Posts Tagged ‘The Words’

I went to a play last weekend – or rather it was an event in which a scene or a part of a scene from many plays was performed by one actor. A couple of scenes from two Sartre plays were performed. When I came back home, I had a deep urge to read a book by Sartre. I decided to pick his memoir ‘The Words‘. I had two translations of ‘The Word’. I chose one of them using a homegrown method and read it. More on this later in the post.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his memoir ‘The Words‘ when he was fifty-nine. But the book covers only the first ten years of his life. In the book, Sartre talks about his grandparents on both sides and how they met and how his parents met, how his fascination for the printed word started at a very young age, how he could read books before he joined school properly. During the course of his memoir, Sartre touches on his relationship with his mother (he says that his mother was like his elder sister and so their relationship was more like that of siblings – it is very beautifully described – the scene which describes how Sartre’s mother read a book to him for the very first time and the transformation that happened to her, and the magic that happened, is one of my favourite parts of the book) and with his grandparents, the history of Alsace-Lorraine and how it was related to his grandparents, his favourite books when he was young, his love for films, how he became a writer and other things. In the second part of the book, Sartre flits between the past and the present, but he mostly stays in the past. The first part of the book is called ‘Reading‘ and the second part of the book is called ‘Writing‘. I liked the first part of the book more, because it had a narrative interspersed with introspective thoughts. The second part of the book had a light narrative and was heavier on introspective thoughts. Normally I would like the introspective part more, but this time, maybe because I was in an annoyed mood because I was upset with something and I wanted to rush through the book, the second part looked harder and I had to plod through. Maybe if I had read it with a calmer mind, my experience might have been better.

The Words‘ is a very interesting book. People have compared it with Rousseau’sConfessions‘ and have called it a masterful work of self analysis. The edition I read was around 250 pages long and it had big font with generous spacing between the lines, giving an illusion that it would be easy going and could be read fast. It was, of course, exactly that – an illusion. It was deceptive. The book demands our attention, invites us to pause at important passages and linger there, and rewards us if we do. There were so many beautiful passages in the book that my highlighting pen didn’t stop working. It is not a regular memoir and it is definitely not a straightforward narrative, and so it is not for everyone. But if you have time and you read slowly and persevere, it will unfold its beauty and secrets and reward you.

Now on the translations. One of them was by Bernard Frechtman and the other one was by Irene Clephane. I was undecided on which one to read. I did a test read of both of them for a few pages and then finally decided to read the first one by Bernard Frechtman. When I highlighted a passage that I loved, I went back to the other translation and read that passage and compared the two translations. It was fun 🙂 In the picture below, the book on the left is the Bernard Frechtman translation and the book on the right is the Irene Clephane translation.

I thought I’ll ask you which translation you liked more 🙂 So I took out some of my favourite sentences from the first few pages, from the two translations, and am giving them below. Do tell me which translation you like more. Do also tell me which you think is closer to the French original.

Sentence 1 :

Translation 1 :

“Around 1850, in Alsace, a schoolteacher with more children than he could afford was willing to become a grocer.”

Translation 2 :

“In Alsace, round about 1850, a schoolmaster, burdened with children, agreed to become a grocer.”

Sentence 2 :

Translation 1 :

“…all his life he retained a passion for the sublime and put his heart and soul into manufacturing great circumstances out of little events.”

Translation 2 :

“…all his life, he preserved a taste for the sublime and turned his energies to elevating trivial incidents into great occasions.”

Sentence 3 :

Translation 1 :

“That lively and shrewd but cold woman thought straight but inaccurately, because her husband thought accurately but amiss.”

Translation 2 :

“This sharp-tongued, lively, cold woman had clear but wrong opinions, because her husband had right but muddled ones.”

Sentence 4 :

Translation 1 :

“She saw nobody, being too proud to court favor for first place and too vain to be content with second.”

Translation 2 :

“She did not see anyone, because she was too proud to covet first place and too vain to accept the second.”

So, what do you think? Translation 1 or Translation 2? Bernard Frechtman or Irene Clephane?

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“What I have just written is false. True. Neither true nor false, like everything written about madmen, about men. I have reported the facts as accurately as my memory permitted me. But to what extent did I believe in my delirium? That’s the basic question, and yet I can’t tell. I realized later we can know everything about our attachments except their force, that is, their sincerity. Acts themselves cannot serve as a measuring-rod unless one has proved that they are not gestures, which is not always easy.”

“The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my grandfather and late father, who were accustomed to second balconies, a taste for ceremonial. When many people are together, they must be separated by rites; otherwise, they slaughter each other. The movies proved the opposite. This mingled audience seemed united by a catastrophe rather than a festivity. Etiquette, now dead, revealed the true bond among men : adhesion. I developed a dislike for ceremonies, I loved crowds. I have seen crowds of all kinds, but the only other time I had witnessed that nakedness, that sense of everyone’s direct relationship to everyone else, that waking dream, that dim consciousness of the danger of being a man, was in 1940, in Stalag XII D.”

“But the fact is this : apart from a few old men who dip their pens in eau de Cologne and little dandies who write like butchers, all writers have to sweat. That’s due to the nature of the Word : one speaks in one’s own language, one writes in a foreign language. I conclude from this that we’re all alike in our profession : we’re all galley-slaves, we’re all tattooed.”

“Middle-aged writers don’t like to be praised too earnestly for their early work; but I’m the one, I’m sure of it, who’s pleased least of all by such compliments. My best book is the one I’m in the process of writing; right after it comes the last one that was published, but I’m secretly getting ready to be disgusted with it before long. If the critics should now think it’s bad, they may wound me, but in six months I’ll be coming around to their opinion. But on one condition : however poor and worthless they consider the book, I want them to rank it above all my previous work. I’m willing to let them run down my whole output, provided they maintain the chronological hierarchy, the only one that leaves me a chance to do better tomorrow, still better the day after, and to end with a masterpiece.”

Have you read Jean-Paul Sartre’sThe Words‘? What do you think about it?

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