Adam Thirlwell's Tribute to Barbara Wright
This past weekend, Adam Thirlwell (author of the novel Politics and The Delighted States, which is all about translation) wrote a really nice tribute in The Guardian to late translator Barbara Wright (who would’ve loved to have received a fan letter from Adam—and most likely would’ve sent him a cool postcard in return):
About a month ago, I was in an airport and I picked up a newspaper and discovered an obituary of Barbara Wright, who had died, aged 93. And for a moment, in my displaced state, I remembered a random word – Howcanaystinksotho – and, oddly, felt about to cry.
Maybe this seems strange. It requires some explanation.
I don’t have many heroes. I certainly don’t have many heroes I would ever want to meet. But I had always wanted to meet Barbara Wright. Once, I contemplated the idea of sending her a fan letter. But, I thought, surely Barbara Wright – the translator of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Jarry and, especially, of Raymond Queneau – wouldn’t want to be bothered with fan letters? Or wouldn’t even be still alive? And there, in a random airport, it turned out that I could have done, and therefore should have done. [. . .]
I thought about all this, in my airport, because I was thinking about Wright, and her miraculous translations of the French novelist Raymond Queneau. In an essay on Queneau, she mentions one aspect of his novelistic project, which dated from a holiday he spent in Greece in 1932, where he noted the huge discrepancy between modern spoken Greek and classical Greek, and realised that modern French was hopelessly in thrall to the conventions of the 16th and 17th centuries. His emphasis on language as a game was an attempt, like Joyce’s, to desophisticate language. So that, for instance, there is what Wright called “his logosymphysis” – his depiction of spoken words run together, like the first word of Zazie in the Metro: “Doukipudonktan?” – which stands for: “D’ou qu’ils puent donc tant?”, meaning “How come they stink so, though?” Which she rendered like this: “Howcanaystinksotho”.
Barbara Wright really was one of the best.