The University of Sydney
Douglas Hofstadter remarks in Le Ton Beau de Marot that in Greece, removalists' vans are marked with the word metafero, and we are reminded that translation (in its Western etymologies) is intimately connected with the business of pulling up roots and moving camp (p.579). The particular resonance between translation and displacement is amplified and made manifest in what is sometimes called the genre of language memoirs, although the texts are inevitably concerned with more than language. They are intimate stories, frequently autobiographical, of the transition between languages and cultures. Moreover, they are often tales of exile; from a culture, from a language, and sometimes from the self. They speak to the experience of outsiders seeking to understand, trying to find a way in, but always speaking in a voice not quite their own, from a place in between. Sometimes they speak of failing to belong; sometimes of not wanting to.
I will take as my focal point Alice Kaplan's French Lessons: A memoir, a story dealing as much with the business of language learning as with that of cultural belonging(s). I propose to read it as a language teacher, attending in particular to the kinds of metaphors Kaplan deploys in her story. Curiously, translation only features in passing. More prominently, her experience of language learning and her relation to another culture are figured by a set of metaphors which appear not quite consistent, and it is the tension underlying that inconsistency that I would underline.
Kaplan's story is principally an account of her evolving relationship with French: at high school in the United States; as an exchange student in Switzerland, and later while studying in France; and then as an academic, teaching French in the United States. But before engaging with her story, we might pause for a moment on the cover of French Lessons. It shows three men sitting along a table, leaning in, concentrating they are listening in through headphones. The picture is from the Nuremberg trials, and is in particular of the author's father, who was one of the prosecutors. Kaplan describes this image of her father thus:
It is the absence of her father, who died when she was a child, which Kaplan describes as the "force-field within which I had become an intellectual," and the image of headphones, leading to the twinned metaphors of listening and prosecuting, guides us through the story of her evolution into an academic with a research interest in French fascist intellectuals. Her story is set in motion by events surrounding her father's death, notably the discovery, among his papers, of photographs from Auschwitz. But while this is a story about listening in, it is also about the search for a voice, since "[h]eadphones [...] had no voice to give back." The voice she finds is French.
Kaplan begins her career as a spy. First as a child, hiding behind the couch, silently observing those around her (p.9). Later, as an adolescent Jewish girl growing up in the middle-class protestant mid-West, she has already internalised her own marginality and learned the value of passing for someone else. She is thrilled by a romantic encounter at the local country club, less by the romance itself than by her own disguise. "Knowing there were no Jewish members at Woodhill [Country Club] gave me a thrill [...]. The night I met Ted I felt like a spy, charming him undercover" (p.39).
When she goes to school in Switzerland, she broadens her palette of skills in espionage by becoming a forger and copyist, discovering the joys of la dictée:
This copying marks her approach to learning French, learning to produce the French [r] sound, effacing any trace of her Mid-western accent, absorbing and repeating a little trick she excels at, making her "one of them now" (p.55). But things come undone a little when Kaplan learns that observation isn't always as simple or as transparent as dictation and labelling. She is taken by a friend's father to visit the Jeu de Paume, and discovers impressionism "Seeing the painting change like that before my eyes made me feel sharp-sighted [...]" (p.65) a discovery which culminates in a Proustian moment.
Bit by bit, Kaplan adjusts her lenses, fine-tuning not only her sense of what she sees, but also her sense of how she is meant to see. She is learning about different kinds of readability, as in this passage when she is touring the French countryside:
Compare this to the moment of vexed perception experienced by the teenage Eva Hoffman in her widely-praised Lost in Translation. Hoffman's memoir is an account of her family's emigration to Canada from Poland in 1959, and puts her own experience of learning to cross cultural boundaries under the microsope. Like Kaplan, Hoffman has to learn afresh how to interpret. She has to learn, for instance, how to interpret the urban landscape.
With nothing comparable to Kaplan's impressionist soufflé and cubist countryside, both of which count as readily understandable models for reading, Hoffman suffers a crisis of readability. The Canadian city is at first illegible to her it needs to be deciphered in terms which we might take for granted, but which in fact depend on a highly specific set of cultural presuppositions about what constitutes cityhood.
Andrew Riemer makes a similar discovery in America with Subtitles. His memoir interweaves an account of a present day visit to New York with his memories of the journey he makes with his parents, shortly after World War Two. Leaving Hungary behind them for what they imagine will be a trouble-free life in the New World, they travel to Australia via America. After an exhausting trans-atlantic flight, the family's first stop is Manhattan. It is hard to imagine a city with more visual static, and Riemer misses the subtitles which had domesticated the American films they used to watch in Hungary.
And elsewhere in his memoir:
Freely perhaps, but presumably in accordance with an as yet impenetrable set of rules. Riemer, Hoffman and Kaplan each give voice to the same problem: it takes more than linguistic skills to move freely and competently in a foreign culture. The subtitles Riemer misses so acutely filled a function beyond translational equivalence. They had served to simplify, acting as "interpreters between the exotic and the familiar"(p.63), "domesticating the cinema"(p.64), ironing out nuances (p.62) and leading his parents to believe "they were watching a simple world of clear-cut implications"(p.62). It was precisely this kind of simplification which fuelled his parents' (and no doubt many others') ambition to emigrate. In the pared-down cinematic translations of American life on which his parents based their assumptions about the United States, "America was the bright symbol of the twentieth century, a world of shining progress and amazing technology. That allure transcended distinctions of language, class and religion" (p.23). The lure of modernity was that of a simpler world. Modernity, for Riemer's parents, had clearly come to represent progress beyond the culturally specific. No wonder they were shocked to discover, upon arrival, an indecipherable world.
Kaplan, on the other hand, has no such difficulties. Her relation to her second culture is the polar opposite of that experienced by Riemer and Hoffman. The perfect copyist, she has freely chosen exile from her American self, so much so that on a return visit to the United States her anglophone self feels foreign to her.
She feels safe in her adopted French persona, where she feels protected from herself. In Switzerland, she had already discovered a dread of returning to the States: "I was afraid to go home [...] I was dreading the charade of happiness" (p.58). And when her mother comes to visit her in Geneva, she hides her away "in a lousy little hotel" (p.59). It is to French that she escapes when she can't face the difficulty of dealing with the aftermath of her father's death. It is in French we might even say "in translation" that she hides from herself.
She hides in French, and in France, attaching herself to a French family, doing her best to be French, studying her boyfriend's use of the language, desiring it, only to have her love-letters corrected with scornful admonitions. There is a price to pay for this. Her ear the same ear she learns to value as a powerful, muscular instrument in the service of the forger's art becomes infected with herpes.
This is the price of listening too closely: she is to be indelibly marked with the pox of a second language.
What takes some time to register is the value of this mark. If it symbolises her internalisation of French, it takes a while to work out what that might mean. The herpes manifests itself intermittently, mostly remaining hidden, and ignored a flaw to be overlooked, just as Kaplan admits to overlooking in French culture what she wouldn't accept in her own "for the privilege of living in translation" (p.140). But her desire to live in translation to live in a certain kind of translation, whole-hearted, complete and unproblematic comes to be troubled by her developing research interest in French fascist intellectuals.
This interest leads her to interview Maurice Bardèche, Brasillach's brother-in-law, and one of the earliest revisionists, who had at one time published a far right-wing journal. Writing to him with some trepidation, she finds herself invited to visit the old man in his home, where she is warmly welcomed and fed at the family dinner table. She finds Bardèche courteous and cooperative, although she remains aware that he is playing her for sympathy. It is only after her return to the United States, as she is putting the final touches to proofs of the interview, that the more obvious face of monstrosity appears. He sends her a vicious, manipulative letter, assuring her of the self-evidence of his revisionist fantasies, co-opting her the Jewish intellectual into them. And finally, as Kaplan puts it,
The metaphor of camouflage like those of play-acting, role-playing, spying, copying and hiding is diametrically opposed to the figure of the headphones which is established on the book's cover and which gives rise to a very different metaphorical array. The letter Kaplan receives from Bardèche forces her to choose between metaphors, between self-effacement and safe distance. In effect, it forces her to re-evaluate the nature of her listening, and deal with the ethical questions which had plagued her when first she interviewed him.
Later, she reflects on the interview and how the letter made her rewrite her account of it to make Bardèche "more evil, more monstrous":
Unable to continue the charade of complicity with the monster, Kaplan retreats to safety, putting on headphones. Her headphones are tools of mediation, distance, listening in from the outside in order to prosecute in safety.
Kaplan's move to give herself some metaphoric distance from French, in order to judge or avoid the flaws within it, recalls her original desire to leave behind her American self and hide in French. It also signals a choice. "Is my role that of a prosecutor or that of a spy?" By turning to the prosecutorial bench, she also shuns the array of metaphors which have until now defined her relation to French and Frenchness, and led her to the position of complicity with Bardèche which so horrifies her.
While the set of metaphors I've been pursuing in Kaplan's story coheres in an obvious kind of way they clearly represent different modes of plugging into French, whether as the outsider who listens in conspicuously, or as the spy who must normalise all differences there remains a tension within the set between those which underwrite the idea of passing for French, and the smaller number which figure distance from French in order to analyse, indict, judge. This tension hangs on the question of whether we can be "in" French (or any culture) or not, and comes undone on the one metaphor belonging to both arrays, namely Kaplan's ear. How do we listen to a language, to a culture? As prosecutors, from the outside, or as spies, on the inside?
Of course, you can't really prosecute from the outside; you have to be inside the system. And so we recall her father, the prosecutor, wearing those very clunky headphones, and listening to an interpreter, and thus a translation. Let me labour this for a moment. The prosecutor works within a legal system. S/he represents (typically) a state authority before the bench. Opposing counsel represents the accused. Should the accused not understand or speak the language of the court, an interpreter is provided. The judge will, if necessary, provide instructions to the jury, and so forth... Within a single courtroom, under the authority of the judicial bench, various forms of mediation are required, and provided, according to pre-established rules of representation and communicability. It is possible to be a competent and fully functioning participant in courtroom proceedings and still require some form of translation.
It seems self-evident that translation should figure prominently in tales of intercultural encounters. Just as Riemer laments the absence of subtitles during his family's passage through America, so does Hoffman turn to translation to organise her memories of cultural exile in Canada. Hoffman sees her exile as no more than a particularly pronounced version of that which constitutes the modern condition. This is the sense of her "loss in translation." It begins as an extrapolation of the simplistic trope of translation as transfer of universal meaning and loss of cultural specificity. As she grows into her new culture, translation becomes a metaphor for a different kind of loss. We are all lost in translation, she would argue, exiled even within our mother tongues.
Collapsing the distinction between inside and outside is of course a deeply post-structuralist moment. For Hoffman, this condition is epochal, but I would contend that it needn't be thought of as particular to the end of the twentieth century, for some of the reasons Hoffman herself discovers. As with her first experiences of trying to read a modern cityscape, she suffers further moments of being lost in translation.
In other words, you can't expect to read situations correctly if you're not familiar with the rules that govern them and can't make predictions about where they might be going. This is not a metaphor for a unified culture: it speaks to the multiplicity of codes which fragment a culture, and which consequently problematise any attempt to construct a linguistic identity premised on a unified cultural identity. It does not figure a simple exclusion, because "there's no there there" from which she might feel excluded. "In a splintered society, she asks, what does one assimilate to? Perhaps the very splintering itself" (p.197). There is no neatly packaged, homogeneous, unified thing called Canadianness (or Frenchness, or whatever) which is given, as though a birthright, to native speakers, and denied to the immigrant except insofar as s/he might strive to emulate it. Culture, Hoffman learns, is not a uniform thing, but a process of continual discovery.
It is made up of a multiplicity of overlapping cultural codes, and cultural competence requires the ability not only to recognise them, but also to move between them. Not all of these are necessarily open to us. When Hoffman tells a friend that she'd like to be a "New York intellectual," she is warned that "New York intellectuals are a rather exclusive club, and not many new members are admitted" (p.244). Sometimes it's just a matter of learning the rules. One is reminded here of Alton Becker's story of discovering how to belong as a "small-town Midwesterner, at a rather prestigious East Coast institution," still feeling very much the outsider and unable to join in with their lunchtime conversations. A helpful friend explains that all he needs to do is read the daily "agenda" the New York Times (p.286). His future participation is now assured.
The group of people who follow American football might be a much less exclusive club, and it is most likely much easier to learn its rules and gain "admittance" than it is to become "a New York intellectual," but rules there are, and no doubt an agenda as well. In any given "culture," these "complex configurations" co-exist, coincide, jostle for attention, intersect. Whether we choose to follow football or ignore it altogether, our cultural identity will be defined by the particular set of intersections we each negotiate. One might indeed be "a New York intellectual" and also follow football (or tennis, or whatever). The competent "translator" would either know when not to confuse the two agendas (for the sake of those members of either group who don't typically mix them), or know how to play in the overlap (for the benefit of those who do).
This on-going translation within the very fabric of what we choose to identify as a coherent, definable culture need not alienate us. For Hoffman, "being an immigrant" is "a location in itself" (p.133). Her own more obvious hybridity gives her an oblique perspective: in other words, a way of seeing beyond, and around, face values. This perspective gives her the ability to analyse apparently transparent cultural moments (like the game of football) as subject to rules and thus requiring interpretation. They allow her to see the fragmentation, the opacity, the "complex configurations." Her discovery is that she doesn't have to trade in her emotional, intellectual and linguistic ties to her previous life in Poland. While her new life is at first experienced as a loss of the old, she comes to value and understand the power of her difference, the capacity she derives from it to see and understand things differently, and indeed the value of being the outsider, inside.
"Is my role that of a prosecutor or that of a spy?" Why not that of immigrant, or translator? It is perhaps because Kaplan's use of the translation metaphor ("living in translation," "hiding in French") suggests a simple choice between being an outsider or being an insider that she finds herself articulating her problem with this question. Perhaps it is because the translators at the Nuremberg trials are invisible, somewhere outside the frame of her snapshot, and consequently voiceless in her narrative, that translation is figured as a problem, rather than a solution. Nonetheless, like Hoffman, Kaplan comes to realise that embracing another culture isn't an all-or-nothing proposition.
No longer hiding in the tidy fiction of the linguistic second home, Kaplan finally opens herself up to the reality of linguistic contamination. Not only had she been hiding in French, but equally in the fiction that you can inhabit one culture to the exclusion of another. By trying to be too French, by trying to rub out every trace of her point of departure, her Americanness, she comes up against a salutary reminder that language, and identity, are in fact all about contamination, and that her French self is in no way separable from her American self.
What now follows, by way of conclusion, dictates the terms of work to be done, as I wonder aloud if there can be any kind of pragmatic upshot to these metaphors for those of us who deal with the business of language learning, and language teaching. We have long since moved beyond the spy test model of language learning, where a student's goal was to pass for a native speaker (and typically, in the case of French, a metropolitan French native speaker). We now value functional fluency; and the theoretical and pedagogical priority that has been accorded to francophonie has done much to overturn the idea that there might be any such thing as a normative metropolitan French identity, with respect to which all other French-speaking countries and cultures would count as marginal. But, I would contend, if there is no neat, unified, happy place called French, and therefore no neat little package called French identity, it probably follows that there is no neat, unified, happy place called francophonie. If language-learning, as related in these stories, reveals that linguistic and cultural identity do not map unproblematically onto geographical identity, then it clearly isn't enough simply to say that French is also about a certain number of other places, and that it needn't always be understood in relation to metropolitan France. All that really does is redraw the map of Frenchness, and make "France" bigger.
While it's one thing to teach our students about Caribbean French literatures, and African poetry, and Canadian politics, and sensitise them to differences of accent and dialect, it may not be enough. Teaching them about Quebecois identity and Kanak identity can only go so far they can no more aspire to being Quebecois or Kanak than they can to being French. Our student body is already culturally diverse, and our aim has to be to find ways of enabling in them an Australian-French identity (which might in practice be an Australian-Greek-French identity, or an Australian-Chinese French identity), or indeed sometimes a Japanese-French identity, an expatriate French-French identity and so on. Instead of feeling shut out of authentic Frenchness, this approach would teach students that Frenchness is something they can achieve in their own way, and that it can only grow out of the identities they already have. It should teach them about the value of an oblique perspective. Obliquity, after all, is about finding other ways in, and complicating the question of what "in" could mean.
It would involve teaching them that they can listen in, without copying slavishly, that they have the right to prosecute in other words, to ask questions, doubt, and argue with the evidence presented. It would mean not having to accept truths about a culture as they are handed down from on high, not being bound by the law of dictation, having the freedom to explore language on your own terms. This is not to say that we should teach our students to do as they please with French. Just like the courtroom, French has its rules and conventions. But they do need to understand that conventions can be exploited and subverted, and sometimes the "immigrant location" is the best place to do it.
I would like to thank Barbara Hanna, whose birthday gift of French Lessons engendered this article, which I return to her as a much lesser gift.
 Kaplan herself uses the term "language memoir" in an article contemporaneous with French Lessons. "In the genre I am calling "language memoir," the second language is not always a "foreign" language; sometimes it is a new dialect, a language of upward mobility, a language of power or expressivity within the native language" (On language memoir p.70).
 This recalls the famous passage where the moistening of the madeleine leads to the epiphany where `les nymphéas de la Vivonne, et les bonnes gens du village et leurs petits logis et l'église et tout Combray et ses environs, tout cela qui prend forme et sop.61).
 It is difficult to know whether it is the adult or the younger Kaplan who learns to mobilise impressionism and cubism as ways of understanding the world around her.
 Kaplan will later publish The Collaborator: The Trial & Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. Essays toward a Modern Philology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation. London: Minerva, 1991.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Le Ton beau de Marot. In Praise of the Music of Language. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Kaplan, Alice. French Lessons: A Memoir. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Kaplan, Alice. "On Language Memoir," in Displacements. Cultural Identities in Question. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. pp.59-70.
Proust, Marcel. Du côté de chez Swann. Paris: Gallimard, 1954.
Riemer, Andrew. America with subtitles. Melbourne: Minerva, 1995.
|Peter Cowley lectures in the Department of French Studies at the University of Sydney. His current research interests are translation studies and cross-cultural communication. Recent work includes : "Is there a class in this room?" (With Barbara Hanna. Teaching Languages, Teaching Cultures. Anthony J. Liddicoat and Chantal Crozet, eds. Melbourne: Language Australia, 2000.) Translations of interviews with Michel Serres and Julia Kristeva. (In Mary Zournazi. Hope - New Philosophies for Change. Sydney: Pluto Press, 2002.) He is currently working on a translation of Michel Serres' Les Cinq Sens. (In collaboration with Margaret Sankey.)|