Sound / Writing: traduire-écrire entre le son et le sens: Homophonic translation – traducson – Oberflächenübersetzung

Sound / Writing: traduire-écrire entre le son et le sens: Homophonic translation – traducson – Oberflächenübersetzung
Vincent Broqua and Dirk Weissmann, Editors

Éditions des Archives Contemporaines, Paris, France, 2019
356 pp. Open access:
ISBN: 9782813002686.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
June 2020

We all know by heart the famous definition of the poem by Paul Valéry: “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” For today’s readers, this definition, deeply rooted in post-symbolist debates on “pure poetry”, may seem somewhat outdated. Modern poetry has left in other directions, more socially committed, for instance, or more oriented towards intermediality. Yet before discarding the ideas of Valéry’s supreme classicism, we should not forget that in the same decade, that of the 1920s, the issue of purity was also on top of the very different agendas, for example that of avant-garde cinema. The current interest for “sound/writing” in contemporary theory and practice of poetry and prose can therefore also be read as a paradoxical return of Valéry’s poetics, not with a vengeance, but in a totally new context and thus with a totally new meaning. For what the editors of this fascinating collection on sound-based writing aim at is certainly not a revival of the high-brow, somewhat vague if not para-mystical thinking that finds in Valéry a perfect alibi. The ambition of their work is more disruptive. Sound / Writing takes stock of one century of extreme-avant-garde writing in order to bring about a radical shift in our literary judgments, moving the experiment from the margins to the center of the system.

The book presents an interesting gap between its title and subtitle. Normally, subtitles elucidate what titles are about, but in this case the mechanism works the other way round. Granted, the subtitle refers to a precise corpus: homophonic or sound translation, that is the transposition of the sound qualities of a source text into another language without initially addressing that text’s meaning, homophonic translation. As such, this subtitle is not in need of further specification. However it is the title that really explains the larger meaning and context of homophonic translation, often reduced to either a characteristic of some of the historical avant-garde extravaganzas or a gratuitous provocation or even hoax. The ambition of this collection is less to write the complete history of these techniques and to study its various forms and functions than to foreground it as the spearhead of inventive writing in general. Sound translation, in this regard, is not a slightly bizarre or funny genre. Nor is it just a type of translation. For Broqua and Weissmann, the primary focus on sound, in the very broad sense of the word, that of embodied speech, that of bodily performed language, dramatically changes writing itself, making it into a practice of sound-writing, that is a provocative form of using language in order to question all fundamental aspects of what we call literature –meaning being one of those, but also author, text, and interpretation. Homophonic translation is then the tip of the sound-writing iceberg, and what it seeks and destroys are traditional ideas of literature and language.

Half of them in English, half of them in French, the 28 essays, gathered by Broqua and Weissmann, first presented at a conference (Paris, 2016) but rewritten and carefully edited for this publication, give an impressive overview of what homophonic translation stands for in historical and technical terms, on the one hand, and how it reframes our general ideas on reading and writing, on the other hand. The book opens with a clear and illuminating (bilingual) introduction by the editors, followed by the keynote lecture by Charles Bernstein (who also coined the expression “sound-writing”). Both texts immediately set the stakes: they open the field of homophonic translation to the broader field of sound-writing, they identify the historical landmarks of this practice, while emphasizing is almost universal character (sound-writing is definitely not only a “curiosity” of Western avant-gardes). In addition, both texts usefully question the gap between institutionalized literary forms and cultural practices such as stand-up comedy that are traditionally marginalized as only entertainment. The essays that follow are organized alongside clearly distinguished yet multiply intersecting sections. Yes, one can distinguish between theory and practice, but as shown by all case studies, no serious theory can be worked out without previous practical experiences and experiments, while all practical forms and exercise of sound-writing reveal the trace of some hidden or explicit theory. In a similar vein, the distinction between precursors and contemporaries is at the same time perfectly neat and far from absolute. The canon of sound-writing is classical in the right sense of the word: the major historical references are well-known to more recent or today’s authors, who do not refrain from reworking them in very creative ways, much beyond the traditional attitude of reverent emulation. Finally, the study of the great “homophonists” makes clear that sound-writing is a key feature of all literary languages: Gertrude Stein (English), Oulipo (French), Oskar Pastior (German), Yoko Tawada (Japanese), Plautus (Latin), Torres Nahara (Spanish) and many others are there to testify to this ubiquity. At the same time however, the close connection between sound-writing and homophonic translation instantly discloses the blurring of boundaries between languages and literatures (even in the cases of “intralingual” translation, a type of translation that Roman Jakobson considered as one of the three major domains of translation studies, next to interlingual translation and intersemiotic translation, what we would could today intermedial adaptation).

Sound / Writing is thus doing more than reopening the debate on a genre or a practice that have always been considered marginal –playful in the best case, stultifying in the worst case. It highlights the strategic position of homophonic translation in literature worldwide, not only in avant-garde experiments but in writing in general. As such, it involves a radical rethinking of what literature can be.