Nathanaël’s writing resists simple interpretation. While American literary culture often prizes directness and transparent soul-baring, the Québécoise writer chooses a different path. She has penned twenty books in French and in English that explore the intersection of poetry, continental philosophy and art criticism, as well as several award-winning translations. Enter “Hatred of Translation,” Nathanaël’s new book of essays on the impossibility and paramount importance of translation.
As in most of her work, “Hatred” finds Nathanaël opting out of a conventional authorial “I,” instead choosing to assert her presence through her signature winding, intellectually brawny sentences. In the essay “Alula, for posterity (Autobiography of Translation),” she contends, “I had not wanted to speak of any of this. It is not that the I is hidden, but it is entitled to its reluctance.”
By and large, literary translators are either ignored with their contributions scrubbed from book covers and discussions of the texts to which they contributed, or characterized as do-gooders—selfless, worldly types who bridge the gaps between languages and societies. Nathanaël rejects both these fates and takes great pains to highlight the violence and disaggregation that occurs when texts are translated. In other words, she sees herself as more of a butcher than a savior: “The destructive impulse of language is irresistible.”
Nathanaël eschews plain speech as a rhetorical device, while lamenting that the act of speaking being so easy lessens the incentive to think deeply. This certainly isn’t a book for folks expecting an explanatory comma after every reference. She layers thought upon thought, bringing in the likes of Claude Cahun, Jacques Derrida, Ingeborg Bachmann and Hervé Guibert to debate her arguments and each other.
While I found portions of the book playful and stimulating, much of my reading experience was spent in partial or even total confusion. The author stacks ideas and references so quickly and unconventionally that I often found my head spinning and my fingers a’Googling. Indeed, her thinking rarely follows a straight line that leads to a neat conclusion or unified theory. Instead, she arranges quotes, references and ideas until she’s achieved the essay version of one of Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored rooms, a perception-warping space you can step in or out of, in which political resistance, possibility, and a sense of play are more important than any fixed meaning. It’s a wild ride, and be forewarned: reading Nathanaël’s work requires either a deep understanding of her reference points or an open-minded spirit of intellectual adventure, preferably both.
“Hatred of Translation”
Nightboat Books, 203 pages
Timothy Parfitt is an M.F.A. candidate at Columbia College Chicago. His essays and criticism have appeared in Deadspin, Thread, Newcity, Chicagoist, Timeout Chicago and Wassup.