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Translation as Palimpsest

Gerard Genette has often written about intertextuality and writing as a palimpsest. A palimpsest is basically where a manuscript is written over, perhaps multiple times, erasing or obscuring the words underneath. This happened a lot more often when paper, or vellum, was extremely valuable and therefore infinitely re-usable.

The idea of translation, and all writing, as a palimpsest is both incredibly seductive and broad. in writing, there is no such thing as immaculate conception, all writing is derivative. All writing works and builds upon what came before, the particular influences on the author or translator depends upon what they have been reading and in which literary traditions. The way a text is read can also vary hugely across times and cultures.

For this exercise, I copied out a couple of extremely fruitful pages of Swift’s Waterland, an incredibly expansive and genre-bending novel which spends a lot of its time preoccupied with historiography. I first highlighted the text, once in pink, and then once again in purple, picking out anything which didn’t stand out to me the first time but became more and more conspicuous on a second reading. I then added on my own writings in a selection of different fineliner colours, depending on the ’round’ of writing. I underlined parts as well as circling the most productive words, creating an end effect showing all the different branches of thinking that can shoot off from a single page of text.

I think this really goes to show that translation is just the writing of a reading, and demonstrates just how many levels our minds are operating on whilst reading. All texts remind us of other texts or experiences. No wonder translating is so tiring! Getting our thoughts down about a source text, and really stopping to think about it, can have a huge impact on our final choices.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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