- "C'est une cata":Questions of the Translatability of Nathalie Sarraute's Ouvrez
The translation of a work from one language to another is always a delicate undertaking. Attention must be paid to register, rhythm, sonority, style, tone, etc., all while respecting the author's intentions and maintaining the original message. In the case of canonical authors such as Shakespeare, Dante, and Baudelaire, several translations of their works exist with newer versions seeking to improve upon the older ones and better convey the text to a contemporary reader. When teaching French literature in English translation to undergraduates, I have found that examining two or three translations of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal side by side can help create a more complete comprehension of the work for students, each interpretation highlighting different poetic aspects. A reader in a non-academic setting might similarly benefit from the variations and nuances afforded by multiple translations of canonical texts. Living authors are unlikely to see more than one translation of their work into a particular language, but they may play a role in the translation process. For example, in Experiences in Translation, Italian author Umberto Eco discusses several of the obstacles his texts have presented to his translators and the choices they have made, often in consultation with Eco himself.1 Other authors, perhaps most famously Milan Kundera, have also chosen to actively collaborate with those translating into languages in which they are proficient. But what happens when an author, who has played a hand in the translating of all of her works into English, deems her final text untranslatable and dies before any English translations appear? This is the dilemma posed by French author Nathalie Sarraute and her book Ouvrez.
Nathalie Sarraute, a twentieth-century French writer, devoted her literary career to the exploration of what she called "tropisms": subconscious sensations manifesting themselves in infinitely small and almost imperceptible [End Page 105] ways at sub-conversational levels of existence. Her work evolves as she pursues this quest, trading traditional narrative structures for dialogic forms and experimenting with genre, particularly the novel, play, and autobiography. Her final published text, Ouvrez (1997), holds a privileged position within her literary production. Returning to the dialogic structure of Enfance or Tu ne t'aimes pas, Ouvrez features words that carry on conversations with one another in a space separated from the outside by a barrier. When it is their turn to be used, they need to cross the boundary between the inner world of the self and the exterior world of interpersonal interaction. Once they have accomplished their task, they return to the other side. In both directions they cry "Ouvrez!" to be granted passage between these two worlds. As they wait in the wings, watching the scene outside, the words talk to each other, trying to determine the right time to intervene. Sometimes their request is granted, other times it is denied.
Ouvrez defies genre; it is the most hybrid of Sarraute's texts, combining elements of prose and theater in its fifteen sketches that explore the dramatic potential of language. Though humor is certainly not absent from Sarraute's other works, Ouvrez is unabashedly playful in tone with its concentration on some of the humorous consequences of oral French. Finally, Ouvrez is Sarraute's last published work, though its appearance in 1997 prevented its inclusion in the original 1996 edition of her complete works in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. In addition to the ways in which Ouvrez is set apart from Sarraute's other texts with respect to its publication history, genre, and tone, there is one more unique characteristic: Ouvrez has never appeared in an English translation.2 The recent publication of the second edition of Sarraute's Oeuvres complètes (which includes Ouvrez) is an opportune moment for reflection on the nature of this enigmatic text. The highly theatrical and humorous sketches that compose Ouvrez should render it more readily accessible to non-specialist audiences than other Sarrautean texts which tend to mainly interest those passionate about the New Novel or experimental contemporary French fiction, yet there is only one translation to date (in German) despite...