Reading Blog — “Sacrificing Sense to Sound: Mimetic Translation and Feminist Writing” by Luise von Flotow — M.Paczkowski (11.30)


Von Flotow first introduces her topic of sound as a method of translation through Suzanne Jill Levine’s description of wordplay: “Puns…discover coincidence, a potential affinity, a homonymy already latent in language. They place sound above meaning, and yet point to hidden semantic bonds between words” (1)

She explains that in much of the feminist experimental writings wordplay focused on sounds, on coincidental sound connections. It centered on sensory stimulus and provocation. It can undermine assumptions of meaningfulness in more conventional language. She believes that such has been problematized by translators of the texts or those studying the texts. Wordplay often resists translation, so “it seems important to situate a translation, and discuss the importance of the ideological/cultural context which makes wordplay translation more or less possible” (2). She specifically focuses on the untranslatability of American feminist wordplay in German. She believes that some of the partial difficulty might deal with differing political contexts.

Translation was concerned with sound, on the musicality of the words, their form, their juxtapositions, musicality which is designed to express what has so far remained inexpressible. What do you guys think she is inferring to by the “inexpressible”? In my opinion, I believe that Flotow is talking about a cultural remainder of the sorts. When a text maintains a specific phonetic, and then is translated without sound in mind, it loses that important “feel” or essence of the original. Von Flotow says that “this writing demands a specific kind of mimesis in translation, or what Bourse terms ‘imitation phonetique’”. The result of such a translation is the reproduction of the sound of the source version. The sound of language and paronomastic play with this sound are approbate for writing whatever dominant/conventional language use can not express or has not yet expressed. Importantly, it expands upon meaning. Many feminist writers, most notably Nicole Brossard, constructed language experiments to demonstrate the “gratuitous nature of meaningfulness and ease which language conventions could be upset and abused” (3-4). Upon Flow’s first engagement with such content, she decided to utilize footnoting the wordplay in order to help explain the coincidental sound connections.

Translators of paronomasia have resorted to mimetic translation. Levine considers such to be the most racial approach in recuperating puns and other dislocated dislocations. However, she says that it privileges “morphophonemic and syntactic relationships between works in different languages at the expense of, and in direct contract with, lexical relationships” (4). In other words, it focuses on graphic and phonetic aspects within the text, not semantic meaning. So, why would translators then favor such method of translation if semantic meaning is either reduced or lost? It may have to do with the idea that the phonetic aspect of the text portrays a larger and more accurate picture of the foreign original than the semantic meaning, which may only be slightly altered or obscured. Levine believe that it can enrich the original text as it gains foreignness in sound, instead of having the fear of turning the foreign into the familiar. She says “it allows for the reader to experience the foreign in their own language” (5). It does call into question the idea if whether any translation suffices. The strategy maintains focus on phonetics and aesthetics rather than semantic meaning. It challenges the reader to feel lost, foreign, confused in their own familiar language. Thus, the reader is able to acknowledge that there can always be another version.

Paolo Valesio presents that through mimetic translation the form-meaning link is questioned, resulting in a reduced direct lexical reflection, while “morphonemic reproduction is emphasized” (5). It allows for wordplay to be created across languages. If you look at the poem that displays the original, the literal translation, and the mimetic translation, it becomes apparent that mimetic translation does not necessarily come at the cost of a full reduction of semantic meaning. Von Flotow responds similarly, saying, “the mimetic translation does not set our to render semantic meaning first, but it does not produce gibberish either” (6). Mimetic translation seemingly functions extremely well for texts such as nursery rhymes in which the sound of the original outweighs its semantic content, and the translation produces new meanings, as the “explanations” appended to the translations confirm. “Mimetic translation can, in fact, play a reflexive role as a ‘cas limite’ for translation, demonstrating how other translation strategies continue to turn the alien into the familiar. Most of these other strategies, based on the concept of fidelity, where translation produces as faithful a representation of the source text as possible, do not include fidelity to sound (and are defeated by wordplay based on sound)” (8).

The founders and editors of the journal Tessera inspected the concept of mimetic translation in Quebec and believed that such texts were better received orally, as women’s communication has been traditionally oral. In regards to some texts in which sound of the text is an essential part to its meaning, many believed that it was important to privilege sound over sense. Although the material was often difficult and dense when read, it was more easily received and understood when read aloud. Von Flotow does say “it is noteworthy, of course, that as in the Catullus and nursery rhyme examples above, translators were dealing with poetic material, where rhythms, the sounds, the materiality of the text on the page have a strong impact on meaning” (10). What are the implications of this statement? Does that mean that prose experiences increasing difficulties in mimetic translation? 

There are certain instances and texts where the aural reception of such a translated text was more effective. In looking at the specific example of sound over sense, it becomes clear how the feminine sounds and slang creates an aura that furthers the feminist content when engaging in mimetic translation. “In French the ‘elle’ sound at the end of ‘fricatelle’, ‘ruisselle’, ‘essentielle’ both underscores the feminine context/content of the text and creates neologism (new sound or phrase not yet accepted in mainstream or conventional language) ‘essentielle’ and ‘fricatelle’ – a variation of ‘fricarelle’, 1930s slang for the sound made by thighs rubbing together, says the translator’s footnote” (11). Sometimes, even when emphasizing sound over sense, the translation can remain its seemingly literal semantic meaning. In these two instances, the translators prepared the text for a public event, where sound effects were deemed more important, and where a complicit audience would appreciate the audience. When is it important to deem sound more worthy then sense? Only in oral contexts? 

In response to the question posed, mimetic strategies are also implemented in the published versions of these texts, which are driven by the “sonorous plot” of experimental feminist writing. “The concept of the ‘sonorous plot has been ascribed to Nicole Brossard, and described as a weave that is created when ‘one phoneme leads by homophony to the next’ and ‘the sound of the words, not their syntax, make the textual connections’” (14). The focus is to follow the trajectory of the phoneme, “rewrite the echoes”, “connect blocks of thought, words, by their sounds”. It focuses the translator to focus on the literal translation of the sound, but since sounds of English provide different connotations, the translation triggers different associations and interpretations. There enters a choice of what you hear in the translation, what sound triggers an association. Therefore, although searching for sound, translators may reach vastly different translations even if they may hear the same sound of phoneme. 

Translations can also focus on the aesthetic of the word itself, as shown in the example on page 18. Von Flotow says that “in this case, the wordplay does not focus on sound as much as it does on coincidence of graphic similarities; it is the juxtaposition of these terms that creates a special paronomastic meaning, and presents a special challenge for the translation”.

Von Flotow suggests that there is a special challenge in reading mimetic translation. “When there is some familiarity with earlier, meaning-based, translations of the same text, or the subtext, the reading experience is doubtless different from that of confronting quite new material”. Sometimes in mimetic translation, the source text’s communicative value is not rendered. The problem thus becomes that it reduces the audience to a select few who are able to decipher and thus intellectually understand the actual meaning and purpose of the mimetic translation. Mainly, interests the elite and those knowledgeable. “It reproduces text – with deliberate mis-translation, foreignizing syntax and semantics, and a focus on sound rather than sense – for an inner circle, for those who already know and appreciate the source text”.  This must work now to encourage practice and theory to become more innovative in order to encapsulate a larger audience, presenting the same effect. The prefaces and the explanatory texts, thus, echo the source writing almost as much as the translations themselves, and help create a complicit readership.

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