Words That Speak of What Is Human: On Mireille Gansel’s “Translation as Transhumance”

By Josh CookDecember 31, 2017

Words That Speak of What Is Human: On Mireille Gansel’s “Translation as Transhumance”

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

WHEN MIREILLE GANSEL’S FATHER translated family letters from Hungarian into French, she writes, “[t]he entire household held its breath and a reverent silence reigned.” One time in childhood stands out in her memory. Her father was laboring over a series of four words in a letter from “his brother or one of his sisters,” and eventually translated them all as “beloved.” But Gansel “pressed” him — it didn’t make sense to use four different words to say the same thing. Her father relented then, translating them one by one: “Drágám, my darling; kedvesem, my beloved; […] aranyoskám, my little golden girl; édesem, my sweet.” For Gansel, “[t]hose four words opened up another world, another language that would one day be born within my own language.” In the moment, the seed of her purpose was planted, establishing a vocation that would take her all over the world and into many different languages. Those most prominent in her recently published memoir, Translation as Transhumance, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, are German and Vietnamese.

Gansel’s connection to German was forged by her Aunt Szerenke, a refugee who landed in London and spoke a version of the language “peppered with Hungarian, Yiddish, and Slovak.” Her German was the German of “Imre Kertész from Budapest; of Aharon Appelfeld from Czernowicz; of Tibor, the family's last patriarch, from Prague.” This language traveled all over eastern and central Europe “like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations […] of adopted countries and ways of speaking”; it was a “German that has no land and borders.” The language of Bismarck’s kultur, of the Reich, of the Nazis, emphasized nationality and weaponized otherness, so Aunt Szerenke’s transnational, borderless German posed a direct threat to that political power.

Gansel’s relationship to transnational German shows us her general connection to language, and her belief in its potential to weaken divisive systems of power; but it is through the vignettes about Vietnamese that we see her actual translation process. Gansel traveled to Vietnam and studied with Vietnamese scholars, artists, and writers. When she could, she met with the poets she was translating. She even learned to play the đàn bầu, a traditional monochord instrument, to understand the use of pause and of different types of breath in Vietnamese. She followed Buber and Rosenzweig’s example, taking “extreme care to highlight every synonym, every word grasped and articulated not simply through repetition but in the expression of all its nuances and in the ‘understanding of etymologies,’” because, ultimately, language contains “[v]ectors of an entire world, culture, history, memory.” In her translation of Vietnamese poetry specifically, and in her work and philosophy of translation in general, Gansel demonstrates “a lengthy and meticulous process of engaging in a humanist approach employing the humblest particular to investigate universal human explorations in time and space.”

But, as with her understanding of the power of Aunt Szerenke’s German, there is more at stake in Gansel’s translation of Vietnamese, beyond transferring its meaning into French. Her work is a direct confrontation with “McNamara’s declaration that the US would ‘bomb ’em back to the stone age’ with the testimony of a culture that was several thousand years old.” She helps to “answer McNamara’s threat with poetry,” introducing the idea of society that predates Western imperialism, and thus turning the fact of literature into proof of humanity. In the way of her transnational German, this humanizing of the Other, this erasing of borders between cultures, demonstrates that translation is an act of political activism, undercutting the boundaries used to control people, and strengthening the connections all human beings share.

Translation has this effect, in part, because it changes how we identify ourselves and how we describe our relationships to everyone else. As Gansel writes in a breathtaking scene from her work translating the “unassailable German” of the ethnologist Eugenie Goldstern:

I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn.

In translating Vietnamese, Gansel describes her role and goal to help the reader “hear the song of the trees over this treeless land, the song of the trees in this time of napalmed villages.” In that moment, she is speaking directly in opposition to the American bombs, but I believe there is another level to that image, one that gets to the heart of the work itself.

What comes to my mind is a curious phenomenon: for millions of years, there was a mountain in the middle of Lake Superior. Erosion and tectonics removed it long before humans arrived. Oddly, though, the fact of this mountain wasn’t revealed by geological study, but by butterflies. On their migration to Mexico from the border between Canada and the States, monarchs veer east while crossing the lake, adding miles and miles to an already dangerous part of their journey. Why do they do this? According to an article in The Journal of Experimental Biology, the ancient elevation was impossible for the butterflies to climb. Now, this strange detour in their migration draws the contours of an absent mountain.

In this way, words also travel through time and space, carrying history, speaking to events that no one remembers, and referencing places no longer there.

Mireille Gansel leads us to this understanding not only in the telling of her own story, not only via her insights into the power and process of her work, but also with images for the act of translation, itself: “a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge,” “the scoop that draws water from a field and pours it over neighboring furrows,” and “a letter never sent, forever received.” Again, it’s the imagery — the physicalizing of her task — that makes the meaning of her title clear.

As she writes in a section about collecting work from French poet René Char to bring to the Vietnamese poet Te Hanh:

I left with those treasures in my bag — or rather my shepherd’s satchel, because that little Provençal road made me think of transhumance: 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. All the ancient routes that have witnessed encounters and exchanges in all the dialects of the “umbrella language” of Provençal. So it is with the transhumance routes of translation, the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated, the movement of huge flocks of words through all the vernaculars of the umbrella language of poetry.

Imagine watching the entire flock of migrating monarchs; hundreds of thousands of orange and black pixels creating a mountain in the negative space of their movement. Through tireless effort, sensitivity to history and nuance, deep research into the original artist and landscape, and, finally, “the conviction that no word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable,” the translator shows us trees where there are no trees, and leads us over the contours of terrain we will never climb.


Josh Cook is the author of An Exaggerated Murder: A Novel.

LARB Contributor

Josh Cook is the author of the novel An Exaggerated Murder, published by Melville House in March 2015. His fiction and other work has appeared in The Coe ReviewEpicenter MagazineThe Owen Wister ReviewBargePlume Poetry Anthology 2012 and 2013, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2011 and 2012 Cupboard Fiction Contest. He is a bookseller with Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!