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On the difficult work of translating translation; or, the monolingualism of translation theory. Languaging acts in (and after) Marie NDiaye’s Les Serpents

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Abstract

Award-winning playwright Marie NDiaye’s language is, arguably, foreign to itself: Les Serpents (The Snakes) stages an implacably harsh world, meticulous precision, turns of phrase nearly stilted–inhabiting French like a stiff cloak, a rough mantle, a too-parched frock. NDiaye’s language is fastidious: every comma provokes a breath, a shift in rhythm, replicating the stultifying spirit of longing and wait the author’s three protagonists subject one another to in the hot sun–a transgenerational game of radical dispossession. In this article, reflecting on my translation of the play, I probe questions of language and alterity, seeing in the author’s work subtle occupation of nationalistic fantasies of monolingualism, as well as the ambivalent time and place of revolutionary America/France, neither of which emerges exactly on the page, as much as do the crisp clarity of a blazing sun, a cage, an open horizon, moulting, an impossible landscape. Rather than stage, naturalistically, a heterogeneous dialect or slang, or setting the play in one realm, NDiaye inhabits the French language so completely it becomes nearly rebuffing: at once the place and medium of performance, and the occasion for criticism itself, against the grain of theoretical monolingualism, also to moult.

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