I was on my way to see Karine for lunch for the first time in quite some time.
I am arhythmically tapping my foot to the soundless poprock of my Apple-brand Walkman, twitching nervously through the throwaway newspaper.
I appreciate the horoscope and read the one for each of the people I love who love me plus two for me – believe me, not many, so I have time for the squibs before my stop, Glacière – “icebox”, the stop for la Santé, the legendary prison, which is just up the way from the establishment where she sometimes works.
By the way, the design of the original la Sante building is based on Bentham’s Panopticon: its architecture is meant to aid inmate rehabilitation by keeping them in solitary confinement and under continuous surveillance, a Utilitarian conceit called the “Philadelphia System”.
In May, a squib cried, Gallimard, the legendary French-language literary publisher, would bring out a new, updated edition of George Orwell’s 1984, translated by Josée Kamoun. The squib cited changes such as “neoparler” for “novlangue” for “newspeak” and other new neologisms for Orwell’s coinages, as well as use of the present tense instead of the literary-narrative imparfait.
I got the impression that, somehow or another, the new publication, at 14€ Kindle, had used translation to “update” the text, like, say, a new English translation might throw light on some facet of Proust’s dense humorous prose; after all, reading Henry James in French is like reading a fresh-baked James, a pain au chocolat at coffee, topping off a strawberry jam-smeared muffin at breakfast.
Alas, my electronic reader does not yet even read my books for me, let alone compare and analyze them, so I can make only a weakly and partial assessment; ultimate judgment is still up to me.
So, although Kamoun has a finer sense of farce and is a better writer than the historic translator, Amélie Audiberti, she, Kamoun, has not been able to raise up an updated, new or improved 1984 from the timber of la langue de Proust.
The new 1984 is just a same-old same-old translation with the great fault of all translation everywhere: since the translator can never have the original author’s knowledge and experience or his or her sense of lexical nuance, it’s never really anything more than a distorted mirror of the original.
So, for example, in this Kamoun version, as in the historic one, Orwell’s “memory hole” coinage is rendered as trou de mémoire (a hole in the memory), missing the point entirely, at least on the surface. As far as I can tell, trou de mémoire – “Attends, attends, j’ai un trou!” – is so rooted in everyday speech as never likely to mean anything other than “lapse in memory”, whereas “memory hole” was an entirely new usage, since become part of everyday English language usage.
As I get out at Glacière, an elevated station, I pull my jacket close and bend into a sudden blustery wind shot with cold, narrow drops of rain; it’s a toss-up as to whether were going to end the world in fire or ice. Today, I sure wish the world would make up its mind.
I clop down the irons steps – it’s all in heavy iron plate, thickly painted in grey.
It occurs to me that the failure of this new 1984 isn’t in the translation but in the original.
1984 isn’t really satire, isn’t really literature.
The difference is that the book is about words rather than people, about words rather even than about ideas. 1984 is just political boilerplate, farce. Good boiler plate, maybe, but boilerplate. So unlike, say, Brave New World, which is about people, 1984 isn’t worth a second shot; nothing was left out the first time.
First off, 1984 is not well thought through. Though really funny, Winston Smith’s petty bourgeois disdain for the lack of creature comforts in Airstrip One (misleadingly translated as the Zone in the new translation) in the proletarian world in which he has grown up is, to say the least, strange (Orwell even tries later in the book to explain it away); Orwell’s 20th-century intellectual’s hatred for them and for (female – “harridan”) gym teachers is a neat joke, it’s a commonplace; the portrayal of the emotional tissue of Oceania as woven of male frustration sur fond de dyke-femme sexual hysteria might say something about the social-psychology of the mid-20th century but is still just depressingly silly period-pop-psych. In the end, if there’s humor, apart from the striking word coinage, there’s nothing else to 1984.
As to translating to achieve a new perspective… The title, 1984, is a monumental impediment to interpretation since a translator is helpless before it. Worse is the content connected to that Moloch-like title. Supposedly all about political manipulation of time’s relativity and the fragility of human consciousness, the book begins with Winston scratching in the “uncertain” date “April 4th, 1984”.
Willy-nilly, the translator is faced, like the English-reading public is faced, with a socialist totalitarian regime run by an avuncular tout puissant Big Brother whose party has for a slogan “who controls the present controls the future, who controls the past controls the present”, which has kept the Christian calendar in place! Godsbones, even the bourgeois revolutionaries of 1789 thought of imposing a new calendar, along with thought control backed up by the latest in murder technology.
As I turn up the rue de la Santé – the prison by the way is called “Health” because, they say, some ancient despot had once put a hospital on the spot.
To tell the truth, I am dragging my feet here, the one swollen, the other all-too eager.
I want to see her, of course. But since I am an integral part of what I know already to be the unhappy conclusion of the apparently pointless friendly meeting with her … without even taking account of her looking with a secret glumness at me during a meal lasting an hour through.
And, all through this repast of the love-dead, I, and probably her, shall remember, we shall, and remember and remember we shall that the best meal I ever ate was with her looking at me and looking at her.
Yet there go I.
In my mind’s I see her listlessly picking up, dropping, picking up her tiny tools and fine implements with a toothy, embarrassed smile, marking her conflict in her way, too, in that way she has.
With a sudden lurch, I trip into one of those little dusty morning-to-midday-only bars that serve wine, beer and shots and, after 11, with warmed-up food from a central cafeteria some place in the city.
The barman’s eyes involuntarily flick away from the TV screen as I jerk in the door. Those eyes cross mine, so, with no ado, I call out for a café serré, a ristretto.
I belly up to the bar. Our eyeballs both flick up to the screen before he measures coffee into the pressure thingamabob.
The raw, uncensored truth is that no French publisher has bothered with another translation of 1984 until now because the book’s just a lot of ordinary human dilemmas thoughtlessly shoe-horned into the duckspeak of half-baked political boilerplate. Even more likely to be true is that the members of the project committee noted, as they year after year dropped the 1984 translation project into the dustbin, that Orwell’s intellectual outlook is, like that of many journalists, scientistic, tainted by scientism, the handsomer fraternal twin of conspiracism. Scientism, like conspiracism, is a habit of mind that uses a few “established facts” to launch a narrow logical analysis that inevitably reaches tendentious but satisfyingly clear conclusions about its target:
- She did get drunk on the welfare payment, didn’t she?
Well, yes, but…
- Then it is true that people are using this money for drink!
There’s no denying truth, is there?
Orwell was not just a clever journalist, he was an educated one, an Eton boy, I believe, whose insults are rooted in basic human realities.
But. Galimard’s project committee members know that scientistic analysis such as Orwell’s is entirely out of date within 15 minutes of publication – good for newspapers but not suitable for books unless a celebrity is involved. True. Orwell is a celebrity. But this story… Also, the members know, when looking back, scientistic analysis often is seen to be plain stupid. In itself stupidity even being seen to be stupid is not an impediment to a successful print run but I should think would usually block an investment in a second translation: a simple re-issue would lessen the risk of a loss. But a re-issue will not attract attention…
Fingers tap the shiny faux-walnut table.
What the hell. There are always other factors, some obscure and unprovable, even to the members of the committee themselves.
I imagine a possible scene: the 2017 committee straggles into the salle de réunion at around 11.45, serves itself a round of gin shots and, after some quick, guilty glances among them, hoarsely toast, “An effort, comrades! Four-legs good! Two legs bad! It made money for Penguin! Didn’t it?”
A bit over-dressed for what is now the weather and with a damned cramp in my foot to boot, I blow my nose for the nteenth time today – in the same way that my heart refuses to acknowledge plain truth in regard to her, my upper respiratory system has not yet grasped that I long ago quit smoking.
As the barman stares into the silent TV screen, I stand uneasily at the bar, glancing at the screen, staring into the coffee: Does it wish to be gulped or sipped? What can the jowly talking head be saying?
I am longing for a cigarette – though I hate the very name of Tobacco and curse the demon Nicotine, I feel an almost unbearable attraction to both, to the gesture and the rush of high.
I gulp down the serré, order another.
As I have suggested, Orwell had a genius for couching insult in hi-falutin phrase and intelligent-sounding coinages. I’ll bet that 1984 has done more to embarrass and flummox political discussion than almost any censorship law. And this with much less intellectual effort than might ordinarily be necessary for insulting an opponent into silence: Orwell’s durable coinages have an aura of pithy psychological analysis, largely because they are based on common human frailty.
An effective insult is always as closely associated as possible with a human’s real qualities, if possible, her most fundamental and endearing ones. The “thoughtcrime” insult, for instance, takes its force from the human propensity for sticking to beliefs and wanting to be loved. Essentially an older, more elegant, form of today’s “political correctness” insult, thoughtcrime originally applied ironically and meant “spontaneous independent thinking”. But so excellent is its insult-integument that thoughtcrime now denotes those who actively resist spontaneous and independent thinking; a self-accusation of “thoughtcrime” enables a claim of victimization by a “thought police”.
In addition to promoting resistance to spontaneous and independent thought, as a locution “thoughtcrime” has had an especially happy career helping people of all political colorations prop up the off-putting arrogance so essential to a thriving culture of insult. The dead hand of Orwell’s rhetorical brilliance is clearly visible in the influential composer and musician Frank Zappa’s famous song “Who are the Brain Police?”. “… A lot of [other] people police their own brains…,” Zappa remarked, “I've seen [other] people who will willingly arrest, try and punish their own brains… You don't even need to blame it on a central brain police agency [when you can say they have only themselves to blame] …” .
An accusation of “doublethink” has a special force both because of the fragility of our psychic mechanism for stocking and using the contradictory facts, emotions and perceptions of dynamic reality and because it implies that entertaining contradiction is a vice very like hypocrisy. Sometimes, as Hamlet classically demonstrates, the process gives poor, or no good, results, even in the face of deadly danger. But even if Hamlet does tend to go on and on, we’ve told ourselves, nervously, uncertainly, for the last 500-odd years, it’s hard to see how he could do differently. Isn’t it? Am I right?
After all, 1984 just doesn’t make the running as literature. Literature, I think, is about life, the science of humanity and expressing it in writing and 1984 is a farce about a dead political controversy. Over the long term, nobody can take insults, even such good ones as thoughtcrime and doublethink, for serious talk about life. Nobody can mistake political scientism for the science of humanity. Nobody can take a knack for pithy neologism for originality of written expression. Nobody can mistake Du côté de chez Swann, Portnoy’s Complaint, Voyage au bout de la nuit by the criminal political psychotic Louis Ferdinand Céline, or Lucky Jim for 1984. Gallimard can go ahead and make new translations of these books and so many others and we can argue about whether they make better or worse reading in French of English or German or Chinese or whatever, but as far as 1984 is concerned, the adage about sows’ ears and silk purses applies.
I am stood here at a bar in the shadows of a notorious prison a justified sinner.
I am not just comforting contradictory ideas, impulses, thoughts and facts, but steeling myself to act upon them: having drunk two espressos that burn my entrails, longing for a cigarette I don’t want, destined for a pleasure that is not even exquisitely painful, all in an exercise of persistent love for her and of her for him that not only is no longer but nor will ever be again in the life scenarios of me or her.
We’ll each pay half for the lunch and glad to do it, too.
I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn
I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs …
I don't care, I love it, I don't care
- “I Love It” Icona Pop
I put a two euro fifty cent on the counter.
The weather’s changed so I yank off my hoody and sling it over my shoulder.
I left the bar, bought 1984 when I got home.