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Speaking Silence: Translation in Chahdortt Djavann’s La Muette

From: MLN
Volume 127, Number 5, December 2012 (Comparative Literature Issue)
pp. 1206-1225 | 10.1353/mln.2012.0128

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Published in 2008 by Flammarion, Chahdortt Djavann’s novel La Muette tells the intertwined stories of the fifteen-year-old Fatemeh and her thirty-year-old paternal aunt, la muette—we are never told the muette’s name but we do learn that as a child she lost the ability, or desire, to speak after witnessing her father, a violent drug addict, beating her mother to death. The novel is presented as a translation of Fatemeh’s diary, composed in prison and delivered to a French journalist by Fatemeh’s prison guard. In her diary, Fatemeh recounts the events that led to her imprisonment, namely the murder of her husband, a mullah in her native Iran, and her four-month-old daughter, Zynabe. The young women’s destinies are set in motion when the muette falls in love with Fatemeh’s maternal uncle. Shocked and scandalized, Fatemeh’s mother convinces her reluctant husband to marry his sister off to a mullah of her acquaintance. Shortly before the wedding, the muette, who never really consents to the marriage, is found naked in the arms of Fatemeh’s uncle and subsequently sentenced to death by stoning for having sullied the mullah’s honor. In an effort to make the muette’s sentence less inhumane, Fatemeh’s father negotiates the punishment with the mullah who promises to reduce it to death by hanging provided that Fatemeh becomes his wife in the stead of the muette. A few months after her marriage to the mullah, Fatemeh gives birth to her first child and shortly thereafter kills both husband and daughter, making no attempt at escape, and is sentenced to death by hanging.

Djavann structurally reinforces the impression that what we are reading, even though clearly published as a novel, could very well be eyewitness testimony. Fatemeh’s narrative is prefaced by the journalist who is said to have published the translated manuscript and followed by two short notes: a brief account of the circumstances in which the diary came into her possession by the French reporter to whom a prison guard initially entrusted the manuscript and a commentary on linguistic and cultural challenges encountered by the text’s translator. The majority of the diary’s sections are prefaced by a short segment in which Fatemeh transcribes or relates short exchanges with the prison guard that punctuate her incarceration before delving into the main narrative, the story of the muette’s and her own transgressions. The heavily-layered framing of the diary (two journalistic voices in addition to the translator and the prison guard-turned-go-between) is neither surprising nor original and echoes literary practices and devices reaching as far back as the Arabian Nights and the Quixote. In addition to conferring authority and authenticity on the found manuscript, the motif allows for a series of mises en abyme to create structural and thematic doubles which, in turn, texture and nuance characters, plot- and sub-plot-lines, arguments and philosophical or intellectual lines of inquiry. The translation component introduces additional diffractive elements: the strangeness of the source language and culture which, although domesticated through the act of translation, remain uncanny, further obscuring perceptions of an already challenging multilayered narrative structure; the de facto assumption that the tale is worth telling beyond its linguistic and cultural home environment and the ensuing mandate of situating the foreign body logically and appropriately within the confines of the host culture. Finally, a translation has been traditionally thought to perform through its invisibility:1 the closer, in terms of linguistic equivalence, it remains to the original, the better access it provides to its meanings. It is therefore legitimate to assume that a found manuscript, translated into the language of publication—usually after painful restoration to an assumed original and consequently pre- or un-corrupt state—gives the reader direct access to a fully transparent, readily retrievable set of significations pointing to some version of truth that is either unspeakable or undetectable in the native tongue.

La Muette adapts to this set of conventions effectively: it tells a story impossible to communicate without linguistic translation to an audience that positions itself within the dominant context of the publishing and distributing...



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