French Voices 2015

February 9, 2015 | By French Culture

The following statements are the direct transcripts of translator Pascale-Anne Brault, editor Thomas Lay and writer Rick Moody’ speeches given for the 2nd French Voices Ceremony, a translation and publication prize supported by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and FACE Foundation, on January 21, 2015.

Pascale-Anne Brault, DePaul University, on Nostalgia: When Are We Ever at Home? by Barbara Cassin

It is a real honor to be here today and I am deeply grateful to French Voices and all its American partners. This award is truly unique, I feel, because beyond celebrating a book (and many others who are no doubt just as deserving of the Grand Prize), it encourages and supports the work of the translator and that of the publisher, two aspects in the life of a book abroad that are not often highlighted. So, in the name of all my fellow translators and of Fordham University Press, I would like to thank the French government and Pen, for extending a helpful hand to those who work in “les coulisses’” as we say in French, behind the scenes.

Of course, without the author of the book, there would be no translator and so, when I am asked to talk about my work, I am always a bit torn. Should I talk about translation and the work of the translator or should I simply focus on the book I am translating? With this particular project--the translation of a book on the concept of nostalgia-- I came to see that the mechanics of translating and the topic of the book were closely intertwined—that translation, might in fact be seen as a form of nostalgia and that, for me, over the course of the last 30 years, translation has indeed become inseparable from nostalgia. Translation has given me the unique opportunity to work with my native language from abroad—to have nostalgia for and even to mourn it—in ways I could not have foreseen.

Why do we sometimes feel like strangers even when we are at home? Why do we sometimes feel at home in places where we have no roots? Why do we like to return there and why do we feel nostalgic when we are away? What does it mean to be at home? Can we ever really be at home? These are just some of the questions treated by philosopher and philologist Barbara Cassin in her new work Nostalgia: When Are We Ever at Home? Barbara Cassin is a research director at CNRS [(French) National Center for Scientific Research] and the co-director of the "Philosophical Order" collection at the Seuil publishing house. A specialist in Greek thought, she is the author or editor of over fifteen important books on both Greek philosophy and contemporary thought. She is also a renown translator of Parmenides, Aristotle and Hannah Arendt. In 2012 she was the recipient of the Académie Française award for her body of work.

In her new book, Cassin explores with compelling force the question of nostalgia and the implications it has for us as both individuals and members of a political community. In a very accessible style, she provides an eloquent and sophisticated treatment of such universal themes as exile from one’s native land, the desire or nostalgia for a homeland, and the possibility of rethinking the homeland in terms of language rather than territory. She does so by revisiting with great incisiveness some of the founding texts of Western culture: Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid and then moves on to an engaging analysis of the work of German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, to show that the dangerous implications of a nostalgia for land and homeland need to be revisited and rethought through the questions of exile and language.

Starting, from a very personal experience, Barbara Cassin writes near the very opening of the book: --and allow me here to indulge in a little bit of linguistic nostalgia here and read in French:

“It looks like I’m going home, but it’s not home. Maybe it’s because I have no home. Or maybe it’s because it’s when I’m not home that I feel most at home, in a place that feels like home. When are we ever at home? (…) It is with this experience that I wish to begin: the feeling that I inwardly qualify as an irrepressible nostalgia and which I experience every time I’m “back” in Corsica. A strange feeling, since my ancestors are not from this island; I wasn’t born there, and I didn’t spend either my childhood or my youth there. I’m not Corsican. (….) I wanted to reflect on and dream of nostalgia because, obviously, I love Homer, Odysseus, the Greek language, and the Mediterranean.

But also, and this is a bit stranger, because I am attached to Corsica, to the horizon of a house, a village, a cape, on another island, which is not mine, at least insofar as I wasn’t born there. And yet “nostalgia” is the word that naturally comes to mind when I think about it. But as with “Homer” himself, “nostalgia” is not exactly what one believes it to be.”

Before turning to Aenas in The Aeneid and then to Hannah Arendt, the third uprooted figure in this book, the third one who must define herself on a soil that is not her native land and the one for whom language, German, is far more of a homeland than an actual territory might be, Cassin will remain on the shores of her own cultural landscape, the Mediterranean, accompanying Odysseus on his long way home, illuminating his wanderings with insights through a close study of the thought, myths, and vocabulary of Ancient Greece and through Odysseus’ own experience of rootedness and uprootedness, that is, of nostalgia.

Having left Odysseus on his never-ending quest for home (for you may remember that, by divine mandate, he has to leave his home in Ithaka once again, the day after his homecoming)—Cassin then turns to the Aeneid, where she underscores the way in which Aeneas, who must leave his native Troy behind him, is allowed by the gods to settle in Rome so long, Virgil tells us, as he makes Latin his new language. Hence the language of the other comes to take precedent over Aeneas’ own language as he is compelled to build a new homeland in a language that was not initially his. Exile forces one to abandon one’s mother tongue. “Land of the fathers, language of the mothers: it is with the language of the other that one makes a new fatherland for oneself.”

For Barbara Cassin, language is thus clearly central to the experience of exile; those who have been exiled from their homeland seek to find a home in language, that is, not just in the language of the new country, but, for many, in a native language that, through exile, has taken on a new significance. Cassin takes philosopher Hannah Arendt as exemplary of this transformation through language. Forced to leave Nazi Germany for America, via France and Portugal, and asked if she misses Germany, she responds: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I can’t say that I do not have any nostalgia for it. What remains [of that period]? The language remains.” (49)

The question of just what a mother tongue is thus becomes central to Cassin’s analysis, as exile and the learning of the other’s tongue always redefine one’s relationship to one’s native language, as well as one’s experience of the other’s land. In an interview, Barbara Cassin tells us that “rather than the nostalgia for a land or a homeland, I prefer the less serious, less dangerous, nostalgia that is anchored in language.” Arendt experienced this nostalgia for her language: “the mother tongue is the only thing you can take with you from the old country, and I have always tried to keep this irreplaceable thing intact and alive”1

In her reading of Arendt, in the wake of her studies of Virgil and Homer, Cassin shows how, “the plurality of languages houses the difference at the heart of the essence of things,” a difference characterized by Arendt as “the faltering equivocity of the world.” This equivocity, says Cassin, “demonstrates that there exist still other “correspondences” than ours in view of a common and identical world.”

When Are We Ever at Home? seeks “to make of nostalgia a completely different type of adventure,” one that would protect the “equivocity of the world,” one leading us “ to the threshold of a much broader and more welcoming way of thinking, to a vision of the world free from all belonging” (23). Nostalgia for the land is obsolete, she thus claims.

Cassin attempts to show how contemporary philosophy opens up the classic representation of the themes of rootedness and uprootedness, of belonging and foreignness, of one’s relationship to one’s native language, to a discussion of the political stakes of such concepts, and how they might impact the current landscape of a global world. Through Homer, Virgil, and Arendt, Barbara Cassin thus treats a topic that could not be more contemporary as she makes us rethink notions of home, homeland, and language in a world with ever-increasing numbers of immigrants, refugees, and displaced peoples. For there are, as Cassin notes, “many Odysseus” in our times, that is, in other words, fewer and fewer autochthonous people. We have become citizens of the world. And when it comes to the issue of the language that will become ours, or will have to become ours, the question remains: What language(s)? The one that identifies a people? shapes it into its own image and excludes the “barbarians” ? or the languages that, through exile and in their multiplicity, do not form roots but open the way to “a world that does not close itself off,” to other people and other worlds. (76)

In this context, and more than ever, it is the quality of the welcome that makes us feel at home. Cassin concludes: “When are we ever at home? When we are welcomed, us and those who are close to us, along with our language, our languages.” (76) To be welcomed, taken in, is to be, and Cassin coins this wonderful word, “hospité,” that is, given hospitality, accepted in one’s own singularity, and, if we are lucky, allowed to translate that singularity in a foreign land, at home, not at home.


1 6 July 1967, letter of thanks to Ernst Johann, general secretary for Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, which awarded her the Sigmund-Freud Prize for her scientific writings. Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch (Munich: Piper, 2003).

Thomas Lay, Acquisitions Editor at Fordham University Press, on Barbara Cassin’s Nostalgia (Autrement, 2013)

When are we ever at home?, asks Barbara Cassin. In revealing nostalgia as a coming-to-terms with alterity, Cassin argues forcefully for the centrality of translation in our understanding of our world. Language, she argues, operates according to a kind of nostalgia that knows no fixed home but instead offers, in her words, “a different type of adventure, one leading us to the threshold of a more open, more welcoming way of thinking, of a vision of the world free from all belonging.” If, as Cassin shows, one of the West’s founding myths—Aeneas’s arrival in Italy—draws its power from the taking on of a language other than one’s own, it remains no less crucial today, with the rise of global English, that we celebrate translation, not as that which makes the world available to America, but as that which puts one language into contact with others. I want to thank Laurence Marie, Charlotte Groult, Anne-Sophie Hermil, and those who served on the French Voices committee for their crucial support of the work of translation. Not only
does the French Voices program help to make books happen; together with the other activities of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, such as the Walls and Bridges program and the Albertine bookshop, it offers a forum where we can contemplate what it is we’ve made happen.

What better way to acknowledge Barbara Cassin’s work than with an award she shares with her wonderful translator, Pascale-Anne Brault? No one understands better than Cassin the way in which translation activates meaning, rather than merely conveying it, and no one accomplishes this activation better than Pascale-Anne. In her hands, Cassin’s account of finding a home in language, sings in an English that is at once idiomatic and idiomorphic. In this translated text, the confrontation of languages—French, Latin, Greek, English—provides the challenge of writing toward meanings that weren’t just there for the taking.

For Cassin, nostalgia names an iterative process, one in which there are many hands. As she puts it, “Just as Homer is not the original poet, the one and only one to have composed The Iliad and The Odyssey as we have them, nostalgia is not simply homesickness and the return home.” In calling on the many hands that go into a book’s making, Cassin names a collective process that we publishers take pride in, so I want to name some of the many people whose hands and voices will leave traces in the English publication of this book. First among them was my dear friend Helen Tartar, whose death last year is mourned across many continents, and to whom I owe a debt immense of endless gratitude. Helen sponsored the English publication of Barbara’s work, first in Sophistical Practice, and now in Nostalgia, but that work would be unthinkable without the support of our parent university, Fordham, and of the Press’s director, Fred Nachbaur, and our new editorial director, Richard Morrison. Kate O’Brien, Ann-Christine Racette, Eric Newman, John Garza, and a crew of others will bring their individual expertise to getting the book edited, designed, printed, and publicized, and a finer group of colleagues is hard to imagine. We also owe much to Jacques Lezra for introducing us to Barbara Cassin’s work and to Bachir Diagne for his offer of a Foreword that will help introduce it to many others.
Finally, my thanks to Rick Moody and the many people whose hard work went into tonight’s celebration, for their hospitality. As Cassin puts it, “Wouldn’t the best way to be back home in one’s fatherland be, as in an Odyssey transformed by the modern context, to be in a home that is not yours?”

Honorary Chair Rick Moody on French Voices

Bonjour, mesdames et messieurs, c’est un grand honneur d’etre ici ce soir. I hope you will pardon me if I continue my remarks in English, which is more by reason of bad accent, than for lack of esteem for the mighty French tongue.

When I was asked to speak tonight, back at the turn of the new year, on the occasion of this year’s French Voices Award, I assumed that I would speak on a subject well known to most of us who toil in the trenches of international literature, that factoid which reminds us how, in the United States of America, only three percent of books published annually are translated. It has been some ten years now that I have been hearing this statistic repeated, in which the tendency of the United States is clear, that we are a net exporter of literature rather than an equal participant in any exchange of cultural wares. In these ten years, with a great effort, the dial has budged a little bit, and institutions like the French Voices Award are integral, even essential, to that process of improvement. The French Voices Award and like efforts at the PEN American Center and elsewhere have not only brought more great writing from France and elsewhere in Europe to the United States, but these efforts have at the same time reminded American readers how diving into literature from abroad not only broadens our own tastes, but is a kind of civic and global duty, in which we, in a most pleasurable way, learn about cultures other than our own, and how these allegedly differing cultures, at the end of the day, are not so different at all. The French Voices Award is one admirable and upstanding route through which this important thought has been time-tested and ratified.

This would have been my speech, were it not for recent events in France, which have shocked us here--those of us who live in New York City, who know well the horror and grief at the hands of global terror. As after 9/11/2001, recent events in France have led us all to woeful and anxious wondering about the meaning of Western Culture, as it appears to be locked in ongoing struggle with the inscrutable gaze of hatred. Thinking of the French Voices Award in the context of these calamitous events, these disgraceful acts, the award appears to be yet more valuable, and worthy of our esteem and support. After all, the United States of America and the Republic of France are not only alike in that they are contemporary allies of the mutually beneficial sort, they are also alike in the revolutionary ideals that constitute their twin founding in the Age of the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. The liberty, equality, and fraternity of the Republic of France is very much like unto the cherished ideals of our own Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And French literature, like its American counterpart, is reflective of these political and philosophical ideals, this yearning for clarity and reasoned moral purpose. Whatever one thinks of the occasional excesses of black comedy or satire, no thinking person in our two countries can possibly fail to support the absolute empowerment of freedom of speech, and its opinions both noble and ignoble, wherein these opinions vie for supremacy in the sunlight of civilized discourse.

Literature is at the very center of American and French post-revolutionary philosophy. It is the place where the complexities and hard truths of human consciousness in the West are shown off in their truest and most compassionate rayment. And France has supported and celebrated its unimpeachable literary tradition, the tradition of Montaigne, and Racine, and Rousseau, and Flaubert, and Proust, and Sartre and de Beauvoir, and Collette, and Camus, and Barthes and Foucault, with self-evident pride. Our country has a lot to learn from France’s pride in its writers. When the situation politically is bad, when the purpose and merit of Western values are assailed by misapprehension and hatred and terror, literature is exactly where you go to remember who we are and what we stand for. This only appears to me to be more the case, in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo.

The French Voices Award, from where we are standing tonight, therefore, is not just an attempt to remind some unreliable American readers about great writing in a tongue not all of us speak. It is not just a recognition of these nominated French works, though they are well worthy of our recognition tonight. It is also a de facto celebration some of what binds our two countries together, a tradition of human values, an anti-tyrannical tradition, and a tradition of bravery and courage in the face of what opposes civility and human dignity. Literature is the best of all places to find these abiding truths refreshed. And the French Voices Award stands for that, stands for the tradition of French writing, stands for the Franco-American historic relationship, now more than ever. How thrilling that we are all gathered here again in this regard, toujours, encore.

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