Summary Note from Editions Gerard Lebovici on the difficulties of translating Guy Debord's Panegyric

I

The translation of Panegyric[1] presents many difficulties if it is entrusted to someone who is very competent and, if not, it is impossible. Thus it must not be undertaken in the conditions of deficiency that, for many years, have unfortunately dominated the practice of translation in European publishing. Those who refuse to understand that this book includes many traps[2] and multiple meanings deliberately chosen, or those who do not find someone who is sufficiently qualified to be capable of not getting lost in it, must immediately abandon the ambition of publishing it in a foreign language, and thus leave this liberty to other, subsequent and more capable publishers.

At first, one must be aware that, behind the classical French which, above all, one must discern and must know how to provide the foreign equivalent a specially modern usage of this "classical language" is dissimulated, which is a novelty that is thus bizarre and shocking. A translation must render all of this, faithfully.

The greatest difficulty consists in this: this book certainly contains a good amount of information that must be translated exactly. But this is not essentially a matter of information. Essentially, the information resides in the very manner in which it is enunciated.

Each time and this is quite frequent that a word or a phrase has two possible meaning, one must recognize and maintain them both, because the phrase must be understood as entirely veracious in both senses. For the ensemble of the discourse, this also signifies: the totality of the possible meanings is its only truth.

To give a very general example of this effect, all the epigraphs to the chapters must obviously at first be understood as ironically directed against the author. But one must also sense that this is not a simple irony: must they ultimately be experienced as truly ironic? One must leave this doubt intact.

Different vocabularies (military, legal) are regularly employed according to certain subjects that are evoked, in the same way that the tones of the quotations from very diverse epochs are mixed into them. The translator must not be incapable of, nor surprised to, recognize in the language of the author (on several rare occasions) a familiar word or a word from an argot. It was deliberately used, like salt, exactly to make the flavor of the others stand out. Likewise, sometimes irony is intimately mixed in with a lyrical tone, without it taking away its positive seriousness.

It is in no way possible to currently conclude on what the total and definitive meaning of this work might be: it exactly remains in suspense, since it is only the first volume. The end of the book finds itself projected beyond itself.[3]

The continuous sliding of the meaning, which is more or less manifest in each of the phrases, is also present in the general movement of the entire book. Thus the question of language is treated through strategy (chapter I); the passions of love through criminality (chapter II); the passage of time through alcoholism (chapter III); the attraction of places through their destruction (chapter IV); the attachment to subversion through the police repercussions that it continually causes (chapter V); aging through the world of war (chapter VI); [and] decadence through economic development (chapter VII).

One can in particular cite a phrase on page 41: "Between the rue du Four and the rue de Buci, where our youth was so completely lost, drinking several glasses, one could feel with certainty that we would never do better."[4] What exactly does this phrase mean? It means all that is possible to find in it. Scorning good classical rules, the apposition "[by] drinking several glasses" can be linked, and here as a euphemism, to the preceding; but it must also be linked to the phrase that follows it, and then it makes a figure of exact and instantaneous observation. But, beyond the subject represented by the [word] "one," perhaps equally understood as being an outside observer (in this case, fully disapproving) and as being the subjective judgment of this youth (and, in this case, expressing a philosophically or cynically lucid satisfaction). All of this is true, one must nor delete anything.[5]

II

Considering the complexity of this book, a publisher must only entrust the task to a translator who is familiar with classical French (that is to say, books published before 1940) and, on the other hand, a good writer of prose in his own language. And, failing to find one, he would have to leave to another publisher the occasion to try to accomplish this task in suitable conditions, later on. The translator who is retained in answer to such criteria must soon after prove it, by submitting to the author attempts to translate the following passages.

Pages 13-14. From "My method . . ." to "the old society."[6]
Pages 50-51 From "The majority of wines . . " to "before the drinker."[7]
Pages 75-76. From "I am quite interested . . ." to "I will leave others to conclude."[8]
Pages 88-89. From "The pleasures of existence . . ." to "to suspect it would be devoted to the past."[9]
It would also be necessary to have translated the phrase already evoked on page 41: "Between the rue du Four and the rue de Buci . . ."[10]

Those who have satisfied these demands could be able, of course, to subsequently ask the author for all clarifications that would appear desirable to understand several other points.

III

The passage written in the jargon of the Coquillards[11] (pages 38-39) means this:[12]

There I knew several heads that lay in wait for the executioner: thieves and murderers. One could rely on them as accomplices, because they never hesitated in the face of the recourse to force. They were often arrested by the police, but they were skillful in pretending to be innocents, [even] as far as misleading them. It was here that I learned how one must deceive those who interrogate you, with the result that for a long time afterwards and even here, in such affairs, I prefer to keep silent. Our violence and our pleasure on the earth are now faraway. Nevertheless, my comrades without money who so well understood this deceiving world, I remember them vividly: when we again met, all in our own encounters, the night in Paris.[13]

In a Spanish translation, this passage must be rendered in germania (or perhaps calo).[14] In an English translation, one must use cant.[15] A German translation must utilize Rotwelsh.[16] The Italian must appeal to furbesco.[17] The translator can here use the help of a specialist.[18]

IV

As for quotations for which the name of the author is not provided, one encounters, in order:[19]

Page 16 [page 8], Cardinal de Retz. Page 35 [page 25], Queen Anne of Austria.[20] Page 36 [page 25], the phrase "the spirit turns . . . so as to flow again" is a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes.[21] Page 39 [page 28], a popular song from the 17th century; a proverb from Auvergne. Page 51 [page 35], a quick evocation of the poet Nicolas Gilbert. Page 53 [page 37], Machiavelli in an letter to Vettori dated 10 December 1513. Page 59 [page 47], Dante in Italian and a Biblical quotation (Psalms XXXVIII, 12-13).[22] Page 60 [page 48], [in Spanish] a song from the Asturias. Page 64 [page 50] a frequent image in Chinese poetry. Page 73 [page 59], two quotations from Pascal. Page 77 [pages 64-65], the quotations are first from Vauvenargues, then from a chronicler of the 15th century. Page 78 [page 65], the first quotation is from Charles d'Orleans, the second is from the King of England, William of Orange. Page 88 [page 76], reverses another Biblical quotation ("Wisdom has built its house . . .," Proverbs IX. The quotation on pages 89-90 [page 77] is from Guy Debord (thesis 46 of The Society of the Spectacle). The last phrase of the book [page 79] is the traditional formula of conclusion for the Spanish authors of the Golden Century.

One supposes that the attributed quotations will not present particular difficulties and can be located easily. It will indeed be imperative to use their original text each time that they come from the same language into which one is translating my book. If not, it would at least be necessary to use the translations of these quotations that might already exist in the country, if they are authoritative (in the case, for example, of the ancient adaptations of the Bible, in German or English). Nevertheless, in cases in which other translations, existing for a shorter period of time, appear to be bad or only mediocre, it will obviously be necessary to improve or re-do them.

November 1989

 


Notes:

[1] Guy Debord's Panegyric, Volume I was published in 1989 by Editions Gerard Lebovici. Written in 1991, Volume II was published by Fayard in 1997.

[2] Note the similarity to Debord's comments at the beginning of his book Comments of the Society of the Spectacle (1988): "The unhappiness of the times thus compels me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally omitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Readers will encounter certain lures, like the very hallmark of the era."

[3] Note that this must still be the case and with the entire "series": Panegyric, Volume III was destroyed on Debord's orders the day he committed suicide, 30 November 1994.

[4] In James Brook's translation (Verso, 1991), page 29, this sentence is rendered thus: "Between the rue du Four and the rue de Buci, where are youth so completely went astray as a few glasses were drunk, one could feel certain that we would never do any better."

[5] Tout est vrai, il ne faut rien en retrancher: an incredible polysemous sentence. In addition to the rendering we have offered, it can be translated as "All of this is true, one must not reduce anything" and "Everything is true, one must nor delete anything/one must not reduce anything." This last rendering evokes a sentence that Debord was especially fond of: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" (see his letter to Jean-Paul Iommi-Amunategui dated 9 March 1986).

[6] Page 6 in James Brooks' translation, published by Verso.

[7] Pages 38-39 in James Brooks' translation.

[8] Pages 63-64 in James Brooks' translation.

[9] Pages 75-77 in James Brooks' translation.

[10] We do not have a copy of the French edition of Panegyrique, tome I in front of us, and so we cannot ascertain if all of these "test" passages are as badly translated by James Brook as the "rue du Four" passage. But, judging from this passage, from the passage concerning the Coquillards and from the poor quality of another "translation" of one of Debord's books published by Verso Malcolm Imrie's butchery of Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle we are confident in supposing that either Brook/Verso did not submit their "translation" of Panegyric to Debord for approval or they did and Debord did not know English sufficiently well to know what a bad job it was.

[11] A band of brigands and discharged soldiers who were active in Burgundy in the 1450s. Their "slang" was used by the great French lyric poet Francois Villon (1431?-1463).

[12] In James Brooks' translation, this passage (pages 27-28) reads as follows: "There I met a few heads the executioner was waiting for: thieves and murderers. They were accomplices one could be proud of, for they never hesitated when it came to resorting to force. They were often picked up by the police, but they were good at feigning innocence and misleading them. That's where I learned how to deceive interrogators, so that for a long time after, and here too, I'd rather remain silent about such business. Our acts of violence and our earthly delights are past. Yet I vividly recall my penniless comrades who understood so well this delusory world: when we met in our hangouts, in Paris at night."

[13] quand nous nous retrouvions tous a nos memes rendez-vous, la nuit a Paris: this is another overflowingly rich sentence. Not only did these people meet at night, they also met the night itself; not only did they meet (at) the night, they retrieved it, recovered it, from the loss or darkness into which it had slipped. Furthermore, they did not meet all together, in one big band: they met, each in their own respective encounters, but under the same night sky.

[14] germania (a corruption of "Roma" or "Gitanos"?) means "gypsy slang" or "robber slang"; and calo (short for Zincalo) can refer to "Chicano" (Mexican-American) or Spanish Romani slang.

[15] Apparently derived from the Latin cantus and similar to "chant," this word connotes a whining or singing speech used by beggars, thieves, etc.

[16] "Red Italian."

[17] In Italian, this word means leery, roguish, cunning, sly or crafty.

[18] In Debord's case, he called upon the expertise of his wife, Alice Becker-Ho, the author of L'Essence du Jargon (Gallimard, 1994), Les Princes du jargon (Gallimard, 1995), and Du jargon: Heritier en bastardie (Gallimard, 2002).

[19] We have placed the page numbers in the James Brooks/Verso translation in brackets [thus].

[20] Austria? The Brooks/Verso translation refers to "an angry queen of "France."

[21] The Brooks/Verso translation renders this as "the spirit whirls in all directions, and on its circuits the spirit returns," which of course sounds nothing like Ecclesiastes

[22] As a matter of fact, Psalms XXXVIII, 12-13 says this, "Those who seek my life lay their snares, those who seek my hurt speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all the day long," and not "Do not stay silent, for I come before you as a stranger and a traveler. Grant me some refreshment before I go away and am here no more." Given the reference to "snares," it is likely that this substitution is not a mistake, but a kind of test of the reader/translator's abilities. Note well Debord's comment concerning the composition of Jean-Pierre Baudet's book on Chernobyl in his letter to Floriana Lebovici dated 3 October 1986: "But among so many other good citations in the exergue, it seems to me that one must slip in a parodic one."

(Written by Guy Debord. Published in Guy Debord, Panegyrique, Tome second, Librairie Artheme Fayard, September 1997. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! July 2007. Footnotes by the translator.)

 


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