Guest Post: Between Opacity and Transparency: Surrealism in Translation

By Elise Aru

What is Surrealism? These key words that spring to my mind are: the unconscious, dreams, free associations, collage, marvellous, psychoanalysis, the exquisite corpse game and André Breton. For the past few years, I have mainly been working on the translation of Surrealist poetry including poems by André Breton, Paul Eluard, Salvador Dalí, and Joyce Mansour.

What I particularly enjoy when working with Surrealism is the variety of practices involved in their production, some of which display the most extraordinary associations of verbal and non verbal elements. I am interested in ludic practices, games played to initiate Surrealist writing, the practice of collage derived from automatism and free association, and their numerous displacements of phrases, objects and works of art, all of which have encouraged me to adopt an experimental approach to translating Surrealist works.

To illustrate my approach to translating Surrealism, I decided to present here my translation of one of André Breton’s dreams, ‘Rêve II’.[i]

Surrealist poets, many of whom studied medicine, often under parental pressure, were influenced by the emerging field of psychoanalysis, particularly by Sigmund Freud’s theories and publications including Pierre Janet’s L’automatisme psychologique (1889). At the time, Freud was not yet translated into French which means that many Surrealists discovered his work through references in the work of others, for instance in the summary of his theories put together by Dr Régis in his Précis de psychiatrie.

Psychoanalysis was a rich resource for the Surrealist poets and artists who wanted to be free from reason and have access to the unconscious. The definition that they gave to Surrealism states:

SURREALISME, n. m. Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.

[SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.] [ii]

This definition was initially published in the Manifeste du Surréalisme in 1924 and outlined the group’s activities and practices. In an interview with Judith Jasmin on 27th February 1961, André Breton explained that the definition of Surrealism had not changed since the day it was first formulated.[iii]

Derived from psychoanalysis and its use of dream material, dreams for Breton are key poetic resources – an idea which he explores, argues and demonstrates in Les Vases communicants. Dreams infuse the Surrealist poetic language through marvellous and unexpected word association. Breton acknowledges Freud’s influence, but explains how his approach is different by suggesting that dreams act as a bridge between the unconscious and reality as the Surrealists see it. The ‘surreality’ results from the interpenetration of dreams and the ordinary reality. [iv]

Below is a GIF file presenting my translation, which is made up of a rectangular vase measuring 19,5cmx14,5cmx9,5cm inside of which there is a rolled up 16mx10cm pharmaceuticals cotton crepe bandage. On the vase, a white sticker reads ‘Rêve II/Dream II’, André Breton. What I propose here is not only an interlingual translation but also an intersemiotic translation: I provide a new medium for the poem.

Rêve II GIF - Elise Aru

The text is entirely translated from French into English and is written with a blue felt pen on the cotton crepe bandage. I was not able to write but rather I had to stain the text onto the bandage. These stains in the shape of letters and words will be the remaining traces of the experience that dreaming is. Recounting a dream consists of rendering not exactly the dream but the memory of the dream that remains with the dreamer in the morning.

Readers must put their hand in the vase to seize the rolled up bandage. While they gradually unfold the strip of bandage, the narrative of the dream unravels and reveals itself. After having translated the text, the setting of the glass vase and the bandage cloth quickly sprung to my mind and I drew it in the notebook I use for my translations. I only made sense of these materials when I started reflecting on dreams and their fascinating multiple layers of meaning.

The glass refers to the first layer of a dream’s meaning, which is accessible to all. With this dream, the narrative is easy to follow: André Breton is sitting on the Parisian metro where a woman addresses him with this unexpected phrase, “vegetative life”. He decides to follow her and at the top of stairs finds himself in a meadow, with another troubling character. A football player talks to the woman who then disappears. The football game starts again, Breton tries to catch the ball but he is not very successful.

The rolled up bandage refers to the subsequent layers which nobody will ever be able to fully grasp. Indeed, first of all there is no context and no footnote. It is the account of an experience a posteriori: a moment during which Breton most certainly organised his dream, and this is clearly visible in his abundant use of punctuation for instance. In the section of ‘Notes et variantes’, Marguerite Bonnet reflects on the possibility of analysing the dreams published in Clair de Terre and reminds us of Freud’s reply when Breton asked him to contribute to Trajectoire du rêve (1938). On the 8th December 1937: “Un recueil de rêves sans associations jointes, sans connaissance des circonstances dans laquelle on a rêvé, ne me dit rien, et je peux avec peine me représenter ce qu’il peut dire à d’autres.” [A collection of dreams, without the connected free association, without knowledge of the circumstances under which one had these dreams, does not mean anything to me, and I can barely imagine what they can mean to others].[vi] Thus, several dimensions of meaning remain obscure.

While for some literary texts, analysis and interpretation are crucial elements in the understanding and transcribing processes of the translator’s work, with this text, I was more interested in reflecting on the text type, dream, which is also its title. The collocations with the word ‘dream’ vary from language to language: you say “to have a dream” in English, “faire un rêve” [to make a dream] in French, and [to see a dream] in the Japanese phrase “Yume wo miru” (Romanji) 夢を見る”. These various verbs used in conjunction with the term ‘dream’ attest to the difficulty of verbalising the manifestation of the dream, as well as to the cultural differences in expressing this experience. Do we have a dream, make it or see it? The readers of Breton’s dream do not have, make, or see this dream, but they receive it.

In my translation, before the readers start reading the dream, the rolled up bandage is very manageable, it can be held in one’s hand. As the reader unfolds the cloth and reads the dream, the dream takes more and more space; it is a 16 meter long strip of cloth. After finishing reading, the reader does not know what to do either with the cloth or with the dream. The dream remains a poetic moment, an excursion into someone else’s world without being able to remain there. Indeed, this dream in the source text is inserted in a short section with four others before a poetry collection. The dream stops at the end of the bandage and the readers are sent back to their own dreams and ‘surreality’.

© (Elise Aru) 2013

[i] André Breton, ‘Rêve II’, in the section ‘Cinq rêves’, Clair de terre, in Œuvres complètes, edited by Marguerite Bonnet, volume I, (Paris : Gallimard La Pléiade, 1988), p.150

[ii] André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme in Œuvres complètes, volume I, p. 328

The translation is from: André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism trans. by Richard Seaver and Helen R Lane (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1972), p.26

[iii] ‘André Breton, pionnier du surréalisme’, interview with Judith Jasmin, 27/02/1961, can be found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rwHcEo4JY4

[iv] Breton’s approach is also anchored on Marxist theories on social protest which I will not describe here. André Breton, Les Vases communicants, in Œuvres complètes, vol. II pp. 101-215.

[vi] André Breton, Œuvres Complètes, volume I, p. 1192. The following extract from Freud’s letter is published in ‘Notes et Variantes’ of Trajectoire du rêve. The French translation is by Etienne Alain-Hubert, the English translation is mine.

Elise has been translating for several years. She completed an MA in Applied Translation Studies at the University of East Anglia in 2007. She then started her Ph.D. at University College London, focusing on the creative and ludic translation of Surrealist poetry, which she completed in 2012. In 2010, she published an article in Opticon1826 on a ludic approach to translation titled ‘When translating becomes a ludic activity’. In November 2013, her article ‘The Ludic in Surrealism and in Translation’ was published in Essays in French Literature and Culture. Elise also co-published, with Delphine Grass, several translations of Delphine’s poems in A Verse (autumn 2010, spring 2012). She is currently working on the publication of a monograph which will present several of her translations.

 

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