There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit. I want to explore some examples of this attraction, at its most maddened, from the trial and condemnation of Joan of Arc. [...](via Maud)
During the trial Joan’s judges returned again and again to this crux: they insisted on knowing the story of the voices. They wanted her to name, embody and describe them in ways they could understand, with recognizable religious imagery and emotions, in a conventional narrative that would be susceptible to conventional disproof. They framed this desire in dozens of ways, question after question. They prodded and poked and hemmed her in. Joan despised the line of inquiry and blocked it as long as she could. It seems that for her, the voices had no story. They were an experienced fact so large and real it had solidifed in her as a sort of sensed abstraction—what Virginia Woolf once called "that very jar on the nerves before it has been made anything."** Joan wanted to convey the jar on the nerves without translating it into theological cliché. It is her rage against cliché that draws me to her. A genius is in her rage. We all feel this rage at some level, at some time. The genius answer to it is catastrophe.
I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this? Can’t I just send a standard greeting card or paste in a snapshot of what it was like rather than trying to come up with an original drawing? During the five months of her trial Joan persistently chose the term voice or a few times counsel or once comfort to describe how God guided her. She did not spontaneously claim that the voices had bodies, faces, names, smell, warmth or mood, nor that they entered the room by the door, nor that when they left she felt bad. Under the inexorable urging of her inquisitors she gradually added all these details. But the storytelling effort was clearly hateful to her and she threw white paint on it wherever she could, giving them responses like:
… You asked that before. Go look at the record.
… Pass on to the next question, spare me.
… I knew that well enough once but I forget.
… That does not touch your process.
… Ask me next Saturday.
And one day when the judges were pressing her to define the voices as singular or plural, she most wonderfully said: “The light comes in the name of the voice.”
The light comes in the name of the voice is a sentence that stops itself. Its components are simple yet it stays foreign, we cannot own it.
29 August 2009
Anne Carson's "Variations on the Right to Remain Silent"--and what keeps us hooked as translators: