Tradurre Julia Kristeva


Translator’s note di Leon S. Roudiez

When the original version of this book [Pouvoirs de l’horreur] was published in France in 1980, critics sensed that it marked a turning point in Julia Kristeva’s writing. Her concerns seemed less arcane, her presentation more appealingly worked out; as Guy Scarpetta put it in Le Nouvel Observateur (May 19, 1980), she now introduced into “theoretical rigor an effective measure of seduction”. Actually, no sudden change has taken place: the features that are noticeable in Powers of Horror were already in evidence in several earlier essays, some of which have been translated in Desire in Language (Columbia University Press, 1980). She herself pointed out in the preface to that collection, “Readers will also notice that a change in writing takes place as the work progresses” (p. ix).

One would assume such a change has made the translator’s task less arduous; in one sense it has, but it also produced a different set of difficulties. As sentences become more metaphorical, more “literary” if you wish, one is liable to forget that they still are conceptually very precise. In other words, meaning emerges out of both the standard denotation(s) and the connotations suggested by the material shape of a given word. And it emerges not solely because of the reader’s creativity, as happens in poetic language, but because it was put there in the first place. For instance, “un être altéré” means either a changed, adulterated being or an avid, thirsty being; mindful, however, of the unchanged presence of the Latin root, alter, Kristeva also intends it to mean “being for the other.” This gives the phrase a special twist, and it takes a reader more imaginative than I am to catch it.

As Kristeva’s writing evolves, it also displays a greater variety in tone. In this essay it includes the colloquial and the formal, the lyrical and the matter-of-fact, the concrete and the abstract. I resisted the temptation to unify her style and tried as much as possible to preserve the variety of the original. Only in a few instances, when a faithful rendition would in my opinion have sounded incongruous (e.g., translating pétard, which she borrows from the text of a Céline novel, as “gat” or “rod”), did I consciously neutralize her prose.

A particularly vexing problem stems from the nature of the French language and its limited vocabulary as compared to English; words tend to point in a greater number of different directions. Usually, in expository prose, the context removes the ambiguities that poetic language thrives on. Kristeva is not averse to using polysemy to her advantage, as other French theorists like Derrida and Lacan have also done. The French word propre, for instance, has kept the meaning of the Latin proprius (one’s own, characteristic, proper) and also acquired a new one: clean. At first, in Powers of Horror, the criteria of expository prose seemed to apply, but in several instances I began to have my doubts about this. When I asked Kristeva which meaning she intended the answer was, both. As a result I decided to use the rather cumbersome “one’s own clean and proper body” to render the French corps propre, sacrificing elegance for the sake of clarity and fullness of meaning.

Examining my translation carefully, one is apt to notice anomalies in the text of the quotations. There are two reasons for this. When the original is not in French, Kristeva cites a published French translation and I refer to a published English one when available. Discrepancies are inevitable and for the most part inconsequential. In the case of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, however, the French version, in the excerpts quoted here, contains a couple of mistranslated words: Inzestscheu becomes “phobie de l’inceste” instead of the more accurate “incest dread,” and genussgefahig [sic] gets afflicted with the connotation of “objets comestibles” that belongs to geniessbar instead of the more general and accurate “capable of enjoyment” of the English version. While this has required some vocabulary adjustment, it does not affect Kristeva’s argument. Where Hegel’s for discrepancies between French and English translations are considerable. Referring back to the German text of Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion I find that the English text is faithful to it. What apparently happened is that the French translation was made from an earlier version of the Lectures, which, like Saussure’s famous Cours de linguistique générale, was published by Hegel’s students after his death. The second edition, on which the English version is based, is presumably an improved one—but that need not concern us here. In the excerpts quoted by Kristeva, the meaning is essentially the same even though the wording differs and in one instance a metaphorical development has been eliminated.

When several translations are available, as they are for Sophocles, I used the one that seemed closest to the one used by Kristeva. For the Bible, I relied on the King James version; minor differences between biblical and anthropological terminology should pose no problem, and the reader will readily see that the latter’s pure/impure distinction corresponds to the biblical contrast between clean and unclean.

For an original quotation from the French, I have also used available published translations. Working with Céline’s novels, however, translators have endeavored to produce effective English-language fiction. As a result they were occasionally led to stray from a literal version of the text—and rightly so. On the other hand, for the purpose of Kristeva’s analysis, there are times when close attention to material details of the text is essential. I have therefore, in a number of instances, had to modify the published translation—but that should not be seen as a reflection on their quality. On a few occasions, though, especially where the early novels are involved, translators have tended to be squeamish; thus, in Journey to the End of the Night, the statement pertaining to women in wartime, “la guerre porte aux ovaires,” becomes, “war goes straight to their tummies.” I naturally put the ovaries back in.

Throughout this essay, Kristeva plays with the titles of Céline’s novels (and a few others: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities makes a fleeting appearance toward the end).

Journey to the End of the Night is easily recognizable; the title From Castle to Castle, in this connection, needs to be changed to the more literal, “From One Castle to an Other,” which produced the title of an earlier essay, “From One Identity to an Other” (collected in Desire in Language); I have rendered the untranslated Féerie pour une autre fois as “Enchantment for Some Other Time”. For some features of her terminology, readers should consult the “Notes on the Translation and on Terminology” that appeared in Desire in Language. Here, however, instead of invariably rendering “écriture” as “writing,” I have attempted to distinguish between the weak and the strong meanings of the French word. For the latter I used the term “scription,” which I had introduced in my French Fiction Today (Rutgers University Press, 1972). There are in Powers of Horror a few additional items of Lacanian vocabulary that the context should clarify. The object a is mentioned twice, and it could be puzzling. A few lines from Stuart Schneiderman’s Returning to Freud (Yale University Press, 1980) might prove helpful: “For the psychoanalyst the important object is the lost object, the object always desired and never attained, the object that causes the subject to desire in cases where he can never gain the satisfaction of possessing the object. Any object the subject desires will never be anything other than a substitute for the object a“.

I should like to thank those who have given assistance in areas I am less familiar with: Stuart Schneiderman for the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, Robert Austerlitz for that of linguistics, Marvin I. Herzog for Hebrew terms, Robert D. Cumming for philosophy, and of course Julia Kristeva herself for clarifying a number of difficulties. I should point out, however, that while I sought assistance whenever I realized I had met with a problem, there may well have been problems I did not identify and on which I foundered. In such instances and in all others where mistranslations occur the responsibility is mine alone.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection (Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Essai sur l’abjection, 1980), Columbia University Press, New York, 1982.

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