Editorial

Transgressions, Series 3 No. 5

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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The titles of our last three issues – ‘Diaspora’, ‘Metamorphoses’, ‘Between the Languages’ – have all indicated aspects or possibilities of the idea and practice of translation, whatever the subject matter of individual translations might be. The same is true of ‘Transgressions’.

Translation is ‘a carrying over’, into something foreign and, however we strive for fidelity, always unlike. Metaphor too is a carrying over into something which is other than, and so unlike, the thing whose sense we are trying, by an act of metaphor, to bring closer and to enliven. Transgression is ‘a stepping over’, and from its first usage the word has always meant crossing some limit you should not cross; it has meant infringing, violating, trespassing against a law, rule or command. For translators, whatever their text, the word might allude to fidelity and infidelity; to the foreignness of the thing they are bringing in from abroad, the blatancy of its foreignness, or the homeliness and familiarity in which they disguise it. In idea and practice, all translation is more or less transgressive, whatever material it transports from one language to another.

Much of the work collected into our topic here offends, or discusses offences, against one code or another. But it is striking also how intrinsically transgressive many of these translations are. W.D. Jackson, who lives in Germany, moves from Boccaccio’s Italian prose to an English verse deliberately suggesting Chaucer and Shakespeare. Both he and Bernard O’Donoghue move from the fourteenth into the twenty-first century, they shift codes across, which we, as readers, might test against our society’s and our own. Pascale Petit fetches remote and exotic myth and imagery into intimate familial relations: transgressive strategy for survival against a lived transgression. The German poet Dorothea Grünzweig, now living in Finland, has acquired enough of the language of the Mansi to put their songs into her native tongue. Derk Wynand, born in Germany and now living in Toronto, sends them back to Europe in his English. We have Cavafy in Scots via French; Hsieh Ling-yüi in English (the translator lives in France) via Spanish. This issue of MPT is probably richer in strange crossings-over than any before. The routes connect, but also they estrange. We need both those effects, because together they will quicken our interest and alertness, call us to attend.

Transgression certainly merits our attention. When the code itself is unjust, when it constrains and reduces life, then the transgressor is a fighter and all too often a martyr on the side of the angels. Laws against poems are themselves a transgression; the makers and enforcers of those laws are the transgressors. In their sexual relations human beings have suffered cruelly under the codes of the great religions, especially when they aided the code by internalizing it, so that any struggle against it was a fight against the self, one’s own mind and body, as much as against any external authority. Guilt and self-hatred ensue, and a hatred of the sex that arouses such bad feelings. The frisson of transgression in those of Baudelaire’s banned poems not translated here, derives in large measure from a thorough internalizing of a hateful misogynistic code. Transgression, and the feeling of transgressing, will always be an interplay between Law and Conscience. They may quite justly coincide; but often they will have to fight.

Much transgression – certainly the greater part of the worst (most lethally effective) kinds of transgression – is done by legal authorities, by the state, by governments in the name of the people. This was always the case. Now the crimes are bigger and humankind and the planet can’t take much more. The Mansi here can stand for many peoples and their ways of living that won’t survive us and our way. And we shall sink soon after them. Native Americans watched not just with horror but also with genuine puzzlement as the incoming colonists trashed the land. Why trash what nurtures you? Trash and move on. Pastures new. Trash them.

A great deal of writing has been banned because the authorities declared it to be obscene. You could test whether a text was obscene or not by asking – as the jurors in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 were asked – whether ‘its effect, taken as a whole, is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt’. It would be good if the governed asked themselves daily whether their government – the men and women governing them, the structures those men and women set up, their language – tended to deprave and corrupt. Power corrupts not just those in power but also those in their power. At the very least, it may make them cynical. And if you make people ‘disposed to disbelieve in human sincerity or goodness’, surely you corrupt them. The spectacle of government, often unedifying, is in some periods downright obscene. It has been lately, for example, quite peculiarly depraving and corrupting to listen to an Attorney General clarifying what kinds of torture are okay; or a Foreign Secretary explaining the ethical in an ethical foreign policy. Almost any sentence uttered by a President or a Prime Minister containing the words ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘civilization’, ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘history’ or ‘God’ will, if we don’t resist, be very likely to deprave us and corrupt us.  Men in suits or uniforms telling us what a blessing cluster-bombs are or showing us with a stick how cruise missiles hit or miss their targets, are a pornography. And in a democracy, since we elected them, we are more or less complicit. Which explains the shame the governed feel when their governors act and speak so shamelessly. 

There are worse blasphemies, worse obscenities, far worse transgressions than those for which in one place or another on the anguished earth you might get jailed or stoned to death. If writers can show us the real transgressors, the very big pornographers, the mouthers of the worst obscenities, and help us to resist them, they will do well.

David and Helen Constantine
March 2006

David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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Transgression is ‘a stepping over’, and from its first usage the word has always meant crossing some limit you should not cross; it has meant infringing, violating, trespassing against a law, rule or command. For translators, whatever their text, the word might allude to fidelity and infidelity; to the foreignness of the thing they are bringing in from abroad, the blatancy of its foreignness, or the homeliness and familiarity in which they disguise it. David and Helen Constantine

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