A Translation Is Not Only a Thing of Words

Reviewed by Liza Bolen

How can one be curious about something one already knows? This is the question that came to mind when I first perused Jacob Homel’s translation of Nelly Arcan’s 2007 novel À ciel ouvert (a title brilliantly translated into the snappy Breakneck) and Sheila Delany’s translation of Sylvain Maréchal’s novella La femme abbé (The Woman Priest), which was originally published in 1801 in France. To various degrees, I knew what I held in my hands: being from Québec, I had been introduced to superstar writer Arcan through various media interviews, and I had been deeply fascinated by this novel and others, notably Putain (2001) and Folle (2004)—which, I must add, are also available in English. I had also been introduced to the objectively lesser-known Maréchal whilst studying censorship and the Church in Québec and France, and I remember being amazed by the critical detachment of this author, who cleverly took on the subjects of religion, eroticism, and women at a time when these topics were strictly out of bounds.

So my curiosity, in that sense, did not transpire from these texts per se, but rather from the irony of finding the two authors, shocking in their own times and in their own stylistic methods, suddenly next to one another. In fact, this struck me particularly when I laid the books side by side: the front cover of The Woman Priest shows a drawing of a man holding a dagger in a dimly lit cave and ripping the blouse of a distressed young woman, thus exposing her bare breasts. And on the cover of Breakneck, as though in some kind of coincidentally perfect continuation, is an image of two long, bare, mannequin-like legs, at the end of which are high-heeled shoes. Thus, even before engaging with these texts, we are reminded of the central role of the woman and the woman’s body in them—and that we are about to enter two worlds which share the sentiment of something being not quite right. This first impression does not disappoint.

The Woman Priest is an epistolary novella that centres on the correspondence between Agatha and her dear friend Zoe. Agatha, who has fallen in love with a priest, decides to dress as a man in order to enter the priesthood and to be close to her beloved. The story unfolds in a series of dramatic twists through which we are introduced to the anti-clerical character Timon, who serves as a clear voice in questioning the establishment portrayed in this novella. While the contents of The Woman Priest make for a good story (drag, drama, and death—what more can you ask for?), the astonishing complexity of the novella seems to lie not necessarily in the general plot line, but rather in the context in which the author wrote the book—as brilliantly explained in Delany’s introduction to her translation (we’ll get to that). Nevertheless, the secrecy of Agatha’s female body and the representation of a clearly problematic clerical structure are an excellent gateway into Maréchal’s cynical and disengaged attitude towards the epoch in which he lived.

In Breakneck, the difficulty lies within the character relations, as Arcan proposes a deeply disturbing dive into each character’s dark persona. Thus we find Rose Dubois and Julie O’Brien, two women truly obsessed with their own bodies and the idea of a perfect and ageless female form (through intensive workouts and a lot of plastic surgery). The women compete for the attention of Charles Nadeau, the son of a butcher, whose childhood memories are entangled in a web of sexual obsessions about flesh and mutilated bodies. Arcan plays with these protagonists and pushes them to extremes, which makes for an increasingly violent storyline, a raw and sickening portrayal of humankind’s desires, from which the reader simply cannot turn away.

The vases communicants that exist between these texts (women, violence, disguising the body—by dressing as a man or by altering it through surgical procedures) prove for an interesting new depth in reading. But it would be unfair to discuss a curiosity about these texts, or their possible interpretations, without stating the obvious: both The Woman Priest and Breakneck are translations. This, in my opinion, is possibly the most fascinating element to discuss here.

In Breakneck, Homel absolutely does justice to the unsettling style Arcan was known for. Beyond the story and the choice of words, the plays on temporality, the constant feeling of threat in the air, and the sadistic violence which lingers between the lines of this novel are what make it such an addictive read, and Homel was able to transfer these elements as well in his translation. Nothing seems forced, as Homel remains faithful to Arcan’s strangely detached and analytical style. As for The Woman Priest, Delany provides the reader with a rich introduction, which proves essential to understanding the subtleties and intertextual references sown into this novella. But above all, the twenty-four-page introduction to this translation displays the work of a translator and researcher who deeply knows the author’s work and has extensive knowledge of the context in which he lived and wrote. Thus the reader is given a companion for reading that critically discusses themes that appear in the main text: religion and anti-clericalism, French historical context, French colonialism (part of the novella is set in New France), and, of course, gender and disguise, which, as we are reminded, was “not only culturally transgressive but illegal” at the time. It is perhaps through this introduction that the translation of La femme abbé finds its real value and the reader can begin to grasp both the intention and the impact of Maréchal. Two unconventional texts, difficult in their own subtle ways, show that the most significant part of a translation is often not the words.

This review “A Translation Is Not Only a Thing of Words” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 118-120.

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