Élisabeth de Fontenay ~ A Golden Bough to translate the Beasts

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Our contemporaries quote a certain Wittgenstein aphorism ad nauseam: »If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.« My task here will be to discover how one might, if not outplay [déjouer] the moral of poor reception, at least play [jouer] with the truism.

One of the characters in Plato’s dialogue The Statesman is told that any animal theoretically endowed with speech—a crane, for instance—would divide all living things into cranes and non—cranes, the latter approached as one homogenous race and indiscriminately lumped together: man himself included. This absurd act of division would stem from the logos, the ability to speak and reason, and the innate self—reverence of the speaker; grounded in the unicity of his own kind, our subject holds forth and with classificatory narcissism expels pêle-mêle the hotchpotch of other animals.

It was in the same vein that the Presocratic Xenophanes wrote the following octave, which Jean-Paul Dumont renders in alexandrines:

However if oxen, or horses or lions
Also had hands and if, with the gift of these hands
They knew how to depict and knew how to model
The works that men alone fabricate with their art,
The horses would forge gods after equine nature
And the oxen give gods the same form as oxen:
Each would draw for his god an appearance modelled
Upon his bearing and his particular physique.[1]

Animals and gods… Perhaps you may recall Roland Barthes’ text on Ignatius Loyola, which is entitled »Comment parler à Dieu?« [How do We Talk to God?][2] Well, well! Now might have been the time to suggest that the ground threatens to open up the same meaninglessness abyss before anyone who asks how to make beasts speak and how to speak about them. Only, my mind leapt instead to this phrase of Claudel: »God speaks to us through the prayers we address him.« For, as far as the speech of beasts goes, perhaps it suffices simply to talk to them is a curious little touch that seems unimaginably profound, inviting us to engage in a spiritual exercise that might, one would be justified to think, also lend itself to translation.


Let us go back to the beginning. Two mythical creatures stand watch over the origins of our linguistic tale—two animal archetypes suddenly, divinely, endowed with speech. I speak of the biblical donkey of Bethlehem, from chapter 22 of Numbers, and Achilles’ horse Xanthus, from book 19 of The Iliad.

To read the story of the donkey, I will borrow Sébastien Castellion’s translation of the Bible »For idiots«, recently published by Bayard in a new edition.[3] The sixteenth—century language, wilfully humble and almost infantile, makes it wonderfully suited to such a tale. »So in the morning when Balaam had risen, he saddled his donkey and went with the barons of Moab. But God was incensed because he was going, and so the angel of the Lord stood in the way to prevent him, as he sat astraddle the donkey accompanied by his two valets. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road and holding his sword drawn in his hand, she turned aside from the road and went into the field. And as Balaam hit the donkey to turn her into the road and the angel of the Lord was standing in a path among the vineyards with hither and thither a wall, the donkey, seeing the angel of the Lord, bumped into the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her yet more strongly. Then the angel went further ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn one way or the other. So the donkey, seeing the angel of the Lord, lay down under Balaam, and Balaam was so vexed that he hit her with a staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam: »What have I done to you, that you have gone and hit me three times?« And Balaam said to the donkey, »The reason is that you have made me a fool. If only I had a sword, I would kill you in a moment.« And the donkey said to Balaam, »Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life until now? Is it my habit to treat you this way?« »Nay« said he. Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his sword drawn in his hand […].«

The other animal prophet to preside over our beginning is Xanthus, one of two horses belonging to Achilles. In response to the bellicose charioteer’s interrogation concerning his egress from battle, Xanthus suggests in all innocence that Achilles may be killed in the fray. I quote from Paul Mazon’s translation:

»From under the yoke, flashing—footed Xanthus replied. He had lowered his head so his mane came tumbling down from the yoke—pad and swept the ground. The goddess white—armed Hera had endowed him with human speech: ›Indeed, imperious Achilles, we will once more bring you safely home today. But the day of your death is drawing near; and it is not we who will be the cause of it, but a great god and inexorable destiny […] We could run with the speed of the west wind—and they say nothing is faster—but you are still destined to fall in battle at the hands of a god and of a man.‹ As he spoke, the Furies struck him dumb.«

An archaic triangle of the divine, animal and human structure these two legendary tales: Jahveh speaking through the donkey, Hera bestowing a human voice upon Xanthus and the Erinyes delivering up the steed to the silence of the beasts. Such stories strike us as somehow still akin to the Hebrew paradise and the Greek golden age, when men conversed as freely with animals as they did with their God or plural gods. But good disciples of Jerusalem and Rome that we are, we will all too quickly have to submit to the belief that man’s logos was created in the image of the divine logos, offering a finite resemblance of this infinite word by which to say is to do—something our linguists call performativity and Revelation ingeniously names Creation. An originary language, delegated to man that he might name the animals—but perhaps the self-same cause of their muteness—for being named themselves, they cannot name in their turn. As Elias Canetti put it, »Animals do not doubt that we have named them.«

Without doubt here lies the divergence of their birdsong and our plumage—or, in the event, our ability to write and trace letters with a plume or whatever might substitute for it. They generate cries, or even melodies. We have the gift of verbs, the capacity to enter into conversation and convey ideas. This is why Babel, that dissemination of our lordly talent into a great plurality of dialects, seems to have no common ground with some old »animal talk«. No common ground since, as Saint Augustine held it, animals were created several at once in the form of species, whereas God instilled the source of all reproduction in one man, created unique. Put another way, the monogenic tradition of Judaism and Christianity has only reinforced the Aristotelian, Stoic and later Cartesian claim that logos—as language and reason—constitutes the proper domain of man. In our Western tradition today, we could scarcely tolerate the conjecture—the fantasy —of a language being attributed to animals. The donkey of Numbers will go down in history as a one-off, or what is otherwise known as a hapax![4]


The time has come to explain the title of this session, »The Golden Bough« [Le rameau d’or]. Before Sir James Frazer gave this name to a book that proved historic, inventing as it did the concepts of totem and taboo, and so founding the anthropology of religion; before writing cryptically in the preface to his History of France, Michelet said that this miraculous bough was the key to the historian’s work, operating a »resurrection of the dead«; and before Dante granted a rod the power to open one of the compliant gates of Hell, Virgil provided the Italian legend of the golden bough [aureus ramus] with its literary coming out in The Aeneid.

Book 6, line 133. The Sibyll’s Oracle.

»Si tantus amor menti, but if your desire is so great, if you have so much longing to sail twice upon the pools of Styx and twice to see black Tartarus, if it is your pleasure to indulge this labour of madness, listen to what must first be done. Hidden in a dark tree, there is a golden bough. Golden are its leaves and its pliant stem […] But no man may enter the hidden places of the earth before plucking the golden foliage and fruit from this tree […] So then, lift up your eyes and look for it, and when in due time you find it, take it in your hand and pluck it. If you are a man called by the Fates, it will come easily and of its own accord.«

And again, a little further on, Aeneas cries: »Ah! If only the golden bough would show itself to us in the great grove […]. Scarcely had he spoken when two doves chanced to come flying down through the sky and settled on the grass before the warrior’s very eyes […]. He paused, waiting to see what signs the birds would give […]. Together they settled in the desired location, at the summit of a tree, from whose greenery there gleamed a splinter of gold, set off against the branches […]. Aeneas seized the golden foliage […].«

These doves dispatched by Venus make us reflect, if only fleetingly, on the Acts of the Apostles. At Pentecost, the traditional holiday, the Holy Spirit did in fact appear in the aspect of a dove to the Jews assembled in Jerusalem from diverse lands and speaking diverse tongues; the eleven apostles then began to herald the new message, in the humble Aramaic native to their humble people. But all those present understood them as though they had spoken in their own tongue. Enigma of the same bird presaging an obscure charism to be granted mortals—in Latin literature the power to break the silence of the dead, and in the Greek of the New Testament, the power to compensate for the wake of Babel.

But it is from Michelet’s oeuvre—namely from one of the prefaces[5] of his History of France—that I shall pluck a golden bough ripe for initiation into the animal cult. In order to speak of the talisman responsible for his becoming an historian, he simultaneously evokes ritual incantation, lustral water and the gift of tears—all those preconditions for passage into and out of the realm of the dead that allows him to make contact with the departed.

»I awoke in them a hundred thousand vanished things. My secret knowledge of certain nursery songs had a telling effect. From the sound of my voice, they took me for one of their own.« They warn him, he says, of the danger of this affiliation with the dead: »At least do as Aeneas did and venture forth with a sword in hand so as to guard your distance. A sad counsel!« replies Michelet… Which I translate as: a sad oversight of the golden bough that prefigured the use of a blade! Why Michelet and the golden bough? Precisely because, in his work The People, the invocation he offers to Virgil, »this peasant of Mantua with virgin—like timidity, and long hair falling down in country fashion«, provides readers with several of the most beautiful pages in honour of beasts ever to grace the French language: beasts conceived not simply as animalia muta [mute animals] but as infants—as the sacred children of the ineffable.[6]

»The animal! Sombre mystery!…Immense world of mute dreams and pains […] Away with prejudice, and look at their mild and dreamy air, and the attraction which the most advanced among them evidently feel for man. Would you not say they were children whose development was hindered by a malicious fairy, who have not been able to unravel the first dream of their cradle, perhaps souls in a state of punishment and humiliation, lying under the curse of a passing fatality?…Sad enchantment, in which the captive being, of imperfect form, depends on all those that surround it, as a person cast into a sleep…But because it is as if cast into a sleep, it has, in recompense, access to a sphere of dreams of which we have not an idea. We see the luminous face of the world; it the obscure; who can say, that this is not the vaster of the two?«

If I wished to call this talk »The Golden Bough«, it was because the silence of the animal voice is a kind of river in Hell, or Acheron. In the figures of Michelet and Virgil, in the rapport of historian and poet, we do in fact find the evocation of a hushed analogy between animals and the dead: between the sleeping souls that are animals and the semi-conscious souls we attribute to the dead. To approach these Others is difficult, if not outright dangerous. Before the encounter, one must discover the necessary password, shibboleth, ritual or Orphic instrument—none of which shall palliate the requisite effort and endurance. This mystic ability might equally well be called sharpness of hearing or a talent for translation. Grace is refused some and accorded to others: grace to hear and understand the speech of the eternally silent, and to administer a remedy for that immemorial division of beasts and men we pompously label ›zoo-anthropological‹.

Yet in appearance at least, the soothsayers Apollonius of Tyana, Melampous and Tiresias understood the calls of birds and the cries of beasts without intermediary instruments. Although these magi typically understood such sounds as harbingers of events to come, they are held quite apart from other augurs who deciphered the cries of crows and the flight of birds by referring back to an existing index of signs. Now, though, can we really be sure that these thaumaturges had no recourse to some object of mediation analogous to the golden bough? Curious episodes—foundational for their powers—divided their lives into before and after; for Melampous and Tiresias alike, these events were mystically linked to snakes.

As a child, Melampous the seer had erected a funeral pyre for a female snake that had been killed. The snake’s offspring, which he had raised, had cleaned his ears with their tongues to show their gratitude, and the unction of this baptismal saliva had given him the power to understand the language of birds—and other animals, too. Similarly, one of the tales about Tiresias recounts how the blind prophet was once a woman but transformed back into a man by uncoupling two snakes in the act of mating. Now, it was from his blindness and also his reversible transsexuality that he derived his prodigious capacity to understand what beasts were saying. And if our snake were the golden bough…

This curious rapport between animal nature and human sexuality seems to lend itself to comparison with biblical stories about the naming of animals. In Genesis, there is an immense heterogeneity between the two tales of creation. Book one, more arrogant about the superiority of man—the latter having been created in God’s image—and about the authority he lords over all other creatures by virtue of naming them, differs greatly from books two and three, where it is written that God forms man from the dust of the earth, breathing life into him, as all other creatures will henceforth be formed. Not wanting man to be alone, God forms the animals and gathers them before him to see what names to give them. Yet since these beings that so little resemble him are not enough to lift him out of his solitude, woman is made from one of his ribs. In book one, man is both male and female, and the animals are very inferior to him, whereas in book two, he is simply male, and the animals enjoy the beginnings of communal life with him. Furthermore, the young hero of the epic of Gilgamesh enjoys a fraternal relationship with animals, by virtue of being a virgin. But as soon as he learns about love, it’s all over.



As you might expect, seldom have philosophers credited beasts with the powers of speech. Porphyry, a Greek author and disciple of Plotinus active in the third century of the Christian era, devoted several pages of his treatise On Abstinence—abstinence from animal food, or vegetarianism—to a critique of the Stoic philosophers who refused logos to animals. The Stoics distinguished between the internal logos, endiathetos (reason) that they judged perfect, and the expressive logos, prophorikos (the word) that they judged deficient. And they deprived animals of both types of speech. But, objects Porphyry, reprising the distinction, since animals can make themselves heard, they lack neither one of these types of logos. They possess the expressive language, or word, just as much as the internal language, or thought.

»Now since that which is voiced by the tongue is language, however it is voiced, whether in the barbarian way or the Greek, in dog or cattle fashion, all animals who emit sounds that can be heard are participating in speech […] And what matter if we do not understand them? No more do the Greeks understand the language of Indians, and, in the same way, do those raised in Attica understand the Scythians, Thracians or Syrians.«

Porphyry posits an analogical relation between languages that do not submit to analysis in terms of letters and sounds and which appear to certain men as incomprehensible, and the language of animals which appears to all—or nearly all—men as incomprehensible.

»For in the same way we perceive only noise and sound, owing to our lack of knowledge about Scythian conversation, and they seem to us to be calling and articulating nothing, but emitting one noise now longer now shorter, without the modulation denoting meaning ever reaching our ears, yet to them their speech is intelligible and very diverse, just as our accustomed speech is to us. Similarly in the case of animals, understanding comes to them in a way which is particular to each species, while we can hear only noise whose meaning escapes us, because no one who has been taught our language has taught us to translate into it what is said by animals.«

It was undoubtedly the dogged persistence of the Presocratic—and to a greater extent—the Platonist belief in metempsychosis that, in defiance of the dividing line drawn by metaphysics, helped to accredit the idea of a reversion, of a potential reciprocity or rapport between what beasts express and what we say and think. Diogène Laërce quotes Xenophanes, the first Greek to consider the subjects of transmigration and abstinence, in a fragment discussing Pythagoras. The translator again has recourse to the alexandrine:

»It is said that one day, passing close to someone
Who was beating his dog, feeling great compassion
He came out with these words: ›Desist from your beating!
Its soul, I comprehend, is that of a true friend
Which I identified when I heard it call out.‹«

Of course the brilliance with which Ovid narrated the Metamorphoses and his fame over the centuries certainly played a part in this imputation of a language to animals. Latin poetry and several Greek works whose authors contrived to fuse scepticism and a sense of nostalgia have been strong enough to resist the simplistic Aristotelian distinction according to which animals have phōnē while man alone possesses logos. If I have hesitated to speak of the ancients, it is because for some of them, in exemplary fashion, man is childlike and knowing at once, and innocence and naivety hold sway in a communal life with the beasts. What came next in Western culture was that philosophers never again seriously envisaged the possibility of a non-human language. And the second Finally Descartes Arrived, this Malherbe[7] who put a full stop to the talk of beasts, there was a collusion between JudeoChristian revelation and the demand for an anatomical knowledge of the living that was full of scope scientifically but catastrophic for animals: they became machines—infinitely subtle of course, but machines who could not feel, or speak, or think.[8] There they are, deprived of spirit, of interiority, of presence of mind, when in reality the mute—and even the most stupid or delirious of men—is still in possession of language.



Trying to slip my words under the cover of translation, I in turn feel bound to distinguish, or even oppose, two kinds of authors: those who make beasts speak and those who speak about them. For, after all, one can understand this speech of beasts in two different ways. As a subjective genitive: the beasts speak and, for the sake of argument, let’s say we are the ones who make them. Or rather, as an objective genitive: we speak about them. On the side of mimesis, allegory and prosopopoeia[9], I place the ones who make beasts talk; on the side of diegesis, story, narration and description, the ones who speak about them.

As for the first kind, one is almost tempted to label them the faux amis [false friends][10] of animals, since in their eyes the latter do not really exist as such, but play the role of tropes, stylistic or rhetorical devices; ciphers and props for arguments, they are subject to more or less the same function as the Huron or the Persian in French literature of the eighteenth century. I will place under this heading, in alphabetical order, the Aristophanes of Frogs, the Cervantes of The Dialogue of the Dogs, the Colette of Dialogue des bêtes [The Dialogue of the Beasts], the Hoffmann of the Tomcat Murr and the Dog Berganza, the Orwell of Animal Farm, the Plutarch of the dialogue That beasts Make Use of Reason, the Rostand of Chantecler… And, after all, even Kafka belongs to this list of faux amis, for in The Metamorphoses itself, but above all in Investigations of a Dog, Josephine, and Report to an Academy, one must recognize that there is not truly, there is truly not, serious treatment of beasts.

Nonetheless it strikes me that one author, namely La Fontaine, must be spared from the first of our categories. For even if he grants his beasts an overly refined tongue, the good disciple that he is of the seventeenth-century epicurean philosopher Gassendi, he never stops nursing his fables on tales from Plutarch (translated by Amyot and taken up again by Montaigne) and boasting the loquacity, intelligence and morality of animals. It is truly of beasts that he speaks sometimes, and it is they, after all, whom he makes speak. The famous Discourse for Madame de la Sablière, his patroness, that anti-Cartesian manifesto in verse bearing on the animal spirit, is sufficient proof of his engagement. And then, how do you say? From the age when secular and mandatory schooling was established until the day before yesterday—receding into the distance ever more swiftly—the little schoolchildren of this country, be they from town or country, could scarcely see certain animals without reciting to themselves a fable: they knew the beasts by heart. For the most part they could have understood the words of the Marquise de la Sablière when she dismissed her servants: »Tonight, I kept nothing with me but my three creatures—my dog, my cat and my La Fontaine.«

And what of the true friends [vrais amis]? This, then, would be those who practice the objective genitive, speak of beasts, and stand for diegesis, narration and description: less engaged in getting them to come to us than making the approach themselves, they try to unlock their world. Credit where credit is due: Buffon in History of Animals. But then, too, Claudel in The Tapestries of the Apocalypse and Colette in the chapters »My Mother and The Beasts« from Claudine’s House, »Beasts« from Everyday adventures and »Earthly paradise« from Prisons and Paradise…The list continues: Flaubert in Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier; Roman Gary in The Roots of Heaven; Pierre Gascar in Beasts; Vassili Grossman in the novella »The Road«; Michelet in The Bird, The Insect and The Sea; Montaigne in An Apology for Raymond Sebond; Jules Renard in Natural Histories.



I propose two quotations in the order of animality [a l’ordre de l’animalité] that will be drawn from the second—narrative—group.

First quotation. In his novel Anton Reiser, the eighteenth-century author Karl Philipp Moritz tells of a young man who often

»stood for hours at a time looking at a calf’s head, ears, mouth and nostrils—pressing as close as possible as if to touch it, as was his habit with strangers. Sometimes, he became so absorbed as to ask himself if eventually, little by little, he might manage to inhabit the inner being of such a creature. All his efforts were focused on understanding the difference between himself and the animal; and at certain times he lost himself so completely in this observation that for a moment he truly believed that he had felt the secrets of the creature’s existence.«

Here one finds writing of the same tenor, or terror, as the first pages of Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter. One understands that empathy, in its attempt to translate the passage of one world to another or one subjectivity to another, while not necessarily being bound up in the language of beasts, perseveres in the quest for the golden bough. To invoke empathy, or rather Einfühlung—so-called untranslatability —does not in the least detract from the title of this lecture; it is simply a case of giving translation, in the name of what might lie beneath or beyond its translinguistic practice, sufficient metaphorical reach to achieve the union of translator and artist. Does one not find the ultimate meaning of what Antoine Berman has called »L’épreuve de l’étranger« [»The test of the foreign«] as soon as language confronts this crazy-making breach, this transgression of the sacrosanct border between man and animal?

Language and translation…But then again, which language and which translation? A passage from Adorno’s book on Gustav Mahler might support such transpositions. When he comments upon the fish sermon of St. Augustine of Padua and the Lieder Ablösung im Sommer that constitute the Second Symphony’s scherzo, he is speaking indisputably about an attempt at translation:

»The music comports itself like animals: as if its empathy with their closed world were meant to mitigate something of the curse of closedness. It confers utterance on the speechless by imitating their ways in sound, takes fright itself then ventures forward again with hare-like caution […] When the postilion’s horn is heard, the hush of the seething hubbub is composed as its background. It has a human timbre against the attenuated muted strings, the residue of creaturely bondage to which the alien voice would do no harm.«

Two texts by Walter Benjamin inspired Adorno to write these pages on the désensorcèlement [disenchantment] of animal life:[11] »The Task of the Translator« and »On Language as Such«[12]: both texts extremely critical of current conceptions of language. What Benjamin discovers and calls translatability amounts to an experience that strikes him as being far more complex than the simple transmission of a content or a style: he sees in it the expression of the life of a work which the translator »fait mûrir« [»brings to fruition«].[13] According to him, »every manifestation of life can be conceived as pure language.«[14] The essential kinship of life and language suggests that the differences between the languages of multiple beings, multiple living beings, resides finally in the media, the contexts in which they communicate. Translation would then be »removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations […] The uninterrupted flow of this communication runs through the whole of nature, from the lowest forms of existence to man«— and, he adds, God… In this way, any elevated language, be it that of man or a fortiori that of the artist, can be considered a translation of all the rest. Why is translation necessary? Because nature, or rather animality, is traversed by a silent language; because it is unclear whether its melancholy comes from its muteness or its muteness from the sadness of being named and being known by the unknown that, for nature, is human talk. We find in these Benjaminian fragments authorization to submit translation to a metaphorical extension and an exaggeration that grant it a consoling, almost redemptive function. »The whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now«, wrote Saint Paul to the Romans. But, for Benjamin, rather than awaiting delivery by Christ, creation awaits delivery of its translation by man.



One final word, and seemingly in another register altogether. Gripping advances in ethnology and primatology henceforth allow us to communicate—exchange words and even phrases of our verbal language—with apes. While taking into account this decisive advance of science, I am not in the least straying from the problem of translation, since there is still the question here of allowing these animals, with whom man shares more than 99% of his genetic makeup, to understand and be understood by us. We use two very different methods to this end: computers, which I will pass over, and sign language, or more exactly ASL or Ameslan, the American language of the deaf. By this means, certain chimpanzees and gorillas have learnt to express themselves, and we have managed to talk to them.

It is therefore in the guise of the second quotation in the order of animality that I will read you a text by someone who seems to me to be, in light of it, the greatest translator [traductrice] of French of the speech of one beast at least: namely, Marguerite Duras. After having seen the Barbet Schroeder film Koko, The Talking Ape, she produced the following article for the daily Libération:[15]

»This large animal, still young, black in colour, is of an ugliness so beautiful, so great […] Koko is what they call her, the way some people use the words nigger or a-rab. I shall call her Africa. Why does Africa occupy the screen in such an incomparable way that not even the most penetrating analysis can possibly convey the sovereignty of her image? of her presence? of her difference from us, whom she so closely resembles? […] the closest to us, standing on the other shore. She is as far from us as from her forebears. And we—we are as far from her as from the void that stands before us. If an image is wanted, perhaps a river will do. On one bank stands anthropos, alone. On the other, Africa the anthropoid, equally alone. We look at each other. Between us stand a billion years. Africa’s solitude in the chain of being is also our solitude.«

Marguerite Duras then evokes the massacre of the great apes and wonders whether it might not be wiser to teach Africa to be wary of man. She begins again:

»When Africa is on screen—Africa, a gigantic child hamstrung by her own strength, a prehistoric Garbo unaware that she is a Garbo—the truth is apparent: Africa bears within her an immensity—the species, in its innocence as well as its tragedy. Africa doesn’t see well. She can’t tell things apart. When asked in the morning ›How are you?‹ she sometimes answers, ›Sad.‹ ›Why sad?‹ they ask, and she answers that she doesn’t know why she is sad. Africa draws the word sad on her face in the sign language of the deaf, two fingers along the tracks of her tears, two straight lines that fall from her eyes towards the centre of the earth. A miracle: Africa does not know how to be sad with a sadness that she shares with us. She does not know how to be sad with sadness, melancholy with melancholy, beyond all knowledge.«

Quite impossible that he could ever have been a writer or a translator, that Wittgenstein, to claim that if animals could talk, we could not understand them!






Translated by Clodagh Kinsella

[1] A 12-syllable line of two equal parts divided by a caesura, the alexandrine was too rigid for English tastes, and was largely supplanted by the iambic pentameter. Despite the efforts of Drayton and Spenser (where the alexandrine appeared as variation in the final line), the general mood was summed up by Pope’s mimetic critique: [A needless Alexandrine ends the song.] // That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. The translation was done in the spirit of Dumont. —Trans

[2] Barthes’ text, appearing first in Tel Quel No.38 (Summer 1969) was intended as an introduction to Loyola’s Exercises spirituels, translated by Ristat. De Fontenay plays on the title. —Trans

[3] Castellion’s 1555 translation of the Bible into vernacular French (»pour les idiots«) was widely suppressed by the Church authorities and the next edition (cited by De Fontenay) did not appear for 450 years. —Trans

[4] The hapax legomenon: a word which occurs only once in the written record of a language, a particular author’s corpus or a single text. They pose evident difficulties for translation, where meaning is inferred more certainly from plural contexts. —Trans

[5] The celebrated 1869 Preface to Book 1, and therefore absent from the G.H. Smith and Walter Kelly translations that predate it. —Trans

[6] From the Latin in-fans, »not able to speak«. The human nature of the beasts is stressed in the distinction. — Trans

[7] A détournement of Boileau’s famous line in Art Poétique: »Enfin, Malherbe vint«. His conservative claim was that Malherbe (1555—1628), poet and strict Classicist, ended the former chaos of French verse. De Fontenay is with Victor Hugo and the romantics in thinking the opposite. —Trans

[8] A reference to the Cartesian notion of the animal—machine, by which animals are accorded neither consciousness nor thought. It was contested by Gassendi. —Trans

[9] A figure in which an absent, dead or imaginary person is represented as speaking or, as here, when an animal is ascribed anthropomorphic characteristics. —Trans

[10] A play on the linguistic concept of faux amis, or pairs of words in two languages that look or sound similar but differ in meaning.—Trans

[11] Although »désenchantement« would be the corresponding word in French, De Fontenay appears to refer to the concept of Weber, Benjamin and Adorno concerning the »plus« of art separate from, but also mediated by, the whole: the quality which continues to signify, even in its separateness, like Beckett’s mutes or Brechtian language.—Trans

[12] The full title of the work De Fontenay refers to is »On Language as Such and the Language of Man« [Sur le langage en général et sur le langage humain]—Trans

[13] Benjamin uses the metaphors of »flowering« and »fruitfulness« interchangeably to describe the way an original text reproduces itself in the translation.—Trans

[14] No direct translation of the phrase appears in extant English translations. It is reminiscent of the opening line of »On Language«: »Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language«, but also the »pure language« or life that manifests itself in translation, and which is referred to frequently in both texts cited. — Trans

[15] The article appeared in Le matin de Paris, in 1978. —Trans





Translator’s Note

De Fontenay’s text originated in a lecture she gave at the conference Journée de Printemps—Atlas (ATLAS being an association of literary translators) which was held on the 17th June 2006, at Cité universitaire in Paris. The theme of the day was »translating the speech of beasts«, and the topic of animality was therefore approached from a linguistic perspective and destined for an audience of knowledgeable translators. In an attempt to facilitate the reading of this purposefully ambiguous text, I have glossed certain terms that may not be familiar to linguists. Central, here, is the word »bête«, which in French can mean either »animal« or »beast«. Given its long history in literature and philosophy—from Plutarch to Derrida—the related connotations of »foolishness« and »stupidity«, and the anthropological representations that it conjures up, I am with the majority of translators in opting for »beasts« throughout the text. De Fontenay quotes at length from a number of (often stylized) French translations of classical texts bearing on the animal theme. Given the sensitivity here of the idea of rendering language in a new medium, and the historical scope of poetics covered, I have preferred to offer my own translations of some quotations, rather than referring to official English versions of the Greek, for example. These are, then, translations of translations, and not meant as exact renderings of the source text. In other less style—sensitive cases, I have profited from a number of existent translations, referenced in the footnotes, some of which I have amended to stay as close as possible to De Fontenay’s theme and language. These will give interested readers an indication of where her quotations may be found in the original French—for, both in the lecture and in the edition (Paris 2008) on which this translation is based, there were no page references provided.

Anyone wishing to know more may refer to De Fontenay’s Le Silence des bêtes (Paris 1998) which questions set notions of the differences between men and animals across a rich historical spectrum.

Clodagh Kinsella




Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler, translated by Jean-Louis Leleu and Theo Leydenbach, Paris 1973.

Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Chicago and London 1992.

Roland Barthes, »Préface à Ignace de Loyola«, Exercises spirituels, Paris 1972.

Walter Benjamin, Mythe et violence, translated by Maurice de Gandillac, Paris 1971.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1 1913-1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge and London, 1997.

Sébastien Castellion, La Bible (1555), Paris 2005.

Jean-Paul Dumont, ed. and trans., Les Présocratiques, Paris 1998.

Marguerite Duras, Outside, Paris 1984.

Marguerite Duras, Outside, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, London 1987.

Homer, Iliade, translated and compiled by Paul Mazon, Paris 2002.

Homer, The Iliad, translated by E.V. Rieu, London, first published 1950, revision Peter Jones, 2003.

Jules Michelet, Préface à l’Histoire de France, compiled by Claude Mettra, Geneva 1973.

Jules Michelet, Le Peuple, Paris 1974.

Jules Michelet, The People, translated by G.H. Smith, New York 1846.

Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser, translated by Georges Pauline, Paris 1986.

Plato, Le Politique, translated by Auguste Diès, Paris 1950.

Porphyry, De l’Abstinence, Book III, translated by A. Bouffartigue and M. Patillon, Paris 1979.

Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals, translated by Gillian Clark, London 2000.

Saint Paul, Épitre aux Romains, 8:19-22.

Virgil, Énéide, Paris 1947. Id., Translated by Maurice Rat, Paris 1991.

Virgil, The Aeneid, revised edition, translated by David West, London 2003.



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