Stephen Graf

Nearly eighteen years have passed since he was first appointed the task of translating Samuel Beckett’s Eleuthéria into English, but it doesn’t take long for the old frustrations to resurface for author Michael Brodsky. Brodsky’s translation was undertaken at the direction of Beckett’s long-time American publisher, Barney Rosset, and Brodsky’s publisher at Four Walls Eight Windows press, John G.H. Oakes. Having sold Grove Press about eight years earlier, Rosset took on Oakes and his partner Dan Simon as co-publishers, forming the venture Foxrock, Inc. Beckett had initially attempted to translate the play himself in 1986, but at eighty years of age had found the endeavour too taxing. Albert Bermel, an experienced, professional translator, particularly of French literature, was then engaged to translate the work. Bermel’s translation was, as Marius Buning puts it: ‘brusquely brushed aside (“we didn’t like it”, Rosset says).’

That is when they turned to Brodsky. Unlike Bermel and Barbara Wright—whose translation of Eleuthéria Faber and Faber brought out in 1996—Brodsky, though fluent in French and well-versed in French literature and theatre, was not a professional translator, and has not translated anything professionally since. Brodsky was selected because, as he put it: ‘I was John Oakes’s star author’. Furthermore, Oakes was aware of Brodsky’s familiarity with and passion for Beckett’s work: ‘I knew his work’, Brodsky says of Beckett. ‘Not as a scholar. But Watt, Molloy, Murphy, I’d read the whole shebang’.

At the time, Brodsky had published five novels, and several of his own plays had been staged. His first novel, Detour, published by Urizen Books in 1977, received the Ernest Hemingway Citation of P.E.N. Like most of his work, Detour met with critical acclaim, but not a great deal of commercial success. Brodsky has since published six more books, and is now at work on his twelfth, Invidicum, which revolves around an experimental drug for ‘Envy Disease’. Born in New York City in 1948, Brodsky began reading Beckett as a teenager and was delighted when Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 because: ‘It seemed like a vindication for me of what was possible’.

When Brodsky agreed to translate Eleuthéria he was given a copy of the typescript of Beckett’s original, French version. While neither man ever expressed to Brodsky why he had found Bermel’s translation insufficient, Rosset and Oakes did provide Brodsky with a copy of it to use as a guide. As Brodsky explains: ‘I took a look at it [Bermel’s translation]. However, I definitely started from scratch. I didn’t use his as a back-up. I did remember certain things he said and wrote, but I undertook it on my own […] I was my own guide for better or worse’.

Although he describes the experience as happening ‘a long, long time ago’, Brodsky distinctly remembers that he was forced to work ‘under very tight time constraints […] There was some kind of heat on. I don’t remember [what]. All I remember was I was being pressured—“Did you finish it? Have you finished it?”’ Brodsky now believes the pressure and the hard deadline adversely affected his final product, although he does not offer that as an excuse. In retrospect, he feels more editorial input would have been helpful: ‘I think it would have been to everyone’s advantage, as much as it goes against my grain, to send it around’. When asked if he was given any guidance by Rosset or Oakes, Brodsky laughed and replied: ‘I think in many ways I am un-guidable—to my detriment. I was really given a very free hand. There were no constraints put upon me. I don’t know if it came back to haunt them’. It did come back to haunt Rosset and Oakes in the form of negative reviews, but they never wavered in their staunch support of Brodsky and his product: ‘They were very, very accommodating. They weren’t academics in that sense, and I have great respect for many academics, but there wasn’t a fear. There was a sort of fearlessness in both of them’. Judging Rosset and Oakes against editors at major publishing houses today, Brodsky has a deep appreciation for both men. He described Rosset as ‘very courageous person’, and Oakes ‘started his own company and also had a lot of guts—is very courageous. I don’t know if there are too many editors or publishers like that anymore. It was a whole different world’.

Translating Beckett was no easy job. As Beckett’s letters have demonstrated, not even Beckett enjoyed translating Beckett. Brodsky speaks admiringly of ‘Beckett’s perversity’ when it comes to his use of the French language. Any would-be translator of Beckett is challenged by the fact that Beckett, as Brodsky puts it: ‘took a fiendishly deadpan pleasure in incorporating phrases that were so uniquely idiomatic as to be unworkable for the translator’. Brodsky quickly adds: ‘This is not a self-defence—I’m too far away from the book to care much what people think of my work on it’. That said, there are a number of emendations Brodsky would make today if given the chance, while he had been much more combative in defence of his translation at the time it appeared. Most of the changes seem fairly minor and insignificant, such as altering Mme Krap’s statement at the beginning of Act I: ‘Think about your union’ to: ‘Bear in mind your union’. In Act II, the Glazier informs Mlle Skunk that Victor broke his window ‘With one of his brogues’. Brodsky admits that ‘brogues’ is not right for Beckett’s French ‘godasses’. The problem is: ‘I’m sure there is an equivalently clumsy archaic synonym for shoe—somewhere in cyberspace’, but he is still at a loss for what it might be.

Two of the more scathing reviews that Brodsky’s translation received were written by Gerry Dukes and appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of The Recorder, and in the June 24, 1995 edition of The Irish Times. A main point of contention for Dukes was that Brodsky employed too many ‘Americanisms’ in his translation. Brodsky points to his use of ‘brogues’, and Victor’s use in Act III of the Irish slang ‘Begrudgers!’, for Beckett’s French ‘Jaloux!’ as evidence that he at least attempted to incorporate some Irish colloquialisms. He concedes that he should have used the Irish-English ‘dustbins’ (which Beckett himself employs in the English version of Endgame) rather than ‘garbage cans’. Discussing the translation, Brodsky returns repeatedly to two of the ‘howlers’ pointed out by his critics. The first occurs in Act I where M. Krap says to Mme Krap in his translation: ‘We were on the water. Your oarsman had a knife [my emphasis]’. Where Brodsky translated Beckett’s ‘canotier’ as oarsman, and ‘couteau’ as knife (from ‘blade’); ‘boater’ [straw hat] and ‘osprey’ [or ‘feather’] would have been better. So, Wright’s: ‘Your boater had an osprey’ is the truer translation. Thinking about this howler, Brodsky laughs and says: ‘I mean, what can I say? I would like to have expunged that, but…’

The second howler that Brodsky reveals ‘I still have problems with’ appears early in Act I. Mme Meck responds to Mme Piouk’s query about her physical health with the following ‘confession’: ‘It’s the lower belly. It is descending, so it appears’. In Beckett’s original French, the line reads: ‘C’est le bas-ventre. Il tombe, parait-il’. Regarding the way he chose to render that piece of dialogue, Brodsky laments: ‘I don’t know what, after a certain point, I can say about that. I went to medical school for two years. My mother-in-law was a doctor—a French doctor—and I couldn’t get much out of her. I’ve even done some Googling to track down a plausible identity of “lower belly”? The womb? The uterus? What exactly is falling? I could find almost nothing, so I’m still uncertain how to translate it’. Wright translated the line as: ‘It’s my womb. It seems it’s becoming prolapsed’. Though cognizant of the existence of Wright’s translation, Brodsky has never read it, but notes: ‘I would be curious to know how she translated certain things. But I just did not have the morbid curiosity to look at it. I just wanted to forget about the whole thing’.

Brodsky read many of the reviews—negative and otherwise—his translation received. He wrote a ten-page response to the editor-in-chief of The Recorder, Christopher Cahill, regarding Dukes’ review, and wrote a two-page letter to John Banville responding to Duke’s Irish Times review. To this day he can still quote some of the criticism levied against his work from memory. On the experience of translating Beckett, and the tempest-in-a-teapot the release of his translation engendered, Brodsky is now sanguine, observing: ‘One of my rabid fans had written on the Internet: “Those Beckett guys really hated him for doing a shit translation, but Brodsky is my favourite writer.” I was sort of amused at the idea that he had read about this—that it had been so publicized. I’ve kind of pushed it away. I repressed it; or rather, I’ve suppressed the memory of it. But I don’t regret doing it’.

Stephen Graf is an adjunct lecturer in English literature at Robert Morris University, Pennsylvania. He is working on an essay on translating Beckett focusing on Eleuthéria

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.


Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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