On Translating Hervé Guibert
At the most instinctual and intimate level, the work of Hervé Guibert arrived as a sort of catastrophe—a coup de théâtre, to borrow from Guibert’s lexicon—with the translation of Catherine Mavrikakis’ A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning (2004), in which the narrator’s friends are all, for the most part, dying of AIDS, and all of her dying friends are called Hervé. This refusal of the reduction of the body to a statistical unreality, stripped of its viscera, first forced me into the work of Hervé Guibert. It was this catastrophe or turn which led me to read him, first in the service of the Mavrikakis text, and later in the service of my own need, as both writer and translator. If translation is a form of desire intercut with grief and with grievance, then this text, Le mausolée des amants, makes every essential demand upon me; the sensual exigencies, and cruel untempered forms of address in this epistolary work—foremost an open letter addressed to Guibert’s lover, T., in which the entries are (we are to believe), chronological, and undated, forming a sort of novel avant la lettre— mark the rest of us as gilt intruders upon the romance, reinforcing a de facto relationship of exiguity to language, to textual indecency.
These selfish reasons of unmitigated textual pleasure and the desire for transmittal are coupled with other considerations as well. In the strictest bibliographic sense, the translation of Le mausolée des amants, one of Guibert’s most esteemed works, will redress a flagrant omission in the corpus of Guibert’s spottily available work in English. In addition, I am hoping that the publication of The Mausoleum of Lovers alongside other works by Guibert such as Ghost Image (out of print for too long now), will contribute to enlarging conversations among anglophone readers and thinkers around photography, and perhaps correct the tendency toward too great a reliance on Barthes as the sovereign thinker of this art form.
In his preface to an album of portraits of Hervé Guibert taken by Hans Georg Berger, Guibert exposes the photographic demand for assiduity, a quality he identifies in Berger’s work: In fact assiduity, for the subject, must be intolerable, obsessing, the very underside of the essence the photographer has assigned to his function: in perpetual motion, butterfly, insect laboriously gathering surprises, thus fascinated by all the unknowns that wish to be caught in his nets. For Guibert, photography, like the vital writings of this mortific journal of lovers, men destined to desuetude, demands that the subjected body be present with its own disappearance and indissoluble desire. In this sense, it is very much a self-portrait, an image always in the process of deterioration, of becoming unrecognizable, and which offers itself as an account of an impossible, and thus indispensable, relation to the self that agrees to enter there. The eye, in this instance is unforgiving, and the reader, along with Guibert, is subject to constant exposure. The risk, here, already present in the language of Hervé Guibert’s written and photographic work, is the risk of contagion, to which all are—must be—desperately susceptible.