Too Foreign

In his lecture “Two or Three Words,” Wallace Stevens described his vision of poetry’s importance in “an age of disbelief.” In a time absented by God, poets had to pick up the slack. Language created divinity, he declared, and now it was time for language to take the place of the divine. Achieving this, though, would not be easy. Freed from the rule of the gods, poetry might succumb to what Stevens called a “detached style”:

Eccentric and dissociated poetry is poetry that tries to exist or is intended to exist separately from the poem, that is to say in a style that is not identical with the poem. It never achieves anything more than a shallow mannerism, like something seen in a glass. Now, a time of disbelief is precisely a time in which the frequency of detached styles is greatest. . . . By detached, I mean the unsuccessful, the ineffective, the arbitrary, the literary, the non?umbilical, that which in its highest degree would still be words. For the style of the poem and the poem itself to be one there must be a mating and a marriage, not an arid love?song.

For Stevens, proper style is neither an adjective nor a category applied to a poem. On the contrary, style flows from the poem itself: we consider a poem Romantic not because it meets pre-determined criteria, but because the Romantic criteria have emerged from the poem. In a detached style, on the other hand, such criteria already exist and are that to which the poem aspires if it is to be identifiable (say, as Romantic). True style, though, does not exist outside the poem, nor can the poem exist without its style. Never merely a single category or kind of writing, style is better considered a verb than a genre—the action of the poem being itself. If it is a noun at all it would be a riddle: what occurs when language turns in upon itself, finds itself wanting, but nevertheless wants nothing but itself?

Though she never considered herself a poet, Clarice Lispector’s prose inhabits this poetic riddle in a way that is only recently beginning to gain the recognition it deserves.  In his biography of Lispector, Benjamin Moser deems her “the Sphinx of Rio de Janeiro,” noting her defiant comments about staring down the Sphinx in Egypt: “I did not decipher her. But neither did she decipher me.” By Moser’s reckoning, whose editorial hand and evangelistic enthusiasm has guided Lispector’s entry into New Directions’ catalogue, it is precisely the mysteriousness of Lispector’s style that has made a mess of previous translations and stunted her reception in the United States. In interviews and in the afterword to his translation of The Hour of the Star (2011), Moser never goes so far as to blame these early translations for failing to cement Lispector’s place among other Latin American literary heroes like Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, but neither does he think her books simply require some new marketing and another chance. These translations are new for a reason. Moser bristles at what he sees as English translators trying to tame Lispector’s strangely composed Portuguese, ironing out the wrinkles in her syntax and cleaning up what would be bad grammar if it weren’t intentional.

I cannot read Portuguese, and very likely would need at least two tries to identify it by ear, so it would seem that I am in no position to judge (or, therefore, doubt) Moser’s assessment of previous translations. Neither am I capable of assessing Idra Novey’s attempt at The Passion According to G.H., released this June by New Directions. How then do I review Clarice Lispector? Is it right for one so distanced from her language, and thus from her style, to stand in evaluative judgment of her work? To put it less abstractly: are we reading Lispector at all, or merely her translators? Are we capable of accessing her style when her language is foreign to us?

Lispector’s narrator in The Passion According to G.H. also struggles with a kind of translation: with finding the words to say how inadequate her words are when it comes to conveying her experience of “a world fully alive.” The novel opens with its action having already taken place. It is the task of the narrator, she explains, to retell what happened, and in the process hopefully to understand it. But has she actually lived the events at all? “Did something happen to me that I, because I didn’t know how to live it, lived as something else?” She proceeds by attempting to describe what happened, despite her fear that the truth of her experience will upend her world. It would be better to stay silent, she senses, but she cannot. For in The Passion According to G.H. an experience is lived only to the extent that it is told. Where any encounter with something new has the power to momentarily upset by showing us that we do not know something, the retelling of that encounter has more lasting effects. That we do not know becomes what we do not know: to experience something new reveals a failure of language. Lispector’s narrator and novel are nearly overwhelmed by their sustained ambivalence of panicked prefaces and digressions, because hers is a story she dares not, but must, tell to an unseen, unnamed “you”—the reader, but also the world itself, all of existence, existence itself. The telling, and the “you” to whom it is directed, are as important as the teller, who is reduced in the novel nearly to anonymity: to a set of initials.

This nameless narrator turns her mental struggle into engagement—as much a battle as it is a promise of love. Love and enmity, we learn, are attached like poetry and style. Though the speaker hates to speak, speak she must. To do so, she conjures an audience—“I will have to pretend that someone is holding my hand”—and musters her courage. She must withstand the insufficiency of what she will say: “As soon as it’s out of my mouth, I’ll have to add: that’s not it, that’s not it! But I cannot be afraid of being ridiculous, I always preferred less to more also out of fear of the ridiculous: because there’s also the shattering of modesty. I’m putting off having to speak to myself. Out of fear?” So early in the novel and Lispector is already wielding her punctuation and syntax like daggers.

Both of this book’s English translators, first Ronald Sousa and now Idra Novey, appeal to their struggles with her style—a struggle beautifully expressed by Novey in her afterword: “when to prioritize the music and when the meaning.” Lispector’s Portuguese is, we are told by both translators, a sonorous web of repetitions, intent more on establishing a cadence than insuring coherence. Novey notes that what are often curiosities in the original language prove to be hurdles in its translation. She cites as a prime example Lispector’s repeated use of the word preso [“imprisoned”] in contexts it would not ordinarily be found, indicating it is given broad enough berth here to refer as much to a prisoner as to a drawing on a wall as to the feelings of the narrator. Novey settles at times on “penned” instead of “imprisoned,” but wonders if the “fugue-like repetitions” of a single term were “essential to what makes this novel such a hypnotizing book.” She also cites the definite article Lispector inconsistently affixes to the divine, alternating between “o Deus” (“the God”) and “Deus” (“God”)—“how strange she intended that article to sound to her reader”—which Novey takes seriously enough to carry over into her translation.

For his part, Ronald Sousa concedes that his 1988 translation errs on the side of exposition and that the ambiguity of the original is more powerful than the arguably more precise philosophical terminology he employs. A comparative reading reveals a few noteworthy examples:

Sousa: “Up to now, finding myself was having a readymade person-idea and mounting myself inside it: I incarnated myself inside that set-up person and didn’t even sense the great construction project that living was.”

Novey: “Until now finding myself was already having an idea of a person and fitting myself into it: I’d incarnate myself into this organized person, and didn’t even feel the great effort of construction that is living."

Sousa: “I was about to confront within myself a degree of living so originary that it bordered on the inanimate.”

Novey: “I would encounter inside myself a degree of life so primal in myself that it was nearly inanimate.”

The differences aren’t always stark, and more often than not the deviations appear to the untrained eye mostly cosmetic. As happens in all translation, though, subtle shifts in meaning do sometimes occur:

Sousa: “Losing oneself is finding oneself dangerous.”

Novey: “Getting lost is a dangerous finding.”

Shifts in meaning also happen when one translator more explicitly flags for interpretive purposes an allusion, as in the case of “original sin”:

Sousa: “The renewed originality of sin is this: I have to carry out my own unknown law, and if I don’t carry out my unknowing, I shall be sinning originally against life.”

Novey: “The renewedly original sin is this: I must fulfill my law of which I am unaware, and if I don’t fulfill my ignorance, I shall be originally sinning against life.”

Sousa invites the reader to “imagine a Portuguese text that transmits a much greater sense of potential language chaos than does the translation,” noting the loss in his translation of some ambiguity and idiosyncrasy. His rationale appears to be that the struggle of translation is one that simply cannot be won: the strangeness of Lispector’s language is simply too foreign. The best a translation can do is somehow to invite the reader to “imagine” how much more strange is the original; it cannot actually restage or enact the effect of this strangeness.

We see this most clearly in the different translations of the narrator’s spectacular pantheistic prayer that represents a turning point in the novel:

Sousa: “At this moment, now, a doubt overtakes me. God, or whatever You are called: I now ask only one bit of help: but it is that you help me, not in the obscure way in which you are me but now openly, in plain sight.”

Novey: “Right this second, now, a doubt surprises me. God, or whatever Thou art called: I only ask for help now: but for Thou to help me now not darkly as Thou art me, but clearly this time and in plain sight.”

Sousa not only modernizes the pronouns, he cleans up the punctuation to insure a more or less accessible pace. In both translations, the meaning carries through—the narrator is coming to understand that she and God are one—as do the contrasting intentions of the translators.

If Novey’s version is an improvement, it is not necessarily because she is more faithful to the original text or even because she better evokes its transmission of a “potential language chaos,” but because she does not seem to see the struggle as something that can be won or lost. Where Sousa beckons towards a confusion outside the grasp of his translation, Novey intends to highlight the dissonant chord that hers shares with the novel. It may not be the same strangeness of Lispector’s original, but how could it be? If strangeness is to remain strange, can it be translated accurately? Can it even be anticipated? (If our anticipation of a potential strangeness proves correct, how strange could it have been?) The struggle that informs these questions, not their solution, is what Novey attempts to translate: hers is not an invitation to imaginative wholeness or transcendence, but an admission of imaginative poverty. Her translation may be unavoidably inadequate to the experience of the original text, but exploring this inadequacy is itself the point of the original text.  In this way, the strangeness of Novey’s translation, which comes at the expense of precision and immediate clarity, is of a piece with the narrator’s attempt to translate the strangeness of her experience.  

Appropriately, what has so unnerved the narrator from the first page cannot be isolated to a single moment or identifiable meaning. “I was seeing something that would only make sense later—I mean, something that only later would profoundly not make sense. Only later would I understand: what seems like a lack of meaning—that’s the meaning.” The novel begins with the narrator entering her recently resigned maid’s room, where she discovers on the wall, like a sentry to a sarcophagus, a charcoal-drawn figure that she construes as a hateful caricature of herself. The sight disturbs her—“I wasn’t imprisoned [preso, again!] but I was located. As located as if they’d stuck me there with the simple and single gesture of pointing at me with a finger, pointing at me and at a place”—and she is overcome by the feeling that she is suddenly unable to escape. The room displays nothing of interest: the late-morning light fills the room harshly, exposing not the uncleanliness she expected but an awful “inaudible silence,” a “neutral hissing of thing.”  Soon, the narrator’s general unease and vague irritation turn into something stronger:

Abruptly, this time with real discomfort, I finally let a sensation come to me which for six months, out of negligence and lack of interest, I hadn’t let myself feel: the silent hatred of that woman. What surprised me was that it was a kind of detached hatred, the worst kind: indifferent hatred. Not a hatred that individualized me but merely the lack of mercy. No, not even hatred.

The narrator here anticipates and spells out the path along which she will develop and the novel progress. Indeed, there is hardly any narrative movement in The Passion According to G.H. beyond the narrator’s reflection on the few things that occur after her “imprisonment” by her maid’s hatred.

So “located,” the narrator comes to face to face with her own repulsion when she opens a wardrobe and finds a roach. At first she shrinks back in horror; when the roach begins to creep forward, she acts:

Brazenly, stirred by my surrender to what is evil, brazenly, stirred, grateful, for the first time I was being the unknown person I was—except that not knowing myself would no longer keep me back, the truth had already surpassed me: I lifted my hand as if to swear an oath, and in a single blow slammed the door on the half-emerged body of the cockroach— — — — — — —

The narrator in this act of violence externalizes the hostility of which she was initially but an object. She becomes the subject who hates, and in so doing taps into a primal experience of life itself. The feeling, however, is no triumph. She experiences the “rawness” of life, as with the maid’s hatred, only when it first divides her: when she is both an object acted upon and a subject who acts. In a way, then, her hatred is no longer her own. Understanding this points her to a realization with a twist fit for Kafka:

The roach and I are hellishly free because our living matter is greater than we are, we are hellishly free because my own life is so barely containable inside my body that I cannot use it. My life is used more by the earth than by me, I am so much greater than whatever I used to call ‘I’ that, just by having the life of the world, I would have myself. It would take a horde of roaches to make a slightly sensitive spot in the world—yet one single roach, just through its attention-life, that single roach is the world.

Note the transition: from a hatred that makes her feel alive, to one that divides her, to one that is no longer her own. With roach split in half on the floor, oozing its inside stuff, Lispector’s narrator moves through each of these ‘phase changes’ to realize the absolute freedom of “a hatred that isn’t even hatred.” She doesn’t mean that hatred is always something else or an eternal abstraction. On the contrary, it is the very “nucleus of life.” We miss it, though, because we have “drenched [it] with humanization . . . A thing exists that is fuller, deafer, deeper, less good, less good, less bad,” or we confuse it with something that transcends the world (or words) when we do happen to encounter it. Gazing into the dying eyes of the roach the narrator wonders: what if the fullness of life is not a promise to be achieved, but something that is always already there? Perhaps the life she shares with the roach is the very one she shares with all things—including God. This expansiveness of the “I” is not “self-discovery”: it is as much the abandonment of self as it is its liberation. Nothing, certainly nothing as discoverable as a “self,” can remain what it was or what we anticipated it might be. It becomes, in other words, the I that is no longer named “I.” 

The nameless I is depersonalized—the “naked thing” is not a “me” or a “you,” or a “roach” or “God”—but it is not solitary. For the narrator, such nakedness reveals the pure “neediness” of all things. This is because, like the nearness of a poem and its style, there is precisely nothing between “naked” reality and the nameless I. By the end of the novel, in marked contrast to the beginning when she repeatedly pleaded for another’s hand out of fear, the narrator now offers hers out of love. This is because, she discovers, to love is also to need. Where the personalized “I,” ultimately needing nothing beyond its individuality, is incapable of love, the expansive I, stripped of individuality, is nothing but need. Here, there is no individuality to protect or to imprison: reality is not merely a collection of discrete objects and selves, but the “in-between” tissue that connects and makes all things possible.

Though Lispector’s meditation on the “hatred that isn’t even hatred” gives us no criteria to judge the success or failure of a book’s translation, it reminds us that translation itself is inevitable. Words lead to words lead to words: language, like naked reality, is expansively needy, and as such can never announce a final destination or achieves its end. As Lispector’s narrator comes to realize, it is easy to become cynically self-congratulatory imagining that because we know of a failure, we are free from its implications. There is, however, no transcending the problem:

never! never again shall I understand anything I say. Since how could I speak without the word lying for me? how could I speak except timidly like this: life is just for me. Life is just for me, and I don’t understand what I’m saying. And so I adore it.

Here may we find the room for misunderstanding that distinguishes truly great translations like Idra Novey’s.