Noémie Grunenwald – Sur les bouts de la langue

Cover of Noémie Grunenwald's essay, "Sur les bouts de la langue - Traduire en féministe/s"
(La Contre Allée, 2021 ; collection Contrebandes)

It’s been three months since I’ve finished this book, and I only bring myself to write this post today. I am awed by it. Not that it is unapproachable, like some of the great translation classics (Benjamin’s “The Translator’s Task“, for instance). On the contrary, Grunenwald’s essay is written in a quite simple, even welcoming language. But it is certainly not without depth, and it is doing something important. This short post will surely not do it justice, but I hope you’ll come out of it wanting to take a look at this book.

Many theoretical essays on translation are articulated to works of translation, their practical counterparts: Benjamin’s essay was thus the preface to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens. In many cases however, I find that, when faced with a theoretical text presented alongside the result of a specific practice of translation, I have a hard time linking theory and practice. It is definitely not the case here. Throughout the whole essay, Grunenwald associates thought and doing. What better example of it than her chapter headings, which are as many verbs pointing to a specific aspect of what translating is: abandoning oneself, improvising, submitting oneself, decentring (oneself), interpreting, correcting, widening, including?, learning, weaving, citing. [s’abandonner, improviser, se soumettre, (se) décentrer, interpréter, corriger, élargir, inclure ?, apprendre, tisser, citer.]

Translating is all that. Even before putting pen to paper, it is creating the material conditions of a translation by improvising and doing odd jobs. It is interpreting a text and making its author reflect upon the gender of “thinkers” in French, and making her text more precise by confronting it with another language. It is including by wondering what image you want to conjure when you translate “workers”: the manly union camaraderie of “travailleurs“, or a more exact view of history, in this specific case, of “travailleuses“. It is learning to find the right neologisms, getting things wrong sometimes, but always being willing to start over. It is citing, because one should never forget that translation is a collective practice. And it’s also, quite often, researching a bunch of things on Google or on the CRISCO’s dictionary of synonyms, trivial acts Grunenwald nevertheless featured in her essay because that too, when translating, constitutes your daily life.

Sur les bouts de la langue is a very intimate text, reminding us that translators are people who have a lived history. It’s also a very humble text: “No need for much talent, or for any particular inspiration, says Grunenwald. Only a few techniques of literary manipulation.” (p. 150) But it isn’t an apologetic text. Rather a militant one, telling us that Translating as a feminist doesn’t mean writing a new handbook, or creating new inclusive writing norms that will soon be appropriated by the dominant class to start excluding again. It means staying “constantly on the move, and fostering unease.” (p. 100)

There’s a lot more to say on this book: on how Grunenwald articulates the personal and the political, theory and practice, life and translation. On the richness of its bibliography, and how the author applies all she has learned from it. But I need more time to understand it, to process it. I’ll limit myself to concluding by saying that everyone should read it. It’s a text that’s made me want to read better, to think, to work better. Which reminded me of the beauty, the difficulty and the importance of this job. And which I won’t stop reading anytime soon, as long as I’ll be translating.