Translation as Transhumance

by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz (Feminist Press, originally published in 2014), is the third book about translation that I’ve read this year, after This Little Art and Fifty Sounds. It’s another example of my new favorite subgenre: books about translation that are also just great books. I don’t remember where I first heard about Translation as Transhumance, but lots of people on Twitter told me that they love it. It’s a little bit of a cult classic, maybe, in the sense that it’s not widely known, but those who know it love it. If so, I’ll join the cult — I thought it was fantastic.

Now, it took me a little while to get grounded in this book. I read the first 30 pages and then reread them to make sure I had my bearings. It’s barely over 100 pages and written in short chapters that function as discrete vignettes. Gansel writes about her life but doesn’t bother to turn it into a story with the usual narrative elements. The book is memoiristic but with a very minimal character arc and no connective tissue to guide the reader from one vignette to the next.

Two things give the book shape: it describes a series of experiences with translation, and it gives an account of what Gansel learned about translation along the way. First comes the story of how Gansel learned there was such a thing as translation:

Whenever a letter arrived from Budapest, Father would become engrossed in reading it. The entire household held its breath and a reverent silence reigned. Sitting there in the big armchair, he was suddenly far away. Then, with ritual solemnity, he would announce: “Tonight, I am going to translate for you.” No one ever failed to be there or dared to be late.

Then, as she grows up, she learns the significance of the languages of her family: she grew up in France but her father was a Hungarian Jew and many of her family members were German-speaking victims of the Holocaust. She was drawn to the German language and decided to study it formally. Discovering Bertolt Brecht was transformative. Then she decides to translate the poetry of East German writer Reiner Kunze, she travels to North Vietnam to study its languages and translate Vietnamese poets, she visits the writer René Char in the south of France, and she undertakes the task of translating the entire works of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish, German-language poet.

In each of these episodes, Gansel deepens her understanding of language and translation. One of her most striking points is her insistence on the openness of the German language, the inability of anybody, Nazis included, to tie it down or close it off. The German of her family was changed by its proximity to Hungarian, Czech, and Yiddish:

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.

This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig — profound, intense, fervent.

In Vietnam, where she spent significant chunks of time, she thinks about the acknowledgment of humanity that is a part of translation: to translate a work faithfully means immersing oneself in the world of the people who speak that language, studying their culture, history, and literature, to look for what is unique to that language and culture as well as what is universal. She learns how to play the monochord, an instrument that would accompany poetry readings. The monochord, or the dan bau, is “the soul of Vietnamese poetry,” and it teaches her that she was wrong to aim for onomatopoetic and alliterative effects in her translations into French. This was a French way to think about what poetry should be. To be true to her source material, she needed a new way of thinking entirely.

On the way home from her visit with René Char in France, she comes up with the idea that became her title. Transhumance — the seasonal movement of livestock — is a metaphor for translation:

…that little Provencal road made me think of transhumance: the long, slow movement of the flocks to distant places, in search of the greenest pastures, the low plains in winter and the high valleys in summer. All the ancient routes that have witnessed encounters and exchanges in all the dialects of the “umbrella language” of Provencal. So it is with the transhumance routes of translation, the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated, the movement of the huge flocks of words through all the vernaculars of the umbrella language of poetry.

Translation is about movement rather than fixity, encounter and exchange rather than isolation, open fields rather than borders and fences. For Gansel, it’s a recognition of the utter specificity and uniqueness of every language and culture and that translation from one language and culture to another is always possible. Everything that is human can be translated and understood.

This is a book that gets better on rereading. The trouble I had orienting myself in the text dropped away as I read and reread and realized that I don’t have to put together a chronological account of Gansel’s life in my mind or understand all the details of her family history and structure. I needed to read the vignettes for what they reveal about Gansel’s growth as a translator and what they teach about language and translation. I came away with a deeper sense of how translation works and what a monumental endeavor it is — or can be if done with care — and also with an awe for Gansel’s warmth, wisdom, and radical openness to the world.

Publishing This Week

New small-press books out recently that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. All quotations below are from the publisher:

New on the TBR

New books acquired:

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own). Both of these books were National Book Award Finalists, announced last week:

  • Zorrie by Laird Hunt (Bloomsbury, 2021): “a poignant novel about a woman searching for her place in the world and finding it in the daily rhythms of life in rural Indiana.”

  • A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure by Hoa Nguyen (Wave Books, 2021): a poetry collection that meditates “on historical, personal, and cultural pressures pre- and post-’Fall-of-Saigon’ and comprises a verse biography on her mother, Diep Anh Nguyen, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-woman Vietnamese circus troupe.”

Currently Reading

The Cormac Report

One of the series Cormac is currently reading — I just ordered the last one — is Origami Yoda. What this series is about, I have no idea. It sounds very strange. I like to call it Origami Yoga, to make Cormac laugh, or roll his eyes, depending on his mood. In addition to ordering the last book in the series, I, at Cormac’s request, ordered an accompanying activity book. This is a thing publishers do these days, I’m learning: every major series Cormac loves has its own activity book, and Cormac does a pretty good job of actually doing the activities in them (drawing, making up stories, coloring, doing mazes, etc.).

I’m a little worried about the Origami Yoda activity book, though. I think it’s going to ask us to do … origami. I’m not good at origami, or at least I’m not good at figuring out the instructions from a book. My brain doesn’t work that way. I’m hoping my husband will be good at this? If not, we may be in for some frustration. I wish they’d stick to the coloring and mazes!

Have a good week everyone!