The metamorphoses of the body in the space/time of literary translation

By Clive Scott (University of East Anglia, UK)


Translation is less to do with the meaning of a text than with the body of the reader; translation is a reader’s psycho-physiological encounter with a text which is in turn embodied in language and the materiality of the page. Where translation-for-meaning eliminates the body and transforms text into image, translation-as-bodily-response reconstitutes text as a unique and autonomous object in the world. This article sets out from the relationships between body and language, between self and alterity, as we find these discussed in the work of Merleau-Ponty, where the notion of reversibility is complicated by necessary discrepancy (écart) and by a dynamic of becoming, of dialectical passage. This spatio-temporal morphing undermines both comparison and choice as concepts appropriate to the relation between source text and target text, and to the critical assessment of value. These arguments are played out in a heterostrophic translation of stanzas from Hugo’s ‘Booz endormi’ which attempts to capture the dynamic of the responsive body as it manifests itself in shifting stanzaic structure, acoustic porosity and mutating rhythmic phrasing.

Keywords: alterity, reversibility, écart, dialogue, dialectics, the invisible, paralanguage, rhythm, stanzaic structure, situation of speech

©inTRAlinea & Clive Scott (2022).
"The metamorphoses of the body in the space/time of literary translation"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Embodied Translating – Mit dem Körper übersetzen
Edited by: Barbara Ivancic and Alexandra L. Zepter
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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Translation translates not a text, but the reading of a text, where reading is to be understood as the psycho-physiological experience of a particular reading body. We can get no nearer to the inner corporeal dynamics, to the hidden bio-locomotions, of the reading body than Étienne-Jules Marey could to the manifest forces at work in human movement; what we seek to describe is what appears in his chronophotographs of fencers as a blur. What forces are expended in reading and how do they find expression in the act of translation? It would be foolhardy to expect that we could identify certain ‘positions of visibility’, certain moments of legibility, in the scumble of response. But what we can do is unsettle the easy translational assumption that the dynamics of reading consists solely in the eyes’ movement through the text, in an evenly progressive understanding, interrupted only by local difficulties of interpretation or equivalence. And we can make claims about the effects of body in the process of reading/translation and about the need to translate towards the body. 

What follows derives from revisiting Merleau-Ponty’s thinking about the body, principally in ‘La perception d’autrui et le dialogue’ (1969: 182-203), and from a consideration of how it might help us to understand the activity of the body in the translational act. I must emphasize that I am not attempting to do full justice to the fortunes of the body in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy; I am, opportunistically, trying to test the applicability of certain dimensions of his thought to translational practice, such that we see more coherently what modifications of that thought are needed if justice is to be done to literary translation.

I do not want to begin directly with the body but with that medium in which the body does much of its living and through whose agency it finds its way to expression, namely language. Language, for Merleau-Ponty, constantly projects itself into its future, is always ahead of itself; and we are always reaching towards our understanding of it. Translation, we might say, is an attempt to realize or fulfil this linguistic self-anticipation, to bring it out into the open and to treat with it. Language always bears within itself the horizon of its own novelty, and that horizon is expressed in the sense we have that the words on the page are exceeded by the expressive capacity they carry. And this expressive capacity, this excess, speaks to different readers in different ways ‘en tant que, chacun à notre manière, nous sommes par elle [une vérité par transparence, recoupement et reprise] concernés et atteints’ (1969: 184) [insofar as we are, each in his own way, moved and touched by it [a truth of transparency, recovery, and recollection] (1973: 133)]. But, Merleau-Ponty adds, ‘Nous ne comprendrons tout à fait cet enjambement des choses vers leur sens […] que si nous le comprenons comme empiètement de moi sur autrui et d’autrui sur moi…’ (1969: 185) [We shall completely understand this stretching across of things towards their sense […] only if we understand it as the encroachment of myself upon the other and of the other upon myself… (my translation)].

This encounter with the other, in dialogue, in the dialogue of translation, which enables the self to expand into its own hidden spaces, is like an externalisation of a condition of self-separation which already obtains within the self. The self already contains, as its ‘mystery’, an alterity, its double, such that dialogue/dialectic is a natural outcrop of the self. And the self confers a body on anything with which it is in dialogue. Merleau-Ponty calls it ‘la généralisation de mon corps’ [the generalisation of my body] and observes: ‘le monde que je perçois traîne encore avec lui ma corporéité’ (1969: 191) [the world I perceive still trails with it my corporeality (1973: 137)].

Within the structure of dialogue, the surplus or deviation of expressive capacity that is in the speech of the interlocutors inserts itself into the fabric of exchange, such that ‘ma parole est recoupée latéralement par celle d’autrui, je m’entends en lui et il parle en moi, c’est ici la même chose to speak to et to be spoken to’ (1969: 197) [my speech is intersected laterally by the other’s speech, and I hear myself in him, while he speaks in me. Here it is the same thing to speak to and to be spoken to (1973: 142)]. And in translation, the continual and necessary adjustment of hearing, the effort to relate and adapt, is all the greater. But Merleau-Ponty’s overall vision of dialectics is not one which is adversarial or simply confirms a mutual belonging, but one which opens up a difference which must be assimilated, transformed into a diversification, a shift into the hitherto unterritorialized space/time reciprocally occupied.

What is particularly attractive for the translational transaction in Merleau-Ponty’s view of dialogue is the sense of the parties involved being caught up in a common enterprise which both precedes and extends beyond them, and which implies that any direct text-to-text translation, on the basis of linguistic equivalence, is an impoverishment of the challenge that the source text (ST) or any literary text poses:

Parler n’est pas seulement une initiative mienne, écouter n’est pas subir l’initiative de l’autre, et cela, en dernière analyse, parce que comme sujets parlants nous continuons, nous reprenons un même effort, plus vieux que nous, sur lequel nous sommes entés l’un et l’autre, et qui est la manifestation, le devenir de la vérité [l’ouverture de chaque moment de la connaissance à ceux qui le reprendront et le changeront en son sens] (1969: 200)

[Speaking is not just my own initiative, listening is not submitting to the initiative of the other, because as speaking subjects we are continuing, we are resuming a common effort more ancient than we, upon which we are grafted to one another and which is the manifestation, the growth [becoming] of truth [the opening of each moment of knowledge to those who will resume it [take it up again] and change its sense [change it into its sense]] (1973: 144)].

What we are searching for in the ST is not the text that the dictionary already knows and implicitly wants us to comply with, but rather the tacit and unformulated, the overflow of signifiance, that require a new text, co-inhabited by our own and the ST’s singularity.

An earlier passage from this same essay allows us to inquire further into the notion of alterity and how it relates to the ST and the process of translation:

C’est au plus secret de moi-même que se fait l’étrange articulation avec autrui; le mystère d’autrui n’est pas autre que le mystère de moi-même. […] Ce qui fait que je suis unique, ma propriété fondamentale de me sentir, elle tend paradoxalement à se diffuser; c’est parce que je suis totalité que je suis capable de mettre au monde autrui et de me voir limité par lui (1969: 188)

[It is in the very depths of myself that this strange articulation with the other is fashioned. The mystery of the other is nothing but the mystery of myself. […] That which makes me unique, my fundamental capacity for self-feeling, tends paradoxically to diffuse itself. It is because I am a totality that I am capable of giving birth to another and of seeing myself limited by him (1973: 135)].

Imagine these words as spoken by the ST. ‘Le plus secret de moi-même’, ‘le mystère de moi-même’ is what we might call the ST’s ‘invisible’, the depth of a surface; that is to say that, like us, the ST is inhabited by an alterity which is latent and which an other, the translator, is capable of drawing out of it and into dialogue. The invisible is an integral part of the ST’s consciousness of itself, but because of the invisible’s intimate relation with alterity, the ST feels within itself something self-distributive, something self-othering. The ST’s uniqueness lies in this capacity for self-doubling. And there is a sense in which this self-doubling is, in its turn, proliferative: the ST may double itself, may enjoy a relationship of reversibility with its double (back-translation), but it does not coincide with it; the écart [discrepancy] thus created by self-othering is, in translation, both what the new language makes necessary and what every new reader multiplies. But let us reiterate: this écart, this new possibility, already exists as part of the ST’s invisibility; the ST already contains, nurtures, conceals, enjoys as latent, its own translation(s). Furthermore, the ST yields to its own limitation by the translator, to the translator’s inevitable capacity to mark out its limits, limits defined by back-translation – the ST is never an ‘adequate’ account of the target text (TT) – because it can be confident that the horizon of varied translations of itself will always be its own inexhaustible totality.

The sense of the multipliability of the body is indeed evidenced in Cubism, but not as a distortion, or critique of perspective, but as a natural inhabitation of the object: ‘En d’autres termes: regarder un objet, c’est venir l’habiter et de là saisir toutes choses selon la face qu’elles tournent vers lui. Mais dans la mesure où je les vois elles aussi, elles restent des demeures ouvertes à mon regard, et, situé virtuellement en elles, j’aperçois déjà sous différents angles l’objet central de ma vision actuelle’ (1945: 96) [In other words, to see an object is to come to inhabit it and to thereby grasp all things according to the sides these other things turn towards this object. And yet, to the extent that I also see those things, they remain places open to my gaze and, being virtually situated in them, I already perceive the central object of my present vision from different angles (2012: 71)]. This is to say nothing about the ontology of the object, only about the body’s capacity ever to be virtually situated in relation to the world. Situation includes virtual situation. The multipliability of the body consists in the body’s virtual transferability, its sympathetic self-relocatability.

While the body, therefore, is situated and subject to the benefits and limitations of that condition, its situatedness has a certain elasticity: ‘on peut dire de mon corps qu’il n’est pas ailleurs, mais on ne peut pas dire qu’il soit ici ou maintenant, au sens des objets’ (1964a: 191) [one can indeed say of my body that it is not elsewhere, but one cannot say that it is here or now in the sense that objects are (1968: 147)]. We might then suggest that the body is situated, but in a self-distributive dynamic, in its own becoming, in its refusal of coincidence with elements in its environment. The process of reversibility is not a figure but a movement animated by a time which creates the transition between the two experiences either side of the gap. This is the temporal dimension of écart, of deviation. In translation, the ST and the TT are part of the same body, in a state of perpetual non-coincident becoming; the translator slides, in passage, from one to the other, a metamorphic passage, whose modulations do not interrupt their continuity.

It is the temporality of the transition that makes comparison an inappropriate way of relating ST and TT. The vocativity of dialogue is what relates TT with ST, and dialogue is not a process of comparison, of spatial juxtaposition; it is, as we have said, a process of metamorphic passage, progressive dialectics, a developing/living relationship; it is a movement into and back, a morphing back and forth; in this sense, it is an expanding synaesthetic and cognitive experience and a shift into a new inclusive, symbiotic and bilateral perspective. In this way, the ST is never felt to be outside time, but, on the contrary, to be espousing the changeability of ongoing time through the limitless possible re-formations of the TT.

It is the temporality of the transition that also makes the notion of choice inappropriate. When we say that linguistic variations, virtualities, exceed the ostensible requirements of sense, we must go carefully: these variations are not a disposable, dispensable surplus, products of a game played beyond the necessary. These variations are constitutive of the language of translation inasmuch as it is langage, a mooted but as yet undefined totality of all languages. Language is in a constant process of constituting itself; it is not chosen from. Choosing, as Bergson reminds us, derives from false retrospective spatializations. Translation, accordingly, is not a series of choices made from a given repertoire, but the passage through the constituents of language in the very act of language’s constitution; or, put another way, the making of language in the act of making sense of the ST. I might say more exactly that language pursues its self-constitution in translation because the translator, through the reading of the ST, pursues his/her own self-constitution. We do not choose between options, we pass through them, in our becoming.[1]

The evaporation of choice in the dynamic of becoming occurs because unfolding or developing possibility is part of our existential and corporeal condition, an occupation of available viewpoints in the semantic/expressive field and beyond its horizon. In translation, it looks as if options are necessarily circumscribed because we are involved in providing a version of an ST which already has certain formal and linguistic parameters. But, as we have said, the task of translation is to get the ST itself on the move, not as it were to translate within the parameters of the ST but to expand those parameters, to reintroduce the ST to itself, to redefine its virtualities, its invisibilities. If the very format of translation – something produced on the page – seems to compel a choice, then that choice is a kind of threshold for all the choices that were not made but which remain virtual within the choice that was, immanent and imminent within it, necessary to it, not to its being the right choice, but to its very existence. If the process of rational choice seems to weigh up and eliminate competitors, bodily ‘choice’ ‘chooses’ from its situation, as an intention towards its setting, while it holds within it the intentions of other situations. Being situated, as we have already remarked, is also to be virtually situated.

With these arguments in mind, I would like to consider a translation of the last three stanzas of Hugo’s ‘Booz endormi’ (1859) (Hunt 1968: 26):

Ruth songeait et Booz dormait; l’herbe était noire;

3 > 3 > 2 > 4/3 > 5 > 4

(1 > 3)

Les grelots des troupeaux palpitaient vaguement;

3 > 3 > 3 > 3

Une immense bonté tombait du firmament;

3 > 3 > 2 > 4

C’était l’heure tranquille où les lions vont boire.

3 > 3 > 4 > 2

Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth;

4 > 2 > 6

Les astres émaillaient le ciel profond et sombre;

2 > 4 > 2 > 4/2 > 4

> 4 > 2

Le croissant fin et clair parmi ces fleurs de l’ombre

3 > 3 > 4 > 2/4 > 2

> 4 > 2


Brillait à l’occident, et Ruth se demandait,

2 > 4 > 2 > 4

Immobile, ouvrant l’œil à moitié sous ses voiles,

3 > 3 > 3 > 3

Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l’éternel été,

2 > 4 > 4 > 2

Avait, en s’en allant, négligemment jeté

2 > 4 > 4 > 2

Cette faucille d’or dans le champ des étoiles.

4 > 2 > 3 > 3

We can make some immediate observations about the first stanza. It has an essentially paratactic nature which helps to confirm its biblical kinships; and the consistency of that parataxis is underlined by the consistency of the neutral, impassive semi-colon punctuation. These are features of the poem as a whole. Hugo’s tenses are imperfect apart from the omnitemporal present of ‘vont boire’. In my translation (see below), I have tried to take us closer to the immediacy of sensational experience by resorting to an unpunctuated notational syntax which eschews verbs or sets them in the present. And in place of the firm architecture of the quatrain, with its implicit assurances of structured vision, I have tried for something much more fragile, a structure not properly realized, dependent on lines generated by assonance, as ‘vague’ as the sheep’s bells. What I want to suggest is that Hugo’s writing in the first stanza is prey to a psycho-perceptual uncertainty, is likely at any point to re-set its psycho-perceptual coordinates, particularly as a shift from the rhetorical to the genetic, from a repertoire of expressive effects to the generation of an associative weave of sense(s):

Ruth immersed in thought and Boaz in sleep


(/) (x / x /) (x / x x /)

the grass deep


(x / /)





b (a)


heartedly the flocks’ bells tinkling


(/ x x) (x / / / x)

a vast

b (a)

(x /)

tide of fellow-feeling

a (a)/c (we)

(/) (x / x / x)

washes down from the vaulted sky


(/ x /) (x x / x /)

it’s that time of truce in living

c (a) (we)

(x x / x / x / x)

when the lions go to drink


(x x / x) (/ x /)


[Note: (a) = half-rhyme or relation of assonance in a final strong syllable; (we) = rhyme in a final weak syllable; thus, ‘tinkling’ rhymes with ‘drink’ in its stressed syllable, and with ‘feeling’ and ‘living’ in its unstressed second syllable; x = an orphan line, unrhymed, a gap. The round brackets in the rhythmic notation indicate phrasal segmentation; some segments do not coincide with a natural syntactic segmentation, but are compelled by the lineation; but the voice, acting under various expressive pressures, is free to insert pauses and thus modify the quality of accent when it so wishes]

The rhythmic readings offered here and in the stanzas following, are accent-based rather than encompassing the full range of paralinguistic features (tone, tempo, loudness, intonation, etc.). The issues and complexity associated with a scansion that does full justice to the paralinguistic are too great to address properly in these few pages (see Scott 2018: 221-37), but might produce a reading such as follows:

(Ruth ▲▀ immersed in thought ░ ◊ ╬ and Boaz in sleep ▼╣√

the grass: ▲▌     deep ◄ ▓ !

dark ▼░ )))

half- ▲ ►

heartedly ◊ theflocks’bells ▲ ╗√ tinkling ▼ ╣ ▌

a VAST ▲►

TIDE (((( ╬ of fellow-feeling╝▲

washes down ▀▼ fromthevaultedsky: ▒

it’sthattimeoftruce ◊ in living… ╣

when the lions ▌◄ go to drink ▼… ╗

[Note: these notational values include different kinds of enunciatory momentum and obstruction (► ◄), different tempi (spacing), pauses and intervals of different duration and intensity (▐ ▀ ◊ √), different pitches and pitch-impulses (▲ ▼), different amplitudes (italic, bold, capitals), different degrees of resolution in inner visual images (░ ▒ ▓), different senses of spatial direction and pathway (╬ ╣ ╦), different experiences of expansion and enclosure (╝ ╗ ( )), different kinds of reflective digestion (: ! …)].

This visual paralanguage covers both vocal events and psychic and cognitive associations. It tells us more about the forces at work at different points in the text than about their specific operation. This scansional notation rocks between record and proposition, accuracy and indeterminacy, actuality and virtuality; and although it is full of uncontrollable variables, it is crucial that we keep this kind of reading firmly in mind for our other stanzas, too, since criticism pays no attention to it and since it is a declaration of the body’s profound involvement in the process of translation. We translate towards the body, towards the ST’s re-absorption of the body and the body’s absorption of the ST. In translation, the body expressly intervenes, re-investing language with its psycho-physiological complexity and dynamic.

The assonantal/alliterative trail in my translation relates to what Henri Meschonnic would call récitatif ,‘par quoi j’entends toute la sémantique sérielle dans le continu du discours, et qui court à travers le récit, qui est l’énoncé’ (2007: 114) [It is what I call the recitative, by which I mean the whole serial semantics in the continuum of discourse, which runs through the narrative, which is the enunciated]. The assonantal chain is the generator of énonciation within the énoncé, that is, not an acoustic pattern in the service of the eurhythmic, or of the consolidation of meaning, but the reaching of the tongue for sources of sense in the materiality of language, language in the very process of coming to sense, of finding its sources in the body. We might think of this sequence as a meshwork (lines of flow and interwovenness), a term borrowed by Tim Ingold from Henri Lefebvre, to set against a rhetorical network (lines of connection). Elsewhere, Ingold speaks of ‘the meshwork of entangled lines of life, growth and movement’ (2011: 63) and associates it with animistic ontology in which ‘beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships’ (2011: 63). Translation here acts against the ST’s notion of rhyme as a network of points, by transforming jumps between like-sounding words into the morphing of the acoustically oblique or transverse, as if the body’s hearing itself were in mutational motion. 

The second of these stanzas I translate as prose, as something close to a biblical verset:

All, in Ur and Jerimadeth, is quiet; the stars adorn with scattered lights the deep and sombre sky; the delicately etched crescent, bright among these flowers of the dark, shines in the west; and Ruth wonders

This stanza is in the mode of a voice-over, a text of continuity, a voice which has initially withdrawn to a distance, expressing itself in an awed, commentator-like sobriety in the iambic string ‘the stars adorn with scattered lights the deep and sombre sky’. This distance must be hauled back to proximity in the rhythmic variety and varying tempi of ‘the delicately etched crescent (x / x x x / / x), bright among these flowers of the dark (/ x x x / x x x /), shines in the west (/ x x /)’, coming to rest in the antispast[2] ‘and Ruth wonders’ (x / / x), a reversal of the previous choriamb (/ x x /). What is important here is that we should shift from linear unfolding to the phrasally episodic, from sequence back to the segmented, from the self-fulfilling to that which must be bodily brought forth, just as translation, that maieutic operation, must bodily bring forth the newborn TT.

In the third and final stanza, my version has a closer relationship with its linear Hugolian partner, but phrasal reading remains paramount to it:

Motionless, her eyes barely open and concealed

3 > 6 (2 > 4) > 3 (/ x x) (x / / x / x) (x x /)

Beneath her veils, what god, what harvester

4 > 2 > 4 (x / x /) (x /) (x / x x)

Of everlasting summer’s yield

8 (x / x / x / x /)

Has, as he heads home,

1 > 4 (/) (x x / /)

Negligently thrown

5 (4 > 1?) (/ x x x (/))

This golden sickle in the starry field

5 > 5 (4 > 1?) (x / x / x) (x x / x (/))

Phrasal segmentation, not necessarily governed by syntactic juncture, underlines that rhythmicity is relational rather than repetitional and that the body is involved, since the phrasal, the prosodic, the suprasegmental, engages the paralinguistic and compels the recovery of the organic thing that parole is (see paralinguistic/prosodic scansion above). Linear through-reading too easily becomes the fulfilling of a number, the counting of a continuity, and erases that sense of speech-situation, of the enacted, which generates the deictic.

This is a re-rhythming of Hugo’s development from steadying 3 > 3 hemistichs, through the 2 > 4 > 4 > 2 chiasmic lines, to a final recuperation of 3 > 3. The function of that re-rhythming is brought out in the imitation of the chiasm of the third line:

Avait, en s’en allant, négligemment jeté

2 > 4 > 4 > 2



Has, as he heads home,

1 > 4

Negligently thrown

5 (4 > 1?)

Here the French tetrasyllabic measure is significant as the constituent of a unit larger than itself (the line), as an element in the possible rhythmic combinations that make 12. The English tetrasyllabic phrases, on the other hand, have rhythmically significant inner differentia: the ionic (x x / /) ‘as he heads home’ is itself accentually destinational, with all that it projects of arrival and the establishment of a lineage (the Tree of Jesse: Obed > Jesse > David > Christ), while the first paeon (/ x x x) ‘Negligently’ is dispersive, an initial accentual impulse which scatters itself. But negligence, if only apparent, is a crucial gesture in the relationship of the reaper (harvester) with the gleaner, as the poem has already made clear:

Quand il voyait passer quelque pauvre glaneuse:
“Laissez tomber exprès des épis”, disait-il.

Negligence, the act of human compassion, is like a scattering of seed, just as the sickle/moon produces a scattering of stars. The translated stanza tries to intensify the complex of intensities released by the diacritical tetrasyllables: from the clearly articulated di-trochaic (‘barely open’), di-iambic (‘Beneath her veils’), and ionic (‘as he heads home’) to the less contoured paeons: the second paeon (x / x x) (‘what harvester’), the first (‘Negligently’) – although there is a temptation to ‘lift’ ‘-gently’, thus / x / x – and the third (x x / x) (‘in the starry’).

What is not sufficiently emphasized is that translation gives the translator the liberty to explore the effects of formal variants/variations, the psycho-physiological energies triggered by such and such a metrical or strophic arrangement, which the translator is at liberty to invent without the need of an existing example from the canon. Interest in the modal metabolisms of different verse-forms, and their relation to different languages, remains at a depressingly low ebb. Translation is a way of experimenting with the expressive capacities of the ST, with those possibilities that the poet has had to suppress in the interests of his/her chosen schema. These capacities which the poet was not in a position to realize are part of the ‘invisible’ of the ST, whose exhumation constitutes the translator’s new procedural ethics. Besides, ‘Booz endormi’ itself is not as structurally stable as one might imagine. Let us not forget that stanzas 10 and 15 of this poem are, unaccountably, in alternating, rather than enclosed, rhyme, that this last stanza derives (Hunt 1968: 208), from Louis Bouilhet’s ‘Bucolique’ (1857), a poem in heptasyllabic abab quatrains, and that the whole is haunted by the versets of the ‘Book of Ruth’. If all stanzaic structures are a particular respiration of lines, an architecture of accents, tempi, pitch-curves and tones, then my six-line heterosyllabic stanza (12/10/8/5/5/10), which rhymes not abba but axabba, allows us to see how translation might restore the initiative to a structure by changing the rhythm of interlinear relationships. The unrhymed second line enacts both the spirit of the rhetorical question which needs no answer, and the unboundedness of a Christian lineage. And this line is as if in counterpoint with the insistent and reassuring return of the /i:ld/ rhyme, itself a scattering. Finally, the enclosed short b-rhyming lines are both a gathered energy, a trigger, for the expansive final line, and the culmination of the narrowing syllabic funnel (12 > 10 > 8 > 5 > 5), increasingly goal-oriented, an impatient expectation of imminent consummation. Translation endows texts with new bodies and behaviours.

It is translation’s business to lead the ST out of the condition of image (reproducible), the image of a writing, into that of body (multipliable, distributive), to transform it from something which poses linguistic problems to something which offers existential authenticity, to reinvest language with a sense of physical activity, such that words not only involve an articulatory exercise of the body, but also become palpable as triggers of sensory experience and corresponding gestural and synaesthetic performance. My graphic and chromatic supplementations of the text (Figs. 1-3)[3] are not then to be thought of as constituting illustrations, as word and image relationships. They are rather the expansion of the text into the activity of the senses, an extrusion from the text of the gestural body of the reader. Anything in the world is susceptible to inhabitation by my body, can enjoy a reversible corporeality with my body. The paper I write on[4], the typeface I choose, the lines I draw, the colours I use, are the agents and elements of my corporeal relationship with the ST. This is all part of the spreading, distributive translational act: as a translator, I physically write the ST back into the world, into space/time, into constant re-location in changing settings, into perishability. Experimental writing, experimental typography are ways of constituting text as a unique and autonomous object in the world, which must be made use of, taken into account, cannot be perceptually elided either as a substitute or the infinitely reproducible. It is for this reason that I have created texts which are subject to the contingencies of their existence, to coffee stains (Fig. 4), to burning or tearing (Fig. 5), or which through photographic collage, present their lives as objects in their domestic environments (see Figs. 1, 3 and 4).

Our versions of ‘Booz endormi’, then, are what Merleau-Ponty would look upon as the pursuit of a signifiance that lies beyond the ST, on the horizon of the ST. That horizon is released in our dialogues with the ST, in the progressive, dialectical back-and-forth between self and alterity, such that the one finds itself, its own invisible and possibilities, in the other. And this produces, in our perception of the Hugo text, a cohabitational multiplicity of perspectives, of differently expressive formal configurations.

From the foregoing arguments, we can also derive the following propositions:

  1. The presence of the body ensures that the signifier does not dip into the signified. In saying that the word ‘tree’ has no necessary relationship with reality, we are overlooking the fact that the word as physically uttered (with a certain emphasis, tone, duration, etc.) and typographically represented, is deictically constituted as a potentially situated presence. It must be taken account of as signifying for its unique self, immanently, i.e. it does not have an arbitrary meaning, it makes sense in relation to a particular speaker within a particular setting.
  2. We talk of the involvement of the body in language, not just as the producer of language, but as something whose inner activity is produced or fashioned by language, as something which recuperates language as kinaesthetic experience: the body feeds back to itself what it has created in utterance. This phenomenon relates particularly to rhythm. Many think of rhythm in terms of accentuation and as a constituent of words and their morphemic structure. But rhythm is the multi-dimensional complex (tempo, loudness, tone, intonation, kinesics) of readerly paralanguage, whereby the body supplements, makes a whole-body experience of, what the words supply. But it is not just the constitution of rhythm that is complex; it is also its reversible activity: rhythm is both read out of the words and into the words. Their accentual structure is as it were their armature which the suprasegmental phrasing, the prosody, comes to fill out and animate. The discourse is infused with this animation by the reading body which then itself responds to that animation kinaesthetically. And in translation, the rhythm of the ST is re-invented in the translational act, as the very rhythm of translation itself.

In translating ‘Booz endormi’, I translate the rhythm of an énoncé (ST) into the rhythm of an énonciation (TT), that is, the rhythm of a non-verbal given (the alexandrine) into rhythm as the generator of the verbal, as the genetic force of discourse. The translator imagines his/her way into the ST’s invisible, its ‘other’ language, and in so doing creates the translating subject’s situation. Rhythm is a specificity, a non-imitability, of situation. Rhythm in this sense, too, is a deixis. It is the motor of a context, the distribution of a subject in space and time. We do not choose our words to comply with a rhythm in an abstract poetic space, we enrhythm language’s emergence, so that it guarantees our being bodily at the centre of what we say.

In translating ‘Booz endormi’, I cross different rhythmic territories, different rhythmic gestalts, in order to avoid any particular gestalt’s becoming determining, a convention. And in this sense, situation is itself metamorphic: the self-manifestation of psycho-perceptuality changes its place, to register its own adaptations. The idea of body as variably and variously self-distributive requires a practice of the page which moves away from the linear towards the tabular, from the space of the page as an empty container, an available space, to the space of the page as a ‘lived’ space, an environment for the body-as-language/language-as-body.

  1. The body ensures that reading triggers synaesthetic expansion. We are not speaking of the sensory imagination – the reader imagines the sight and in it the smell of, say, ‘new-mown hay’; we are speaking of the free trafficking between the senses such that what is described does not turn into meaning but becomes sensorily multi-perspectival, becomes an experiential environment. We assume that acoustic repetitions – assonance, alliteration, paronomasia, rhyme – create structure, music, semantic and collocational relationships. But this is to forget two things: the centrality of articulation to vocal sound (emphasized already by Wilhelm von Humboldt) and the general acoustic porousness of language, which we have attempted to activate in our translation of Hugo. Acousticity is a distributive force in language which makes language permeable to itself, so that overlays of different sensory domains are suggested if not enacted, so that one domain morphs into another.

The metamorphoses of the body in its space/time ensure that translation is about the relational rather than the identitarian, about the behavioural rather than the ontological, and that its teleology is connected not with equilibrium achieved but with dispersal and reformulation, whose prize is not meaning, but, on the contrary, an expressive resourcefulness, the self-multiplying perspectives of the situated self. The givenness of the ST is always incomplete and to achieve its totality it must be endlessly and symbiotically supplemented by the other in itself, to become properly intersubjective. Translation is that propulsive, never-synthesized dialectic, which makes any particular translational act uncompletable[5]. What is important is that the differences between the ST and the TT are constitutive of their collaborative being. In translation, being is constituted by the overlap and dialectical movement of two bodies, the implicit body of the ST and the body of its reader/translator. It certainly bears repeating that, were a pure coincidence of equivalence between the ST and TT to be possible, it would equally destroy any movement of expression between them; it is the failure of equivalence which gives translation its real significance, its ability to generate new sense for the ST out of its expressive interactivity with the TT.


Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5


Bergson, Henri, André Robinet (ed.) (1984) Œuvres, intro. Henri Gouhier, Paris, PUF.

El-Etr, Fouad (trans.) (2009) John Keats: Ode à un rossignol et autres poèmes, Paris, La Délirante.

Hunt, H.J. (ed.) (1968) Victor Hugo: La Légende des Siècles, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Ingold, Tim (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Abingdon, Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1945) Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1960) Signes, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Claude Lefort (ed.) (1964a) Le Visible et l’invisible, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964b) Signs, ed. and trans. R. C. McCleary, Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Claude Lefort (ed.) 1968) The Visible and the Invisible followed by Working Notes, trans. A. Lingis, Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Claude Lefort (ed.) (1969) La Prose du monde, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Claude Lefort (ed.) (1973) The Prose of the World, trans. J. O’Neill, Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2012) Phenomenology of Perception, trans. D. A. Landes, Abingdon, Routledge.

Meschonnic, Henri (2007) Éthique et politique du traduire, Lagrasse, Verdier.

Scott, Clive (2018) The Work of Literary Translation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Scott, Clive (2020) “The Body in the Text: Literary Translation and the Materiality of the Page” in Textuality and Translation/Textualité et Traduction, Catherine Chauvin and Céline Sabiron (eds), Nancy, PUN – Éditions Universitaires de Lorraine: 64–119.


[1] Bergson also expresses this process as follows: ‘Toute l’obscurité vient de ce que les uns et les autres se représentent la délibération sous forme d’oscillation dans l’espace, alors qu’elle consiste en un progrès dynamique où le moi et les motifs eux-mêmes sont dans un continuel devenir, comme de véritables êtres vivants’ (1984: 120) [All the difficulty arises from the fact that both bodies of thought imagine deliberation in the form of an oscillation in space, when it consists in a dynamic forward progression, in which the self and the alternatives themselves are caught up in a continual becoming, like truly living beings].

[2] I make use here, as elsewhere, for descriptive convenience, of metrical terms for the longer phrasal feet: antispast, choriamb, ionic, first paeon, etc. These terms are to be understood rhythmically rather than metrically, as descriptions of living movements of speech rather than as categories of metrical patterning.

[3] I do not wish to consider these ‘expansions’ of the ST in other than general terms, but I should point out that: in Fig. 1, the handwritten lines at the head of the page are taken from the King James Book of Ruth 2:16, and the handwritten excerpt at the foot is extracted from the diary (Saturday, August 11 1945) of the author’s father (Jesse); in Fig. 2, the handwritten quotation is from Fouad El-Etr’s translation of Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ (ll. 19-20) (2009); and in Fig. 3, the handwritten excerpt below the title is again from the author’s father’s diary (Thursday, August 16 1945) and the handwritten quotation after the first stanza is from Fouad El-Etr’s translation of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (ll. 66-7) (2009).

[4] See Scott (2020).

[5] This uncompletability lies in the very nature of the Merleau-Pontian chiasm; his words from ‘L’Homme et l’adversité’, quoting Paul Valéry, might be used as the description of the relationship between the ST and TT: ‘Tu prends mon image, mon apparence, je prends la tienne. Tu n’est pas moi, puisque tu me vois et que je ne me vois pas. Ce qui me manque, c’est ce moi que tu vois. Et à toi, ce qui manque, c’est toi que je vois. Et si avant que nous allions dans la connaissance l’un de l’autre, autant nous nous réfléchissons, autant nous serons autres…’ (1960: 378) [You capture my image, my appearance; I capture yours. You are not me, since you see me and I do not see myself. What I lack is this me that you see. And what you lack is the you I see. And no matter how far we advance in our mutual understanding, as much as we reflect [each other], so much will we be different… (1964b: 231-2)].

About the author(s)

CLIVE SCOTT is Professor Emeritus of European Literature at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the British Academy. His principal research interests lie in French and comparative poetics (The Poetics of French Verse: Studies in Reading, 1998; Channel Crossings: French and English Poetry in Dialogue 1550-2000, 2002); in literary translation, and in particular the experimental translation of poetry (Translating Baudelaire, 2000; Translating Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’, 2006; Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading, 2012; Translating the Perception of Text: Literary Translation and Phenomenology, 2012); and in photography’s relationship with writing (The Spoken Image: Photography and Language, 1999; Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson, 2007). Translation and photography combine in his Translating Apollinaire (2014). His most recent book is The Work of Literary Translation (2018) and he is at present working on three projects: co-editing a catalogue of W.G. Sebald’s photographic materials held at the University of East Anglia; co-editing a collection of ‘translations’ by contemporary artists of the work of the Norwich painter John Crome; and a book entitled ‘The Philosophy of Literary Translation: Dialogue, Movement, Ecology’. He was promoted Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (French Ministry of Education) in 2008, delivered the Clark Lectures in 2010, and was President of the MHRA in 2014-2015.

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©inTRAlinea & Clive Scott (2022).
"The metamorphoses of the body in the space/time of literary translation"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Embodied Translating – Mit dem Körper übersetzen
Edited by: Barbara Ivancic and Alexandra L. Zepter
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