Friday, March 20, 2009

Kindly Ones Resource

I am planning a fairly lengthy post on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones; I finished the novel earlier this week, but I required a small rest before I plunged back in. The post itself will no doubt take a few days to write, as I want to get this right and not rush off with the first few things that come to mind.

In the meantime, as many of you are interested in this book, please check out this site, which has a number of pages devoted to the novel, including an invaluable list of annotations (scroll to the very bottom for a full index of other pages). It is in French, but I have found (since I still, shamefully, cannot speak French, no matter how many Nouvelle Vague films I see) that Google Translate renders remarkably clear and even mostly grammatical approxlations.

Of particular interest is a letter from Jonathan Littell to his translators. After addressing the title (which he encourages be translated from the Greek Eumenides, not the French Bienveillantes) and the chapter titles (which he encourages be left in the French), Littell instructs his translators (bracketed text is when I overrided Google in my attempt to improve the translation—please, someone who knows what they're doing double-check me):
Turning now to the text itself. The book, in my view, is only one thing: the tone, the voice of the narrator. We must not think here, first in terms of style, grammar, cultural levels of language, but tone, pitch in English. This tone you have to find and keep for the duration of the translation as it is the unique key (in minor mode, of course) of the various pieces that make up this suite. If you find it - and nothing says it will be the same in French - then everything else, changes in rhythms, cadences, melodies, will come [by itself]. It should not be too "high" - translating the voice of Max as an Oxford graduate would be a mistake - or too "low" - it's not Céline, no banter here, no familiarity. It can not float, [that] would be the worst of pitfalls. Beyond that, the essential qualities that I see are of course the [iciness—"froideur"], [that's] rather obvious, but beyond it a kind of transparency [of the] real, an erasure behind what is said or described, what Blanchot [might] call [the] neutral.

This does not mean that this tone does not change, and you must respect these differences. You see, I think, that the rhythms of Max's voice vary depending on the degree of tension or fatigue: for example, some states do [switch to a phrasing that is] almost Bernhardian, [composed of] [grand,] panting parataxes (run-on sentences), such as the massacre at Babi-Yar, in Posen in October 1943, in Hungary in spring 1944; others [are phrased] in dry and short sentences, or [are] long, but [are split up by] semicolons or colons, and are quite [loose]; while others prefer to make sentences with a quite classic architecture, with ternary or binary rhythms fairly marked… As for punctuation, rightly, I must say I've [always envisioned] a rhythmic, respiratory, and not [necessarily] grammatical mode; my punctuation often violates the "rules" established, and it looks much more like a punctuation of the French eighteenth century [than it does] the twentieth or even the nineteenth. This, too, should be respected, without falling into excesses, of course.

There is also a discreet effort to make different voices for other characters, resulting in different styles in dialogues, sometimes horribly dry and bureaucratic, sometimes at the edge of incoherence. I['m] think[ing of] Blobel's diatribe in Kharkov, for example, or [of] Eichmann's long monologues in which his grammar [is] extremely vague and sometimes even incorrect; in French, [I've tried] to [render that] particular inconsistency, [just] on the edge of [the] understandable, [that makes up the] "bureaucratische amtsdeutsche." Those of you who know a little German should refer with profit to the film The Specialist, [by] Rony Braumann and Eyal Sivan, where you can hear Eichmann himself speak in his native language, and [see that] the judges [were] unable to follow him. [sorry--that last part is really inexact]…

About the dialogues: it goes without saying that the decision to merge the dialogues in the body paragraphs, without going on [individual] line[s] as usual, and not separated by dashes, is mine, and must be respected even if it is [has been] little use[d] in your language. The text should form blocks, blocks asphyxiating for the reader who [ought] not [to] get away so easily. In addition, it gives a great sense of rhythm to break paragraphs there - the single line, or three lines of white - and must also be respected…
The second letter contains a spoiler, but if you've already read the book, it contains a highly amusing note about a late development in the story.

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