Sunday, March 22, 2009

Earlier this month, translator extraordinaire Barbara Wright passed away at 94. Best-known for rendering the works of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Raymond Queneau into English, Wright's most remarkable feat was her translation of the latter's Exercices de Style - of which the easiest thing to translate was undoubtedly the title.

Exercises in Style (New Directions) is a collection of 99 renditions of the same, rather banal story of a man getting on a bus and being jostled by another passenger. No synopsis does this volume justice, but a sampling of its contents may entice the reader to explore Queneau's elaborate and far-ranging brilliance.

There's a Cockney version that begins: "So A'm stand'n' n' ahtsoider vis frog bus when A sees vis young Froggy bloke, caw bloimey...."

There's a "You know" variation: "Well, you know, the bus arrived, so you know, I got on."

And, for the legally-minded, a "Cross examination": "At what time did the 12.23 p.m. S-line bus proceeding in the direction of the Porte de Champerret arive on that day?"

Wright's version of this seemingly impossible-to-translate work was placed atop the Society of Authors list of "50 Outstanding Translations from the Last 50 Years": well-deserved recognition for the invisible art of literary translation and fitting legacy for a master of her art.

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