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A Translation Policy: Rouge Magazine

  Rouge


Rouge is an Internet magazine which began its public life in October 2003, and effectively ceased production in 2009, although its archive is maintained online, and is still regularly cited in academic and non-academic research. By the beginning of 2007, ten issues had appeared, plus one hardcover book. All issues are available to freely consult; no subscription or payment is required. A grand total of four people were involved in its production: Co-Editors Helen Bandis, Grant McDonald and myself, plus our webmaster Bill Mousoulis. I later co-founded another online journal with Girish Shambu, LOLA, again with Bill Mousoulis as webmaster, that continues, in a different vein, some of the work initiated by Rouge.

 

Rouge was primarily a film magazine, but one that sought to interrelate film with the other arts. One of the primary goals of the editors was to encourage writing by filmmakers about their medium – and by artists in other media on cinema. In general, it is a magazine with literary aspirations, with affinities to the British Granta, the American Grand Street or the French Trafic. In some sense, it could it thought of as a creative writing journal focused on cinema.

 

Rouge had no government or institutional subsidy – it did not require it, because on-line publishing is relatively inexpensive. It was not an official academic journal (i.e., there was no peer review mechanism, a policy continued by LOLA), but it did publish some academic writing – alongside many other kinds of writing (transcribed talks, memoirs, quasi-fictional or ficto-critical pieces), as well as image-based contributions. Indeed, we did an entire issue (no. 5) comprised almost solely of images! Perhaps a taste of the magazine’s flavour can be given by quoting a passage from the Chilean poet and essayist Waldo Rojas, who remembered the youthful group in Santiago from which his dear friend, the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, emerged (later, I will speak of how we went about translating it):

 

The Santiago night – with its sordid mysteries, its streets with their flat, semi-hidden perspectives and almost aggressively dim lighting, its violence poorly contained and even less well hidden – somehow lifted the sober challenge of Santiago-by-day, grey and pale. This secret city always hid itself behind the murky transparency of a bar room mirror. Subsequently, we would return the next morning, hung over more from words than wine, rushing headlong into the reality of the everyday: a reality which seemed to us, despite everything, the original given, the sole human possibility – on the condition that we could join it to the migratory flight of the imagination. (Bandis, McDonald & Martin, 2004: 8-9)

 

There are many bad reasons for starting a journal or magazine. The worst reason of all is because you think other people need it, or because it ‘fills a gap’ in some perceived niche market. Conversely, there is only one good reason for beginning a publication: because it contains what you personally want to read – and what you cannot get access to anywhere else in your cultural milieu.

 

That is why we started Rouge – and this was partly in response to problems encountered in a previous journal with which we (and Mousoulis) had been closely involved, the still-running Senses of Cinema. It is also why, while the magazine strictly followed certain democratic processes (we eschewed ‘contributor biographies’, for example, in order to place all writers on a level playing field of authority), it was also an entirely curated publication. We did not invite contributions from the cyber-ether; we approached our favourite writers, or newcomers whose work piques us, and asked if they would be willing to give something to us (for free, naturally – since Rouge, like every true ‘small magazine’, ran primarily on goodwill). A large part of our curation work involved exploring the vast, and frequently obscure, archive of past writing on cinema – since Rouge was deliberately not tied to the mania of ‘current releases’, of what’s ‘hot’ for the next six months either in the commercial multiplexes or on the international film festival circuit. And an even larger part of our work involved translation.

 

The entire history of film theory/criticism – I use this term to designate both scholarly work and that of freelance intellectuals, since both are crucial to the field (and I myself have been both a scholar and a freelance writer) – has been entangled with flows of linguistic and cultural translation. It is said, for instance, that all modern forms of theory and criticism grew from auteurism – a word designating an approach to cinema that privileges the creative role of the film director. Auteur is almost a household word these days, with hack journalists (and even some hack filmmakers) casually claiming or disowning it. But let’s look, briefly, at the travel-route of auteurism as an intellectual idea and as a critical practice. In the 1950s, the editors and critics of Cahiers du cinéma magazine in Paris (which is still proudly running, on a monthly basis, today) created and practiced what they termed the politique des auteurs. There was something militant about this program in its place and time: emphasising the director as artist in a period when the cinema was, more generally, regarded as an impersonal (and usually rather vulgar) machine for producing mass culture. When Andrew Sarris exported this practice to the USA in the early ‘60s, he translated it as the auteur theory.  It instantly had an explosive, generative effect in English-language film cultures, including that of Australia. Subsequent generations of critics out to either revise or attack this method of studying film pointed out, quite rightly, that a more exact translation would be auteur policy – a choice, a parti pris, rather than any scientifically verifiable theory. Trust crusty old Jean-Luc Godard, one of the original Nouvelle Vague/Cahiers cohort, to eventually take the term back into his own hands in the 1990s by imaginatively re-stressing the word politique – for him (as he would tell interviewers, whether in French or English), what was important was the politics of auteurism.

 

Rouge inherited this history. We did not have a theory of translation, but we definitely had a policy of translation. And that policy was also, inevitably, a politics.

 

In the world of film and film culture (as it has come to be called), it is not, in general, a good period for translation. I do not think it is particularly controversial to point out that what is known as globalisation has meant, effectively, a real decrease in internationalism or cosmopolitanism (an unjustly dirty word that is today worth reviving). Instead, the globalising adventure of the Internet has led to the massive dominance of one language: English (and especially American English). This has impacted on many areas of the humanities – particularly its flagship new disciplines, such as Cultural Studies. Just take a look at the burgeoning field of TV Studies, for instance, which is rapidly becoming completely USA-centric.

 

In film studies, the great period of translation was the 1960s and ‘70s. In magazines and journals, in conferences and universities, there was much talk, for example, of a Tricontinental Cinema spanning Latin America, Asia and Africa – and many exchanges (of films, texts, visitors, co-production ventures) to ensure that this dream could become a reality. As the ‘70s rolled on, while a semi-populist, politically leftist magazine such as Cineaste in the US was translating manifestoes from the Third World, the vanguard academic journal Screen in the UK was busy disseminating important works of theory (from a period spanning the 1920s to the ‘60s) from Russia, Italy and especially France (which has long enjoyed what many consider an unfair monopoly in this area). Even into the ‘80s – as the vogue for such translation waned – smaller, highly focused and committed publications such as Afterimage (co-edited by Simon Field, later the director of the Rotterdam Film Festival) and Framework (edited by Paul Willemen), both based in the UK but with many international correspondents, forged into the neglected areas of rich work from other countries (such as Eastern Europe) and other times (what Framework called the ‘archaeology of film theory’).

 

Today, all this is but a distant dream. Now, more than ever, the only real way to break into the Anglo-American academic circuit in the areas of arts, humanities and cultural studies is to be able to speak (and write) English, and to be able to do so quite well. In other countries – I have had this experience as a conference or festival guest in Barcelona, Singapore and Buenos Aires – a multilingual culture is taken for granted, and simultaneous translators are hard at work providing their services through headsets provided for each and every audience member. This scarcely happens today at English-language conferences; outsiders must either fit in, or go back home. Even I can remember the days in the world of Australian academe when a certain everyday give-and-take at the level of language – a generosity (indeed, curiosity) about other accents and idioms, other forms of expression that might creatively jumble several tongues and many linguistic approximations in order to passionately or urgently communicate a point – was part of the adventure of learning and knowledge.

 

Today, this multilingual adventure is happening all over again – but primarily in conferences and teaching programs in Asia, not in Western countries. The Asian journal Traces is one remarkable example of a massive effort at the level of translation between various Asian languages, with English also in the mix – but that is a lone beacon in the Cultural Studies field. At ground zero, at the point of editorial in many journals and magazines, I have noticed an increased intolerance towards what are regarded as ‘imperfect’ texts: generally, those written by someone who has English as their second or third language. This is frequently a matter of laziness on the part of editors, a failure of nerve: in an age where many articles seem to come almost straight from e-mail attachment into virtual print, editors (it seems) cannot be bothered to work with an author on improving their text and helping it to cross cultures.

 

At Rouge, we were painfully aware that the world, past and present, is full of writers and writings on film that hardly anyone on the Anglo-American circuit, these days, has ever heard of. Not just from Taiwan or Iran, but also places that never quite made it (for whatever reason) onto the ‘60s/’70s bandwagon, such as Germany, Scandinavia or Spain. So, our mission was to try to get as much as we could of this good work represented – or at least signalled, so that someone, somewhere, might be inspired to carry on the task (which is how ‘bodies of translation’ have always come about – it is ever a matter of institutional decree!). The challenge in ‘covering the globe’ is not so much in including material from every country, but rather in gaining access to the inside knowledge that can help sort out the special from the typical or mediocre, and point us to the most vital and innovative centres of work – all of which must occur before the labour of translation can even begin.

 

But let me break off from the general politics of translation to speak concretely about how we at Rouge generated our translations. As we lacked the money to employ fully professional translators in a fully professional way, we have needed to find passionate amateurs of all kinds, or professionals agreeing to work (for a moment, at least) in a different way: people with a passion for a language, or for a particular topic, or for a certain literary style. Through Rouge, we were able to bring the work of several budding professional translators (such as postgraduate students in the field) to the attention of overseas editors and publishers. A bold step we took was to, as much as possible, involve authors themselves in the process of translation: either by generating a first draft in English from within their own circle of contacts, or by attempting to translate themselves, or write in English. This is a scary moment for any writer. I am reminded of the story about the great French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg recording in London, and never speaking English to his fellow musicians even though he was quite capable of doing so; when asked why, he replied: ‘I cannot bear to be less brilliant in English than I am in French!’ Most writers feel this way! Asking a writer to contribute copy which is not in their first language is a delicate situation that demands an intense relationship of trust – because it is then up to the editor-publisher to sensitively rework that text into something which flows and expresses itself better in English. We published many texts via this process in Rouge, and the results were, on the whole, excellent. One of our favourite writers, for example, was the Hungarian born scholar, critic and screenwriter Yvette Bíró, famous for her work in the ‘70s with the director Miklos Jancsó. Yvette has spent her entire adult life writing and teaching across various countries and cultures, speaking at least four different languages; she now regards herself as someone who, in a sense, lacks a native tongue – a common experience of the modern exile. The texts that Yvette gives us use a highly creative mixture of linguistic idioms from several languages (French, Italian, Hungarian, English). While we work long and hard on each of Yvette’s pieces – and she places herself in our hands, trusting us to improve them for an English-reading audience – we made an editorial decision not to entirely censor or smooth out this complexity in her writing, since it leads to striking poetic effects that could not have arisen otherwise: her piece in issue 10, for instance, on the Sarajevan film Grbavica, is titled ‘Plain, Pain’ – and which purely ‘English’ writer would have invented such a striking, plaintive, telling conjunction of words?

 

Similarly, where a writer has translated their own text into English – as was the case when we asked Jean-Pierre Coursodon, long resident in America, to translate (and, in the event, revise) an essay of his published over twenty years previously in French – we tried to retain something of the ‘trace’ of the original language, if it helps rather than hinders the reading of the text. Miguel (brother of novelist Javier) Marías in Spain and Shigehiko Hasumi in Japan are other instances of writers who agreed – always with that mixture of trepidation and trust! – to write for us in English; without this process, their important and prodigious works would scarcely be represented outside of their home cultures.

 

At Rouge, we believed in the value of group or collective translations – particularly of the sort we can do ourselves as editors, bringing to the table the various languages (or smatterings of languages!) that we possess (Greek, Italian, French, Spanish … ). While we are not so keen on the process whereby a second translator ‘revises’, from scratch, the work of a first translator (although we have occasionally used this method, particularly in the case of old translations) – an unnecessarily cumbersome process that reinforces the ego or personal voice of the individual translator – we felt there was a lot to be gained from the kind of work where three people ‘bash out’ a translation all together, in the same room. The most valuable aspect of this process is precisely the vocalisation of it, which leads to an emphasis, above all, on the literary element of rhythm. Literary effect lives or dies on the strength and suppleness of a text’s rhythm. (That is what always betrays a bad or wonky translation: no rhythm!) In this collective work, as in our other translations, we always began from a quite literal rendering of the text, almost word by word (as far as that is possible).

 

However, there always comes that moment – the most crucial moment in the adventure of literary translation – when we realise that we must make a decisive leap into not simply ‘rendering’ the text in English, but dynamically transporting it into its new idiom; at that point, we become bolder, and (assured that we fully understand the text in its literal form) risk a more creative linguistic transposition, looking to liberate not merely the meaning but the spirit or force of the text, in all its poetic richness. (Keen students of translation theory will recognise here the influence of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Task of the Translator’!) (Benjamin, 1999: 253-263)

 

The Waldo Rojas text quoted above was translated in such a way: we began from not only the original Spanish text, but also the author’s own French translation of it, and were thus able to cross-reference them, thus giving us more options and sparking creative ideas. Ultimately, however, this was a text that demanded we take that literary leap in order to render it true, poetic justice. At Rouge, we savoured these sorts of challenges! The collective translation process was used (this time drawing in an international network of experts) on the Serge Daney essays that we published – which are notoriously difficult to translate well into English (one of the reasons that, over fifteen years after his death, no book collection of his remarkable critical work has yet appeared in English).

 

Perhaps more controversial, among the members of the translation community, than collective rendering is the work performed by that fearsome hybrid character: the editor-translator, or (as is the case in Rouge and Internet publications generally) the editor-translator-publisher. What role does this figure perform? The editor-translator (a prominent example in France is the legendary Bernard Eisenschitz, director of Cinéma magazine) does more than simply translate a text: since he or she probably also selected and solicited it in the first place, s/he also feels the right or obligation to carry out necessary editorial work on it while in the act of translating it. This can lead to many things, such as mundane corrections to the original text, but more dramatically to editorial suggestions about how the text might need to be actively revised – resulting, in certain cases, in a quite new text, or at least a significant variant on the original. This is something that – at least when dealing with living authors with whom one is in contact – we did not hesitate to do at Rouge. It is, once again, a trepidation-and-trust situation: writers, who have usually already gone through one (possibly arduous) editorial process to see their work published in their own language, usually do not rejoice at the prospect of going though it all again; many writers like to regard translation as a happy but invisible ‘conveyance’ of their text, relatively untouched, into a new language, and something that is not going to place new demands on their time. But, as someone who has been both the subject and object of translation-editing, I firmly believe it is a process worth enduring.

 

Translating-editing demands a high level of mutual trust between writer and editor. But it can be highly beneficial for both sides. Let us take the example of an internationally acclaimed Rouge regular, the French critic-scholar Nicole Brenez. Simply through the process of accumulating translations and establishing a rapport with Nicole, I have become – almost by default – her ‘official’ English translator, and handled, for an American university press, the translation of her book on the filmmaker Abel Ferrara (Brenez, 2007). Translating Nicole’s work – much of which compromises minute audiovisual (or figural, as she would say) analysis of scenes and moments from films – means, in a very real sense, ‘backtracking’ so as to retrace the steps of her logic; it means looking at these films as closely as she does (with much use of the freeze-frame DVD or VHS button!) in order to understand the logic of her very particular ‘vision’ of them. Such a process of translation – wisely or not – is, in the extent of the identification with the author that it demands, very close to full-on psychoanalytic transference! And with all the perils that can contain. But not necessarily a passive submission to the Other: as, in some sense, a translator-interlocutor, anxious for maximum precision, I sometimes find myself going back to Nicole with comments and even criticisms, always relating to specific detail: ‘you said the coat was blue but it’s black’ (and that makes a difference to the analysis), ‘you said there were five hookers on the street but there are only four’ (and the number is symbolically significant), etc.

 

Why this may be a controversial practice is precisely because it refuses to regard the ‘original publication’ as something sacrosanct and definitive – in fact, in many cases (certainly in a sometimes ad hoc field such as cinema studies), the original may be quite a sloppy, approximate production! The happy result in this case, however, is a significantly revised and indeed improved text – in fact, Nicole now regards the English versions of certain of her texts as the ‘definitive versions’, rather than the original French editions! – because they have been afforded the opportunity for not only rigorous checking, but also intellectual reconsideration, analytic expansion, and so on. This may cause some headaches for future scholars of Brenez, having to work their way through different versions in several languages (and I hope they bother to do this!) – but allowing authors an opportunity for revision through translation, as well as the chance to reach new audiences, surely cannot be a bad thing.

 

I will end with a reflection on the paradoxical status of Internet publications – namely, their uneasy, at times even mysterious, identity as a ‘national publication’. We were proud to be Australian at Rouge, but we didn’t fly the flag about it. Internet magazines have the potential to be stateless, a kind of ‘news from nowhere’ that can reach anyone, anywhere, capable of accessing the technology and reading it in English (and indeed, Rouge had an enormous number of subscribers all over the world). However, many Internet publications cling to an often regressive sense of their own specific locality, often under the alibi of a rather backward, nationalist ethos. At Rouge, we adopted as a motto the title of an artwork by the postmodern flibbertigibbet Imants Tillers: Locality Fails! And especially in the digital age.

 

The fact that we almost hid our ‘address’ on the website led to amusing misperceptions: we were mistaken as American, Canadian … In this, we share something with another Australian internet success story, John Tranter’s ‘electronic journal of poetry and poetics’, Jacket. (1) (We also share several authors, such as the American essayist Donald Phelps, one of the great elders of critical writing.) It is intriguing that the cosmopolitan internationalism – as accidental as it is militant – of both Jacket and Rouge comes about, no doubt, because of their investment in relatively marginal cultural activities: when one is passionately taken with art forms like modernist poetry or experimental cinema, one quickly learns that one’s community can only be found across many national borders, not within the pettiness and in-fighting of one’s own home space, culturally speaking. What is paradoxical about this status is that, within the bureaucratic terms of government funding for the arts, Rouge and Jacket hardly count as Australian publications, since they do not reflect a nationalist agenda, and hence refuse to guarantee a set amount of ‘local content’ per issue.

 

Does this matter? Not very much to Rouge, or to LOLA after it (where the two editors even live on different continents). It is more important (and delightful) to have the experience – as happened to me at the end of 2006 – of encountering a Russian scholar named Julia Vassilieva, now resident in Australia, who wished to translate something from previously unmined private archives of Sergei Eiesenstein’s writings, to which she had privileged access; or to pursue with young critics in Brazil the project of at last bringing into English (and to the attention of English-speaking film cultures) the thirty-year backlog of the delirious ‘underground’ film critic Jairo Ferreira. For if there is one thing we learnt through the experiment of producing Rouge, it is that cinema, and its culture, is not in the throes of the kind of ‘crisis’ or ‘death’ that we read about all the time in myopic, mono-culturally focused newspapers and magazines; rather, the wide world of film, past and present, is an inexhaustible fountain of insight, poetry and inspiration.

 

ENDNOTES

1. I am indebted to Kate Lilley of Sydney University for email discussion of her forthcoming work on Jacket in relation to the concept of ‘UnAustralian literature’.

 

REFERENCES

Bandis, H., Martin, A. & McDonald, G.  2004  Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage.  Melbourne/Rotterdam: Rouge Press/Rotterdam Film Festival.

 

Benjamin, W.  1999  Selected Writings: Volume 1 – 1913-1926.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

 

Brenez, N.  2007 Abel Ferrara. Illinois: Illinois University Press.

 

© Adrian Martin January 2007 (slightly updated October 2015)


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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