Two-Step: a Boolean Comedrama by Jacques Jouet and Olivier Salon (tr. Emma Ramadan and Chris Clarke). Toad Press.
On the final page of Plato’s Lysis, as the soirée ends, Socrates declares that they have all “made themselves ridiculous” for even trying to define friendship. So let me risk the same and, like someone who wants the party to go on, offer another definition: Friendship is like translation. If friendship is the sustained attempt to understand or grasp the other, then translation does something similar by attempting to take the meaning and sense of one language and transfer it into another.
In this Socratic way, there is something ridiculous about the project of translation—difficult to define and yet, like friendship, essential. A translator is a very complicated friend, faithful within the context of their role, which is to be, in the fullest sense possible, a reader. Two-Step: a Boolean Comedrama by Jacques Jouet and Olivier Salon, translated by Emma Ramadan and Chris Clarke, and published by Toad Press, is exemplary of this metaphor: a text co-written by two friends translated by another duo.
Two-Step begins as two plays displayed en face in separate columns on the same page: one set in revolutionary France, the other set in modern times. Both have two principle characters (the Marquis and the Countess in the historical drama; Kevin and Julie in the contemporary one). The plots—of a countess avowing revenge on a former lover; and of a young woman searching the countryside for her husband who happens to be an actor in a historical film—intersect in delightful ways, especially with the introduction in Scene Two of Armand, a third character whose lines are printed in between the two columns, in the middle of the page. Armand’s words function in both stories: in the historical drama he is the Marquis’s brother, in the other Julie’s husband. The consequences of what he says act as hinge words, sending each scenario in different directions. Jouet and Salon, while writing, had agreed that each story should be nearly exactly the same length but should diverge from each other as much as possible—hence, the satisfaction of an ending that bridges the two. It’s a form of théâtre booléen, or Boolean theatre, invented by the co-founder of the Oulipo, François Le Lionnais.
To translate an Oulipian text is notoriously difficult, and Two-Step provides an excellent example of those challenges. Not only do translators of such work find themselves confronted with the quotidian difficulties of their craft—such as word choice and style—they also require an understanding of the rules set up in the original language and then an approximation of those rules in the target language. Some of the most enjoyable turns of phrase translate fairly easily: for instance, “The trees are nodding in encouragement” from “les arbres dodelinent de la tete et nous approuvent,” or “I didn’t find it to be any more reliable than a staircase of sand or a balcony of butter” from “Je ne l’ai pas trouvée plus solide qu’un escalier de sable ou un balcon du beurre,” which maintains, even improves upon, the alliteration. But of course the difficulty comes with the hinge words, and Ramadan and Clarke succeed there with seeming effortlessness.
In an early example of how these hinge words work, Armand says, “Are you going to explain yourselves?” The Marquis replies, “The woman is dangerous,” while Julie answers, “Well, you see, I was coming to get you, and I lost control of the road. The car is in a ditch.” Each thus “explains” their situation, in the different circumstance. A later more playful hinge concerns use of the word “solvent” (in French the word is solvable). Both replies, which I won’t quote for fear of spoiling the plot, involve stating a sum of money for different ends.
For translators of the Oulipo, method can provide a further complication to the process. Olivier Salon tends toward mathematical restrictions (hinge words), whereas Jacques Jouet works in more performative or duration-based ways (writing poems between each stop on the metro). In order to address both approaches, Ramadan and Clarke decided not only to translate the play but also approximate the method of composition in their translation. This involved asking Salon and Jouet how they wrote and under what conditions (together or alone, etc.). For Scene One, for example, each part was translated separately—similar to how Jouet wrote the 18th-century part (which was translated by Ramadan), and Salon the 21st-century part alone (by Clarke). Scenes Two and Three, however, were written by Salon and Jouet together in person, across the table. In order to continue mimicking the compositional process, Ramadan and Clarke needed to be in the same place; however, since they do not live in the same city, after each of them prepared rough drafts of their translations, Clarke visited Ramadan in Providence, Rhode Island. Together they worked on smoothing out their translations in person, as well as coming up with hinge words together. This kind of mimicry of the compositional process continued through the rest of the translation.
As a text, Two-Step itself is more of a bagatelle, a fun romp—nothing too serious, a bit ridiculous in the best possible sense. As with many texts by Oulipians, part of the pleasure rests in deciphering how the writers work within the constraint, in this case the hinge words that connect both sections but also in sensing the delight that both the writers and translators had. But, in this case, it never feels solipsistic. While it certainly does not reach the heights of a major work, Two-Step invites us to be part of the fun, and I can imagine how hilarious it must have been when the original version, Pas de deux, was first staged at Forum des images in 2003.
This small chapbook edition of the translation published by Toad Press International Chapbook Series, which publishes short works, is an ideal home for Two-Step. The French version, Pas de deux, is (and is not—but more on that below) part of la Bibliotheque Oulipienne, or “B.O.,” a series of pamphlets produced by the workshop since the middle seventies. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of works in the world of the Oulipo: first are the major works (Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual, Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes, Jacques Roubaud’s Something Black, Anne F. Garréta’s Sphinx, among others); second are those that appear in pamphlet form for la B.O. Most of the latter—with a few exceptions, such as the original printing of Italo Calvino’s Comment j’ai un de mes livres—are minor. But they are, nonetheless, the life of the workshop—where members explore ideas, try out constraints, and collaborate. These pamphlets are the protein of Oulipian literature, the currency of its social life. The B.O. are normally available at the monthly Thursday evening events (“les jeudis de l’oulipo”), which occur at the Bibliotheque Nationale Mitterand. At times, members of the Oulipo even perform the contents of the pamphlets on the Thursday night salons. With Pas de deux, there is, however, a certain bibliographic detail that makes it even more cheeky: On both its title page and its colophon, à la René Magritte, it is playfully but puzzlingly described as “Ceci n’est pas / une bibliotheque Oulipienne.” As a result, it is unnumbered in the series, although produced in kind, and for all other purposes, belongs to the B.O. While these are the kind of bibliographic details that are necessarily lost in translation, the context of a shorter, smaller work, which is published in pamphlet format, reflects the ethos of Toad Press well, a micro-press that publishes short translations by writers of international reputation. As a result, it is a good fit for Two-Step. It is among friends.
Speaking of the students who had listened to the dialogue with Lysis and Menexeus, Socrates ends with the following worry: “For these others,” he said, “will go away and tell how we are friends of one another—for I count myself in with you—but what a ‘friend’ is, we have not yet succeeded in discovering.” Friendship is indeed difficult to define. But perhaps the translator offers us a surprisingly sincere example of what a friend is. With Two-Step, the translators have succeeded in bringing the essential amitié and play of Pas de deux across language and context. (Even a bad translation is still an act of friendship, but this is not one of those cases.) Both in process and in end result, this bolean comedrama is as much about how the two authors, and the two translators, work as it is about the events of its parallel stories. In translating, the slippages between languages, the sense of loss of what cannot be bridged, has led us, perhaps too often, to repeat the Italian adage tradittore traditore, the translator is a traitor. Friends, of course, can be treacherous too. That’s why Proust claimed reading to be a sincere form of friendship, because it is “removed from everything that makes others ugly.” It is friendship with one who is absent and who cannot, as a result, demand what humans do, cannot overwhelm you, cannot lie, or betray you. (I would be remiss not to mention that a particular characteristic of the amitié between French and English is that of false friends, or les faux-amis, identical words that mean one thing in English and another in French.) But that Italian adage neglects something: that translation is perhaps the best reading practice, both active and absorptive, a form of Proustian friendship. It requires a certain attention, to sound, to form, to atmosphere, to context. It asks you to dance, and you do.
Aaron Peck is the author of a novella The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (Toronto, Pedlar Press, 2008) and a monograph Jeff Wall: North & West (Vancouver, Figure 1, 2015). Recently, his work has appeared in Frieze, The Happy Reader, The New York Review Daily, and The White Review.
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