Sometimes my commercial and literary translations converge in interesting and unexpected ways. Take a recent project describing a production of bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) opening this very night at Paris’s Festival d’Automne:
Bunraku puppetry really has to be seen to be believed: dressed all in black, the puppeteers are in plain sight throughout, bringing the marionettes vividly to life but remaining impassive, visible and invisible all at once.
I was immediately reminded of the opening of a novel by one of my favourite French writers, the strange, dark and wonderful Gabrielle Wittkop. Sérénissime Assassinat (‘Murder Most Serene’; Verticales 2001, Poche 2002) is an outrageous, Greenaway-esque poisonfest set in 18th-century Venice (my translation won a French Voices award in 2011 and is currently seeking a US publisher). Before beginning her tale, Wittkop introduces her role as narrator:
‘Concealed beneath a hood and clad all in black, the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, smile or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom burst like wineskins. I enjoy presenting their spectacle, and I watch it, too, my own spectator. If, contrary to the laws of bunraku, my figures eat or drink, it is only the better to foil conjecture. We shall not always know if the dishes are harmless. Sometimes we shall think, quite wrongly, that they may be otherwise; unless, on the contrary, we are trusting when we should be on our guard. And just as in bunraku, the morning’s crime is explained only at nightfall after the turn of dramatic episodes enacted in a series of occult, labyrinthine moves, so the action will unfold in two tempos, passing from 1766 to 1797, as I see fit. One of these tempos is extremely slow because it extends over a great many years, the other is, on the contrary, very fast, moving briskly from one date to the next, rather like a long- jumper leaping over broad chasms in a single bound, then trotting before leaping again, and in this way traversing vast deserts. […] There is a progression, nonetheless, in the rising crescendo to catastrophe, the gradual fraying of the rope destined to break. In the double register of the story, scenes will overlap not like a palimpsest, but like transparent slides, clearly legible, pretending to fit. The figures wear the costumes of their time, their city, the most Asian in all Europe. In place of a magenta kimono emblazoned with a butterfly, we shall agree to an ink-dark tabarro and a chalk-white bauta, bending over a hump-backed bridge. In this metropolis of masquerades, whispered denunciations and informants, Alvise Lanzi’s successive widowings become mysteriously intertwined. Seek not, and you shall surely find. Syllogistic endings being fundamentally devoid of interest, however, our chief diversion will be their beginnings, and their ornamental setting. A fine setting indeed. Venice purple and gold, with her shot taffeta skies, her leaden skies, a shriek of death in her shadows, the horror of one who discovers a lethal incandescence in his own gut.’
Wittkop compares the bunraku puppet-master to the narrator of fiction, but his kinship to the ideal of the literary translator is clear, too, I hope – ‘endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his [or her] implacable interference.’ We remain present throughout, ‘masked, as convention dictates, […] our own spectator’, plying an age-old craft to bring stories and characters vividly to life, matching the musical ’score’ of the original text as closely as we can.