March 2013

Christopher Merkel


Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright

Raymond Queneau originally published his ninety-nine exercises in style in 1947. They were executed in French. Barbara Wright's English translations of those ninety-nine exercises were published for the first time in 1958. In 2008, Wright's translation of Exercises in Style (which had already won her the congratulations of the author) was ranked at the top of a list of "Fifty outstanding translation from the last fifty years" by the Society of Authors. And now Wright's translations of Queneau's original ninety-nine exercises have been published in English again, this time with the addition of twenty-eight new exercises translated by Chris Clarke and ten exercises-in-homage written by ten contemporary authors.

Also included in this new English edition is Barabara Wright's original preface to her translations of the original ninety-nine exercises. And as regards reviewing this republication, that translator's preface is more than just a good place to start. The story of the exercises themselves has been told and told again, and Queneau's exercises themselves all retell the same unexceptional story. But they do so, of course (and expressly), in different styles; each exercise is thereby inextricably bound by the characteristic (express and restricted) language with which it retells. As such -- and keeping in mind that the original exercises were written French -- it isn't that they aren't translatable (per se), but it would hardly be unthinkable if someone were to argue that there might be no point in translating them at all. Wright herself thought Queneau "was crazy" the first time he told her that he'd like to see it done. True, to render the exercises in a different language would be to render them entirely different. But if there's a point to the retelling of that unexceptional story, then that's exactly it. And luckily Wright came around.

"[Queneau's] purpose here, in the Exercises, is, I think, a profound exploration into the possibilities of language," she writes with regard to the original. Then, toward the conclusion of her preface: "I thought that the book was an experiment with the French language as such, and therefore as untranslatable as the smell of garlic in the Paris metro," she writes. "But I was wrong. In the same was as the story as such doesn't matter, the particular language it is written in doesn't matter as such." Wright doesn't go so far as to say so (as such), but every translation of an exercise is an exercise unto itself -- and not just in French-English translation, but in the style of each exercise translated as well (and in both English as well as French). It may be impossible to exactly reproduce the original French in English (and indeed, for example, an exercise originally titled "Anglicismes" in the original has been reworked as "Gallicisms" in Wright's translation), but any translation of the work is, in another sense (as said exercise), a perfect reproduction.

Any translation of Exercises in Style is uniquely like the original work in a way that deserves to be uniquely appreciated. You might say that Queneau's collection of exercises would have demanded translation even if the author had never voiced the desire himself. In fact, the new exercises appended to this new English edition, beg the question of whether it might be time for a new English translation of the original ninety-nine. Inasmuch as the jargon of Queneau's styles (plural) is demonstrated to have changed between 1947 and the various publication dates of the "new" exercises translated by Chris Clarke, it stands to reason, conversely, that a contemporary translator would probably do differently than Wright in his or her translation of what, for Queneau in 1947, would have been contemporary French -- and that with no loss of faith to the exercise of the original exercises. Barbara Wright's exercise in "Back slang" (which replaces Queneau's "Javanais" in her translation), for example, is actually a contemporary malapropism. What she's done in that exercise we now understand as pig Latin and there doesn't seem to be a contemporary consensus on how "pig Latin" would be said or written in back slang. Then again, however, neither is there anything necessarily lost. Wright's is just another exercise after all, and the unexceptional story she tells in it is, after all, just a retelling.

And the story itself? This new edition closes, appropriately, with an exercise by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. Vila-Matas's exercise is called "Metaliterario," and it retells the story as such:

The story was very silly, but I found it totally captivating. On a Paris bus, a young man with a felt hat and a long neck becomes angry every time people get off the bus because there is one passenger -- always the same one -- who takes advantage of the circumstances to step on his foot. There is a big fuss, until the complaining crybaby finds a free seat and sits down. Two hours later, we come across the same foolish young man, now in the Cour de Rome; he is sitting on a bench with a friend, no less idiotic, who is telling him: "You ought to get an extra button sewn on your overcoat."

The story that Raymond Queneau retells in each of the exercises that make up his Exercises in Style is unexceptional. The exceptionality of his book lies in its expert manipulation of style -- or of its conceit. The story he retells in each of his exercises is about a man. This "person of the masculine sex" ("Precision") is on a bus, "chuff, chuff, chuff" ("Onomatopoeia"), "the bus full the heart empty the neck long the ribbon plaited" ("Free Verse"). "How can one express the impression made by the sight of an individual with a neck so long as to be deformed and a hat whose ribbon has been replaced, no one knows why, by a bit of string" ("Futile")? (But the author does, of course, and in dozens of other ways.) Anyway, the man on the bus, "the styal" in one casting, "of peevish disposition, it readily attacks its weaker brethren, but if it encounters a somewhat lively retort it takes flight into the interior of the vehicle where it hopes it will be forgotten" ("Portrait"). In other words, "he adoived teh ueiss by wrothing shimelg [sic] on to a cavant teas" ("Metathesis").

Later, a narrator might see him, "the same fancy-pants" ("Surprises"), away from the bus in the Cour de Rome, "having an argument... and then, as if suddenly afraid, [throwing] himself into the shadow of a corridor" ("Dream"). "Coincidences are peculiar he was in the Cour de Rome with a friend a fancy-pants of his own sort who was pointing with his index finger to a button on his overcoat what on earth can he be telling him" ("Asides")? "'You ought to get an extra byblow put on your overdraft.' He shows him where (at the larcenies) and why" ("Lexcurian trans-lation").

For example.

We're indebted to Barbara Wright and Chris Clarke for their having completed the exercises they have by translating them into English. As for this one, it's actually less of a review than a reinterpretation (a kind of a translation, maybe) of Queneau's exercise "Blurb" (call it "Walter Benjamin" instead). Oh well. "The whole make a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity."

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811220354
220 pages