This year marks the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot Publication in English – Beckett’s self-translation of his original piece in French, Waiting for Godotback to their mother tongue. Godot was not Beckett’s first attempt at French composition; he had started writing poetry in French as early as 1938 and translated Murphy in French in 1939. But Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s major foray into what would become his career-long routine of composing in French and translating himself into English. In the curious underworld of Beckettian translation studies, this is a controversial subject. Some critics regard the dual nature of Beckett’s work as its distinguishing quality. Certainly, Beckett’s eccentric writing practice makes his bilingual corpus unique in the history of literature. But how to classify self-translated texts? They eschew traditional categories, dwelling in a hazy realm between translation, revision, and authorial reinterpretation.
Then there is the question of precedence: which text — French or English — appears as the authoritative version? The English “translations”, written in Beckett’s native language, question the “originality” of the original French texts. After all, don’t the French originals already involve translation work? Most scholars agree that both versions of Godot should be studied side by side. Thus, any notion of priority is canceled, and the possibility of locating an “original” text, so central to our conceptions of artistic production, is practically swallowed up by this black hole of textual duality.
The main concern, however, is the question of motivation: why did Beckett, an Irishman, choose to write in French and why, after achieving considerable success in that language, did he insist on many times to return his work to the language of his homeland? Beckett himself has provided a series of thoughts on the matter. In a 1937 letter to his friend Axel Kaunhe explained,
It is becoming more and more difficult, even insane, for me to write official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn to access the things (or the Nothingness) that are hidden behind. Grammar and style. To me they seem to have become as useless as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask… Is there a reason why this terrible materiality of the word surface cannot dissolve?
Beckett here expresses a desire to get rid of the baggage of traditional English. Only by getting rid of the “irrelevance” of grammar and style, he thought, could he approach anything like the truth under the “mask”. Since Beckett saw such excess and irrelevance of language as endemic to English, he began experimenting with French, a language in which he claimed, “It’s easier to write without style…[French] had the right weakening effect.
This rejection of style figures, in a letter dated later that same year, as a kind of violence against language: “From time to time I have the consolation, as now [Beckett is writing in German]to sin willy-nilly against a foreign language, as I would like to knowingly and intentionally do against my own – and as I will – Juvante deodorant.What is remarkable about these passages is the sense of desperation – in fact, of fervent compulsion – that drove Beckett to abandon his mother tongue. This English seemed “senseless” and “irrelevant” to him, a sort of falsehood or facade that he felt compelled to “rip up” and ultimately “sin against”, throws Beckett’s bilingualism into a considerably darkened. He wasn’t just playing with the language when he switched to French; the change marks neither an indulgence in the sport of cross-linguistic wordplay, nor the disciplined resolve of a man fashioning himself some kind of writing exercise. On the contrary, the change from English to French was motivated by a fundamental necessity. It’s as if Beckett needed French for his very survival as a writer. Given the quality of his early work (in English), it does not seem unreasonable, after all, to suggest that his status as a literary genius is closely linked to his adoption of the French language.
But then, why was English not up to Beckett’s goals? Part of the answer may lie in its relationship with James Joyce. Critics have cited their close friendship and Beckett’s perception of Joyce’s unprecedented accomplishments as the source of his need to escape English – to emerge from under Joyce’s shadow. There is no doubt that Joyce’s legacy haunted; Beckett’s early work reveals a monkey simulation of his mentor. A review from 1934 More stings than kicks argued, for example, that Beckett “imitated everything in James Joyce – except verbal magic and inspiration…the whole book is a frank pastiche of the lighter and more satirical passages of Ulysses.” Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlsonalso noted that Beckett’s 1932 novel, Fair to Average Women’s Dream, was “very Joycian in her ambition and her accumulative technique”. During this period, Beckett even imitated Joyce’s style of research, using dictionaries and reference books and weaving hundreds of citations from other literary, philosophical, and theological works into his novel. That his early style so closely resembles that of Joyce is hardly surprising; Beckett called Joyce’s work a “heroic accomplishment…that’s what it was, epic, heroic, what he accomplished.”
Still, that seems a somewhat straightforward assessment. Joyce’s elaborate use of language contrasts with the minimalism Beckett sought, but Joycian prose can hardly be considered the language of highly stylized traditional English. In fact, as disparate as their styles seem, one could say that Beckett and Joyce somehow unite in their reworking of the English language. If Beckett reached English through French, Joyce introduced the mother tongue to French, German, Italian, Latin and other languages. In short, if Beckett’s recasting of English manages to elude Joyce, it is an evasion that mimics it simultaneously, for Joyce had already attempted a sort of great escape.
The genteel “gentlemanly” English that Beckett despised was most closely embodied by someone like Samuel Johnson, a literary figure of particular interest to Beckett. He made a pilgrimage to Dr Johnson’s birthplace, scrupulously skimmed the pages of by Boswell The life of Samuel Johnson, and filled his journals with notes about Johnson from which to compose a play. Although Beckett was fascinated by the man, he probably received his work a little differently: Johnson’s English language dictionary and his reputation as an authority on English letters easily made his name synonymous with the English brand Beckett struggled to shake off. Of course, if English in Beckett’s mind was the language of Johnson, it was also the language, albeit reworked, of Joyce. Sitting down to write in English, Beckett inevitably composed Joycian English.
Beckett’s relationship to his literary ancestry and the English language—his almost violent desperation to rid himself of English and his simultaneous adoration of Joyce’s work—is a case study in the complexities of literary influence. Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence) has attempted to de-idealize our notion of how one writer shapes another—to disprove the idea of creative writing as a carefree, museum-inspired experience and instead present it as an arduous, anxious, even patient: “The influence is flu — an astral disease. If influence was health, who could write a poem? Health is stasis. Both thrilled by his ancestor’s work and sickened by its effect on his own stunted handwriting, Beckett fled to a foreign language.
It is an unusual and extreme example of poetic anxiety. Beckett didn’t just try to “step out” of his literary ancestry, and that’s how Bloom thinks most great writers produce original works. He tried to get out even of the language in which they were writing. In his adoption of French, Beckett may have recalled Joyce but he also rejected her. It was not possible for him to innovate within the limits of the English tradition. He needed to get rid of language entirely — its echoes and associations — to open up to the potential for original artistic production. Beckett’s French texts – and, by extension, their English translations – are the result of this radical attempt to “extricate” the anguish of a writer infected not only at the level of his ancestor’s work, but at the level of the language itself. he employs.
Writing in French, Beckett adopted a new literary personality – a French life, a set of French texts, a French identity and reputation. It was his attempt to make a fresh start. But there is no clean slate to write on, no mind erased from history and influence – only the accumulation of voices, the last of which was his own. In Waiting for Godot and his other French texts, Beckett “sinned” (as he aspired to do) against English and his literary ancestors. In Waiting for Godot and his lyrics in English, he brought sin home, in the face of English – the language, the canon, Joyce, whatever had exiled him from his mother tongue. Working through French, Beckett finally succeeds in becoming part of the English literary tradition.
In the end, he is not strictly a writer or a strictly translator of a single work. Instead, Beckett’s texts break down these identities, suggesting that authorship is always about translation – the translation of experience into thought and thought into writing. The interest he had in constantly translating his own work seems to have been to confuse us, to complicate the distinction between original and translation, so that we are forced to understand language in general as a kind of translation – and the original texts as the consequence of texts that came before: a vast lineage of influence and interpretation. Beckett has just added an extra leg to the journey, creating paired French and English masterpieces along the way.
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