“In this beautiful memoir of a life lived in and through translation, Mireille Gansel defines the process of bringing words from one language to another as a kind of seeking, tied to the land. Transhumance refers to the seasonal movement of a shepherd and his flock to another land, or humus. It is the opposite of settling and farming: it is a form of nomadism, a search for richer grass, and it provides an apt image for her own trajectory as a translator.” From the foreword by Lauren Elkin
Translation as Transhumance is a rich and resonant read. The lucid, concise prose of award-winning translator, Ros Schwartz, brings alive an exceptional life dedicated to translation as activism. At the book’s launch in Caravansérail, the French-English bookshop and gallery near Brick Lane in the East End, Mireille Gansel spoke to a packed audience about the adventure of translation, of how “it gives you something – a perception of the other,” and of how “Langue natale is not mother tongue, it is a native language. For me it means the language where you come to the world, where you are born to yourself, discover yourself – you are inside intimacy.” A powerful, humanitarian empathy lies beneath Gansel’s narrative. “You end up translating the spirit and the sense of what is underneath the words . . .” said Ros Schwartz, “This book articulated so many things for me that were half-formed ideas, thoughts, about what I do.”
War, survival, exile, trauma . . .
Gansel grew up with half a dozen languages, and learned to love words as a little girl, through her father – “I discovered that words, like trees, had roots whose magic my father had revealed to me.” When a letter arrived from Budapest, he would simultaneously translate and read it aloud to all the family. Her Grandfather Nathan was “a typesetter in a small printing works, who brought to life the sacred texts in the humble gestures to which the Sabbath gave their full meaning.” Old Aunt Szerenke told her stories in the German of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; that of “Imre Kertész from Budapest; of Aharon Appelfeld from Czernowicz; of Tibor, the family’s last patriarch, from Prague,” interspersed with a scattering of Hungarian, Yiddish and Slovak. Gansel’s family was reduced to a “little circle of survivors” after the Holocaust.
Hitler’s policy of “coordination” (Gleichschaltung) established a system of totalitarian control over all aspects of society, including the Nazification of language. Josef Goebbels developed simple slogans and images repeated over and again in newspapers, leaflets and posters, as well as at rallies on banners, and by Hitler in his oratory. Nazi-speak became a handmaiden to genocide. Violent, anti-Semitic, ideological absolutism crushed Goethe’s and Heine’s poetic legacy.
Age thirteen or fourteen, Gansel was given a school travel grant. She wandered through the ruins of Dresden, visited Goethe’s house in Weimar and was taken to Buchenwald. “I didn’t yet know that there are silences that are also ways of rewriting history . . . I didn’t know yet what I would later discover – that words and silences can be used to create languages known as doublespeak.”
“Poetry is a human voice that can save you,” Mireille Gansel
We travel down the road of linguistic learning by means of a series of decisive meetings with those whom Gansel would eventually translate, described in brief chapters. Thanks to Robert Minder she discovers Brecht. Then comes her encounter with poet Reiner Kunze in the GDR. And a visit to the elderly poet Peter Huchel, editor of the influential poetry magazine Sinn und Form, Sense and Form, in which he published “poets, writers and thinkers from every corner of the world, including Romain Rolland, Elio Vittorini, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Federico García Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, Yannis Ritsos, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Ernst Bloch, Nelly Sachs, Jean-Paul Sartre and Sean O’Casey.” A visit to René Char in the South of France gives Gansel the vision of translation as transhumance as she goes down the little Provençal road.
Later, thanks to a residency at the Collège International des Traducteurs Littéraires in Arles, (founded by Jacques Lang), Gansel is able to spend time translating Nelly Sachs, along with her correspondence with Paul Celan.
Old Europe, Lost Europe
It is through translating the writings of the young Jewish ethnologist, Eugenie Goldstern, who “recorded the minutiae of day-to-day lives in the villages, hamlets and alpine pastures on the fringes and the shattered borders of Europe in the first quarter of the twentieth century,” that Gansel is introduced to the idea of complementarity – the comparatism of a language that weaves between the remotest places. “When we translate, we are not rendering a block of text in its immediate equivalent; we keep an ear out for what is unspoken, carried through language, smuggled inside of it. Sometimes this means turning to people who can perceive echoes in language that we can’t, even in our own native languages.” Goldstern died in Sobibor death camp in 1942.
Gansel is not only a translator, but a philosopher and an ethnographer. Sensitive to voices in danger of being crushed, or snuffed out, she has consistently sought out poets and writers who were censored, suppressed or exiled. Her time in Hanoi from 1972-75 is the apogee of her literary activism. Dr. Nguyen Khac Vien, the founder of a foreign-language publishing house, invites her to come and work on an anthology of Vietnamese literature to be published in French, in defiance of US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s threat to “bomb ‘em back to the stone age.” Through her experiences, Gansel comes to realise that the heart of translation lies in listening to the other; “to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.”
Deeply moving and transformative, Translation as Transhumance is an unusual and intellectual feast of language, and ideas, and humanity, to be relished and re-read. It is a great book published by one of the tinier houses responsible for some of the best literature in translation by contemporary French women writers.
Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz | Les Fugitives, London; Feminist Press, New York | November 2017 £10 2128pp HB | ISBN: 978-0993009334 | Winner, PEN Translates Award.
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