I always thought that writing had to be a selfish exercise, that you should never write for your reader, or perhaps only against him, and I think that the texts that touched me most were anchored deeply in the obsessions of their writers, obsessions that were keeping me, a potential reader, at a distance from the time of writing, or so I suspected. A merciless and thus exclusive, perfect writing. But this does not mean that the book, as soon as I started reading it, did not belong to me or that it was not meant for me. On the contrary, I believe it did and it was! Maybe the strange magic of writing, the alchemy between a writer and his reader, is precisely what is revealed by that illusion that the book was meant for us, sometimes even just for us and no one else.
We have all experienced, I hope, how it feels to melt together with a text, the state of euphoria about that improbable echo, as if the book were just what we needed at that point in life, unconsciously expecting it. The writer whispers in our ear and his hand could be amicably on our shoulder. Here you see one of the bewitchments of reading, because that book that truly belongs to us and is clearly meant for us at that particular moment has then already ceased to belong to the author. And all we expected it to be, what we think we’ll discover between the lines (because wittingly or unwittingly we give the author a face, a world, we pull him towards us), has already become a reflection, a ghost image. I felt cruelly disappointed, for instance, when I heard an author, whose book I found great, recite his text in a tone or with a mimicry that did not bear the slightest resemblance to the rhythm I had experienced when reading or to the way the characters were speaking. That was when I became aware, feeling betrayed, of the gap that could exist between his intention as a writer and my intention as a reader.
That incomprehension juxtaposed against that deep desire for understanding frightens me and fascinates me at once, and I think that the perspective of a translation of a text makes this phenomenon even more complicated. Even apart from the cultural differences that may influence the way a text is read, the translator becomes the interpreter of a story and a language that he has to make his own and therefore cannot be faithful to, however good his work may be. Because unlike photography or music, in the art of writing there is no universal language. It uses meandering sideways to get to images, feelings and obsessions it wants to evoke. Perhaps poetry can do it, but what do I really know about Whitman’s poems or Shakespeare’s works if I read them in French? And would certain poems or dialogues have touched me as deeply if I had read them in English first? And what if I’d been an Englishman instead of a Frenchman? For example, I was very moved by a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in French, and it affected me far less after I discovered the English version!
It’s probably a matter of accepting, once again, that between the reader and his author – regardless of their nationality and respective intentions – there is an indefinable space consisting of desires and projections, times and places, historical or personal histories and cultures, in which the text is travelling and changing endlessly. Perhaps it is the reader who absorbs the text, in all its shapes, in that effective and thorough manner that makes us love to read so much. What does the optical illusion matter then. ‘What does the bottle matter, as long as we get drunk’, goes a French saying. Is there no indescribable beauty in that bewitchment and in completely accepting the deception, by yourself, by the author, by the translator, and in this great magic trick aren’t we all not only the conjurer of art but also the child gaping in astonishment?