We Have More in Common Than We Know

By Emily LaBargeDecember 31, 2017

We Have More in Common Than We Know

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

DIFFERENT KINDS of translation: Translation of, translation for, translation as —

Translation of … foreign — no, different — or — unheard voices. Of voices overwritten, banished, lost, annihilated, misinterpreted. Translation of lands, peoples, politics, cultures, contexts, geographies, dreams, worlds exterior and interior. Translation of fiction, essays, prose, poetry, memoir, across, and in between genres. Translations of translations. “The politics of translation takes on a massive life of its own if you see language as the process of meaning-construction […] If you are interested in talking about the other, and/or in making a claim to be the other, it is crucial to learn other languages,” writes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay “The Politics of Translation.”

Translation for … meaning, content, style, sense, sound, rhythm — are these things mutually inclusive or exclusive? Translation for nuance, for posterity, for preservation, for understanding — for the future, the past, the present. Translation for me, you, us, them — the self and the other. Translation for all, for none, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.

And as — translation as — past, present, and future. As voices remade, returned, rehabilitated, refashioned, resilient. Translation as critical as creative as accurate as failing. Translation as necessary as urgent as soft as loud as rising in volume and demand. Translation as learning, translation as essential — as a way of living, as a way of life. Translation as learning how to speak for the first time in the first place. Translation as a bridge, a tree planted on a border, branches branching to branches on the other side — branches of meaning related yet distinct.

Translation as Transhumance is the title of Mireille Gansel’s rich and moving memoir about her life as a translator, masterfully translated from French by Ros Schwartz. Transhumance, from the Latin trans, across, and humus, ground, to the French transhumer, and then finally, in the early 20th century into the English word, referring to a type of nomadism or pastoralism, which Gansel describes as “the long, slow movement of the flocks to distant places, in search of the greenest pastures, the low plains in winter and the high valleys in summer.” In Gansel’s memoir, words, too, migrate. Languages cross borders and settle for the season, then circumnavigate back to their original territories in altered forms, bearing witness to their travels. Translation uncovers etymologies of similarity and difference. But a language involves not just layers of meaning, but also layers of time in the lives of all who have spoken it.


“That evening I discovered that words, like trees, had roots whose magic my father had revealed to me,” Gansel writes at the outset, introducing the origins of what will become her lifelong vocation. “[A]ll of a sudden, the blueprint of my native French glowed from within.” Translation as Transhumance is loosely organized into narrative passages that interweave Gansel’s life with the work of those she has translated — including the German-language poetry of Nelly Sachs, Bertolt Brecht, Peter Huchel, and Reiner Kunze; the Vietnamese poetry, spanning North to South, of Tố Hữu, Nguyễn Du, Xuân Diệu, Chế Lan Viên, and Te Hanh; and the cultural geography of Austrian folklorist Eugenie Goldstern. In the case of each person and the work described, she entwines the history of the individual with the history of his or her language. For Gansel, as writer and translator, it is not just what, but how we tell of our lives; particularly in languages that have been marked by conflict and abuse. The terms and conditions of language are subject to the warps and frays of history — forever audible in the syntax and vocabulary of what remains. Gansel’s memoir, as such, involves the memory of so many other voices.

The seeds of her approach to her work are rooted in her account of a formative incident involving her father reading a letter aloud, and translating from Hungarian into French. In a passage meant for her, Gansel notes that her father uses a single French word for a series of different words in Hungarian. She presses him to do better, and he does; specifically, four words in the letter irrevocably alter her understanding of linguistics:

Drágám, my darling; kedvesem, my beloved; and two other words whose sensual literalness I would never forget: aranyoskám, my little golden girl; édesem, my sweet […] Those four words opened up another world, another language that would one day be born within my own language — and the conviction that no word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable.

Those four words, simple exclamations of fondness, usher Gansel, raised to be resolutely French, into a new universe, written and spoken: the German of Mitteleuropa, the language of a people, the language of her family — “that entire little circle of survivors, all speaking the same language, from a world that is no more.” Having forbidden the use of Hungarian, as if to erase the painful past, Gansel’s father tells her that if she wishes to communicate with this extended family, she will have to learn to speak German — though he himself explicitly hates it, saying, “I know eight words, the ones the teacher reserved for the Jewish students in the class—the only ones he dinned into me: ‘Du bist ein Stück Fleish mit zwei Augen’ (‘You are a piece of meat with two eyes.’).”

If we are made in, through, and by language — its cultural histories and political persecutions, the silences and stutters of a family letter translated aloud, the denial of a native tongue — this sort of parental refusal tells volumes, only truly understood with the passage of time:

Many years later, the little girl would understand that in the dark waters of a shared suffering and a shared rebellion, this hatred developed into a dual rejection: of German, the language of the persecutors and those who humiliate, and of Hebrew, the language of his Jewish-self, his persecuted and humiliated self.

As Gansel reaches out to family members, she learns of the vast differences between the German of 20th-century postwar Germany she has learned, and that of Mitteleuropa, peppered with Hungarian, Yiddish, and Slovak; a language that originated in countries “on the very margins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created at the moment of the partition of Poland in 1772, then wiped from the world map in 1918. The crossroads of the languages spoken by all the peoples it comprised: Polish, Ruthenian, German, Yiddish.” As described by authors and scholars, this German revealed a culture of complexity, multilingualism, and pluralism; it was a language that relied on subtlety and humor, and left space for imagination and memory.

It is the knowledge of this other German, now hardly spoken anywhere, that leads Gansel to ask, “How do you bridge the abyss created in the German language by the barbed-wire fences and watchtowers of history? How do you reach the shores of a language of the soul?” This is her calling, to search out via language the traces of different lands and peoples and their lyric iterations. In prose that is elegant and spare, Gansel fuses memory and anecdote, poetry and translation, to offer observations that read as both simple and profound. To move through new languages, she shows us, is to move toward an originary, essential form of communication, and finally closer to the center of the self.

Translation as Transhumance is structured in short sections, scenes that shift and blur and come into focus, flashing forward and back under titles like “The fruits of the elderberry tree,” “The price of a letter,” “The weight of a word,” “Interior exile,” “The universal language,” “Byways,” “A sliver of plane tree bark.” ­Gansel’s recollections are loosely chronological, but without specific dates or many descriptive details, leaving the sense that these episodes interlock on a different plane in space and time: a life as translator is to be always in translation.

As a student at the Collège de France, Gansel meets Robert Minder, an eminent Germanist and anti-Nazi scholar who lectures about the Weltverfinsterung, the

engagement of German poets and intellectuals, citizens of the world who rose up against the imprisonment and obscurantist manipulations of thought and thus of language, against the gradual and arrogant perversion of the German language, whose path he mapped up until the dark era of Nazism.

It is Minder who leads Gansel to the work of Brecht, whose poetry she translates at school, and whom she eventually encounters in the East Berlin of the 1960s. Brecht and his theater group, The Berliner Ensemble, are working on a production of Antigone based on a translation by Hölderlin, whose work had been appropriated by the Nazis. Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, along with a small group of actors are working on the diction of the text — an attempt to reappropriate their native language after years in exile, “in order to give Germans the possibility of listening to their language again, a de-Nazified German language in a production that was also de-Nazified.” It is through Weigel and Brecht that Gansel learns that to interpret and to be an interpreter are not the same thing: one is a functional activity, the other an embodiment, an intensity, as in Brecht’s theory of gestus, which combines physical gesture with “gist,” or attitude, a sense that there is something that hovers beyond the text, which must be incorporated in the speaking of it. In Brecht’s work, Gansel sees the necessity of recognizing strangeness, “the foreign in the familiar, the familiar in the foreign.” Lodged within the language of another are all of the ways in which one does not yet know, may not even be able to imagine, how to speak; and in this different use of language and its alternative modes of description, exists the corresponding possibility of a different way of life. Critically, to control language is to control people; to deny or permit the opportunity for speech, and on what terms such expression may exist.

These ideas take on still new dimension when Gansel attends the Russell Tribunal in Paris, a private body organized by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to evaluate American foreign policy in Vietnam and the degree to which it had sanctioned war crimes. Gansel befriends the Vietnamese who attend the conference and pass through Paris as delegates, learning about their lives and the horrors they have witnessed by reading the poems they carry along. She is invited to translate an anthology of Vietnamese poetry compiled in response to McNamara’s declaration that the United States will “bomb ’em back to the stone age”: the Vietnamese wanted “to answer McNamara’s threat with poetry.”

As with her work with the German language, this project takes Gansel through many layers of Vietnamese culture, its long history of both poetry and conflict from past to present. To learn and to then translate Vietnamese, she takes an immersive approach, working with a team of specialists, each of whom addresses a distinct, critical aspect of the language: a linguist, a musician and composer, a musicologist, a refugee from Saigon, and a sculptor — as well as a host of contemporary poets. “Staying faithful,” Gansel notes, “means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality.” Again, Gansel apprehends an essential unspoken element that lurks outside the words themselves; one for which she must find an equivalent in her French translation. Ultimately, it is the music of the culture, in the sound of the Vietnamese monochord, which Gansel learns to play so she can better hear and understand through, “the breath-chant, the double-silken thread of the cantillation it interweaves with the human voice […] a vast and entirely different kind of poetry.”

To read Translation as Transhumance is to transhume with Gansel as she cultivates a multidimensional understanding of language; it is likewise to excavate words, an archeology of the strata of interpretation that extend from the merest surface inscription. This practice reaches new depths in Gansel’s reading of the poetry of Nelly Sachs, whose work she explores through four levels of meaning, based on the Bible’s four levels of interpretation according to Jewish tradition — “Peshat, literal meaning; Remez, allusive meaning; Drush, deeper meaning; Sod, secret, esoteric meaning.” Like Brecht, Sachs strove to refashion postwar German, to restore the language to those whose forms of communication had been destroyed. It is in this language, both rhythmic and stark, that Sachs writes of the Shoah — of the devastation of a people, of the brutal loss of children and childhood itself; but in terms that record this experience on and in their own cultural terms.

Words, we know, have roots. Like plants they grow, adapt, spread below and above the ground over time. Words are rhizomatic — interconnected with double-meanings and interlocked, subterranean origins. In German, lesen is to read, but it is also to gather, to glean, like leftover grain after the harvest. Indeed, language is an agrarian economy, and Gansel writes of the shared roots of words as reassuring: in language, anyway, ideologies near and far are fundamentally linked. When we speak, we have more in common than we know.

I write this in Europe. The part of Europe that will soon cease to be, if it ever really was. I’m thinking now of those who manipulate language and thus thought; those who are intent on reinforcing binaries; those who conspire to keep people out based on alleged difference, be it language or skin color or religion; those who benefit from language that aims not to expand but to police and to pervert meaning.

Translation as Transhumance, and Gansel’s practice as described, champions the use of language that cannot be instrumentalized — on which fascist ideologies have no grasp. In her poignant foreword, Lauren Elkin — a writer and translator herself (adding a third intra-lingual female practitioner to the book) — links Gansel’s practice to Rimbaud’s famous statement, je est un autre: I is another; or, the Self is the Other; or, I is someone else. Even in the English translation, Elkin leaves the phrase in French — allowing it to speak the layers and volumes of interpretation it has accumulated over time. After all, as Gansel herself has written toward the end of the book: “It suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand from the other.”


Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer and critic based in London, where she is visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art.

LARB Contributor

Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer living in London, where she teaches at the Royal College of Art.


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