'Why translate now?' - An essay by Timothy Mathews

‘Why translate now?’
– An essay by Timothy Mathews

Timothy Mathews is Emeritus Professor of French and Comparative Criticism at University College London. In his writing and translating he explores what relating to art can tell us about relating to people. His most recent monograph is Alberto Giacometti: the Art of Relation, and he is co-translator with Delphine Grass of Michel Houellebecq, The Art of Struggle, and co-editor with Jan Parker of Tradition, Translation, Trauma. He has recently completed a book of creative critical writing called There and Not Here: Chronicles of Art and Loss, and is also preparing translations of Guillaume Apollinaire and Roland Barthes. He is a member of the Academy of Europe and Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

This essay is part of the 2020 Inside Writing showcase.


Imagine a gashing wound. Imagine a wound only imagined if suffered by a dashing though rather portly lieutenant in the Foreign Legion. Imagine him wounded in the head and calling it the arm, in salutation of another damaged poet whose generosity he faulted. Imagine him befriending a painter with blue hands launched into painting on the winds of the blue. Imagine an art devoted to study and blown apart by WW1. Imagine the confusion of living without fear confused with confusion. Imagine the confusion of rips and tears and voices shattered and shattering like shrapnel. Imagine shards of voice losing the magic of breaking and making, and making instead a hundred deafnesses and blindnesses lost in their own hearing and seeing. Imagine living when so many have died, and been killed. Imagine joy confused in complacency or the other way about. Imagine inventing the ease and the freedom to shape and fashion, to give birth to all things, and still in an image of invention. Imagine war giving birth to despair, and a study of despair in the language of glee. Imagine the frontiers of an inner world as the only acceptable gift. Imagine inventing utopias for the sake and the beauty of others and enclosing others further. Imagine the joy of study confused with joy encaged, all in the name of study. Imagine revealed the volatility of eyes and ears and vocal chords fluttering over the crests of confusion. Imagine rust and poison mixing the colours of living. Imagine the currencies of delusion and poetry confused. And then imagine listening to a music made of scattered memories, a music alive and dissolving in the confusion of the moment. And now imagine our own moment absorbed as well in a past to which it is lovingly and brutally deaf. Imagine the obliteration of words offered in words, the words of a specific ocean drowning in their own specific ocean. Or imagine something else entirely. But in this moment such is how I imagine my work translating The Seated Woman. Or The Travels of Elvira Swig by Guillaume Apollinaire, the last text he wrote before dying in 1918 of the “Spanish” flu that incubated during the war, whose aftermath he evokes with wit, purpose, and in the silence of grief. The natural and the manmade weave catastrophe together. And in re-joining life at the point of death Apollinaire finds a vein of writing that gushes both psychological and political trauma. Confidence is reborn in looking and hearing, and he writes with words that fly only if they belong to you and to any reader now. As though to speak destruction and disaster, only the words of others will do. And I imagine translating as catching up with the capacity we all share to give shape to the unknown multitudes we carry within.

Timothy Mathews
May 2020
Cambridge, UK