Abstract : “N’importe, c’était terriblement risqué, ce livre. Une feuille transparente le sépare de la folie.” (James Joyce quoted by Jacques Mercanton, Les heures de James Joyce (1967). 55).*
This paper begins with a brief introduction to the author’s theory (discussed elsewhere) of ‘creative transparency’ in relation to literary modernist translation. The contradictory tropes of transparency in canonical translation studies (Mounin, Venuti, Tophoven, etc.), and several philosophical intertexts (Heidegger, Derrida...), are shown to be traceable, via Walter Benjamin, to radical uses and conceptions of transparency in modernist art and architecture (e.g. Francis Picabia, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Scheerbart). These radical versions of transparency have direct analogues (metaphorical, thematic, stylistic, semiotic) in modernist literature. They are, however, much more multi-faceted, reflective, playful, problematic and sometimes even erotic than the notions of clarity and purity commonly evoked in philosophical discourses. They therefore pose serious challenges for translation and translation studies. Not least of these challenges is the deconstruction the contemporary artistic conceptions of transparency appear to impose on Benjamin’s utopian metaphor of the durchscheinend (translucent) effect created by Wörtlichkeit – his ‘arcade’ of literal wordiness.
In the light of this deconstruction, the paper nevertheless seeks to propound something similar to Benjamin’s wordiness in the form of the ‘creative calque’. This concept is initially identified not as a translation outcome but as an inherent feature (prior to translation) of certain kinds of linguistically radical modernist literature. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a major example, but this kind of thing can be found in modernist writing spanning the twentieth century, from Gertrude Stein to J. H. Prynne. The creative calque, in this pre-translation sense, is a defamiliarized syntagm – commonly produced within a multilingual artistic culture – which highlights the layered, recursive and destabilizing interactions (semantic, syntactic, morphological, cultural, intertextual) of its own linguistic components, whilst paradoxically aspiring to a kind of transcendental semiotic purity of the sort Benjamin describes.
The paper proceeds to outline a creative critical practice of mimetic translation and retranslation of these ‘calques’ in modernist literature. Moving from a critical analysis of normalized calques in extant translations to the proposal of a ‘transparent layering’ technique – in this case applied to a French sentence attributed (first by Jacques Mercanton, and then by Jacques Derrida) to James Joyce, the goal is to exemplify a methodology designed to allow the troubling and playful (at times even foolish) transparencies of the original to ‘show through’ a diaphanous translation.
* “Nonetheless, that book was a terrible risk. A transparent leaf separates it from madness.” (tr., Lloyd C. Parks, Kenyon Review 24 (Autumn 1962): 700-730)
“In any event this book was terribly daring. A transparent sheet separates it from madness.” (tr. Alan Bass, in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (1978): 36).