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February 27th, 2013 at 9:00 am

Susan Spitzer: Translating Alain Badiou’s The Incident at Antioch and Plato’s Republic

The Incident at Antioch

This week Columbia University Press goes Badiou! Our featured books are The Incident at Antioch/L’Incident d’Antioche: A Tragedy in Three Acts / Tragédie en trois actes and Plato’s Republic by Alain Badiou, translated by Susan Spitzer with introductions by Kenneth Reinhard. In this post, Susan Spitzer discusses the experience of translating two very different works by Badiou.

Translating Alain Badiou’s The Incident at Antioch and Plato’s Republic
Susan Spitzer

Although the translator’s initial encounter with the foreign-language text, to which so much time will be devoted, is not often discussed, I doubt I’ll ever forget the heart-sinking feeling I had on first opening Alain Badiou’s L’Incident d’Antioche. The play was utterly different from anything I’d read before, and translating it, I knew immediately, would be a daunting task. As I later remarked in my Preface to the translation, “The Incident at Antioch is characterized by a rich linguistic mélange, a virtual kaleidoscope of styles and genres: poetic or highly elevated literary language, language borrowed directly from the Bible or with religious overtones, pompous rhetoric, made-up proverbs, everyday French that often tends towards the colloquial, if not at times the vulgar, all overlain with the remnants of a certain Marxist vocabulary or with terminology bearing the stamp of Badiou’s own philosophical œuvre, and studded with allusions to, or quotations from, Marx and Engels, Goethe, Shakespeare, Racine, La Fontaine, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Greek mythology, along with myriad references to the contemporary world.”

Fortunately for me, Badiou was (and still is) a regular visitor to Los Angeles, so I was able to corral him into assisting me with the translation issues that confronted me at every turn. Most of the time, thanks to his generosity and patience, I would come away from these sessions relieved to have finally (or so I hoped) understood what was meant. But on one occasion he was of no help at all. Expecting a simple answer to my query about the source of certain lines in Act I that he had enclosed in quotation marks, I was surprised to hear him say, “No, no, it’s not a citation; it’s just the characters reciting their lines in a sort of chorus.” My intuition told me otherwise, but what is a translator to do when the author explicitly tells her she is over-reaching? The answer, it now seems obvious, was: Google! I entered one French phrase after another into the search engine, only to come up empty-handed. I then played around with the lines a bit, in case Badiou hadn’t followed the exact order of words in what I was still convinced was a citation. No luck. Next I tried numerous versions of my own tentative translation of the phrases or lines. Finally, when I was almost ready to concede defeat, I hit the jackpot: the lines, somewhat altered, were from The German Ideology! No one was more surprised, or pleased, I hasten to add, than Badiou himself when I apprised him of this. He had simply forgotten, having written the play some twenty-odd years before, about his own idiosyncratic use of Marx and Engels in this one particular scene.

Translating his Plato’s Republic was a different experience altogether. No dread on first perusing the text; on the contrary, irrepressible laughter. I knew from the outset that the book, a sparkling theatrical dialogue interspersed with novel-like narrative passages, would be a real romp for a literary translator. Not that there weren’t thorny passages – when Badiou’s mathematics met Plato’s, for example, or when the umpteenth appearance of “ce qui de l’Être s’expose à la pensée” (“that which of Being is exposed to thought”? “that aspect of Being which is exposed to thought”? “that of Being which is exposed to thought”?) made me tear my hair out – but overall it was a sheer delight to be part of the process of what was then a still-unfolding work. Badiou would send me each chapter when he finished it, and I would eagerly await the next installment to see what remarkable changes he had wrought on Plato’s immortal work. After receiving his blessing for the American-English slant I was determined to give the translation, I felt free to sprinkle the text with slang, where I deemed appropriate, and even the odd Yiddishism (“these vacationing culture-vultures, these mid-summer mavens of the minor arts”). Socrates, or at least this thoroughly contemporary version of him, was, needless to say, very philosophical about it all. I’m now looking forward excitedly to meeting up with him again sometime soon in the screenplay Badiou is currently writing about the life of Plato.

Copyright 2013 by Susan Spitzer

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