Facing Translation: A reading on the untranslatability of Jean Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles"


Claire Evans

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Jean Cocteau?s murky and sensuous book, Les Enfants Terribles , if read with a linguistic and Derridean sensibility favoring flux and undecideability, is a novel written both using and against language. It is, hence, an appropriate text in the study of the problematics and eventual impossibility of literary translation. In my work, I have attempted to bridge two realms of literary analysis: the purely textual, often technical, task of translation from French to English, and a query into the content, context, and motive of the novel as story, as art. After translating the second and more relevant half of Les Enfants Terribles , I have discovered that this is a text which greatly emphasizes communication, language and speech in its narrative, which broaches the question of the effectiveness of language, which is stylistically concerned with countersense, nuanced and figurative language, and whose grammar and syntax, essential to the tone of the novel, inherently raises fatal problems of translation. At many points, particularly in its conclusion, the sense of its narrative permits an analysis that merges the theoretical and textual, as it moves progressively towards the complete dissolution of language. My work?s conclusion, as well as my finished translation, is grounded by both the linguistic and semiotic theory of thinkers such as Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure as well as the deconstruction of Derrida?s notions of translatability; thus, I?ve explored the crucial impossibility of translating a work such as this one, and, by extension, any text.


Susan Grayson




Ford Research Endowment

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