- Unreadable Pleasures
Graecum est, non legitur.
This past spring, I asked the students in my comp lit seminar to take a stab at translating Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” into another language. While most of them fashioned Spanish, French, or German versions of the iconic line, one tried to write it in her native Mandarin. The results impressed the only other native Chinese speaker in the class, but the rest of us were not able to appreciate the achievement:
Eager to get a sense of what she had done, we asked my student to translate her work back into English, as if we were playing a human version of the game whereby one uses Google Translate to toggle between two languages. Resisting the temptation to tell us that in English her text reads “Rose is a rose is . . .”, she gamely offered, “Rose can exist in three kinds of forms: as being a rose, as being an existence of rose, as being an existence of being a rose.”1
Even if one knows no Chinese whatsoever, there is much to work with in this translation of a translation, starting with what it reveals about the iterations of the word “is” in Stein’s original. In class, we reflected on the significance of grammar for assertions of logical identity, but the question soon “a-rose” as to precisely what we were talking about. Were we discussing Stein? My student’s translation of Stein? Her translation of her translation of Stein? Given that this was a comp [End Page 7] lit seminar, we wanted to say that we were “doing” comparative literature, but there was also some concern that we were operating on rather shaky ground insofar as one of our key reference points was a sentence that virtually none of us could so much as begin to read.
Confronted with a sample of a language we did not know whose characters were completely unfamiliar, our sense of discomfort was complemented by admiration for the complexity and diversity of human languages, combined with some respect for, or envy of, the two members of our seminar who possessed a linguistic competency the rest of us would very much like to have. There was also an underlying sense of relief in encountering a string of signs on which we could not reasonably be expected to expend an ounce of hermeneutic energy. Language had not gone on holiday, but in our capacity as exegetes we had been temporarily furloughed. There was no need to debate the virtues of active versus passive or close versus distant reading—with my student’s sentence, reading of any sort was not an option for the vast majority of us. While in most circumstances, we reflexively try to assess, decode, and understand, we were distinctly pleased about being momentarily off the hook when faced with a verbal formation to or for which we had no responsibilities.
Stein is notorious for unsettling our relationship with our own language in ways that make us uncomfortable, if not angry. The longer we read her “Rose is a rose” line, the less sure we are about what “rose” means, what “is” means, and what “a” means, much less what repetition, assuming that’s what this is, means. At the same time, Stein routinely suggests that her efforts to expose the volatility or outright instability of the linguistic realm are an attempt to remind us that, absent precarity and uncertainty, words are boring. Her oeuvre is a veritable hymn to the pleasure inherent in the realization that even in our native tongue, we are at best just barely keeping our heads above water and maintaining the fiction that as creatures of the logos our experiences are rational and coherent. If many passages in Stein’s texts can appear to be no less inscrutable than a string of unfamiliar logograms, she is steadfastly optimistic that there is something to be enjoyed in such brushes with the indecipherable.
On this basis, Stein’s kinship with Edgar Allan Poe goes well beyond the curious fact that upon her death, Poe’s great-nephew, also named Edgar Allan Poe...