Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel
New York. Feminist Press. 2017. 128 pages.
Mireille Gansel’s lyrical and evocative Translation as Transhumance, itself beautifully and elegantly translated by Ros Schwartz, is a moving tribute to the art of translation as a kind of humanism, a desire not just to understand another language but to inhabit it, to see it from the inside, not as Other but as being as close to oneself as one’s own “native” language. A student of the little-known dialects of the Savoie region, Gansel writes: “I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.”
In French, the word engagé connotes being politically committed, being an activist. For Gansel, translation is a wholly committed sort of engagement, one that compels her to learn Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, travel to Vietnam in the early 1970s, live in a war zone, and compile an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in French, based on her immersion in studying not just the language but also the music and culture of the people.
Gansel writes that the only German her Jewish Hungarian father knew was the phrase “Du bist ein Stück Fleisch mit zwei Augen”: You are a piece of meat with two eyes. One senses that Gansel’s life was shaped by that fact, and by her desire to overcome the generalizations of Nazi bureaucracy to find the particular humanity that lies inside each language, each culture, each person. Gansel recognizes that the important things reside in the specifics: the varying names of children’s toys in each Savoyard dialect; the rhythm and chantlike sonorities of Vietnamese poetry; the weighted meaning behind the German word sensibel, which can mean both “fragile” and “sensitive.”
She recognizes the fact that poetry is the lifeblood of a language and a culture; it saves language from the meaningless currency of everyday exchange—the language that Nazi bureaucracy thrived on—and transforms it into words that breathe, that live their own life, that create an entirely different reality from the roots of words and transforms them into “glowing stones.” So she translates To Huu, a persecuted Vietnamese poet who wrote poems in prison by sticking pins into leaves to form the words and smuggling the branches out to waiting friends; Nelly Sachs, who spent her life rescuing her native German from the language of the Nazis by studying Gershom Scholem’s translations from the Zohar and the translation of the Hebrew Bible by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig; Eugenie Goldstern, a native of Odessa who devoted her life to studying the dialects of the Savoie until, as a Jew, she was banned from her university position as an ethnologist in Vienna by an anti-Semitic administrator in 1924 and had to live in exile in Sweden.
“Translation” comes from the past participle of the Latin transferre, to carry across. Like St. Christopher carrying Christ across the river, Gansel seems to be rescuing words from oblivion, carrying them across from their language into hers, with infinite care and patience. Words have to travel a long way from one language to the other, but they must seem as if they never left home, the way sheep look at home wherever they are, in summer and winter pastures alike. “Translation requires an inner urgency that will make that which is different as close to the original as possible,” writes Herta Müller. Translation as Transhumance is a proof of this inner urgency and a tribute to the courage and bravery required in every true translation.
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York