Book Review

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

a literary memoir on translation

Wrote this about two weeks ago but life has been COMING AT ME FAST so haven’t got round to posting it until now. By “coming at me fast” I mean it’s complex, eventful, confusing, work-filled, dog-filled and oh so fucking festive:


Translation as Transhumance is the latest book published by Les Fugitives, the trendy indie press with the least loose remit I can think of: short works by female Francophone writers who have never previously been translated into English. Much like Blue Self-Portrait, this book is a distinctly intellectual text, and is part memoir, part essay on translation.

Translation as Transhumance is written by Mireille Gansel, who has translated – as a specialist in poetry – from both German and Vietnamese into her native French, and the English translation of this book comes via Ros Schwartz. Exploring a life lived through the meetings of different languages, histories and attitudes, Gansel’s text is both deeply personal and deeply informative. Opening with childhood memories of her father translating letters from his family in Budapest, Gansel’s origins in the dispersed Jewish diaspora of Europe following the horrors of the Second World War spark her lifelong interest in cross cultural communication. With the languages of her forebears sidelined and diminished by deliberate, aggressive, cultural genocide, German is the language she must use to communicate across the continent. From this, develops a wider interest in language and linguisitics, and eventual engagement with an international project translating Vietnamese poetry into French in the early 1970s.

As a translator, Gansel’s life is understandably very international, and she evokes and explores conversations and moments of exchange she and others have all over the world, not just numerous European countries and Vietnam, but Israel specifically and – when writing about German Jewish intellectual refugees – the Americas and other parts of Asia, too. This weighty backstory is important to Gansel’s intellectualisation of translation, her engagement with it as something powerful and significant. It is an interest in not just disseminating the voices of the presumed voiceless (ie the poets of wartorn Vietnam), but in exploring them, and actively listening to, engaging with, them. Gansel describes the multiple layers of translation she has used for various long form projects, going into great detail about her processes and how they have developed over the course of her career. When translating from Vietnamese, Gansel’s first drafts would contain not only direct translations of the poems, but explorative extrapolations of alternative meanings of all the used language, so as to assist with carving out the finest poetic evocations of the original. Later in life, while translating the entire output of Nelly Sachs, this process is extended even further, with four distinct phases included, each in a different notebook, as Gansel seeks translations of the highest possible quality.

Reading this after Settled WanderersSam Berkson’s Influx Press published collection containing translated poems by Western Saharan poets and his own original work about his experiences meeting these poets, Gansel showed me exactly what the problem was I had with Berkson’s book. Berkson – in attempting to create translations that contain as little distraction as possible from the original poem’s meaning – ended up vastly under poeticising the Saharawi pieces. Gansel explains in Translation as Transhumance what it is that makes high quality translation so difficult: her translations are the result of years of intense study in multiple languages, with multiple avenues of cultural exchange. Berkson – while offering a valuable insight into an intriguing culture – was not a student of Saharawi culture, merely an interested observer. His approach is more immediate, whereas Gansel’s attitude to translation is deeply pedagogic, very academic and seriously arduous. (Too many adverbs there, I know.)

Translation as Transhumance is a text that explores the way a love of langauge can develop over a life, and evidences the ways in which an individual can apply the same skills to similar, tho vastly different, problems. Exploring conflict and exile, exploring the holocaust and its linguistic repercussions, exploring intellectual life in the second half of the 20th century, this is a book with numerous threads linking it to potential literary readers. Not just a book about a life, not just a book about translation, Gansell’s text offers an in-depth admonishment of anti-internationalism. Connections, whether they are personal, professional or literary, are significant, and language is only a barrier to communication if we let it be one.

A great translation of a book about great translations, with fascinating insights into literary production, as well as Cold War-era Berlin, Vietnam-era Hanoi and a childhood spent growing up in the aftermath of WW2. Intriguing and, I think, important.

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