To Mireille Gansel, the sinuous link between language and migration mirrors that between translation and transhumance, a seasonal movement of herds to and from mountainous heights to verdant valleys that has occurred across Europe since shepherds began.
Is it any more challenging to transfer meaning from one language into the next than to shift one herd from one place to another? And how does movement affect the dynamics of language when history intervenes, whether in the form of colonisation, the break-up of the nation state — or the Shoah?
Gansel’s pursuit of her own legacy (Hungarian/French/German — fluent, with Czech and Yiddish on the side, plus acquired English and Vietnamese) transhumes into love of poetry in its own tongue.
Gansel travels with the poetry, at times keeping company with the poet. Staging posts are Hanoi, where she learns Vietnamese in order to translate Te Hanh and Che Lan Vien, who teaches her thu (letter) and tho (poetry) linking literacy to literature; East Berlin, where she works with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel, and discovers Nelly Sachs’s poetry and correspondence with Paul Celan; Grenoble, where she takes “translation” beyond language into music, with Yehudi Menuhin analysing that of Romanian and Hungarian Roma and Bulgarian Pomaks.
Still in France — Provence — she visits the Surrealist poet René Char, calling him “the embodiment of intelligence and humanity”, recalling some shared Beaumes-de-Venise as “a glass of light”.
I started learning languages as I learnt to speak. I learnt from the get-go that a pocketful of spare languages could come in handy whenever it was time to move on — or be moved on. Just as my mother, a Viennese refugee fluent in at least four, competent in a couple more, had discovered.
All migrants collect languages and in their various expressions meet new cultures, new literatures.
Part meditation, part memoir, Gansel’s book is as fluid in form — here an essay, there an axiom — as in content. A political pronouncement (McNamara’s aim “to bomb ’em [the Vietcong] back to the Stone Age”) generates an answer — “to publish in French… a vast anthology of Vietnamese literature.”
To every violent act, the response has to come in words, words of every language.
In Translation as Transhumance, a venerable, inveterate literary translator, who has made the world her literary home, is herself translated; impeccably so, by prizewinning French specialist, Ros Schwartz. They are two translators who richly deserve each other.
Amanda Hopkinson is a writer, translator and founder of PEN’s Writers in Translation programme