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Translating the poem: Henri Meschonnic’s poetics of translating

By ucyow3c, on 28 October 2014


Written by Silvia Kadiu (PhD student, UCL Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry)

Dr Marko Pajević

Dr Marko Pajević

Translating poetry is a notoriously difficult, if not entirely impossible, task. Yet, poems are translated into other languages all the time. Why is poetry such a challenging genre to translate? What does this impossibility tell us about the nature of language? And how can one overcome it in practice? Dr Marko Pajević’s exploration of Henri Meschonnic’s philosophy of language and particular way of thinking translation, given as part of the Translation in History lecture series, provided compelling answers to these questions.

His comprehensive and clearly-organised lecture took the audience on an inspiring meander into Meschonnic’s thinking. After introducing Meschonnic and his work, Dr Pajević then discussed the linguistic philosophies of Emile Benveniste and Wilhelm von Humboldt, before explaining how they influenced and shaped Meschonnic’s poetics, politics and ethics of translating. Continuously navigating between theoretical and practical considerations, Dr Pajević’s presentation exemplified the central idea of Meschonnic’s poetics: the inseparability of form and content.

Henri Meschonnic (1932-2009) is a relatively unknown figure in the Anglophone world. A French poet, linguist and translator, he is the author of over a dozen texts about translation, only one of which has been translated into English: Ethics and Politics of Translating (2011). Dr Pajević explained the reasons for this lack of recognition, stressing Meschonnic’s controversial positioning and deliberate isolation throughout his career, especially in opposing influential movements such as hermeneutics, structuralism and deconstruction.

In France, Meschonnic is probably best known for his translations of the Old Testament. In fact, his key notions of rhythm and continuum are directly related to his own experience of translating the Bible, as Dr Pajević demonstrated through detailed analysis of his use of appositions, alliterations, breaks and other devices aimed at recreating the flow of language. For Meschonnic, translation is not just about rendering meaning, but also about reinventing the echo of words, the silences and pauses articulated in speech, the other ways in which meaning is created and transported. It is about expressing the physicality of language, its prosodic, consonantal and vocalic patterns.

The premise behind Meschonnic’s approach is that the subject’s relation to the world and to oneself is always mediated by language. Access to truth is never direct, as thoughts get created in and through language. Language is therefore always a creative activity for Meschonnic. It is an act of poiesis in the etymological sense (from the Greek ‘to make’). In this view, the poem becomes a process of transformation, in which life and language interact. Following Benveniste, Meschonnic challenges modern acceptations of the concept of rhythm. For him, rhythm is no longer a regular movement of repetition, but rather, as Dr Pajević suggested, what flows over speech.

Rhythm is a crucial notion in Meschonnic’s philosophy because it is directly related to the construction of the subject, to the way it is inscribed in discourse, to its historicity as a unique utterance within a specific context. Good translating, according to Meschonnic, should seek to recreate not what the words say (their meaning), but what they do (how they convey it). Translating is thus itself an act of creation, a poetic activity in the strong sense of ‘making’, and as such it has extensive social, political and ethical consequences. The unspeakable gets spoken, in Meschonnic’s view, not through revelation of the latent aspects of the poem, but within the creative act of translating itself.

One of the main highlights of Dr Pajević’s lecture for me was his insistence upon the transformative aspect of Meschonnic’s poetics. Meschonnic’s optimistic conception of untranslatability as a stepping stone for creativity and change reminded me of Loffredo and Perteghella’s approach in One Poem in Search of a Translator: Rewriting ‘Les Fenêtres’ by Apollinaire (2008), whereby translators from different backgrounds and working contexts are asked to engage with the multimodal dimension of Apollinaire’s poem, inspired by Robert Delaunay’s ‘Les Fenêtres’ series of paintings. The result is a kaleidoscopic diversity of creative techniques and products, ranging from machine translations to inventive uses of colour and collage.

Throughout Dr Pajević’s lecture, I was struck by the many resonances of Meschonnic’s philosophy not only with what Loffredo and Perteghella refer to as a ‘creative turn’ in translation studies (2006), but also with wider philosophical movements, such as phenomenology and deconstruction. Dr Pajević’s interpretation of Meschonnic’s work during his one-hour talk offered an informative introduction to the singular vision of this relatively unknown French thinker and a much-needed contribution, which opened up exciting new perspectives and comparative avenues for further research.

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