Thinking Language and Translation with Henri Meschonnic (respondant commentary)

(Participation au colloque “Thinking Language with Henri Meschonnic” à l’Université Queen Mary University à Londres, le 22 septembre 2017, comme modérateur lors de la table ronde sur Meschonnic et la traduction. Participants : Professeur John E. Joseph de l’Université d’Edimbourg (communication : “Language-Body Continuity in the Linguistics-Semiology-Poetics-Traductology of Henri Meschonnic”), et Professeur Clive Scott (émérite) de l’Université d’ East Anglia (“Translating Rhythm into the Rhythm of Translation”)

Professor Clive Scott is Emeritus Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia and he has been a Fellow of the British Academy since nineteen ninety-four. Professor Clive’s research interests mainly lie in two areas: comparative versification and poetics; and literary translation, and in particular the experimental translation of poetry. His book Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading was published by Cambridge University Press (2015). He was also awarded with the R. H. Gapper Book Prize by the UK Society for French Studies for his book Channel Crossings: French and English Poetry in Dialogue 1550-2000 (2002), by Legenda edition.

Professor John E. Joseph is Professor of Applied Linguistics at The University of Edimburgh. His research focuses on semiotics, the history of linguistics, and sociolinguistics. His most recent books include Language, Mind and Body, A Conceptual History, published this year by Cambridge University Press, and Saussure, on the life and work of Saussure (2012), by Oxford University Press. He is the co-editor of Language and Communication and the associate director of Historiographia Linguistica.


After opening this session to a collective discussion and to questions, I would like to react to the presentations of both professors. First, I will review the two presentations, so please excuse me for repeating what has just been said, but I would like to develop my argument by anchoring it into how I see the problem. And secondly, I will continue the discussion by adding the question on how we can translate Meschonnic’s theory of translation.

And, to sum it up, in the first presentation,

Professor John E. Joseph invites us to think about Meschonnic and the issue of Language-Body continuity. At first, Professor Joseph showed the relation between language and structuralism which has divided the studies of language into different fields, separating, as the professor said, among other things, linguistics from poetics and from applied areas such as translation. This can be understood in its consequences according to which language is studied by focusing on the dualisms of the sign and no longer as an integrated part of a continuity that pertains to life. To explore this point, professor John Joseph drew a portrait of the dualism between mind and body throughout history, especially the Greeks’ vision in comparison with Meschonnic’s definition of continuity. For now, we can see that the opposition between Greek-Christian and Hebrew language thinking in Meschonnic’s work can be posited as an ethnic-essentialist perspective, because of his understanding of the Greeks as a unit despite its internal contradictions. Further on, Professor Joseph clearly outlined this thanks to Havelock’s studies on Biblical Hebrew, which is a very interesting point relying on the fact that Greek culture is opposed to Greek and Hebrew, undermining the essentialist idea of a single Greek culture opposed to Hebrew.

On the other hand, in Professor Clive Scott’s presentation, we could listen to a criticism of Meschonnic’s work on translation. The main point, as it appears to me, is the idea that writing exceeds discourse because of its internal interaction following a centrifugal functioning. And it is contrary to a centripetal way of thinking about discourse in Meschonnic’s work. Through the analyses of some of Meschonnic’s commentaries on poetry translation, such as Meng Hao Ran’s “Aube du printemps” and three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, professor Clive Scott has presented the issues in that centripetal way of thinking: first, this imposes a self-regarding understanding about discourse; then, a point of view about orality that doesn’t allow voice and its randomness as a paralinguistic function exceeding the text, and, as a result of it, putting in a secondary place the importance of the reader and his experience in relation with translation and its experimental characteristics. Finally, it leads us to a point of view according to which Meschonnic’s rhythm can be translated into, or replaced by, a rhythm of translation, as the title of the presentation says, which is the same political force but which allows the reader to become an important player in translation, preserving its important experimental characteristic.

Well, it is not a simple task to find a common point between these two presentations, knowing that they offer two different perspectives that seem very complementary. But, for sure, there is a criticism on Meschonnic’s work, exposing its contradictions. Thus, my argument will be based on this challenging of perspectives which happens because of the tendency in Meschonnic’s work to take fields that are in discontinuity with one another to a common place, language, life, poem. For me, one of the central questions in Meschonnic’s theory is his theoretical statement according to which we inevitably always have a point of view and an ideology when language in discourse is rhythm. And bringing up what professor John E. Joseph said again, cliché and idées fixes are a very uncomfortable way of thinking, but they are still a force that we can’t deny. And if we think about the translation problem, for Meschonnic, this force can reveal much about the point of view, and about how the language in which the translation was made is perceived. That is why I want to bring to discussion the problem of how to translate Meschonnic’s theory of translation. To do so, I would like to point out two important things: first, that for Meschonnic, I quote, “it is about showing that the biggest and the only problem of translation is its theory of language”, end of quote. (p. 37,) (in Ethique et politique du traduire, 1999); and second, that his theory of language is part of a historical anthropology of language, which has a critique of rhythm as its main point to think poem and society.

To achieve this, part of his thinking goes through the experience of translation as a process that reveals his theory of language. This way, I think about what professor Clive Scott has pointed out in his presentation, that voice, for Meschonnic, is the instrument of epistemology. Thus, for me, that is a problem that appears here on how to translate that voice. The voice as an instrument of epistemology and the voice as part of a relation between language-body. Therefore, how can we listen to this voice in Meschonnic’s work if, for him, I quote, “all the [translation] problem consists in recognising what representation of language is at work.” (p. 38), end of quote, and knowing that his centripetal way of thinking discourse is part of his way of thinking poetics, and society, and language, according to a theory that is poem.

To conclude, and to open this discussion, without taking much more of your time, I would first like to thank you again, Professor Clive Scott and Professor John Joseph, for your presentations which were so interesting, and I would like to sum up the problem that I am trying to delineate here in one question: how can we continue Meschonnic through translation?


Rafael Costa Mendes

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