in Europe. The verb to want + the infinitive in French has very strong connotations. It either is a strong form of the impolite imperative, or a strong form of contrary-to-fact statements. When one says: I want to love x it means that one does not in fact love x, but that one is wishing to will oneself to do it. Je veux tout aimer de mon peuple contains thus a clear contrary-to-fact connotation: I want, but I don’t; I want but I cannot - and wanting but not being able constitutes the crux of the matter in Belle du Seigneur. This is why the translation: I will treasure all of my people is not simply a bad translation stricto sensu, substituting the future tense for the present tense and substituting "to treasure" for "to want," but it represents also a form of re-writing Cohen’s text, a form of resisting the meaning of the text, especially when the narrator repeatedly and explicitly clues the reader/translator into the pivotal importance of this confession.

© Jack I. Abecassis (Professor of French Chair, RLL, Pomona College, CA, USA)


(1) Abecassis, Jack. Albert Cohen, Dissonant Voices (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 222, fn. 14.

(2) Cohen, Albert. Belle du Seigneur (Paris: Gallimard [Pléiade], 1986), pp. 900-901. I will refer to this edition, as BdS.

(3) Cohen, Albert. Belle du Seigneur, trans. David Coward (London, Viking, 1995), p. 876.

(4) See: Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 1997), in particular the Introduction.

(5) See: Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), especially chapter 5, "How to read Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise."

(6) See, Abecassis, Jack, p. 151.

9.4. Translation and Ideology

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Jack I. Abecassis (Pomona College, CA, USA): Problems in the Translation of Belle du Seigneur. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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