On translating Simone Weil

The Need for Roots translator talks about how she approached the famous philosopher's best-known work.

Ros Schwartz
Image credit: Flynn Shore / Penguin

Before writing about the specific challenges of translating Simone Weil, I should like to discuss my general translation ethos and aims. Over my forty-year career, I have translated a wide range of genres: fiction and non-fiction, memoir, crime fiction, children’s books and graphic novels, classics and contemporary writers. But, whatever the genre, my overall ambition is always to capture the author’s unique voice, their energy and idiosyncrasies – in other words, to ‘ventriloquise’ that writer in English. I want the reader of my translation to see the same images and experience the same emotions as the reader of the source language text.

The French theorist Jean-René Ladmiral makes the distinction between translations that are source-text-oriented (sourcier) and those that are target-reader-oriented (cibliste). All texts fall somewhere on that spectrum. At one end are literary works, where the author has given careful consideration to every word, and the translator must do likewise. At the other end are advertising or marketing texts, whose job is to sway consumers, and the translator may take considerable liberties to make the copy do its job in translation. Most non-fiction writing sits somewhere along that scale. My primary loyalty is to the author, to conveying their ideas, but I also need to be conscious of the reader. In other words, I must be true to the author’s intentions while creating an agreeable experience for the reader.

A translation may accurately convey meaning but be somehow jarring and clunky to read. This happens when the translator is tone-deaf to the rhythms and music of language. So, another balancing act: the translator needs to decide how far it is permissible to stray from strict meaning in the interests of musicality. There is no clear-cut answer to this: when translating technical, legal or medical documents, meaning is paramount and can be a matter of life or death. Conversely, with poetry, music and rhythm are its essence. In my translation approach, I aim to dose meaning and music to achieve a pleasing balance, remaining true to the spirit of the text if not strictly to the letter. It is a juggling act between paying close attention to each and every word, and excavating what is beneath the words on the page to produce a fluid translation. And this may require playing with punctuation and sentence structure, making the implicit more explicit or the abstract more concrete.

When I asked publisher Maria Bedford what her hope was for this new translation, she explained that she wanted a translation that would be more readable and accessible to today’s reader than the existing translation by Arthur Wills, published in 1952, which is somewhat literal, as Wills himself acknowledges. That gave me a steer: while paying close attention to Weil’s words and communicating her ideas, I needed to be mindful of the reader experience.

The very fact that I am not an expert means that, in order to translate Weil for a new generation, I needed first of all to understand her ideas myself

I am neither an academic nor a Weil scholar, which in some ways is a plus because the very fact that I am not an expert means that, in order to translate Weil for a new generation, I needed first of all to understand her ideas myself. Whereas a translator more versed in Weil’s thinking might struggle to put themselves in the shoes of the uninitiated reader, I took as my starting point that anything that I needed to research for my own comprehension might need glossing for today’s reader.

I chose not to look at Wills’ translation other than to confirm my own understanding of some of Weil’s more abstruse thinking. Apart from the risk of plagiarism, I knew that if I had Wills’ translation in front of me, it would influence my own solutions one way or another. I had to treat this assignment as I would any book that I am translating from scratch.

L’Enracinement was published posthumously in French, and Weil had not had the chance to edit or revise it. Consequently, there are some rough edges: sections that are not crystal clear, and her punctuation is erratic; there is a breathless urgency that comes through, reflecting her racing thoughts, which come tumbling over each other. So, the challenge for me was to capture Weil’s passion and urgency, while communicating her thinking in an accessible way without simplifying it.

I began by reading the book closely in order to assess the challenges ahead. Realising that I would need to gloss the text for my own understanding of the many cultural, historical and political references, I asked Maria whether it would be helpful for me to include the fruits of my research in the translation. The final format was still to be decided, so I put in my annotations as ‘comments’; my draft translation was studded with them. These eventually became endnotes, with helpful additions from the philosopher Dr Kate Kirkpatrick, who wrote the Introduction. And here I would like to acknowledge Kate’s assistance. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a Weil scholar or a philosopher. There is an entire Weil lexicon that has evolved through the successive translations of her works and studies devoted to her. Kate provided me with a potted ‘beginner’s guide’ to concepts and terms that are part of Weil’s idiom, or, conversely, words that should be avoided, such as ‘person’ (Weil was opposed to the notion of personhood).

One woman academic I spoke to said, ‘as a feminist, I’d favour a non-gendered word, but as an academic I’d want to keep “man”’

One particular issue was that of outmoded language. French did – and often still does – use l’homme (man) as a generic for human beings. Weil, being of her time, writes ‘man’. Through the lens of the twenty-first century, it feels much more appropriate to say ‘people’ or ‘human beings’ rather than ‘man’, which is likely to jar with today’s readers and be a distraction from Weil’s ideas. Wills religiously kept ‘man’, but that was mainstream in 1952. However, after discussion with Maria, it was felt that this new translation should preserve Weil’s ‘man’. One woman academic I spoke to said, ‘as a feminist, I’d favour a non-gendered word, but as an academic I’d want to keep “man.”’

A recurring problem word in French is the impersonal ‘on’, indicating someone. It can refer to one person or several people, it can be a first-person plural meaning we, or simply a passive, as in on doit du respect aux… (respect is owed to…). This is not specific to Weil. French often uses ‘on’, either as a deliberate way of not saying who carried out the action (e.g., on a laissé la fenêtre ouverte – someone left the window open), or it needs to be stated who ‘on’ is. ‘One’ used to be much more frequent in English, but nowadays, a text riddled with ‘one’s sounds pompous and outmoded. And so, each time I encountered ‘on’ I had to decide whether to use an inclusive ‘we’ (i.e., ‘we the French’) or whether it meant human beings in general or the French government – which I had to deduce from the context of the sentence.

One technique I drew on to lighten the text without dumbing it down was to use Anglo-Saxon-root words as opposed to Latinate words. Often when translating from a Romance language, the first word that comes to mind is the Latinate one suggested by the source language, whereas sometimes a simpler, Anglo-Saxon word will make the text feel more natural. The interplay between the two registers is a useful resource offered by the English language that can make a difference to the overall texture and readability of a text.

As a translator, I had to resist the idea of interpreting these ambiguities instead of letting them stand as they are, for the reader to fathom

There are passages in L’Enracinement that are ambiguous. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his Introduction to the 1952 edition, while in awe of her intellect: ‘Simone Weil needs patience from her readers, as she doubtless needed patience from the friends who most admired and appreciated her.’ As a translator, I had to resist the idea of interpreting these ambiguities instead of letting them stand as they are, for the reader to fathom.

The various strategies I employ could be summed up as taking a holistic approach to the text. It’s rather like a Rubik’s Cube: you move one element and then that disturbs others. But eventually everything falls into place. Cumulatively, these minute linguistic choices impact on the overall reading experience and, I hope, make the translation accessible and pleasurable while remaining true to Weil’s intentions. Translation is a solitary activity, but it is also collaborative. The two other people closely involved in this project, whose expertise filled the gaps in my knowledge, are the editor, Maria Bedford, whose questions prompted me to clarify certain passages, and Dr Kate Kirkpatrick, who, in addition to writing the introduction, shed light on some aspects of Weil’s writing that had eluded me. When you are immersed in a text for months on end, sometimes you can no longer tell if it makes sense. As part of my process, I sent my translation to Maria and Kate, flagging my uncertainties and queries. Both were helpful in confirming that a section read well and in providing additional expertise. We are all on the same page in aiming for a translation that is worthy of Simone Weil.

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