Rights of passage

It does not seem strange to me, but it may come as a surprise to some that it has taken me four months to transfer my hastily written impressions of Translation as Transhumance translated by Ros Schwarz from the French Traduire comme Transhumer by Mireille Gansel. My notes, as it happened, were enthusiastically scribbled one week in April when I was far from home, which lends a quirky aptness to my review of this particular book, given its overriding theme.

You can listen to and read the first couple of chapters of this collection of thoughts and memories in French here; the page also gives you a link to the English translation of the excerpt. I listened to it today while following the French. My aim was to discover whether the feeling I got from my reading of the English several months ago, and again in fits and starts since, would be the same. I have to say that yes, yes it was. And therein lies the exquisite beauty of the translation that Ros Schwartz has wrought from a thoughtfully constructed original.

Translation as TRanshumance cover

The philosophical tone of Mireille Gansel’s memoir contains universal truths about culture and language. The parallels drawn between movements at the intersection where one language (and therefore culture) meets another, and the crossing of physical space to arrive at the destination language as one attempts to convey the concepts of human experience are described and layered one on top of the other to give depth and dimension to these universal truths in a way that I found inspirational.

Mireille Gansel incorporates her personal experience of the migrations of her forbears and linguistic heritage directly into her method of discovering a new language and a better way to translate. She explores the notion that we must find the way that works best for us – and if we look, we will find that it comes to the fore.

The idea that the art of translation involves crossing a border—the line between one culture, one language and another—is not new.  What Translation as Transhumance encapsulates so well is the notion of crossing a physical space as part of the migration from one language to another, and how this migration is in fact intertwined so thoroughly with the translation process it could be taken for the translation itself.

Often, migration itself requires adopting a new language and the echoic implied reference to the Jewish diaspora, exile—carried aloft in the spirit of so many subsequent diasporas in more modern times spoken of in the book—is interwoven with the identity of the author and the work she does as sure as there is blood in her veins.

The writer has a rich, diverse linguistic family background of her own, where much was lost through migration, through war, death and time. The sensitive, insightful and deftly executed translation by Ros Schwartz accompanies the writer’s growing realisation of what it means to her to be a translator, particularly tangible in the part of the book I found most fascinating: the description of how she travelled from Vietnamese to French. For the insights I gained from this section alone, I would recommend you read this work.

The sense that many translators feel of bringing their whole life experience to each and every translation— something I relish reminding people of—dawns on the writer and the reader gradually. That this development was conveyed in translation with the subtlety contained in the original demonstrates neatly how considering a text as a cohesive whole has its own rich rewards.

As far as I can tell, not a single word is out of place in this book. I tried translating a few of the short French and German passages quoted in the book myself (before reading the English translation supplied). Admittedly, since I was on a train at the time, my attempts were off the cuff, and I was without recourse to dictionaries or thesauruses of any kind. The upshot—no surprise, really—was that the superior talent of Ros Schwarz and her knack of finding the perfect descriptive space with her choice of expression is proven once again.

Even the prose and poetry itself—if one forgets that the work is a translation, and this is easy to do—is so exciting that my copy of the book is covered in pencil underlinings and marks in the margin. The many poetically charged turns of phrase bear re-reading to savour their sheer beauty. I recall doing that most particularly when I read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James many moons ago, and the English translation by Barbara Harshav of the German original of Night Train to Lisbon written by Pascal Mercier, although, if it is of any significance, my copy of the latter has no pencil marks.

Transhumance is a word less readily understood in English than in French, Portuguese, or even Spanish (from what little Spanish I know). It has to do with the movement of sheep from one pasture to another, and such movement often does involve the migration of the shepherds with their flock across landscapes.

Pasture looks pretty when one rushes past open fields in a car, or train. Walking through them in spring—or at any other time—can prove arduous, and skill in traversing the slopes and walking through the flowers, weeds and all manner of vegetation takes a watchfulness and stamina which would surprise a beginner.

Mireille Gansel’s pasture is not merely migratory fields, but whole countries, whole governments, regimes and resistance movements. Her translation work spans continents, prisons and shifts in perception—decades, even—yet always something of the human soul is transposed as she travels through realms where few go to drink the rare ichor of true correspondence: where the soul—the very core—of one language meets another.

One other thing becomes apparent to the reader: the translation process as transhumance opens up the soul not only of the two languages and that of the translator, but also the soul of the author who wrote the original text: the migration becomes the vehicle through which the translation comes into being.  Without such movement, there is no translation, for it cannot be without first existing in space and time, from where it is transposed to another space and time where, paradoxically, it co-exists with the first space and time in concert. This transhumance— the migration—the transfer and movement together, is merely one more journey overlaying all the others on the road less travelled.

I have purposely not quoted from the book; suffice to say that the Foreword by Lauren Elkin is one of the most exciting I have read in a long time.

©2018 Allison Wright

4 thoughts on “Rights of passage

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  1. Thank you for your close and sensitive reading of the book, and for publishing this wonderful review, Allison. This was my ‘passion project’ and Mireille told me she could sense that I’d translated it with my ‘Jewish soul’, and you have recognised this. It’s readers like you that make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Ros.

      Should I confess to a “reader as translator moment” when I admired your punctuation on page 10 of the book? Why not?

      The description is beautiful, but the punctuation (colon after “barred”, new sentence after “passport?”) surpasses it, since it lends a Jewish cadence to the words themselves:

      “Mitzi, with her large eyes the color of night, lively and yet melancholy. A batik artist, she had wanted to enroll in the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, but she was barred: because of her Czech passport? Or because she was Jewish?”


      1. Interesting that you picked up on that. I spent a lot of time on punctuation, mainly by reading out loud, over and over, and allowing my voice to guide my decisions rather than what the original did. I think that’s an important part of the process of finding a voice for the translation.


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