(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)
Time with Things:
Mary Ann Caws (The City University of New York)
I had my visual way of putting it.
O infinite resources of the thickness of things.
My subject here is the object. Those object lessons that Virginia Woolf's things, wherever they occur, have to teach us, and what we learn through them as well as about them and ourselves.
First, a formula of belief: a thing is something that will give rise to a thought, the thought will grow from the thing. My assumptions about the properties of the object in literature are three: that a phrase can be objectified by its repetition, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins' notion of "overing"—the excess creating a stress he takes as the basis of poetry; that a person concentrated upon can herself become the thing under consideration, so that the person/object distinction does not hold here; and most important, that the object written enables the imagination, visual and verbal.
Since any object Woolf brings to witness should be a subject of careful attention, in whatever language it enters, I am especially interested, as a translator, to see how Virginia Woolf's subjects and objects are translated, particularly into French, the subtlest of all targets. This bridging of two sides enables the object itself to be seen afresh, from either side and from both, in a thickness that would be unavailable to a reader in the original language, where a certain transparency takes over.
The object itself should be a subject of careful witness in whatever language it enters, and of this, Woolf is continually conscious. I want first to discuss the significance of the way objects, and Woolf's view of objects, cross to the other side of the channel, before sketching out, briefly, Woolf's view of the object in relation to a few other contemporary views. In no way am I
insinuating that Woolf knew the texts I will cite, or even their authors; yet it seems to me useful to explore similarities and differences, to locate her point of view in relation to others we may be familiar with.
Consider the following conundrum: at what moment can a verbal moment become an object? This occurs with some frequency in Woolf. Take, as an example, from "A Sketch of the Past," the repetition of the phrase: "I stopped, I stopped, I stopped. . . ." The very concreteness of the action repeated seems to harden it into a thing, asking, like any visible object, to be dealt with by the mind. Intangible, it is nevertheless handlable, manageable, both words bearing the sense of the original Latin manus or hand. The moment is objectified. Woolf has, as do few other authors, this talent for formulating instants into things, nowhere more clearly visible, almost touchable, than in this particular sense of this particular past. As surely as the flowers on the mother's dress in the same text are there for us to touch, we find ourselves, as it were, in the lap of the author now recalling her first memory, as she is on that of her mother. The passage, scene and object are so celebrated that we can see now, again, what she then saw:
This initial passage from text-thing to mind, is structured in the same way as the "Mark on the Wall": you see the colors and the shapes before later concluding what the colors and shapes must indicate: the delay until the final "anemones," I suppose, closes the imaginative view, yet never closes off the memory. It is precisely that sort of delay that I want to examine.
How does such an object manage to enable the imagination? "If I were a painter, I should paint these first impressions," Woolf says, and we notice that the colors she would now choose are pale-yellow, silver, and green, precisely not the purple and red and blue of the lap scene. For those were given, not chosen. Crucial for Woolf's sense of dealing with objective and object-laden language is her passion for sight itself. Among all her texts, it is of course the celebrated "Mark on the Wall" that provides the most prolonged examination of how the visual relates to the mental. For it is the very undefinition of that mark from the outset until the conclusion that permits the mind to wander in its trace, to wonder about its track. Its very ambiguous nature permits the idea of it to expand, until finally its being is resolved. So the problematic thing is quite often the thing with the most power to provoke the imagination. The most enduring object is the one allowing the mind sufficient room to move about it.
Let me quote from the story here, trusting that the trace of this mark will endure through the rest of my commentary:
And later, the obsession returns: "I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is—a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?" (152)
It is, I think, a matter of keeping the problem of the thing in suspension, of not resolving it too rapidly into the system of understanding. It has to be available over time in its ambiguous freedom, for our minds to take the walk that Woolf's readers' minds delight in: that is, in general, what makes them hers.
Here, the translation by Pierre Nordon, manages to retain the looseness of the "perhaps," the determination of the "Yes, it must have been," but loses the repetition of the verb of looking up which is so wonderfully obsessive, and which is actually the point of the story, as the meditation wanders here and there, still anchored to the fixation:
In Pierre Nordon's French rendering, this witty repeat is attenuated, by the variation of the verb, exactly as happens in the accepted translations of Henry James—when there is too much repetition, the French rendering avoids it, precisely when it might signify something urgent, like an obsession:
The Bokanowski rendering keeps more specifically the repetitions:
The insistence prevailing in this latter translation, like the one in the English source, makes the wandering of the imagination around this fixed point all the stronger.
As for the insistence upon the object, and the anchoring of the imagination to it, if we compare this state of mind with that prevailing at the same time in the European scene, at least the one in France of the 1920's and 1930's, a context for this attitude toward the object comes clear. In the world of the Surrealists, and in the mind and writings of their leader André Breton, whose mind was the mind of surrealism, the object in itself was celebrated as potentially imagination-provoking, provided, precisely, that the imagination could be kept in excitement, in that very suspension that Woolf's "Mark on the Wall" makes its own object. Take the moment when Breton and Giacometti are wandering together in the Flea Market, that place in which new discoveries were always at hand. They come upon a wooden slipper, in the form of a spoon, or is it a spoon in the form of a slipper. Breton's eroticizing imagination goes to work. From this spoon-slipper, pictured in Nadja, there emerges an entire genie of dream, as from some sort of pipe bubble. Just as from those paper Japanese flowers Proust dwells upon so long, there emerges a universe. Pages later, Breton is still delighting in this imaginative windfall arising from this slipper-spoon. So are we. That spoon holds a great deal.
Or take, as a further example of surrealist imagining, the scene in which Breton, Roger Caillois, and Jacques Lacan are huddled at a table around the Mexican jumping bean. More ink has been spilled over this moment than over many, and for good reason. It is now a matter of knowing who wanted to do what with that bean and its potential: one of the participants in the table scene wanted to open the bean to see why it jumped, one wanted to let the imagination roam unrestricted in its ununderstanding, and one—the one Breton believed himself to be, then and later—wanted to let them collectively imagine what was going on the bean and then, only after the imagination had been exhausted, open the little object. Now the point here is the collective imagination in its freedom to spin itself around the object. For in the world of the Surrealists, collectivity, in the mode of collective games, collective findings (as in the "objet trouvé"), collective drawings and projections, as in the "cadavre exquis" were valued above all else. I want to imagine that Woolf's spinning a world often from her things functions between her imagination and that of her readers in much the same way.
Now this joy in putting off the moment of understanding—say, delaying the discovery of just exactly what the little thing that jumps about on the table, or the trace of the thing on the wall might be—is exactly that of the three Surrealist men gathered around the table. I have sometimes found myself wondering how different it all might have been if one of the surrealizing women artists or writers had been present, or perhaps Mélusine; I rather suspect the deliberation would have taken an alternative course, more patience, more conversation, less macho argument. More of that another time. The point here is that of the imaginative delay, giving space and time for the mind to wander and wonder about the object—that sort of delay for which we read Henry James with such delight, the very delay that most readers of James delight in and most translators find impossible to convey.
As for that Mark on that Wall and Woolf's technique in assaying it—assaying as in the French etymology of the essay, trying it out, giving it its own story or essay—it is no secret that Alain Robbe-Grillet picks it up in his superbly objectifying, imagination-provoking novel La Jalousie. At one of the table scenes, a mark on the wall provokes a long flurry of wonderment: just the kind that appears so long before it, in Virginia Woolf, whose techniques were so elegantly picked up in France.
In any case, the point is the delay, the uncertainty hovering so propitiously about the object. André Breton, to return to that leonine face and the brain so wonderfully behind it, gives the diametrically opposed example in his disquisition against what he thinks of as the realism of Dostoevski in his description of a room in Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov enters. About a table so resolutely there, there, Breton says memorably: "a null moment." This "moment nul" which has entered our vocabulary is not nullified by the sight of the table, but rather by the fact that we know instantly what is going on. In the non-null or imaginative moments, we precisely do not yet know. It is the not yet that provides the magic of the Surrealist imagining. And writing.
Before moving on to think about a few other of Woolf's extremely non-null moments in Woolf, let me stress the importance of translating the object along with its essential delay of understanding into another language. It is the extension of this moment that matters. What is essential is not to shorten the mental space around the object so transforming to the mind, and, therefore, not to rush its presentation. And this is where the unimaginative translator or editor can cause unimaginable harm. The description of the object needs, and again I use a term from that great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, its indwelling.
Now from many points of view, it would seem that the necessary translation of the view of the thing from one language to another would rule against the desirable suspension of belief that imagination calls for—and indeed, I have spent a great deal of time observing, lamenting, celebrating the various translations of Virginia Woolf into French. For there, in the very passion of the French language for clarity, for definition, comes the rub. How to retain that imagination glory of the Woolfian undefinition?
As a translator, I am fascinated with (and sometimes discouraged) by the ways in which Virginia Woolf's texts are translated into French and commented upon—in particular, my irritation with the editing of her style by the overlay of judgement. It is precisely the all-important Woolfian delay that proves unbearable for one of the editors of the bilingual teaching editions of Virginia Woolf's stories, as it does, but less obviously, for some translators.
Take the notes to the bilingual edition of the story called "Solid Objects," translated in Pierre Nordon's translation for the Livre de Poche edition as "objets tangibles" (62-82), whereas in Bokanowski's edition, they become "Objets massifs" (77-84). Here, I think without any hesitation that "tangible" is the correct solution, so that I prefer Nordon's rendering of the title. As furniture can be "massif," even if movable (thus, "meuble," as opposed to "immeuble," immobile), the point of Woolf's objects is precisely that they are significant if infinitely mobile in our minds.
Ah sadness. For here the bilingual edition reads like any French textbook for the lycée. (Perhaps like those uninventive Classiques Larousse, from which, for example, two crucial scenes are removed from that masterpiece of masterpieces, Madame Bovary: the superb and superbly erotic carriage scene with the seduction inside and the pieces of paper fluttering out the window, as well as the seduction in the forest scene with Emma and Rodolphe sending away the horse.) The editorial comment on Woolfian technique, when the delay has exasperated the French schoolmaster or mistress, reads like this, with the editor addressing herself to the young mind, presumably a mind exhausted with Woolfian consideration: "Enfin un nom propre!" ("Finally, a proper name!"). The implication is, of course, that Woolf does not conform to the standard (French) way of writing (indeed she does not). Later, this editor, who has objected to Woolf's rapid-fire delivery at one point, and to the delay of intellectual gratification at another, exclaims, about a story he would prefer to see extended, at what he deems the unnecessary abbreviation of the story that it would have more properly occupied more space and time: "le déroulement du récit exigeant une durée plus longue." (Clearly, the editor had
. For example, in the chapter on "Verbal Translations," in Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright, Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends.
not contemplated the readerly imaginative joy at the end of a Jane Austen novel that does the conclusion: oh you know, marriage and all that, in shotgun style. "Dear Reader," indeed).
Having glanced at the editorial problem of how to present this exasperatingly brilliant modernist author to the general public -- provided one cannot let it judge for itself—let us consider for a moment, the translation problem which continues to fascinate so many of us. I will take for my examples, a few translation moments from a few stories, objectifying them, in fact. As for the story about objects themselves, with its two translated titles, it is from the initial lump of glass so fascinating to the protagonist, an entire story develops: first a character study and then a whole narrative—thus the truly massive importance of the translation of that one word: the "lump." It is one of those cases upon which hangs the talent of the translator, which displays the luck of the language. English is, as often, fortunate here, in its ability to lump. We lump together things, knowing just what that means. Here the lump matters all the more, for the development around this centrally significant (and small) lump, large only in its meaning. Tangible or solid: solid gives, like lump, the lumpiness, a kind of stolid approach: thus, "massive" is possible, but it loses the tangible point: the protagonist touches an idea that becomes a life. So I shall stick to "tangible" for my part. Yet in this case, the object endures, which is the point: "si dur, si concentré, si précis. . ." Indestructible, Woolf's objects.
Here is the English source, and two French translations:
Pierre Nordon's translation runs like this:
The emphasis falls on the bigness of the fragment, and on the "gros morceau compact," not simply thick, as in the English, but large and massive: "massif, gros, épais."
Sylvie Bokanowski's translation reads like this, with the play of the fingers more flexible—"faisant jouer" like the fingers working in the English, instead of the heaviness of Nordon's "trituraient"—and above all, the simplicity of the "gros morceau" just irregular, with the accent falling on the irregularity and not on the "massive," so that the thickness is concentrated but not overwhelming:
Precisely, Virginia Woolf, more than almost anyone, calls on every inch of sensitivity one can muster, precisely to qualify, dwell on, translate her objects. Each one mirrors the personality of the characters in the story. It is as if the object, for Woolf, were to take on just the shape it has aesthetically, so that, to take just a few examples, the lump as solid or tangible object gives concreteness and concentration to the story of obsession in "Solid Objects," and the pencil of "Street Haunting" that the narrator wanders all through London to acquire, is clearly about her writings, and the obsession they bring to mind. Around the thought of this writing tool, the hours pass by, wrapped up. Thus the term "Street Haunting" and the slight object: the pencil—around which we wrap our thoughts, with which we measure our acts and lives.
A further object lesson is given by the distressing and infinitely important story: "The Lady in the Looking Glass." This has to do with the American painter Ethel Sands, one of the significant persons acting as intermediary between the Bloomsbury group and France, living as she did with her partner, the painter Nan Hudson, near the actual ferry route, in the little village of Offranville, near Dieppe. Many of the group spent time in their house, called Auppegard: Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf. The action is one Virginia Woolf observed, of these ladies so taken with things and their neat ordering—muslin, she says, placed even over fly excrement—that their interior remains an empty vessel.
The two translations of "The Lady in the Looking-Glass"—"La Dame au Miroir"—to be considered here are, first, from that same bilingual edition, presenting this difficult modernist writer to the uninitiated. Here is the English of the passage I find the most telling:
The two translations run as follows:
And the second, a superb rendering by Sylvie Bokanowski:
To enumerate the objects first: dress, delicate shoes, and basket, before summing it up: "tout était là," is a stroke of genius, as opposed to stating first that one is going to enumerate them: "ils étaient là." For the point is precisely that the appearance precedes the essence, and that the latter is what turns out to be lacking. That the too hard "object" should not be called upon to translate the deliberately non-focused "something" seems apparent to me, for exactly that something is what gives room to the mind and the imagination. "Quelque chose” grasps the "something," while leaving it fluid. In the second translation, the specificity of the article: "les nuages, la robe, le panier, le diamant,” followed by the intrusion of the other: "tout ce que l'on avait intitulé" make the stripping of the lady's attributes more brutal, more real, for the reader.
To take yet one more passage describing an object so perfectly suiting its topic, the presentation of the pool itself, in "The Fascination of the Pool," instantly displays its depth, its secret attraction, and the fact that it elides any elucidation, as well as its reflective nature on which its brief being closes. This fascination is precisely the one sensed by the reader of Virginia Woolf in her major texts: depth, reflective power, elision. Its opening, already constructed about an elision, is so full of verbal recalls as to test the skill of the translator who must not fall into heavy-handedness. The story, based on impenetrability
and on reflection, turns about a sign at its center and placed also in the center of the pool. So it is about semiotics and about secret, and has to be translated with subtlety.
Here is the opening of the original, and a superb French translation by Josée Kamoun following it:
The translation into French manages to keep the reflection from deep to deep ("profond. . . profondes"), and the echo from dark to dark ("ombreux. . . ombre"), and to omit precisely what is invisible to the eye, replacing the "bottom of it" that "one could not see" by the simple and deep word that says it all, by saying it cannot be plumbed or sounded: "insondable" does not say one cannot see, but that it cannot be even measured. A perfect solution.
As for elision, Woolf's translators practice it frequently. Even Viviane Forrester's superb rendering of Three Guineas omits an essential passage of the Woolf original. But I shall take another example of a highly peculiar moment in a translation of Virginia Woolf into French by Clara Malraux. The famous removal of the Khmer statues from Cambodia by André and Clara was of a different order from the removal of part of Woolf's sentence from the French translation, but somewhat analogous to it. For this overlooking, this removal of a crucial part, illustrates in a rather metapoetic fashion the dangers involved in overlooking any part of a Woolf text, since its heart may be located somewhere the rational, orderly mind may not know how to look: right in the middle of some sentence, after some harmless comma, hedged in and about by elements less crucial. The moral of the story may be right there, where we least expect it: which is part of the moral of my story, not only about objects, of course, but about the crucial object of translating such a subtle and complicated author, complicated being already to take a pleat, a pli and take in along with: cum or com the text.
. Viviane Forrester goes from "le velours, la soie, la fourrure et l'hermine," directly to "Hélas! Cette prospection, ce survol de la situation sont loins d'être encourageants," thus eliminating four essential sentences about educated men emphasizing "their superiority over other people," emotions that encourage a "disposition towards war" (Three Guineas 21).
As a further example, take the end of A Room of One's Own: "for my belief is. . . . if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view. . . then the opportunity will come" (118).
Now the translation of this by Clara Malraux reads well, with one glaring exception, worthy of remark: "Car voici ma conviction:. . . si nous parvenons à regarder plus loin que le croque-mitaine de Milton—car aucun être humain. . ." (Une Chambre à soi 170).
Strangely, the thing omitted here is precisely that shutting out of the view which is surely the point. That it should disappear from the French, I take as a kind of symbol—for what is removed is the removal itself, sometimes in translation, of the very obstacle which is the point. Of so much, finally, is the view shut out: it is like some gigantic pointer signaling exactly what could be overlooked only if, Poe-like, we read slowly enough.
The image disappears in the hedges. But let me return, in concluding, to that "Mark on the Wall," where the interruptions and the delay are of immense importance for any reader of Woolf. I want to pick up now one detail of the English, one element that matters: "I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is—a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?"
And it continues: "Wood is a pleasant thing to think about. It comes from a tree; and trees grow, and we don't know how they grow."
It is clear right here, in this moment, that delight is associated with thought, and with the lack of knowledge. We think about, we delight in thinking about, that which we do not yet know. Think of this wood. Take the wood, for a moment as an object, learning from Woolf. Around the thing the person grows, like trees without our knowing how. Like so many rings of age. We grow in rings, like circles, not lines. Thought radiates out from the center, never in a straight line. And this is modernism, the non-linear. So we would, if choosing, want to take a thing and see what grows out from it. See what grows and permits growth, and what does not.
I am, for a moment, thinking of the story called "The New Dress" and how it works. The girl, miserable in that frock because it is new, uncertain because she has not tried it, is haunted by all those terrifying images seen up close, like the flies in the saucer of milk. I think here of two great English writers, one of whom Virginia Woolf loved, that is, John Ruskin, who counseled that one must never accept an occasion upon which one would have to wear new clothes. Indeed. And the second, Woolf's contemporary, D. H. Lawrence, three of whose short lyrics are meditations on Things.
The first is entitled: "Things men have made" and celebrates the object, and its accumulation of wisdom and warmth, after its fabrication:
The second is the opposite of that warm wood and its age and its way of being made: these objects are "Things Made by Iron."
And finally, the object lesson Lawrence wants to teach, and that the girl in the new dress in Woolf's stories learns to her dismay:
I believe the lesson of Lawrence's things is clear. Objects solidify the world. The French have known this, it seems, better than anyone. In 1955, the French poet Jean Tortel, in his poems called Naissance de l'objet (The Birth of Things), wrote of the human penetration of the world of objects, and its importance:
It is the contemporary poet Francis Ponge, who made the most explicit of object lessons for us. In his many investigations of separate things: a cigarette, an oyster, a blackberry, a stone, he has shown what can be spun out of, made out of the thing. Of all his observations, it is the essay on the pebble, found in the 1945 issue of View that is most relevant for our work. In his "New Introduction to the Pebble," Ponge maintains that whatever object we focus on closely enough, we will find that no one else has ever really
observed it. By looking into the thing we become part of it, re-creating in ourselves the thingness of the thing:
Let me invoke that last moving invocation again, as an evocation of all I hope we mean by our own words about things: "O infinite resources of the thickness of things. . . ."
Objects are of such massive, tangible importance for those of us wanting to think through what we know of Virginia Woolf now. It is because, in modernist non-linear mode, our thought itself radiates out from the center, never expecting to go along a straight line. Like that wood, like that mental journey to which all her texts invite us. A delay in wood like Marcel Duchamp's Delay in Glass.
So, as that undefined mark on the wall, in its very undefinition, permits the observing imagination to wander, as that pencil with its profile so slight, permits an entire voyage around London, as that lump of glass, so unrecognizable to any but the man possessed by it, allows his entire mental being to be, these objects will prevent our ever falling into the vacancy of a mirror. For, around the thing chosen, the person perceiving and living grows, like a tree without our knowing how. Like so many rings marking age and celebrating growth itself, the kind that moves in circles, not in lines. The modernist kind.
Bokanowski, Sylvie. La Mort de la phalène. Paris: Seuil, 1968.
Caws, M-A and Wright, S.B. Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends.
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Forrester, Viviane. Trois Guinées, Paris: des femmes, 1977.
Kamoun, Josée, Virginia Woolf: La Fascination de l'Etang: Proses. Paris: Seuil, 1985.
Lawrence, D.H. Collected Poems. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
Malraux, Clara. Virginia Woolf, Une chambre à soi. Paris: Denoel, 1951.
Nordon, Pierre. Virginia Woolf, Romans et nouvelles. Paris: Livre de poche, La Pochothèque, 1993.
———. Virginia Woolf, Kew Gardens and Other Short Stories: Paris: Livre de Poche, collection Les Langues modernes/Bilingue, 1993.
Ponge, Francis. "A New Introduction to the Pebble." View, Series V, no. 4, November 1945.
Tortel, Jean. Naissance de l'objet. Paris: Cahiers du Sud, 1955.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1938.
———. "A Sketch of the Past." Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976.
———. "The Mark on the Wall"; "The Lady in the Looking-Glass, A Reflection"; "The Fascination of the Pool." The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. New York: Harcourt, 1989.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)