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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

La Chamade / That Mad Ache

I was reading spines on a bookstore shelf the other day and saw this title: Sagan / That Mad Ache. The single syllables, the use of the less likely "that" as an article: I had spent so much time with Douglas Hofstadter's iterative translations of Clément Marot's "A une Damoyselle malade" in Le Ton Beau de Marot that I wondered if there were a connection. I looked closer at the name running up the opposite side of the spine: Douglas Hofstadter. He has translated Françoise Sagan's novel La Chamade under the title That Mad Ache, and appended notes on his translation work as an essay called "Translator, Trader" on the flip side of the book.

It's a delightfully designed book, in Baskerville font as usual, including Hoftstadter's now-customary discussion of why he loves that typeface so much and how he uses it almost as a constraint-based writing technique to plan out line breaks and page breaks. (Ben and I were at a party a few weeks ago when Hofstadter came up in conversation very late in the evening, and after some geeky bonding someone decided that someone else needed to know about Baskerville font and the best way to do that would be to type out on a computer, "this is Baskerville, you jerk..." or something like that, probably more adjectives or expletives. Later, our Hofstadter mark remarked that he had never been at a party and discussed Douglas Hofstadter before--obviously he'd never been at a party with Ben or me before.)

Hofstadter's essays and books about translation are fascinating because his obsession with syntax and how sentences work comes from his work in cognitive science--a source that makes for some odd, delightful digressions and thought experiments. I love to read his explanations of how lateral thinking produces unlikely and wonderful connections in his many fields of expertise and interest. Here he's discussing the 1966 English translation of La Chamade by Robert Westhoff, which left the title in French, probably to appeal to readers of Sagan's previous success, Bonjour tristesse:
I'm not saying it was a bad decision to leave the title of La Chamade in French, but it isn't what I myself would have chosen. In fact, as you know, I took another pathway. One day, I was just looking at the word chamade and, as often happens when my mind is idling, I started juggling the letters around a little bit, and what popped out but 'mad ache'. This felt a bit eerie. After all, the whole story is about the mad ache in the hearts of several different people, all of whom are desperately searching for love or think they have found it. Something about this felt right to me, and at the moment it occurred to me that this would be a delicious way to translate Sagan's title 'La Chamade.' It took a bit more thought about whether to say 'A Mad Ache' or 'The Mad Ache' or 'That Mad Ache' or even just plain 'Mad Ache,' but in the end I settled on 'That Made Ache.'

An amusing footnote to this is that my friend Daniel Kiechle ..., on hearing about my proposed title, started searching for English anagrams involving all nine letters in 'La Chamade', and he came up with 'A Calm Head', which though a nice phrase, is pretty nearly the diametric opposite of the meaning of the original title. What a curious coincidence! Needless to say, I didn't go for Daniel's anagram, ingenious though it was.

What should one think about such a brazenly redone title as 'That Mad Ache'? Is it reasonable? In particular, what does the playful game of anagrams have to do with this novel or with Françoise Sagan's style? Admittedly, nothing at all. But even so, I think there is something charming about tipping one's hat to one's author by making the translated title through nothing more than a rearrangement of the very same 'raw materials' that constituted the original title. But then I'm biased.

Elsewhere in "Translator, Trader," (which plays on the traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor pun) Hofstadter calls attention to a translation choice he made in describing a bat's flight. Sagan describes how "des chauves-souris rôdaient autour des lampes sur la terrasse." Hofstadter looks to his dictionary and finds for rôder: roam, wander, loiter, lurk, prowl. I would very much like to see a bat perform any of these actions, but I like his final choice: "some bats were swooping around the lights on the terrace." And, really, it's not so much the particular choice that's interesting to me here but rather Hofstadter's way of explaining how he made the choice and what it shows about dictionaries, translators' prerogatives, translators' constraints.

When I've taught Hofstadter in the past, I've used his work as a model for students to consider how they can:

*write about considering and playing with an intellectual puzzle in an engaging way

*write about specialized expertise, knowledge, and procedures in an engaging way

*assess knowledge as something that's produced, reconsidered, and revised rather than just judged

*use their expertise in one field to learn something new about another field by making moves that translate skills and reveal new possibilities (e.g. the anagram above)

*play with constraints to generate new or different approaches to a problem

*play with form to generate new or different approaches to a problem

The chapter in Le Ton Beau de Marot in which he translates John Searle's Chinese box thought experiment into a Perec-style Oulipo lipogram is one of these totally rewarding moments: I learned something about new about constraint-based writing and AI (without the E).

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Blogger Meg on Wed Dec 09, 04:35:00 PM:
mmm, that really makes me want to translate... at least I'll speak Spanish more soon. I'm going to start volunteering at a community health center helping with prenatal classes for Latinas. Fun, huh?