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Corinne Scheiner (The Colorado College)
Far from “No-Man’s-Land”: Cultural References and Their Translation(s) in Beckett’s Mercier et/and Camier

For the most part, existing studies of Samuel Beckett’s work adhere to the widely held view that his texts are divorced from external reality and, thus, most scholars tend to describe Beckett as writing in (and about) what George Craig calls “a verbal no-man’s-land.” Moreover, this conception of Beckett as detached from the world around him has also dominated studies of what I term his literary bi-discursivity—that is, his continual creation in both French and English—since the very first article on the topic, Ruby Cohn’s “Samuel Beckett Self-Translator,” appeared in 1961.

Interestingly, unlike the studies that follow hers, Cohn calls attention to the presence of specific cultural referents in Beckett’s work—what she terms “atmospheric nuances” (618)—and, more importantly, the changes they undergo in translation. However, Cohn implicitly subscribes to the belief that these types of alterations represent “unfaithful” translation on the part of Beckett and, thus, she attempts both to downplay their presence and to justify them. Cohn is not alone in her wish to differentiate Beckett’s handling of cultural references from what she considers translation proper: Brian Fitch associates this aspect of Beckett’s self-translation with “standard alternative procedures”; Ekundayo Simpson calls it “adaptation”; and Raymond Federman deems it “transposition.”

Instead of viewing the treatment of these “atmospheric nuances” as anomalous, I will argue in this paper that Beckett’s handling of cultural references is indicative of one key aspect of the poetics that govern his activity as a self-translator: in these instances, Beckett seeks not only to rewrite a given text in a new language, but also to inscribe the text into a new cultural field of reference so that it may resonate for the new reader. In what may be seen as a call for a definitive study of Beckett’s poetics of self-translation, Federman identifies “resonances and equivalences” as one of the areas that such a study should address. He explains: “[by] resonances and equivalences, I mean how certain linguistic elements are transformed in the process of translation, but also how certain cultural, philosophical, and literary allusions, and even quotations, are not simply translated but transposed into a French or an English context to produce a totally different set of cultural, philosophical, or literary connotations” (“The Writer as Self-Translator,” 13).

In response, this paper examines the multiple versions—including manuscript variants—of Mercier et/and Camier to illustrate how Beckett’s handling of these “resonances and equivalences” oftentimes may be attributed to his awareness of the two linguistically and culturally distinct readerships—Anglo-Irish and French. As my analysis will show, these references draw on a wide range of elements belonging to what may be termed shared cultural knowledge. Some references appeal to the reader’s familiarity with geographical locations or with certain cultural institutions and structures—such as units of measurement, currency, and time or particular customs and practices—, while others involve the use of proper names—including specific brand names.

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