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The Soul of Translation

In response to:

Confessions of a Polymorph from the December 8, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

I am sorry that John Weightman [NYR, December 8, 1988] finds The Wind Spirit a misleading title for my English version of Michel Tournier’s Le Vent Paraclet. My title, Prof. Weightman says, “suggests some pagan emanation of Nature, the sort of Spirit of the Wind that a Red Indian [by which I presume he means a native American, not a subcontinental communist] might believe in.” Perhaps, then, the English title is not so bad, since Tournier himself writes that “originally my plan was to restore the sacred character of celestial phenomena by combining theology with meterology…. The sky or heaven (le ciel) is both the air and the abode of God and the saints, and my intention was to eliminate the difference between these two meanings and continue the exploration of the solar cult begun at the end of Friday.” Surely there is in this passage some of that “pagan emanation of Nature” that your reviewer questions. Of course Tournier is here speaking of his original intention for Gemini (Les Météores in French), the working title for which was Le Vent Paraclet. If the title fails to convey accurately the contents of the present work, perhaps it is because that title was once intended for another.

As for Weightman’s confident assertion that “pedantry is the soul of translation,” I can’t say that I agree, but surely quibbling with translation is the solace of pedants, whom it enables to demonstrate, with little exertion, their superiority over translators.

Arthur Goldhammer
Waltham, Massachusetts

John Weightman replies:

It is possible, as Mr. Goldhammer suggests, that the book is mis-named in the original French. I also agree about Tournier wishing to run together both pagan and Christian notions; indeed, I made this point myself. But the fact remains that the English title eliminates the clear reference to the New Testament contained in the expression: Le Vent Paraclet. Having been a translator myself for the last half-century, I stand by the assertion that pedantry is the soul of translation. A pedant is someone who takes the greatest care to understand the original in its smallest details. We all make mistakes, and it is our duty to point out each others’ mistakes, for the honor of the profession. I mentioned some specific instances in which I thought Mr. Goldhammer had gone wrong. Since he does not discuss them, I presume he has no case.

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