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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Shadows of a Rock

Translating Willa Cather

Sorbonne Keynote Address

A warm welcome, first, to a city that Mrs. Wheeler in One of Ours thought of as “the wickedest of cities, the capital of a frivolous, wine-drinking, Catholic people, who were responsible for the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s and for the grinning atheist, Voltaire” (232). I hope you enjoy every component of this infernal scene, steps away from the gray stones bordering rues St.-Jacques and Soufflot in Godfrey St. Peter’s memory, a stone’s throw from a Sorbonne, where sitting for lectures on the hard benches of which I could never quite muster the same passion for Puvis de Chavannes’s murals as the great lady to whom we owe this occasion consistently entertained. Today, forty years later, I see her point, but I still feel the bench, still hear the drones, and feel for you. . . .

I thank the organizers of this conference, Professors Murphy, Palleau-Papin, and Thacker, who were imprudent enough to invite me; particularly Robert Thacker, whose plot to that effect is old, having been hatched in Berlin several years ago, and Françoise Palleau-Papin, who prevailed upon me to address you today, a token, I take it, of her desire to salute Willa Cather’s cooking skills, since real gastronomical know-how lies with what is known as l’art d’accommoder les restes. This being the last lecture I shall deliver during the course of my official professional life, her gesture testifies to a belief in the possibility to make acceptable use of leftovers that hold little gustatory promises in themselves.


We meet today in a place founded, in Auclairian times, as a school for draftsmanship, an activity relevant to Cather’s literary art—a place where thirty years ago I introduced to French readers the young aspiring writers I was to specialize in all my life: Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Ishmael Reed, Grace Paley, John Barth. I do not say this out of nostalgia but to make clear that, not a Cather scholar myself, I face all of you specialists as an outsider, a daisy, perhaps, among orchids—naive, unsophisticated, ephemeral, by no means “one of yours.” I am honored to address you this afternoon merely as an avid reader and translator of Willa Cather’s woJrk. This avowedly subjective and dangerous position offers the advantage of allowing me to rely upon your expertise and memory, to be allusive instead of having to quote extensively. Further to specify wherefrom I speak, let me confess that my original encounter with Willa Cather was entirely adventitious, having taken place while I was a schoolkid in the Midwest with time on my hands, a fascination for the strangeness of the environment, an enthusiastic attraction to the moral comfort provided by a native critic of small-town life, and an adolescent, oppositional craving for reading a writer absolutely nobody around me ever read. I came to her work, then, for accidental reasons, read her for imaginary and sociological ones, and remained with her for purely literary pleasure. Need I add that I am now somewhat impervious to extraneous debates, that her sexual orientation is to me a matter of profound indifference, and that I have never thought that she, Flannery O’Connor, or Eudora Welty ever needed pious ideological assistance to tower above their respective contemporaries.

Having by chance discovered that Cather had died on St. Mark’s Eve of the year I turned one, I understood that the stars had shed their fateful dust in my path. Much like Godfrey St. Peter, I realize that the man I am now “had begun to grow strong during adolescence, during the years when he was always consciously or unconsciously conjugating the verb ‘to love’—in society and solitude, with people, with books, with the sky and open country, in the lonesomeness of crowded city streets.” What I “had not known was that, at a given time, that first nature could return to a man, unchanged by all the pursuits and passions and experiences of his life; untouched even by his strong tastes and intellectual activities” (Professor’s House 264, 267). Because, strangely, Willa Cather’s work, while always near me, had always lain parallel to the bulk of my professional activity. She is one of the very few American authors I never taught, never lectured on to this day, as if there was in my personal apprehension of her work something so intimate that there could be no question of making it the object of any kind of public, institutional, discursive activity. Over the years, I realized that what attracted me so forcefully was precisely what I had to explore by means other than academic or scholarly, because its subjective dimension would have made little sense in these terms. It had to do, somehow, with the hidden secret soul, if you will, of what work I was doing elsewhere, and very much for the same reason I kept rereading Montaigne, Proust, Mallarmé, Valéry—because I felt they dealt with the essence of what our work profoundly meant, in times that still allowed for hopes that it might mean anything or make the slightest difference.

As my concern for the documentary dimension of literature— never powerful to begin with—kept ebbing away; as my original, confused, and misplaced hope to reach a direct, practical knowledge about the world through the literary waned; and as my delight in exploring the next potentially interesting literary forms and experiments slowly gave way to the relish of permanent, inexhaustible, and increasingly puzzled rereadings, I understood that only through writing and particularly though translation—that blessed, particular kind of writing that surrenders itself entirely over to form—could I hope to achieve a degree of the intimacy I craved with Willa Cather’s texts. Only translation, this simultaneous analysis, comment, and displaced performance of texts, could bring me close to the heart of what had early attracted me. Only the physical struggle of translation could make me grasp what Cather meant when she wrote that in Chopin’s late letters the “sentences seem to shudder” (“A Chance Meeting” 30), grasp what creates on the page “a mental complexion” (“On Shadows” 15), a “verbal mood” (“Novel Démeublé” 41), or the “blond voice” of Olive de Courcy’s worker Louis in the last book of One of Ours (515). Or understand what (in pictorial terms) the equivalent in prose could be of the prodigious impression conveyed by John Singer Sargent’s portrait Mrs. Frederick Barnard, so that you can actually hear her accent on the canvas. Why can you hear cicadas sing in Sorolla’s Mending the Sails and locate (in tennis terms) the “sweet spot” in a sentence?

So, there you have it, the gist of my reverie: Willa Cather’s prose as guide to the investigation of the powers and mystery of language itself—Willa Cather, some will think, for all the wrong reasons. I am not always interested at first in what her novels are about but in how she goes about it, in the birth process of “the thing not named” (“Novel Démeublé” 50). I don’t even go along with what she says some of the time, and I occasionally find her ideas irritating. The debates on her private life bore me to tears, and for the mythical-ideological substratum of her narratives I have no central concern, dealing with such things elsewhere. But I have now spent twenty years listening to Cather’s voice for long periods at a stretch, trying to channel or reconfigure it in a different set of signifiers while endeavoring not to lose too much of its profound power to affect—and failing, of course. There is no such thing as success in translation. Even Kenneth Koch’s comparison of the effect of a translated text to embracing a woman through a shower curtain has been diluted by Umberto Eco to “almost the same thing.” The shape is there, but what about the feel? You will remember that while she lived, and after her experience with a film version of A Lost Lady, Cather expressly forbade that her work be adapted to any other medium. I read her wish as based on the radical conviction that referentiality cannot be abstracted from its language base, that even feelings are of language born, that the literary bears discussion only in its own terms, and that its opinionated instrumentalization spells its death. Apples on Cézanne’s canvasses have no nutritional or botanical interest. The wind on Cather’s pages moves no mill. It might seem to stroke your skin and fill your lungs, to move through you as might an elusive soul, but the grinding is left to others. Such is “the beautiful lightening of the novel form” mentioned in the Brown-Edel biography (339).


Translating Cather, then, into French became my avocation for obvious, necessary reasons. Because in spite of the November 1921 announcement in the Omaha World-Herald that all of Cather’s books were being translated in France (“and Miss Cather goes to Paris next summer to aid in this work of translation” [in Bohlke 35]), and in spite of another (in the 13 October 1923 issue of the same paper) that “Miss Cather’s book, One of Ours, is to be published in French soon” (in Bohlke 61), her visibility to the French readership was a long time coming and brief in its effect. In 1925 Victor Llona published his translation of “Coming, Aphrodite!” (a text republished in 1996 by Rivages), and it wasn’t until 1933 that Shadows on the Rock was published in French and won the Prix Femina étranger (and not “Américain,” as the Brown-Edel biography has it [325]). Seven years then elapsed before Death Comes for the Archbishop came out in this country, with a preface by André Artonne, a specialist in diocesan religious history. In 1944, A Lost Lady, translated by Hélène Malvan, inaugurated the Bibliothèque américaine series explicitly launched by La nouvelle édition to acquaint its readers with the least known aspects of a country that had been a decisive force in the liberation of France from Nazi rule. However, a note in its preface by Lucienne Escoube (best known for her translations of hard-boiled crime novels and Western literature) gratified French national feeling by a reference to Stephen Vincent Benét’s article praising “the order, the lucidity and the grace of French prose” that was to be found in this novel (4). Presented as “profoundly, typically American,” Cather was then identified as the author of four other novels translated into French—My Ántonia and My Mortal Enemy being added to Shadows on the Rock and Death Comes for the Archbishop. I have to this day been unable to find any trace of the original editions of the former two. But, if My Mortal Enemy was a long time resurfacing, it should be noted that My Ántonia was brought out again by Pierre Seghers as early as 1967 in the translation of Swiss writer Blaise Allan (whose real name was Alfred Rosset), a translation that was probably the original one since Allan was born in 1902. A new one by Robert Ruard was eventually to come out in 2005 from Deux temps tierce, a house that had also published Obscure Destinies in a translation by Michelle Causse in 1992. (Both works have been republished by Rivages.)

Be that as it may, in the early 1980s, when the then head of Éditions Ramsay (and now president of the Oulipo), Paul Fournel, and I began discussing the possibility of publishing the complete works of Willa Cather, only My Ántonia was in print here and Cather’s name was practically unknown to French readers outside of a few specialists—much as she was neglected in the United States, I must add, where the time of her revival had not yet come. Sharon O’Brien (whose hospitality I had enjoyed in 1983), Susan Rosowski, James Woodress, and Judith Fryer had not yet published their important works. In effect, Cather’s reputation in France, compared to that of other writers of the same period, was nonexistent. Availability of texts is an obvious requisite for the possibility of fame. Because her books were not to be found in France, Cather could not possibly be championed in this country the way Dos Passos and Faulkner were in the 1940s and 1950s by the likes of Sartre, Valery Larbaud, ClaudeEdmonde Magny, or André Malraux. To add to the problem, the elegiac subject matter and tone of her novels would have to compete for the attention of a public diverted by the antics of Fitzgerald and whose ears had been deadened by the aggressive strains of other American authors famous in France, like Steinbeck and Hemingway. Also, Cather’s works would have to confront the rising postwar popularity of hard-boiled or jazzier popular fictions.

Paul Fournel had just published my translation of Jonathan Baumbach’s Reruns, a manuscript that had been chucked out of the windows of eighteen publishers over the previous four years. Paul and I shared an immense admiration for Willa Cather, deplored her invisibility, and were convinced that translations, whatever their merits, share with humans the pitiful degradations of age. Even if the few Cather books previously published had still been available, the time had arrived for new translations. Much as William Gaddis in The Recognitions has his forger, Wyatt Gwyon, argue that fakes can always be detected in time because they bear the characteristics of the period in which the forging took place, translations constantly have to be overhauled to keep abreast of the original’s eternal freshness—a marvelously puzzling theoretical issue I wish I had the time to explore. We therefore decided—Paul, his assistant Sabine Delattre, and I—to launch into what was to be a comprehensive edition of Cather. The plan worked out wonderfully well—at first. My first translation, that of the Archbishop in 1986, newly prefaced to attract attention, was enthusiastically reviewed and received, and it was followed by the publication of My Mortal Enemy the same year. I had time to work steadily through O Pioneers! (1987) and A Lost Lady (1988), when a suit brought against Ramsay author Régine Desforges by the heirs of Margaret Mitchell for alleged plagiarism of Gone with the Wind generated lethal financial damage and, collaterally, caused the death of our project. The ups and downs of publishing life being what they are, a few years later Françoise Pasquier, its foreign editor, convinced Éditions Rivages to gather this work in their hospitable lap, republishing all of it in popular editions. A very short-lived house (Alpha bleue) then commissioned my translation of Shadows on the Rock, published in 1998 and eventually reprinted by Rivages, and Rivages also allowed me, at a somewhat slower pace, to continue the work I had begun. One of Ours appeared in 1993, The Professor’s House the next year, and with intermediate republications in between, we have just this year piped The Song of the Lark into French ears. Should my prayers be listened to and my wishes fulfilled, Alexander’s Bridge, Lucy Gayheart and Sapphira may, before my complete dotage, round up the list of available novels, leaving the destinies of shorter fictions, well. . . obscure.


“Until [Lucy Gayheart] began to play for Sebastian, she had never known that words had any value aside from their direct meaning” (699). Perhaps because I take this remark with the utmost seriousness, I could not, as I explained before, fall into step with the topical, polemical derivative use some recent criticism has made of the celebrated “thing not named,” since its “inexplicable presence,” “emotional aura,” “overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it” (“Novel Démeublé” 50) must be at the heart of the preoccupations of the translator in more crucial ways. Cather’s art is not a matter of dissimulation; it is one of revelation. The “direct meaning” is rarely difficult to cope with; the problems it poses are technical, a matter of experience, and require, in Paul Valéry’s view, more perspiration than inspiration. What happens, what is related, what opinions are expressed, the translator has no control over and cannot alter. The tricks of his trade more often than not suffice to convey data and large structures. However, with Cather nothing of much artistic interest is to be found in such mundane matters. As Eudora Welty, of course, noticed, “texture, that informs us of so much in her prose, owes more than a little to its function” (67). Translating Willa Cather—in keeping, I believe, with the spirit that informed her prose—I am ceaselessly reminded of the wonderful remark I once heard from Belgian novelist Conrad Detrez: “I want a novelist to give me painting, music or the cinema. As for the rest, I have my own phone.”

The myth of Cather’s simplicity is one Eudora Welty rapidly discards: “Such simplicity is not what the writer starts with; it is what the writer is able to end with, or hopes to be able” (78). If there is an effect of “plainness” in Cather’s work, it is probably only that born of the staggering craftsmanship that allows her to convey the feeling of the plains. All due proportions respectfully kept, the translator’s work must endeavor to be no less, and he must adopt Welty’s insistence on the fact that “a work of art is a work” (78). The “aboutness” of each novel actually turns out to be a function of its craft, and the translator’s reflex, quick in the acquisition, must be, much like that of the learned amateur of oriental carpets, to turn the tapestry over and pay attention to the elaborate disposition of the knots, to figure out the logics of exposition, the secret of evocative sounds, the rhythmical economy of the text. Awareness is necessary of the reasons why “Art,” as Cather declared in 1921, “is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses” (in Bohlke 47) and why, in particular, as she remarked to the surprised interviewer of the Lincoln Daily Star on 24 October 1915, “no one without a good ear can write good fiction” (in Bohlke 14). I have no doubt that Willa Cather, in this declaration, did not only have in mind the precision and veracity of dialogue or the exactness of vernacular expression. For, indeed, the most fascinating conviction I developed as I began translating her novels is that what I should listen to was something else altogether, something mysterious and elusive; I realized that the nature of what Welty admirably calls Cather’s “impellment” (71) had everything to do with the nature of my difficulties.

Françoise Palleau-Papin, in the opening lines of her article on “The Hidden French in Willa Cather’s English,” writes that I “once remarked playfully that [I] found translating Cather’s work relatively easy because her language was almost like French to begin with” (45). I do ascribe this imprudent phrasing, “relatively easy,” to a moment of unwonted optimism, while, equally, I reproach the English language for allowing the absence of any visible agent from such an impersonal expression as “Cather’s text translates well into French.” But I will stand by the final notion I then expressed, trying briefly to account for it. I am grateful to Françoise for analyzing the syntactic and lexical “presence” of French in the Archbishop and in Shadows; however, this “presence” I will choose to call ad hoc and functional, since I do not believe these useful and fairly explicit examples reach the heart of the question that moves me. A major difference (and not only from the translator’s practical viewpoint) appears between what I would like to call a functional, thematic, or quasireferential presence of French is such novels as Shadows and the Archbishop (one might even want tho throw in One of Ours for good measure), a presence that generates translation problems of one kind, and another “presence,” the “unofficial,” latent one of the French language in works that do not referentially need it.

In effect, the deliberate use of classical French syntactical periods and structures, the recourse to seventeenth-century aesthetics that reflect Father Latour’s tastes, modes of thought, and personality acts in Death Comes for the Archbishop as a modality of enunciative distance that cannot fail to strike the habitual reader of English as a kind of, if you will, rhetorical exoticism that would be for the French reader the symmetrical reverse of the exotic thematic appeal of American desert scenes. Dealing with the simultaneous reduction of enunciative distance and increase of referential strangeness becomes a translation problem that cannot be solved entirely. By the same token—and even if the spatial and temporal referential distance can arguably be described as equal for the French and American readership—the complexity of the enunciative stance taken by Cather in Shadows on the Rock is a challenge the translator has difficulty meeting. The “stiff and stilted” dialogue described in the Brown-Edel biography as an effect of the choice Willa Cather made to translate “every conversation in her mind back into French, to give to the readers the effect of characters talking the Quebec French of 1697” (327) has in fact even more complex causes and effects. When Cather defined the text of Shadows as “mainly anacoluthon” (“OnShadows” 15), she may have had in mind the structural breaks necessarily faced by whoever wishes to convey the effects of another language in his or her own. Giving a sense in modern French of seventeenth-century French translated into English in the mind of an author who then retranslates the conversations she creates back into what French she knows makes for interesting quandaries. I had encountered such quandaries only once before with equal acuteness, when translating Russell Banks’s Continental Drift and its awesome all-English fictional medley of French-speaking Haitians trying to address in English the English-speaking Jamaicans supposed to be trying out their best Creole French (in varieties of Creole they wouldn’t share in the same terms in the original) in response to the botched English of their interlocutors.

Putting aside the professional debate that keeps pitting translators who favor keeping a modicum of the strangeness of the original text in the target language to such as prefer “naturalizing” the result of their labor, the nagging question of the familiar and the unfamiliar becomes permanent. To put things in a nutshell, I am delighted I didn’t have to translate My Ántonia and have to deal with the phonetic havoc and harmonic collateral damage caused by the name of the Shimerda family in the French text. I would much rather deal with Blinker or Ivy Peters, giving, with relatively little difficulty, the first the regular French squint of Bigle without distorting the context and substituting for the deprecatory qualification of the second as Poison Ivy, the convenient spoonerism linking Pierre Loison to Lierre Poison. An equivalent strategy often consists in using literal translations of the names of plants that do not exist on French soil in order to keep intact the mystery of “witch-grass” or the rigidities of “ironweed,” rather than substituting erudite botanical references that would carry no imaginative weight. The fact remains, however, that the supposed exoticism of the Quai des Célestins can be lost in the eyes of the likes of yours truly, who has been, for the last ten years, getting off at the Sully-Morland Métro station on that very thoroughfare to get to work in the morning. The “Frenchified” English of Shadows necessitates in French a mode of stylization that brings out the vague “Sulpicianism” of the original, cautiously navigating, at an equal distance from the maudlin, the quaint, and the dated, favoring the unusual and the obsolescent while avoiding the corny, the obsolete, and the cute. It is no mean feat, even for this French reader (born in Blois and finding it odd to describe Frontenac’s estate on the banks of the Indre as being near Blois), to make sure that the odd charm of “l’exquis français de Touraine” (Des ombres sur le rocher [2001] 99) or the particular taste of Joan of Arc’s French italicized in English translation in One of Ours (91) remain in a similar relation to the linguistic background that sets them off in the originals. How does one, in the French translation of the books that “officially” foreground the French language, reconstitute the secret taste that French may have in the mind or mouth of someone whose native language it is not and who wishes to discuss it in another language—how does one maintain some sense of the distance that lies at the heart of the original attraction?

What Palleau-Papin sees as part of the solution actually turns out to be an additional turn of the screw in the scale of translation difficulties. The problem in these cases is not essentially different—if technically more acute—than the over-exoticization of material that the author uses as familiar ground and elementary base. Not betraying the made, willfully artificial character of the original construction, letting the craft shine through in the ritual formalization of sentence-by-sentence elocution, appears as the only hope in rendering objects essentially devised as visibly artifactual (even when merely referential) creations. Stylization must answer geometricization in Death Comes for the Archbishop, just as mental complexion and mood in Shadows on the Rock must be rendered in terms of folk chromos, ancient prints, and fantasmatized childhood dream pictures. The oneiric must be prevented from being brought too close to reality. Bringing it home, one mustn’t make it unduly familiar.

These snags are real, born of Cather’s explicit use of French language and references, although they may stimulate the translator’s creativity and force him to address such important questions of writing as the modulation of enunciative distances and the minute relative declensions of tone and valence, radically force him to face the questions of source-oriented and targetoriented strategies that have agitated the community of translators for years. For all that, however, they still do not constitute the heart of the fascinated interest Willa Cather’s attitude toward the French language keeps generating in me for exclusively literary reasons—even if the desire to pay equal homage to her language and to mine is not absent from it. And this is where I will, if she can be kind enough to allow me, veer away from Françoise’s reliance on novels where French is “official.” Since it aims at buttressing her point of view by other means, I know she will forgive me.


In effect, the above considerations on perhaps what is, to coin a phrase, the “ghost in translation” must be complemented and amended by a personal speculation on what to me, when it comes to Cather’s work, is always the “ghost.” It is not so much, in my eyes, a matter of what Françoise refers to as Cather “deterritorializing” (62) her native language (as the unpronounceable and by now truncheonesque Deleuzian buzzword must apparently name it today), but much rather the result of a more profound, nearly obsessive concern, or dream, that as brilliantly shines through or (to use another natural image) springs up artesianly through texts that do not have French as part of their subject matter as well as in those that do. In other words, the point is that French need not be part of the referential scene or make any locatable appearance to keep its deep, subterranean, haunting presence in Cather.

In the first chapter of The Professor’s House there is a scene in which St. Peter banters with Augusta about the “forms” she uses for making dresses, then about her patterns, “the cut-out things [she] keep[s] in the couch with [his] old note-books. . . . In the middle of the [upholstered] box, patterns and manuscripts interpenetrated.” St. Peter declares: “I see we shall have some difficulty in separating our life work, Augusta. We’ve kept our papers together a long while now” (23). My intention here is not to make the text say more than it says, but I would like to use this set of mixed images to illustrate the sentiment I have harbored that in Cather’s work the French language is much like these patterns, mixed as they are with written creations, that it plays the role of a guiding underpinning, a sort of aesthetic matrix that may account for the highly unusual conviction I entertain when translating her that when looked at properly and long enough (dévisagée, so to speak, in its triple sense of “stared at,” “dis-countenanced” and eventually “dis-figured” toward its refiguration), the English sentence will eventually come up with the French sentence I was looking for under it, and that in a fascinatingly literal manner the French sentence in question will neatly follow the pleats and folds of the original, fall in place naturally, “hang well,” in Augustan terms, regardless of the coloring and decoration of the material that happened to clothe it. Accounting for this quasi-epiphanic feeling is no picnic. Let me try.

Willa Cather makes several statements in her early articles Sorbonne Keynote Address (see, e.g., Kingdom of Art 367 and World and Parish 2: 881–83) to the effect that the best American literature in her eyes was “French-oriented rather than English-oriented.” And her contemporary Wallace Stevens remarks in “Adagia” that “French and English constitute a single language” (914), having previously insisted so in two letters to Bernard Heringman. In the first, that they indeed “are a single language” (21 November 1950, Letters 699), and in the second, the refinement of what he meant: “I still think that English and French are the same language, not etymologically nor at sea level. But at sea level it is not possible to communicate with many people who speak English in English”; then he added: “What a great many people fail to see is that one uses French for the pleasure that it gives” (21 July 1953, 792, emphasis added). Stevens had a more direct French lineage than Willa Cather did, in spite of her maternal Louisiana connections (Brown-Edel 15); but without giving in to the disputable speculations of nineteenth-century anthropologist and linguist Honoré Chavée, author of the aphorism “Telle tête, telle langue” (“Like head, like language”), I will suggest that French, in the context of Cather’s writing, is less a direct matter of language than a frame of mind, a mode of exchange, something that acts as the possibility of distance from the native environment while conferring upon it some of the qualities, real or fantasmatic, attributed to a different set of cultural views for which the other language stands. Cather describes herself as “a poor linguist” (5) in the passage of her “A Chance Meeting” with Flaubert’s niece, a story where, incidentally, she also describes some words as “safe” (9). But even though her early interest in French found a resonance in her interest in Latin and probably generated, in time, the craving for the binary and ternary rhythms that she could use as bridge to the alexandrine qualities of her aesthetic dream, one may not need to gauge her real competence to try to assess the other types of importance (aside from direct expression) that French may have had for her.

I remember evenings in the Midwest when (my youth being trapped somewhere between the Charybdis of the Eisenhower Era and the Scylla of the Age of Aquarius), trying to smile away a dull moment, I would tune in on television to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. And I distinctly recall a one-minute piece by comedian Red Skelton in which he spewed forth, with great efficiency and power of conviction, mouthfuls of phonemes that would easily have passed for perfectly accentuated French had they meant anything, so masterful was his control of their sounds, lilt, flow, and modes of linkage. His irresistible punch line, at the end of this minute was: “I speak French, but I don’t understand it!” The “pleasure that it gives” that Stevens alluded to seems to me to be a part of the almost amniotic and respiratory bliss Cather seems to experience in using French cadences and periodical arrangements.

Everything happens, as I read her to translate, as if she is making felt the pleasure she takes in fantasizing a return to a language from which English had taken her into a strange sort of exile, as if French was Heimsprache or, in a more complex fashion, an imaginary linguistic womb to which to return, a place to compensate exile. Not only that (for, as Henry Seidel Canby once wrote, “she had what I should call a Gallic mind” and “the tradition of her craftsmanship was certainly French” [22]), but more deeply and in ways that matter more because less superficial, it is as if she dreamt of a reversible language, enjoyed exploring the other side of English to find the potential French in it, finding a genuinely mother tongue under an other tongue— everything happening, therefore, as I translate her work, as if I were bringing her home from exile, releasing her from some kind of provisional shelter, de-exiling, re-patriating her to a language that she certainly did not write “at sea level” (to use Stevens’s wonderfully oceanic suggestion) but in submerged fashion, at a level where she found herself in communication with aesthetic principles for which the French language stood (bearing in mind the important caveat that this vision of French is one of a language very few French people communicate in at levels other than “sea level”). The genuine joy triggered in her over being in France, one that she tries to express in interviews as well as in her texts, often finds awkward expression (thus confirming that “sentimentality,” one thing she usually does not indulge in, is “a failure of feeling”), demonstrating a contrario that one cannot talk “at sea level” of this kind of overwhelming, oceanic desire for submersion in the Other. It also confirms the possibility that she may have entirely transferred her passionate relation with the French language into the very fabric of her prose, not as mere thematic recurrence, not explicitly to demonstrate attachment, but, in the indirect manner of handling “the thing not named” that is so typically hers, as perpetual presence of and aspiration to a set of aesthetic and intellectual ideals that French, in a sort of ideal stenography of forms, had come to stand for. Its vital existential power shines through in Claude Wheeler’s conviction in One of Ours that “Merely speaking that exacting tongue would help to rally a broken spirit” (468).

If “the tongue is an eye,” if “no eye sees less than the tongue says,” as Stevens puts it (“Adagia” 907, 908), everything happens as if Cather’s love affair with the French language had provided her with new modes of apprehension and aesthetic perception, dictated forms that molded her prose and brought it close to the translator’s own, allowing him not merely to “translate” in the ordinary sense, but geometrically to translate, transfer, slide over that quest for a certain gamut of stylistic forms toward equivalent versions of them that communicate to the French reader the same kind of linguistic and emotional elation, convey it, as her poem “Paradox” puts it, “by power / Of melody, in which all longings yearned” (781). As I see it, French, in Cather’s prose, is the ultimate place of desire. Beyond Cather’s quest in it for “economy, elegance, and exactness” (“A Chance Meeting” 40) there is, I think, an abstract sensuous quest for the feel of an ideal French language for which there is no native speaker, or to which none is native, a sensuous quest for the “light elastic mesh of the French tongue” (Archbishop 289), something that entertains links with Cather’s love of music and an orality variously illustrated by her love for food and cooking and her delight in conversation. It is that ultimately lyrical yearning that should be translated, defeated as it sometimes is in Cather’s text by the incongruous exclamation marks with which her lyricism usually manages to dispense, relying on profounder, less artificial signals.

Her most convincing lyricism is not so much that expressed by typographically emphasized concluding paragraphs (usually having to do, in an interesting way for my argument, with youth and learning) but by that which manifests itself in the resurgence of cadences, and relies on the conviction that hard-earned simplicity harbors an ultimate elegance that French fantasmatically stands for. There is, if I dare, something Chanel or St. Laurent in Cather’s prose. Far from the ungirt dithyramb Carl Van Doren associated with Whitman’s lyricism, Cather opts for an elaborate, disciplined simplicity of line and texture which, in keeping with her frequent references to and admiration for Virgilian verse, keeps leaning toward the classical, the timeless, unassuming elegance that thrives on the use of the elementary, the geometrical, the flat tint, the appliqué, the stylized, rhythmical cuts, loose stiffnesses, and oxymoric forms ranging from sophisticated dépouillement, or austerity, to undulating rigidities, the contained overflow of sentiment, opaque transparencies, and controlled lushness. They include the modulated precision of lashing colors; the raw dappled violence of lights; the combined transgressive powers of the silky, the mottled, the watered, and the crystalline; the neatness of profiles, piercing glances, and luminous faces emerging from a froth of textile stuff that seems borrowed from Sargent, Manet, or Sorolla; the flash of white dresses dappled with blue and green light; the transparency distilled of a maximally opaque medium. By “Chanel,” I mean richly textured and hieratic, a supple crispness, the timelessness of immediately pertinent forms, apparent rigidities that turn out to have the flowing resilience of algae in pools of sea water, a type of ideal and simple elegance I believe French stood for somewhere in Cather’s imagination.


So, what does it mean, what can it mean, in the end, to bring such a writer’s work home, to devise or rather to rediscover the very wished-for medium, the tool and channel, of its secret exile? Beyond local difficulties, the work, in my eyes, consists in a new kind of draftsman’s contract, one that gives their share to lines, stylization, washes, hues and nuances, the softness and abruptness of slopes, pays attention to the shifts in the cadence of paragraphs, to the slowness, intensity, rhythm, and speed of sentences, to the way in which they hold, swerve, pause, and radiate, to the way they perform rather than express the beauty they praise or the ugliness they denounce, to consider the ridge of a sentence as one muses over the ridge of a nose, to make it glide and slide, imperial and unassuming as a bird. The raw elegance of Alexandra Bergson is on one side of the divide, the grossness of character of her brothers on the other. The sentences fail or triumph according to the same delicate balance. The paragraph describing Mrs. Ogden in A Lost Lady must perform her vulgarity as some light touch redeems her unprepossessing sight, since, as Welty acutely remarked, Cather never indulges in “diminishment” (77). All I know is that under the translator’s disconcerted prolonged glare, a sentence can disarticulate, dissolve, float free of its signifiers, then little by little, and all of a sudden begin to find its grips again, get hold of a new structure, locate the props that seem to have been destined for it and secure its footing, find its new shapes, the rhythm and sounds that seem to be the fateful verity of its destination. The French that had been lying dormant under the original sentence seems to float up, appears, blooms and imposes itself.

Little tugs and jolts may be required, here and there, to see to last-minute fittings, but their necessity seems irrefragable. A carefully chosen and vaguely obsolescent past subjunctive will propose itself to accompany a meditation on Indian pottery, lend it its unassailable dignity, solemn grace, and fragile eternity. The occasional stiffening formality of Almost archaic vocables will act as a plumb bob for the sentence, make sure it is safely tucked in place in the space of the page, not disturbing it, not disturbed by it. Practical homage must be paid, sentence after sentence, to Cather’s desire for a “sympathetic musical setting” (“OnShadows” 15). The rhythm of French must carry with it the same feel of repressed desire for an ideal “elsewhere” of language: Annabelle Chapin in One of Ours is “one of those people who can make the finest things seem tame and flat merely by alluding to them” (51–52). But the simple allusion to an elsewhere of language by the translator’s deliberate recourse to a little-used or practically vanished French word might have the exactly opposite effect; like Jacinto in the Archbishop, his “customary [grammatical] omission[s]” will have to appear as “a matter of taste, not ignorance” (96). The insistence apparent in the description in The Professor’s House of Augusta’s “face smiling at [Godfrey St. Peter] between her stiff black collar and her stiff black hat” (97) gains a stylistically performative bonus liable to make up for losses unavoidable elsewhere once it is rendered as “col raide de fourrure noire et chapeau noir et raide aussi” (La maison 91). Striving to give flesh to Cather’s longing for such classical alexandritude of language, translation must thus become a metarime for the unnameable feeling of exile.

And loss. Because, again, one fails, of course. Entrusted with such an ambitious agenda, the translation is doomed to resemble the shadows projected by the pure Idea on the wall of the cave, the way all writing fails compared with the dazzling, burning desire behind it. And when one stops and considers the solid, sturdy mass of Cather’s work—this enduring solitary and granitic Grand Manan of an opus—one feels at the end of the day that, just as Willa Cather could only write under the desired law of the French of her dreams, all the translator can ever hope to produce for the enjoyment of French readers are mere shadows of that rock.

Sad, to be sure; but perhaps translation (to adapt the remark on schools Bishop Laval makes to little Cécile) is “not meant to make [translators] happy, but to teach them to do without happiness” (Shadows 266).


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