Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Autobiography through a hundred pairs of eyes

What would you do if your Significant Other terminated your relationship by e-mail?

When a middle-aged French artist was jilted electronically she turned to the Sisterhood. She asked scores of other women to examine the words of the message, each through the prism of her own expertise. The sum of this is Sophie Calle: talking to strangers, a multimedia exhibition now showing at the Whitechapel Gallery.

The focus of the exhibition is a bank of video screens, a giant one flanked by 3×3 on one side and 3×8 on the other. On each of the smaller screens is a woman soundlessly interpreting the message: read in French, English, German, Italian and Spanish; sung to the tune of a baccarole; sung as a fado; read/performed by a clown. On the larger one each of the 33 is successively displayed with sound. Around the gallery are dozens of graphical displays, with the woman's name and her speciality above each one.

Here is the message.


I have been meaning to write and reply to your last e-mail for a while. ... [ "It's not my fault", repeated a dozen different ways] ...

But it would be the worst kind of masquerade to prolong a situation now when, you know as well as I do, it has become irreparable by the standards of the very love I have for you and you have for me, a love which is now forcing me to be so frank with you, as final proof of what happened between us and will always be unique.

I would have liked things to have turned out differently.

Take care of yourself.


Here are extracts from the reactions of some of the 107 women who variously interpreted the message.


The problem starts straight away! In English we still tend to use the word "Dear" even in e-mails, or we cut the salutation right down to "hi". Putting the name by itself sounds quite curt in English. It doesn't have the same impact in French: the French tend to do this in e-mails. I've decided to leave it in the hope that it sounds serious rather than abrupt.

But it would be the worst kind of masquerade … and will always be unique.
This is another of his convoluted emotional sentences. It could be reworked any number of times but I am keen not to iron out the way he strings together clauses; it is a sign of his emotional state when he is writing, with ideas piling on top of each other.

This is not really a translator's comment but a more general one. I am intrigued by this "X". Is it a kiss, or the writer's initial? It would be so much more tender to end with a kiss ... but there is something rather presumptuous about leaving just a kiss or a simple initial at the end of such a solemn and final letter perhaps I am reading too much into this "X": it may be a simple device used by Sophie to hide the letter-writer's identity.


Ignotus vir Sophiae s.d.
The Latins named themselves at the beginning of a letter, not at the end. I have used ignotus to translate "X" being, as in Harry Potter, one whose name must not be spoken ... cuius nomen non dicendum est.

I have been meaning to write and reply to your last e-mail for a while
... nuntio electronic tuo ...
Since the word "email" obviously does not exist in classical Latin, I have adopted the translation adopted in the Lexicon Recentis Latinatis, published by the Vatican (Libraria Editoria Vaticana)

[But it would be the worst kind of masquerade … and will always be unique.]
This succession of subordinate (and often relative) clauses is in the text. I feel obliged to reproduce it, even though I don't think it is very felicitous.

[I would have liked things to have turned out differently.]
The unreality of the past, or an attenuated affirmation? I plump for the unreality.

Take care of yourself.
The Latins always ended their letters with vale (keep well). It is rather amusing that the gentleman should echo our formula of farewell. I cannot help thinking of the seal with which Rodolphe secures his letter of separation to Emma Bovary, and which bears the motto: Amor nel cor [love in the heart]


Analysis of an anonymous letter

... He is an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically dangerous and/or a great writer.

To be avoided at all costs.


... applicant with a convoluted form of speech.


Total assets: I will always love you

Total liabilities: I can never become your friend



Added 26 November

I have searched in vain this morning for the complete original text: it was not displayed at the Whitechapel and I have not been able to find it via Google. Curious!

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I too Googled in vain for the text.

    But if you feel inclined to type it from this picture, that could change for the next seeker... :)