Making Strange: Beckett, Laplanche, Translation
Although Samuel Beckett didn’t publish anything between Murphy in 1938 and Molloy in 1951, he had not been idle. He had, in fact, been working feverishly on a number of texts which would make his reputation. In his first sixteen years as a writer he had written a couple of novels, some shorter pieces and a handful of poems, while in just under six years from the end of the World War II he wrote four novels: the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, as well as Mercier and Camier, which wasn’t published until 1970; two plays: Waiting for Godot and Eleutheria (published posthumously in 1995); and three stories. Halfway through the first of these stories – which appeared in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes in 1946 as ‘The End’ – Beckett changes the language in his manuscript from English to French, which then becomes the language of choice for all of his subsequent output. This is Beckett’s first moment of translation; the second happens when he subsequently translates these works into English.
What is the nature of these translations? One might be tempted to think that Beckett, in preparing his texts for English readers, is translating his French text back into English. But there is no back: the ‘original’ language of the text is French, but Beckett’s mother-tongue – the text that should need no translating – is English. The act of writing in French is a deconstruction – a detranslation, to use Laplanche’s (1992b: 160) word – of the mother tongue, and not a translation in the sense Walter Benjamin has used the term, as something that issues from the afterlife of an original (1955 : 71). For Beckett, on the other hand, the translated comes before the original in a drawing away from his first, maternal, language. This particular mode of self-translation opens up a question that asks about the roles technologies of alienation might play in human subjectivity.