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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The Age of Translation: Early 20th-century Concepts and Debates


Translations, trangressions & (re)creation of literary fame

Translation is the most intimate act of reading. Unless the translator has earned the right to become the intimate reader, she cannot surrender to the test, cannot respond to the special call of the text.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (183)

Having discussed the conundrum that the first edition presents, the pressing question is: who is the actual author who so skillfully hid behind the book? Esther Meynell, nee Halam Moorhouse, was an organist and author of a number of different works, including a “real” biography of Bach, written in 1934 for a collection entitled Great Lives. Her inclination for biography is apparent as she wrote several works on lives of famous men: Samuel Pepys, Administrator, Observer, Gossip (1909), Nelson in England: a Domestic Chronicle (1913), Young Lincoln (1944), Portrait of William Morris (1947), The Story of Hans Christian Andersen (1949), to name but a few. Meynell did not, however, devote herself only to writing biographies. She tried on different genres and published Letters of English Seamen 1587-1808 in 1910, English Spinster (The Life of Mary Russell Mitford told in the form of fiction) in 1939, and several books on English counties: Sussex Cottage, 1936, and Sussex, probably in 1946, among many others.

Meynell was hardly a newcomer in 1925. Therefore, the absence of her name on the cover of The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach cannot be explained by shyness or a desire to remain anonymous. On the contrary, as I have argued elsewhere (Lopes, “Notes” 85-104), it seems fair to assume it was a deliberate intellectual imposture, a forgery which would infect Europe in the next two decades. An original work, written in English, presents itself as a translation from the German - to what end?

The phenomenon does not represent a novelty. Pseudotranslations, i.e., “texts which have been presented as translations with no corresponding source texts in other languages ever having existed” (Toury 40), have always existed in literary history and serve various purposes, most notably to introduce a genre and/or textual features which have hitherto been absent in a given culture for whatever reason. Fictitious translations in general, and Meynell’s narrative in particular, seem to put in evidence the meanders of literary production, distribution and reading, as the former showcase the expectations and prejudices readers have towards authority and translatorship.

[T]exts come into being disguised as translations not just because there exists a notion of translation in a culture, but first and foremost because this notion and its realizations are assigned certain functions within it, which are, moreover, recognized and acknowledged by its members. (ibid. 45)

By refusing to appear as the author, Esther Meynell achieves a double effect: while playing the system and its beliefs, she unwittingly exposes authorship as a fragile construct, an empty place that may be filled at will. Ironically and avant la lettre, Meynell undertakes the task of eliminating the author and replacing her with a figment: “[t]he work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer” (Foucault 198). Anonymity proves to be very fruitful for the book’s circulation history, because it provides food for imagination - freed of the constraint of an authorial presence, the reader may imagine Anna Madgalena narrating Johann Sebastian’s personal story.[1] By disappearing, Meynell indelibly shapes the popular fabric of imagination in the 1930s onwards.

Again, this act of self-effacement seems to anticipate Foucault’s thesis, albeit for very different reasons and in a distinct context: “Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence...” (ibid.). By staging her absence as textual producer, Meynell’s chronicle successfully inverts the power relations in literature and uses translation as a means to effectively increase the market value of the book, astutely playing off literary conventions and norms.

Pseudotranslators tend to “incorporate in their texts features which have come to be associated, in the (target) culture in question, with translation” (Toury 45), and Meynell (wo)manhandled[2] the text in order to convince the readers they were reading a translated, and therefore singularly “authentic”, memoir of Anna Magdalena Bach. Remarkably, authenticity and proximity are here by-products of (fictitious) translation. This illusion of genuineness is achieved by the absence of a name, because, as Foucault argues, “a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others”

(201) - Anna Magdalena had not written any books; Meynell had. Thus, absence produces meaning, as the reader expects this to be a singular text, a memoir of a common woman with no other claim to fame than the fact that she was Bach’s wife. As mentioned above, the construct is further compounded intratextually by the narration in the 1st person singular and the many Germanisms in the text. All these features combined led to the widespread belief that the chronicle was genuinely penned by Anna Magdalena. And so it was translated first into German and then into many European languages.

The first German translation of the text is published in 1930, five years after Meynell’s first edition. Besides bearing no reference to the fact that Der kleine Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach is a translation, it performs other two major incisions in the text. First, it erases the discreet note at the very end of the English text that read “Those familiar with the known and authenticated facts of Bach’s life will realise that certain episodes in this book are imaginary” (Meynell, Little Chronicle n.p.). The note is inobtrusive and is strategically pushed to the margins of the narrative, but, being the only dissonant trace in the textual self-presentation as a (fictitious) translation, it strongly reinforces the resemblance of truthfulness, making it virtually impossible for future readers to uncover the forgery. Secondly, the German edition makes changes on the macrotextual level, introducing a prefacelike note and a summary at the beginning of each part. Furthermore, it interweaves documentary data (reproductions of paintings, musical sheets, photographs of musical instruments, etc.) between the pages of the narrative as illustrations of what is being told, thereby authenticating the biography with “real” documents.

In an unsigned preface, the author is always referred to as die Verfasserin, which is an interesting way of both deflecting the question of authorship - die Verfas- serin has no proper name - and reinforcing the idea that die Verfasserin is Anna Magdalena. Two further aspects stand out in the paratextual discourse. First, the prefacer reflects upon the intended readership. While the book is not aimed at the music scholar, such a person would not, according to the prefacer, find any inexactitude in musical references or anything inadequate/untrue (Unzutreffendes) in the biography.[3] After reassuring the reader of the book’s truthfulness, the author goes on to highlight its moral import. Die Verfasserin is not only accurate in her report of Bach’s life, she is also above reproach as a spouse [Lebensgefahrtin], and this qualifies her, above all others, to tell the story of the great man.

Daruber hinaus ist dies Werkchen noch so etwas wie eine allgemein-gultige Monographie der gleichwertigen Lebensgefahrtin des Genies. Wir sehen, wie die Frau beschaffen war und wohl immer sein mufi, die einem schopferischen Manne als Lebensgefahrtin taugen kann. (Meynell, Die kleine Chronik 7)

Beyond all that, this little work is also something of a universally valid monograph of the worthy spouse of the genius. We understand that the woman was made, and must always be made, to be a good spouse for the creative man.[4]

Thus, the preface contributes decisively to the canonisation of the chronicle as an intimate and true account. A unique account.

Henceforth, the set up is complete. The French, Spanish and Portuguese translations follow suit and further “authenticate” the German version as the original by resorting to it, directly or indirectly, as the source text. As Theo Hermans puts it, “[equivalence between a translation and its original is established through an external, institutional, perlocutionary speech act. Rather than being an inherent feature of relations between texts, equivalence is declared. Establishing equivalence amounts to an act of authentication” (24). Thus, I argue the subsequent translations represent a sort of “perlocutionary speech act” which establishes the German version firmly as the source text. This act of authentication is implicit, but arguably, when every literary agent in Europe validates the German text as the original, the English narrative is obscured out of existence. It becomes, for all intents and purposes, a translation. One more.

La pequena cronica de Ana Madalena Bach (1940) and Pequena Cronica de Ana Madalena Bach (1945?), the Spanish and Portuguese translations, mimic the German text, as they reproduce the preface, chapter divisions and summaries but not all illustrations, as they would probably make publication too expensive. The French 1935 version replaces the preface with a much shorter note de lediteur that, while it emphasises the sentimental character of the narrative - it is a love story, as well as the biography of a composer -, insists on exactitude:

Il faut l’attribuer [le succes considerable] non seulement a l’interet souvent passionne que suscitent de nos jours la musique et la personne de Jean Sebastien Bach, mais surtout au fait que ce petit livre, a la fois si emouvant et si exact, s’inspire du plus bel amour qui ait jamais ete vecu. (Meynell, La petite chronique 7)

However, similarly to the German Die kleine Chronik der Anna Magaalena Bach and unlike The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, the French La petite chronique d’Anna Magdalena Bach includes summaries, organised in numbered chapters, which is a novelty, and documentary materials (these are, however, distinct and fewer than those interspersed in the German edition). A section entitled “Was the Chronik erzahlt” resonates in the “table des chapitres” at the end of the book. After a still cursory comparison of the two versions, it is fair to assume that the French translation takes as its source the German text rather than the English.[5]

The German becomes the unchallenged original, as “[authentication confers authority and instigates equivalence. Translations that are authenticated cease to be translations and become authentic texts” (Hermans 18) - such is the case of The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, as the German translation effectively erases the English text and annuls the translation’s past as translation. Authentication brings about amnesia (ibid. 24).

Amnesia works both ways, as pseudotranslations in general and The Little Chronicle in particular perform by the same token an “authentication” of a given translation (the German text, in this instance) and what could be considered a “reverse authentication”, as the chronologically first text (i.e., the English text) becomes displaced to the realm of translations.

Only in 1940 do the German editors acknowledge authorship, however backhandedly. On a page where the number of past editions, 24 no less, is listed, one finds in very small print the following information: “Aus dem Englischen: The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell”. By then, it is too late. The obfuscation is complete. [6]

Thus, anonymity, the clever play on preconceptions of verisimilitude, authorship, biography and translation have produced a complex web of imaginary contexts and a representation of historical figures which the success of the book rendered even more intricate. There can be no doubt that the effect was deliberate on the part of the author - what other reason could there possibly be for a relatively well established writer to publish a book anonymously, when literary authority derives mostly from authorship?

Even if Meynell is for a while “amused at being another” - which is, as Ortega y Gasset puts it (63), one of the purposes of translation -, she alone could not have succeeded to the extent that she did. For the ruse to work, it was necessary that readers were ready to accept, and believe, the book to have been written by Anna Magdalena Bach. We cannot but conclude that they were.

Undeniably, The Little Chronicle prompted a vast number of versions, all of which differ immensely from the English text, as the translations do not, as a general rule, recognise the latter as the “original” text. Because Meynell chose to masquerade as Anna Magdalena, the “original” text was read as a translation. Originality becomes, in this instance, a sign of fragility. A lie, if you will.

  • [1] Imagining Anna Magdalena as a storyteller opens up a number of interesting researchpaths. For instance, she is depicted discursively as a traditional storyteller but, unlikeBenjamin’s tillers of the soil and seamen (Benjamin, 2006), her efficacy results fromher absolute immobility. She is the unwitting observer who is all the more reliable, asshe does not understand everything she witnesses.
  • [2] I borrow the term from Canadian feminists such as Barbara Godard (87-96). Againdifferent context, agile, “travelling” concept.
  • [3] One can read in the original: “der Verfasserin kam es wohl darauf an, auch der lernb-egierigen Jugend ein durchaus zutreffendes Bild vom Leben und Schaffen des einzigar-tigen Kunstlers zu vermitteln” (Meynell, Die kleine Chronik 6) / the author wished togive youngsters who are eager to learn a completely true image of the life and producionof the unique artist.
  • [4] All translations from the German are mine.
  • [5] In the French tradition, the translators, Marguerite and Edmont Buchet, do not feelbound to always stay close to the source and seem to manipulate the text to meet readers’ expectancies.
  • [6] The history of the Little Chronicle’s European trajectory may be further complicatedby the fact that German was not a commonly shared language in the period, and mosttranslations from German texts into romance languages were often indirect translationsmade via French, as “it was adopted as a sort of second language of conversation and‘civility’” (Casanova 68). “Civility” included, of course, the arts and literature. In Portugal, the elites from the 18th century onwards progressively Frenchified. It is thereforeprobable that the Portuguese and Spanish versions may have at least been acquaintedwith the French translation. An in-depth analysis of the translations, to be undertakenin the near future, will uncover, I believe, an intricate and complicated map of relationsand networks that is worth exploring.
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