The Gwyn Jones Lecture 2000
On Translating a Person – Adam Phillips
Subsequently published as: Adam Phillips (p125-147) from, Promises, Promises, Faber and Faber 2000.
…a translation issues from the original -not so much
from its life as from its afterlife. For a translation comes
later than the original…
Walter Benjamin, ’The Task of the Translator’
In 1980 Raymond Williams published a book with the, to me, rather daunting title of Problems in Materialism and Culture. I had studied what was then still called English Literature at university but I had neither read, nor indeed been encouraged to read anything by Williams. I had, to put it briefly, no idea what the word ’materialism’ meant; and that, indeed, was why I bought the book. And the first piece I read in the book, out of a kind of vague, idle curiosity, was entitled, ’The Welsh Industrial Novel’. I say that I read it out of idle curiosity because even though I had been born and had grown up in Cardiff - and from adolescence onwards had been very interested in what I thought of as Literature -I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Welsh industrial novel. In fact, I would have been hard pressed to name, and I had certainly not read, a Welsh novel of any kind. But what is of most interest to me now, looking back, is that I was not at all surprised by this. I read Williams’s lecture rather as a tourist might read a guidebook, with a mixture of genuine curiosity, duty and inattention. It was as though it had never occurred to me that Welsh culture, as defined by Welsh people who lived it and struggled to make it, could be of any interest or use to me. That one could grow up in a place, and to all intents and purposes take so little interest in it; that, one’s aspirations could so completely disavow, if not actually abolish a surrounding world; that one could live in one’s ambitions, one’s family’s ambitions, and the ambitions sponsored by one’s education, at the cost of living in a place. All these formative experiences, I imagine, have resonances in the history of Anglo-Welsh relations and the history of Jewish and other emigration and immigration. And they are all, whatever else they are, problems of materialism and culture. But they can also be seen, in a slightly different way, as failures of translation, and denials of reality. And so, from a psychoanalytic point of view, evidence of anxieties at work. Williams writing so forcefully of the difficult genesis of Welsh industrial novels is a useful parallel (if not a parable) of the predicament I am describing. ’From the beginning of the formation of the industrial working class novel’, he writes, ’there were always individuals with the zeal and capacity to write, but their characteristic problem was the relation of their intentions and experience to the dominant literary forms, shaped primarily as these were by another and dominant class.’
In other words, the translation of their experience - their moving it across into the alien form of the English middle-class novel - could feel excessively alienating. As over-accommodation, or submission, or distraction. The form was foreign, and it was the form of a dominant, exploitative class. A welsh miner would not feel at home, as it were, in one of Jane Austen’s drawing rooms. What Williams is alerting us to is that what he calls the emergence of ’structures of feeling’ depend upon the cultural forms available for use. And each of those forms carries with it a history and a class-consciousness. As a boy growing up in Cardiff, and one way or another living there until my early twenties, it was as though, my education told me, there were no Welsh cultural forms usefully available to me. I had never needed to find out what materialism meant. But after studying English Literature I became a child psychotherapist; that is, someone interested in how people grow up where they grow
up; and in the senses in which people experience themselves as displaced persons within the immediacy of their surroundings. In short, in what people do with their histories; what they can make of what they are given. The finding, and the failure to find, good-enough forms for oneself, and the things one values. In other words, in the possibility of translation: of moving oneself within, and among, a variety of languages. From one’s so-called mother tongue, and beyond.
There was no conscious link in my mind, at the time, between where I grew up and my choice of profession. I seemed to think of myself as coming from a family, but not really from a place; and the more limited and limiting versions of psychoanalysis might have endorsed such a preposterous misconception. This active disowning of location and local culture -which I think of now as being about class and its emotional underpinning - is akin, in its own way, to some of the most extreme defences that Freud describes. And yet not to be interested in something or someone - to be apparently untouched by them -must be one of the commonest and most unacknowledged of defences. Indifference can be more pernicious - and more insidiously aggressive -than outright hostility. So I am very glad to be giving this lecture here today, both as some kind of redress or acknowledgement of all this, and also because, as I found out to my amazement - as though it was some uncanny kind of deferred action - Raymond Williams’s ’The Welsh Industrial Novel’ was, in fact, the inaugural Gwyn Jones Lecture, given in Cardiff in 1978. To be linked with such distinguished Welshmen is something of an honour; even though the psychoanalysis that I practise and value is, I think, something Williams would have had certain misgivings about, referring as he does, elsewhere, to Freudianism as ’a bourgeois version of society’. Which, of course, it is. And yet, in Williams’s inaugural lecture he refers to the uses of pastoral in these Welsh industrial novels of the Thirties in a way that is germane to my subject. ’The pastoral life’, he writes, ’which had been Welsh history, is still another Welsh present, and in its visible presence - not as an ideal contrast but as the slope, the skyline, to be seen immediately from the streets and from the pit-tops - it is a shape which manifests not only a consciousness of history but a consciousness of alternatives, and then, in a modern form, a consciousness of aspirations and possibilities.’
What Williams ascribes to the pastoral life I want to ascribe to psychoanalysis; indeed as a remarkable exact and exacting account of what psychoanalysis, at its most useful and interesting can be -a consciousness of history, a consciousness of alternatives, a consciousness of aspirations and possibilities: a wish for translation. But adding to this an acknowledgement of the unconsciousness of these things, and what that might involve. Without translation in its familiar sense of transferring from one language into another, and in its more metaphorical sense of moving across, or removing to another place, there can be no sense of history, of alternatives, of aspirations, or of possibilities. And contemporary so-called multi-cultural societies depend for their viability on their members’ enthusiasm, however ambivalent, for translation. Our relationship to translation has become a virtual synonym for our relationship to ourselves.
Psychoanalysts don’t tend to think of themselves as translating people. The analyst interprets, reconstructs, questions, re-describes, returns the signifier, as Lacanians say, but he rarely describes what he does as translating the patient’s so-called material. Translation is what we do to texts, and we can’t read people like books. Even though words are the thing in analysis, translation isn’t often the word that comes to mind,
at least for the analyst. And yet, of course, each of these techniques, or rather practices, both overlap with the work of the translator, or are just simply of a piece with what translation entails. To interpret, to reconstruct, to re-describe, to question -even to return the signifier, if only to the dictionary, or the author’s other work -this is what the translator also does with his text. Such disparate practices share a likeness. So I want to consider what kind of analogy translation is for what goes on in psychoanalysis, how it is linked to a consciousness of history and possibility; and whether, by implication, this can tell us something about the act of translation, as well as about psychoanalysis itself. All the controversies about accurate or good-enough translations of Freud (and Lacan) are also -as well as self-evidently of some importance in their own right - some kind of parallel text for, or ironic commentary on, the anxieties involved both in the act of ongoing mutual translation that is the psychoanalytic relationship; and also of the ways in which psychoanalysis translates itself, and gets translated into the general culture (clearly the Freud ’everyone’ knows about is in rather a gossipy translation). After an analysis, after a text has been translated, how do we know - who is in a position to decide - when the result is a good one? Whether, that is to say, we now have a reliable text to go on? The consequences of a translation as of an analysis - are unpredictable; even if we are capable of having good intentions.
After all, people come for psychoanalysis when their present language no longer works. Indeed, one could sensibly say that they are in need of translation; to move or be moved from one place to another, through language. As the OED has it in one of its several canonical definitions, they want to be removed ’from one place of interment or repose to another… to carry or convey to heaven without death’. And yet when people come to see me I don’t teach them French or German or Swedish, and not merely because I don’t know these languages. People come for analysis when they have reached the limits of their language; and this means, going on using their own available descriptions of what’s happening - of what they feel - has become too painful. So even though people do not come for analysis to learn another language, there is a sense in which this is exactly what they want. But they don’t say, if I am unhappy in English, perhaps I would be better off in French. They say, in various ways, that they are suffering from something; and so are in need of something. If they are English, they want a different English: a better vocabulary.
I think it is worth wondering why analysts don’t offer language courses, and what translators imagine they are doing for the authors they translate. Clearly there are writers who, one way or another, have felt better off writing in other languages; Beckett is perhaps the most obvious modern example, and he, of course, both had some psychoanalysis and partially renounced his mother tongue in order to find the words he needed. And there must be translators who, for whatever reasons, prefer facilitating both the words and the circulation of their chosen authors, rather than, in a literal sense, writing their own words. In each of these choices the other language becomes an object of desire. So I suppose one question here is, what is it for a language - say Welsh or English - to be, or to become an object of desire? And by the same token, as with the person who comes for analysis, what is it for a language to become a persecutory object, a hate-object, so painful that one needs to get away from it? The translator is both trying to stay close to the original language, and also quite literally, needing to get away from it. There could be no general, answers to such questions, but the answers in any individual case, I think, couldn’t help but be interesting.
I think the most useful general way of formulating what psychoanalysis is, is simply to say that it is an art of re-description. As Bion, the British analyst, once said, the analyst and the patient are trying to find stories for the in- appropriate. A fresh account of the unacceptable is required. So I want to use this lecture today to consider two things. Firstly, in what sense is a re-description a translation? And I want to link this with what is simply a clinical impression (which I will come back to) - that when a patient feels translated by the analyst they don’t feel transported, moved over to a better place, they feel radically misunderstood in a peculiarly disabling way. It is my impression that when my patients say that I have translated what they have been saying, they feel I have done them a kind of violence. No one has ever said to me about an interpretation, ’That’s a great translation!’ But people have said to me, ’Now you’re translating what I’m saying to you.’ And they are not pleased. Translating English into more English is obviously different from translating English into French; and yet clearly sometimes, for some people, they can feel akin. If we were to think of this spatially, in terms of distance, I could ask myself: how far do my words have to get from the patient’s consciously intended meaning before they feel translated? And why would translation be a pejorative term, from the patient’s point of view? And also to consider why, if at all psychoanalysis and translation might usefully need each other as analogies? To talk about analogy is not merely to talk in terms of the binary oppositions of sameness and difference; it is to talk, as in translation, about nuances of meaning. What the word translation gets used to do becomes part of the practice of what translators (and analysts) think of themselves as doing. And when it turns up, just as when it is disavowed as a good thing to be doing, it smuggles a good deal across with it.
In the second paragraph of the famous opening to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx writes:
’Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen, but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted. The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. And, just when they appear to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something that does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them; they borrow their names, slogans and costumes so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language. Luther put on the mask of the apostle Paul; the revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire; and the revolution of 1848 knew no better than to parody at some points 1789 and at others the revolutionary traditions of 1793-5.
In the same way the beginner who has learned a new language always retranslates it into his mother tongue: he can only be said to have appropriated the spirit of the new language and to express himself in it freely when he can manipulate it without reference to the old, and when he forgets his original language while using the new one’.
When Marx here wants an analogy - an instructive parallel - for revolution, it is interestingly to translation that he turns. What do people do when they are engaged in a ’revolutionary transformation’ of themselves? They seek reassuring precedents; they make a costume drama of the past. And so fearful are they, they have recourse to magic, as though they can only become something by, at least at first, pretending to be it; and paradoxically, they can only become something new, by pretending to be something from the past. It is, as Marx describes it, a mixture of simple trickery, and a ritual of performative utterances: ’they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them; they borrow their names, slogans and costumes so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language’. And for Marx this is most obviously like the process of learning a new language; you start by pretending to speak in this way -just like an actor, you try out the part, you try on the clothes, you use the words - and eventually, if the process is successful, you forget that this is what you are doing. You forget, as Marx puts it, your ’mother tongue’. You are successfully translated when you no longer need to do the translation; when you forget that it is translation that you have in fact done. To learn a new language means to forget the old one. It is a rhetorically powerful definition of a successful revolution: the forgetting of an old language. And yet how is this different from a conversion experience, from being initiated into a cult, or indeed from being brainwashed? It is, to some extent, self-chosen; but why wouldn’t it be better to be always remembering, to be always doing the work of retranslation? And what happens in that gap that Marx wants to call forgetting, between translating and not needing to? In order to change dramatically why do we have to relinquish the old languages of the tradition of the dead generations which, as Marx says, ’weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’? Clearly the dead are never quite dead enough, but a nightmare, of course, wakes the sleeper up. Freud would say, it wakes the dreamer up with something from the past, the representation of which - the language of which - the dreamer cannot bear. He needs to return to so-called reality in order not to be overwhelmed himself; in order not to die. For Freud, in a sense, as for Marx the past is both a nightmare from which we must awaken, but it is also our only resource. It is literally where we get our language from, where we learn it. To learn a language is to learn a history, and to acquire a medium from the past in which to reconstruct the past. But a language can also be like a nightmare from which we cannot awaken.
Psychoanalysts may be persuading their patients to forget their old languages, while at the same time reminding them of the histories, the always constructed narrative continuities between past and present. Just as a good translation doesn’t exactly convince you that Madame Bovary wasn’t originally written in French, but it tries to remove one obstacle, if you are not French, to reading a book nominally called Madame Bovary. If you read it in French and keep translating it into English you are ’reading’ two books; if you don’t need to bother to remember your English you are, so to speak, genuinely bilingual.
As a psychoanalyst one is, of course, glibly and not so glibly tempted by Marx’s reference to the mother tongue. One has only appropriated what he calls ’the spirit of the new language’, one can only express oneself ’freely’ - a not incidental word in the context -when one can ’manipulate it without reference to the old’ and ’forget the original language while using the new one’. From a psychoanalytic point of view one could substitute sexuality here for language; one can only be a sexual adult, in a Freudian sense, when one can be sexual ’without reference’ - or without too much reference - to the mother (and father); once, that is, one can sufficiently forget them. Freud’s work, if you like, domesticates the revolution Marx is talking about; for Freud the revolution is the transforming of infantile sexuality into so-called adult sexuality. Indeed isn’t Marx’s description of the revolutionaries also a marvellous description of post-war adolescents? ’They borrow their names, slogans and costumes so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language.’ To be slightly more accurate perhaps one should say, adolescence is the time when one repudiates the more venerable disguises; but it is often a revolutionary costume-drama.
The irony that Marx is pointing to is that rupture is only possible by simulating continuity. In this sense his description exploits at least the English meaning of the word revolution; that it means both a recurrence, and a mutation, a return and a severance. And this, of course, is one of the paradoxes at the heart of the practice of Freudian analysis: that only by, in some way, returning to or recounting the past can one sufficiently detach oneself from it to make a viable future. Marx’s comparison of revolution with both learning a new language and with translation is apt because only by returning to a supposedly original text (or language) can one make a translation. No mother tongue, no foreign language, no translation. But what is the patient’s mother tongue? Is there an equivalence, does it make useful sense, to describe a person in analysis being or having an original text?
The original text, one might say, is the words the patient keeps bringing into the analysis; the stories - with all their gaps and slips and hesitations -that the patient keeps telling. Indeed one could say, the repetitions in the patient’s life are something like original text; and to translate these repetitions, that Freud saw as integral to a life, would be to render them unnecessary. It is as though these repetitions keep coming back for more translation until there is nothing left to translate. The repetitions keep insisting, so to speak, that they are the original text of a person’s life; and therefore that there is such a thing. And the analyst keeps talking in a way that might dispel them, and so persuade the patient that there is no such thing as an original text to a life. The analyst translates to diminish the power of the repetition -where compulsion was, something like choice might be - and so to make something disappear. And here translation means re-description: in the service of dissolution. The patient translates - in the sense of moves across, transfers - earlier loves into a love for the analyst: transference might be another word for translation. And then the analyst re-describes these translations, if not to dissipate them at least to diminish their grip. The patient translates everybody into his parents, and he needs to be able to translate his love for his parents into love for other people. This is the revolution Freud calls the Oedipus complex; the child cannot ’have’ the original parents, so he must defer his desire until he can find a sufficiently good translation: close enough to the original to be desirable, but different enough to be acceptably desirable. He cannot - if I can extend this analogy a bridge too far - if he is French read Madame Bovary in the original, he will have to find the best available translation.
In other words, in Oedipal terms, the child, once he becomes an adult, will recognize a good translation when he sees one. A bad translation will be one that is too close to the original; apparently so accurate, so undisguised, so reminiscent that he simply won’t be able to enjoy it. If the person he desires is too like the parents he will feel confounded, inhibited, thwarted. A satisfying translation must be discernibly different from the original; otherwise it will be inaccessible. It would be a kind of Borgesian fable to imagine a world in which all the famous translations of classic texts had achieved this status by successfully disguising what texts they were actually translations of.
There is something akin to translation going on in the individual’s development, Freud implies, because there is forbidden desire. I only need to translate my desire, because the original text is unacceptable, against the law. So like the poets of Eastern Europe writing Under Communism, translation becomes the art, as it were, of disguising an original; of finding a way of writing something that is sufficiently acceptable, or sufficiently irrelevant to the censor. For Freud all writing, all speaking is of this order. And so the analyst, in Laplanche’s term, ’detranslates’ the patient’s material; not in the sense of merely translating it back to some putative original, but rather in the sense of disrupting it. Not getting it back to some original language, but moving it on - or over - to some future language. The patient’s language is fixed in a syntax of habitual association; the aim of the analysis is to undo the patient’s favourite chains.
There may be some psychic relief (and Borgesian irony) for the translator of a text that his translation can never be identical to the original. But from a psychoanalytic point of view there will always be a question about what the translator feels internally permitted to make of what he is given, to make of his chosen text. It could of course be silly to think of the text as a mother; but it is nevertheless true -both for internal and external reasons -that the translator can’t just do what he wants with it. So I want to say, in this context, not that the translator’s text, as an object of desire, is like a mother, but rather, what does translation look like - what would the consequences be -if we started believing that translation was an Oedipal drama? That the text to be translated is akin to the mother’s body, when the translator gets to work? As a translator, what can you legitimately do with a text and how is it decided? The translator, the text and the reader make three: but who does the text belong to?
The text cannot answer back but the language - like patients’ speech - can seem resistant to translation. It can seem to refuse to be turned into a different language. It is indeed integral to psychoanalysis that the analyst analyses the patient’s resistances; that, for some people, is what analysis is. But clearly the translator can’t assume - or can’t afford to assume - that the language of the text is, as it were, deliberately or unconsciously thwarting him. Freud said that the resistance is in the patient; Lacan, interestingly, said that the resistance is always in the analyst. What kind of sense does it make for the translator to say that the resistance is in the language? Psychoanalysis, like translation, and as translation, deals in all the obstacles to transformation; and its aim is to promote the possibilities for circulation, for freer exchange, for what Williams called a consciousness of possibilities and alternatives. And yet if psychoanalysis as theory and practice in many ways can’t do without the analogy of translation - whether it is describing transference, or interpretation, or the body’s capacity for representation - there is something clinically, something personally offensive for the patient about feeling that they have been only translated; as though to translate were to impose a language rather than to negotiate the making of one. And this, I think, sheds some interesting light on the topic under discussion, about the range and the limits of analogy.
A sixteen-year-old-girl was referred to me partly because she was depressed about the fact that she would still occasionally wet the bed, and more generally because she was lonely. When the person who had assessed her had asked her what she hoped to get from therapy, she had replied, ’A boyfriend’. The girl who came into my room was obviously mopingly miserable. Her face barely flickered when she met me, and she sat on the chair leaning slightly forward, hidden by a dank curtain of hair which she twirled in her fingers. She was grimly silent, not so much resisting as shy and just obviously unhappy. I failed to engage her in any kind of conversation, and eventually gave up, hoping that my silence might produce something that my words couldn’t. After a few minutes, still twirling her hair, she said to me, ’Boring, isn’t it?’, referring ostensibly to her hair. I asked if she found me boring and had been hoping for somebody a little more interesting. She said,
’No, my hair’, and then rather proudly, ’Actually, I’m rather boring.’ I said, ’Being an interesting person, being exciting, or clever, or funny can feel quite dangerous.’ At this she perked up a bit -it was as though something in her sat up -and she started telling me about a boy who lived in her street who was ’very funny, and all the girls really liked him’. She talked with such rapture about this boy, such albeit timid fascination, that it sounded as if she was a bit in love with him. So I said, rather obviously, ’It sounds as if you really like this boy’; and she got huffy and said, ’No, no, it’s not like that, I’ve just got a strong affection for him’, and she blushed. I said, ’I know these things can be a bit embarrassing, but perhaps you like him more than you think.’ And she said very crossly, ’You’re just translating what I’m saying to you now, like everyone does.’ I
asked her for another example and she said, ’I say to my mum, I’m going round the shops, and my mum says, you mean you’re going to hang around with those boys again. She thinks she can read my mind better than I can.’ If translation here meant, for her, having something about her sexuality or her sociability intrusively exposed, it also meant being second guessed by someone more powerful. Her sense - or her sense of herself as knowing what she was doing -was being stolen from her. Translation was daylight robbery. To re-describe someone without apparently requiring their confirmation, or caring about their response, is clearly a form of control, if not outright bullying (one re-describes someone without their confirmation, of course, when one translates a dead author, or one who only speaks his native language). But in the slip she makes - affection for affection - she translates herself, one might say. The Freudian unconscious is always translating our words for
Continued in Part Two - Click here to read on