Whoever writes is exiled from writing, which is the country—his own—where he is not a prophet.
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
This summer, while collaborating with Rachel Hildebrandt of GLLI and a group of undergraduates at Wofford College, in the midst of collating lists of contemporary literature in translation, I pondered the relationship between literary witnessing and translation.
As we attempt to articulate the most pressing calamities, we return to phrases “unspeakable” or “words cannot express.” In the aftermath of collective atrocity, or even in our private experience of loss, our attempts to convey traumatic experience may only be certain of conveying loss—through the limitations of language—but not an “actual” experience of the atrocity. The quest for the real is seductive in any recounting, but the stakes are highest when accounting for catastrophe. In this way, a reader’s desire to attain something “real” in accounts of traumatic experience reminds me of the illusory “perfect translation.” Both demands arise from a desire for unmediated access to an event or a narrative, although the mediating nature of language itself precludes this fantasy of access.
If it is true that the West continued a long history of supporting literary tourism in its demand for literature on the Rwandan genocide, as critics of the Fest’Africa (see previous blog post) have argued, it is also true that writing about atrocity may make tourists of us all….even survivors may experience that sense of exile from their own language when attempting to articulate traumatic experience.
In “The Task of the Translator,” the inimitable philosopher Walter Benjamin invites us to understand texts and their translations as “fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel” (260). In other words, no single text—original language or translation—has purchase on truth in its entirety. Instead, translations and original alike are fragments that allow only glimpses of the complete vessel of understanding. According to Benjamin, instead of focusing on the capture of meaning, the translator’s work should “ultimately serve the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages to one another” (255).
Here’s the connection I am making between translation and testimony: Just as readers may demand of a translation that it provide access to an original text’s intention, literature depicting human rights atrocities always seems to ignite readers’ desires for unmediated truth. Catastrophe appears to be the most urgent angle of reality, and yet we can’t insist that literature give us the real, like a souvenir we might carry away from a catastrophe of such magnitude.
Acknowledging experience or language at the limits of our comprehension illuminates the challenge of representing atrocity. When a survivor struggles to contextualize a traumatic experience—to articulate what seems unspeakable—she or he may experience what Cathy Caruth famously described as “unclaimed experience” in traumatic testimony.
What we may understand from these texts representing collective atrocity, in the end, is something more about the “innermost relationship of languages to one another”—the language of French, Kinyarwanda, English, and, moreover, the language of trauma, the language of bureaucracy, the language of distant indifference and the language of complicity.
The Fest’Africa books (see my previous post) by Tierno Monénembo, Véronique Tadjo, Abdourahman Waberi, and Boubacar Boris Diop, though they witness the event from distant vantage points years after the event and often fictionally, also respond to some drive to represent survivor’s experiences as faithfully as possible, even as they understand the impossibility of completely closing the gap between readers and survivors. Like translated texts, they are driven by an original event, and at the same time pulled toward a new creation.
Through my collaboration with GLLI in researching contemporary translated literature, I found some quite recent additions to the body of Rwandan literary testimony. Here are a few additional translated works that I would consider literary witnessing in Rwanda (not affiliated with Fest’Africa 1998). Like the works mentioned in the previous post, these are primarily teenage narrators, although I would not categorize these works as Young Adult literature. From Rwanda before the genocide in 1994, these writers (and translators) are not “prophets” but translators and witnesses to inconceivable loss and absence. Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, in particular, illustrates that haunting, or marked absence, as it is set in the 1970s and yet is a prelude to the genocide that is not reached within the time frame of the narrative. The striking effect reminds me of another translated work– Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, which takes place on the brink of another, ominous disaster.
Gaël Faye (Burundi, Rwanda), Small Country (2018, Hogarth). [Petit Pays]. Translated by Sarah Ardizzone.
Scholastique Mukasonga (Rwanda, Burundi), Cockroaches (2016, Archipelago Books). [Inyenzi, ou Les cafards]. Translated by Jordan Stump. Published by Archipelago Books.
Scholastique Mukasonga (Rwanda, Burundi), Our Lady of the Nile (2014, Archipelago Books). [Notre-Dame du Nil]. Translated by Melanie Mauthner. Published by Archipelago Books.