February 7, 2011 As with all overwhelming tasks, I began at the very beginning; with the first line. I of course already knew what it meant. Even if I had never taken French, the rhythm and resonance of this line were so intrinsically etched into my being that I could have translated it from Farsi. “Mrs. Dalloway dit qu’elle se chargerait d’acheter les fleurs.” (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”) I smiled. So far so good. I was lying on the fold-up mattress of an office floor, having gone up to Creil, a city to the north of Paris, to visit family friends for the weekend. Hélène, now a French teacher and mother of the two most adorable toddlers in all of Europe, had come to live with my family the summer I was eight. When I first came to France with my family, we met Hélène in Paris, and later attended her wedding, when I was fifteen. Now, almost seven years later, we still kept in touch, and she had invited me to spend the weekend with her family. Being a literature major, like me, she had an entire wall of the study in which I was sleeping stacked floor-to-ceiling, with books: mostly in French, but some in English.
I had found two versions of Mrs. Dalloway, my favorite novel, and, curled up in bright sheets and unready for sleep, I tried to puzzle out the French, wary and excited at the same time. The next paragraph was more difficult. “La boufée de plaisir! La plongeon!” I knew this part described Clarissa’s feeling of wild, springtime abandonment, as she flung open the French windows of her apartment to the bustling London streets below. Something about pleasure, something about a plunge (Woolf used nautical imagery a great deal; that much I remembered). I looked at the English version “What a lark! What a plunge!” Close enough. I stumbled on through the next few pages, holding up one copy against the next, checking the French with the English, marveling at the choice of words the translator had made, how they conveyed a meaning both slightly different and intrinsically the same.
Of all the writers I would have thought to be un-translatable, Virginia Woolf was at the top of the list. Surely the power of her words lay in the exact, perfect choice of each noun and verb, the way they flowed together to match the thought patterns of the characters. The best paper I have ever written, my last year in high school, spent ten pages proving how style transcended meaning. And yet there they were, torn from her language, transformed into another, and re-composed, as beautiful as ever.
I reached the end of the first scene and stopped, exhausted and elated à la meme temps, (at the same time) and put the books down. My eyes were oddly wet, a surprise, as I rarely cry and was not upset. I wiped them against the lime green sheets, turned off my lantern, and turned onto my side to sleep. The tears, I knew, were mostly a product of exhaustion, but came for many reasons: Because in the eleven years in which I struggled through French grammar, learned the names for vegetables and how to conjugate the subjunctive, I never knew I would be able to read a novel in French. Because this moment was a victory over an insecurity I have carried for months. Because, despite changing my major almost a year ago, this was the first time I truly felt I understood Comparative literature. I realized my very favorite book could be beautiful in other languages, could carry different meanings and gain some nuances even as its style lost others. Because I missed Michael, who was the one person I knew would understand exactly how I felt. And because I felt so very torn between two worlds; and loving France and missing home were two things I could not yet reconcile.
I clicked my light back on, and did what I thought I had trained myself to stop after I very nearly ruined the last Harry Potter book for myself: I read the ending of the novel. I already knew what happened, could have recited the last scene verbatim, but wanted to see how it felt in French. Richard, the lost love from Clarissa’s youth, watches guests leave the party for which she has spent the entire novel preparing. He waits, talking to Susan, her friend (and another adolescent love), watching Clarissa’s husband and daughter, and finally decides to get up and go. “But he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?” (“Mais il ne se leva pas tout de suite. Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette terreur? Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette extase? Se demanda-t-il. Qu’est-ce qui peut me remplir de ce sentiment d’exaltation?”) I read over the words, mouthing them as I did so, listening the melody of the French as I stopped trying to translate it into the English.
My eyes reached the very last line, which is, in my opinion, the single most simple and beautiful in all of literature. “It is Clarissa, he said. “For there she was” I held up the two copies, looked back and forth between them, and realized in a thunderstruck, wonderful, heartbreaking moment, that I preferred the French. I realized that sometimes the translation could be better than the original, that Woolf’s sweeping, tumultuous prose could be uprooted from its foundations, changed, and set back down, more brilliant than ever. “C’est Clarissa, dit-il.” “Et justement, elle était là”