Gendered “Revenge” in Emma Ramadan’s Reworking of Brice Matthieussent’s Meta-Novel

As Derrida reminds us in “Des tours de Babel,” the task of the translator is addressed to the traducteur and never the traductrice. Early on, Trad remarks on the alluring symmetry between the asterisks above and below the text’s footnote-barrier. This setup gives way to profound confusions that spawn countless others. A. And Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts four women laughing at a masked doll they blanket-toss into the air, reappears throughout as an allegory for female domination — such as Doris’s — of men. What if he argues that its narrative trails are begging for stronger connections, that its story exhibits glaring archetypal deficiencies, that its author is much too pretentious? Clarice Lispector’s Anglophone recognition relies on the work of Katrina Dodson, Alison Entrekin, Idra Novey, Giovanni Pontiero, and Magdalena Edwards. The two team up against Prote and are constantly on the defense against his apparent omnipresence. It’s David’s way of refusing artistic submission to Prote. At the time of the English publication of Sphinx, a love story about two genderless characters, Americans were debating the legalization of same-sex marriage. Pote du Traducteur, a riff on Note du Traducteur that means “translator’s buddy,” becomes “Translator’s Rote,” while Non de Trébucheur is rendered as “Translator’s No.” These details, while subtle, are at the core of why translation can be so exacting, since it requires sacrifices of meaning to maintain the play of wit in the target language. By the end of Revenge, Trad’s rework becomes its own distinct novel set to be translated into English. As the paternal originator of (N.d.T.), Prote — his name evokes the Greek protos, meaning first — is the novel’s de facto father. But there’s a Freudian tinge to all this pornographic profusion. — different novels. For readers intimately familiar with French literature, Matthieussent’s style falls markedly closer to that of Perec on a spectrum that stretches to Proustian floridity. But what if a translator judges the original text to be artistically inadequate? But coming from a woman, the translation constitutes a barefaced gesture of subversion. Hoffman are mentioned. But could even this power be emanating from the work of another writer? But while Sphinx is the literary equivalent of an art-house film, Revenge is a big-budget action feature. Perhaps Ramadan’s translation is her own form of revenge against a discourse that, riddled with sexism, has little concern for not only the female writer but the female reader, as well. As the only female lead, Doris is the ensemble’s most enigmatic cast member. Its pulsating pyrotechnic narrative, though hard to keep up with at times, delivers an array of amusing twists and turns. “The task of the translator,” as it were, is rooted in creative limitation-as-inclination, in a need not only to communicate what escapes language but also to communicate it artfully. Translation, after all, entails its own set of artistic demands. Defined by both fidelity and freedom, it must offer transparency while remaining a touch inaccessible and foreign. Does Doris subvert or reinforce the femme-fatale archetype? The translation gets most amusing in Ramadan’s renditions of the endless puns that cap the ends of Trad’s footnotes. Awarded the Prix du Style upon its original French publication in 2009, Revenge has made its English debut thanks to Emma Ramadan, who is best known for her highly acclaimed 2015 translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. She will partake in a practice traditionally reserved for men and toy with the linguistic power her task affords her. Driven by egotism and libidinal fantasies, his translation of a novel from English into French spirals into an outright distortion of its original text. In her appropriation of the voice of our rapacious male narrator, she transforms the text’s dramaturge into its principal actor — and in her own image, no less. A French theory fanatic may be dismayed by such privileging of entertainment over intellectualism, but the approach discloses some brutal truths about the human — or rather, male — psyche. Perhaps Ramadan, too, is a character in a more expansive novel. The narrator of Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator — “Trad” (short for Traducteur) — is just such a translator. The name of Prote’s father’s mistress summons Nabokov’s Lolita. It relays to an American readership marked by its own psychosexual baggage a work written by a Frenchman 40 years Ramadan’s senior, although, to be sure, not many of the text’s gendered tropes will seem foreign or outré. He sends them letters and videos, he ransacks David’s New York apartment, and he even sets up traps in his bathroom. To be clear, what readers encounter in Revenge of the Translator is a corrupted version of Translator’s Revenge that uses its existing characters. Even so, perhaps at least some problems plaguing literature can be tackled from within this endless set of metaphysical nesting dolls. David vindictively lusts after Doris because she’s the secretary to the author of the original text. In fact, a great deal of the story’s action involves sexual relations between Doris and her pursuers — first Prote, then David, and then, finally, our narrator Trad — all lewdly described in detail by Doris herself: “[Y]our penis gets wet, I lead you inside my port again […] my secret cupboard upholstered in violet velvet […] see the thickets still soaked with rain at the edges of me […] stained with sperm, oh yes, like that, keep going like that.”
Afforded a cramped amount of minute details, these scenes speak volumes about our male figures’ relentless machismo. The story begins in the footnotes of a novel-in-translation titled Translator’s Revenge, whose progression we can only decipher through our narrator Trad’s commentary. For Ramadan, those problems involve deep-seated assumptions about sex and gender as well as the distinction between writing and performance. But Prote’s taunting of David reminds us of the translator’s requisite restrictions: “Here you are, as in a mirror, confronted with your own face, masked but designed for another, the author, me.”
References to canonical figures deepen the story’s erudite hue. It’s a work that amounts to a critical reinvention that aspires not to a spot among the translated literary canon, but to the unraveling of the very standards by which that canon is praised. Not only do his efforts pervert the story, they also devolve into a Frankensteinian confrontation with the very characters he conjures up. David becomes a character in (N.d.T.) and must expose himself as the text’s treasonous translator. Soon after, Doris, Prote’s secretary, reveals her affair with David. The distinctions between the untouched and reimagined narratives are blurred from the get-go, as Trad literally raises the bar that separates his footnotes from the original text, usurping the latter’s place on the page. AUGUST 23, 2018
A GOOD DEAL of the world’s greatest writers owe a substantial debt to their translators. More to the point, the English translation asks us to reassess cultural progress. If there’s an underlying theme amid this chaos, it’s perhaps the persistence of the literary libido — or the “erotic implications” of translation, as Prote sees it. ¤
Los Angeles–based writer Arshy Azizi’s work has appeared in Artforum, Rhizome, Spike Art Berlin, and elsewhere. Time and space quickly merge. We never encounter the person responsible for the totality of Revenge’s drama. As Prote deftly stalks David and Doris, it becomes clear that bitterness drives the plot forward. García Márquez might be virtually unknown outside Latin America if it weren’t for Gregory Rabassa. And what’s more, many influential authors — Hölderlin, Stefan George, Nabokov — are remembered as much for their translations as they are for their original work. The French author, who’s translated many English-language novels, such as Less Than Zero, into French, boasts a meticulous but pragmatic approach, and Ramadan remains faithful to his clarity. It’s a “minimal adaptation,” Prote assures him, that “merely” entails the changing of street names and accounting for the distances that characters travel, the Americanization of locales such as supermarkets and banks, and the adaptation of “recipes and restaurant menus, the jargon of taxi drivers, and other minor details.” “Traduttore, traditore!” the Italians might accuse: “Translator, traitor.”
That David is given carte blanche to alter the text’s cultural backdrop poses an interesting question: just how inextricable are culture and language? We learn, for example, that this novel-in-translation is itself about a translator, named David Grey, who is translating a novel titled (N.d.T.) — the abbreviation for Note du traducteur, or “translator’s note” — from French into English. Refusing to settle for reverence, Ramadan opts for unabashed provocation, uprooting the text from its cultural stasis and holding it up to the piercing scrutiny of today’s most inflammatory concerns. This initial incursion triggers a chain of vengeful acts within the text itself. Discovering that David and Doris are not just fictional characters in the novel he’s translating but his actual contemporaries, Trad helps them escape from Prote. But David couldn’t care less. And of course they are all refracted through the prism of our translator’s contorted imagination. But the novel’s execution makes up for much of its seemingly false promises. The English-language release of Revenge is no less timely in a country openly talking about sexual harassment within creative industries where divisions of power are often gendered. His hand remains far out of sight, at the “origin of languages,” like that of the God in Derrida’s “Des tours de Babel” who damns humanity to linguistic confusion as punishment for the theft of his name. The first occurs after David receives a request from his French writer, Abel Prote, to update the geography of (N.d.T.) from Paris to New York. Trad mentions that he fears that his American translator, “this Emma Ramadan,” will “be like me, that she will not remain humble, enthusiastic and zealous, modest and rigorous.” And sure enough, this very insertion signals that this will indeed be the case. Characters are in two places at the same time and even begin to cross metafictional lines between the three — or is it four? The various levels of narrative fuse together, and, in turn, reality dissolves entirely. To free himself from such a tedious task, he installs a virus on Prote’s computer that causes sporadic suppressions of words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs from (N.d.T.). How much of Matthieussent’s own fantasy life seeps into the tale? From afar, Prote lures David into a tunnel beneath his Parisian maisonette, where he discovers a secret passage from Prote’s novel. Even more amusing is how Ramadan takes on the voice of our masculine narrator and willfully reproduces the text’s rampant chauvinism. Works by Hugo, Joyce, and E. And perhaps we readers are puppets in an even greater work whose author will never reveal him- or herself. Although she and David are characters in Translator’s Revenge, they eventually meet Trad, the text’s “real-life” translator, who is able to foretell David’s fate but not Doris’s — and, in that respect, she wields power over him. Even then, it’s unclear if she triumphs over her suitors’ lascivious whims. It allows him to envision his voice within the novel’s actual story through a literary evocation of Lacan’s mirror stage. Subsequently, Prote seeks revenge against David, and a mutual distrust develops. Here, Ramadan seizes the opportunity to insert herself directly into the text. T. On the other hand, the “father” of Trad’s text is absent from the narrative. We don’t know, perhaps because our narrator doesn’t care.