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  • The Maltese and the Mustard Fields:Oulipian Translation
  • Alison James (bio)

The notion that literary texts are inherently untranslatable is all too familiar. However, as Henri Meschonnic points out, untranslatability is not an absolute; the practical and theoretical specificity of translation varies according to each text's particular practice of language (313). This essay considers a set of writing practices that pose particular challenges for translators: those associated with the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) or Oulipo. Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Oulipo is a group of mathematicians and writers who explore the use of rules and restrictions (generally referred to as "constraints") in writing. For the purposes of this paper, I will limit my discussion to two Oulipians: the French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982) and the American writer Harry Mathews (b. 1930).

This essay argues that Oulipian texts can help illuminate the theory and practice of translation, and that a reflection on translation, in turn, offers a justification for the Oulipian project. I consider three interconnected topics: the translation of Oulipian texts; the Oulipian nature of all translation; and finally, Oulipian writing as a form of translation. First, I compare some examples from English translations of Perec's La Disparition. This 300-page novel, published in 1969, is the most frequently cited (if less frequently read) Oulipian work; it is a lipogram, a text that does not contain a particular letter of the alphabet—in this case the letter e. La Disparition highlights general problems of literary translation, while also making specific demands on the translator. My analysis leads to the idea of translation in general as a type of constrained writing. The third part of my argument focuses on Harry Mathews's persuasive account of the relationship between writing and translation. Mathews suggests that Oulipian writing methods can themselves be understood as peculiar forms of translation—dislocations of language that draw the writer's attention to new creative possibilities. [End Page 134]

Translating Constraints

As the Oulipo's fame spreads beyond France, its members' works are increasingly being translated.1 So strong is the temptation to label Oulipian texts as untranslatable, however, that actual translations are often greeted as either miracles or monstrosities. Reviewing Gilbert Adair's English translation of Perec's La Disparition, one critic states, "It needed a madman or a genius to want to translate this accursed book into English" (Martin 11). Yet Adair is hardly alone in his ambition to tackle Perec's most formally difficult works. While his translation, A Void, published in 1994, was the winner of the 1995 Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize, other complete (although unpublished) versions of La Disparition in English include John Lee's Vanish'd and Ian Monk's A Vanishing. There is also a German version, Anton Voyls Fortgang, translated by Eugen Helmle, and a Spanish translation, El Secuestro, by a group of translators who chose to eliminate not the letter e but the letter a. Perec's later text Les Revenentes (1972), in which e is the only vowel, has been translated by Ian Monk under the title The Exeter Text (published in Three by Perec), while the author's masterpiece La Vie mode d'emploi (1978) has appeared in several languages (David Bellos's English translation Life A User's Manual was published in 1987).

Each of Perec's texts presents its own particular difficulties, but La Disparition is exemplary in the challenge it presents to translation. The very nature of the work demands that a translator obey the same or a similar formal rule, thus working under a double constraint, semantic and formal. As Jacques Roubaud notes, this text's lipogrammatic constraint is at once a principle of writing and the source of the text's meaning ("La Mathématique" 55). Therein lies the translator's predicament. A few examples from two of the English translations, Adair's A Void and Lee's Vanish'd, will allow me to present this dilemma in more concrete terms. My goal here is less to join the debate over the best, most faithful translation,2 than to consider the compensatory mechanisms and the types of...