Saturday, January 23, 2010

Impossible n'est pas français

The French proverb that is the title of this post is both English and French, or is it just French?:

"Impossible n'est pas français"

It's funny of course.  Because the English is French and the French English.  The lore is that Napoleon said it -- see what "Bruno says" here from Petit dictionnaire des expressions nées de l’histoire.  And the fact is that in 1899, the women of the "International Conference of Women" wrote "Si le mot impossible n'est pas français, il est encore moins féminin" to make the English-French possible as something women can do (i.e., "the impossible").

Translators rendering the phrase in English tend not only to offer a literal expression of the French but also to provide a comparable English parable proverb as if that's translation.  "Impossible isn't French," is the literal.  "There is no such word as can't," is the non-French English translation.  (By my adding italics, there's another layer of silent meaning that doesn't come across when the translations are read aloud -- in other words, the italicized words signal to the reader "this is the word as a word."  But the reader speaking the sentences can't signal this meaning by voice).

You may have seen my earlier posts today on the translating Hélène Cixous. I'm particularly interested in some of the questions and statements there. And then I'll end this post with some questions for me, and for you too. The bits I want to quote again here are these:
We are reminded here of Derrida's question: can the process of transfer between texts already written in a plurality of tongues still be called translation? How to translate a text which is already infected by the multiplicity of language (Graham 1985:215)?

all languages are translations. The moment I write, I translate. I translate what I feel in this or that language, which I am going to destabilize. The encounters of my emotions in my thought with the French language, for instance, is going to de-French and re-French French -- to free French... Of course the translator has to be a great poet and also a kind of mathematician of an equivalent order to displace the original to its next of kin
So here are my questions:

1.  Isn't the English-French proverb like much of the Bible, a mixture of language, of translation already?  Is the process of bible translation, then, really "translation"?  Does it "stabilize" meanings the way many hope translation will?

2.  Which is the better English translation of the French proverb above here, after all the explaining?  Is it the literal which ignores the "natural English" contexts and proverb?  Or is it the English idiomatic translation which ignores the not-French English word now as French?

3.  And in translating the proverb can you do even better?  Can't you?  Impossible?

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