Rhythm of Composition and Narrative Theory of Translation:Two Possibilities for a Russian-French Dialogue on Narrative

Liudmila V. Comuzzi (Balashov)

Rhythm of Composition and Narrative Theory of Translation:Two Possibilities for a Russian-French Dialogue on Narrative

Abstract: Soviet and French structuralism had an opportunity to establish a dialogue in the 1960s, when Julia Kristeva’s group attended the seminars of the Moscow-Tartu semiotic school and translations of Lotman and his colleagues’ works were published in the journal Tel Quel. Collaboration did not last long, however, due to political and ideological contradictions between the two schools. The first Franco-Russian seminar on narratological transfer has every chance to revive that dialogue. This article offers two possible vectors to boost a transfer of ideas. The first could depart from the traditional poetics of composition to adopt rhythm viewed as a universal law of narrative discourse. A second perspective is to turn toward the narrative theory of translation, an offshoot of postclassical narratology.  

Keywords: narrative rhythm, narrative theory of translation, point of view, focalization

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Modern narrative theory was importantly shaped by P. Lubbock (GB), K. Friedemann, H. Müller and E. Lämmert (Germany), F. Stanzel (Austria), J. Mukařovský and L. Doležel (Czechoslovakia), not to forget W. Booth (United States). However, it was Russian and French scholars who provided what is acknowledged today as the fundamental pillars for the discipline of narratology: formalism and semiology. This is why the new Russian-French seminar seems like a logical step toward a revival of the dialogue which started fifty years ago. Back then, in the 1960s, the works of the Moscow-Tartu semiotic school were translated for Julia Kristeva’s Tel Quel journal. In return, Kristeva herself and some members of her group took part in Juri Lotman’s seminars on semiotic systems in Kyaerikku, a village near Tartu in Estonia that Kristeva visited in 1969 (Landolt 2012: 121). However, while the “Bakhtin effect” took shape immediately and helped to launch what was to become the field of intertextuality in France, a corresponding “Lotman effect” with regards to the theory of semiosis was delayed some thirty years due to the divisive ideological messages of the two schools that severely hampered mutual academic exchange.

Why that dialogue was broken off so sadly is well explained by Landolt (2012). Kristeva sought to ascribe to Soviet semiotics a Marxist character which it didn’t have. For Kristeva, who identified with the Marxist-Maoist platform, “politics” was a basis for argumentation. The members of the Moscow-Tartu School, on the other hand, found within the objective principles of cybernetics a chance to free themselves from the control of Marxist ideology.

The theoretical grounds of the two schools fell out of sync as well. Kristeva’s approach was a metatheory of semiology with the Freud-Lacanian model of psychoanalysis at its base, while Lotman used semiotics as a method to analyze literary texts in the dynamics of their historical evolution, a method he inherited from classical literary studies. Kristeva strove to deconstruct the text (phenotext) and to get down to its subjective-social roots (genotext). To make things worse, G. A. Levinton, in his lectures and conference reports, blamed her for “copying off the idea (of intertext) from K. F. Taranovskij and the term itself – from Ju. Lotman,” who had introduced the concept of “intertextual connections” before her (Levinton 2016; Overina and Stepanov 2016). In view of that matchup, Lotman’s structuralism seems to have had the upper hand, at least in Russia where it lives on in different forms.

The significance of the seminar is evident not only in the context of the past ideological dissonance that still waits to be settled, but also in the context of today’s narratology in general. In Russia the discipline has been refining itself, for the most part, within the classical, communicative paradigm, while in the Western world it took its postclassical form, spreading its methodology within various disciplines, including those with no obvious contact with literary studies.

The headlong expansion of Western narrative studies has been so spectacular that some scholars are beginning to gauge its further expediency. John Pier and Phillip Roussin, for one, proposed to the participants of the 3rd ENN conference to discuss the issue of “the vectors of narratology” as regards their propelling some further diversification or, on the contrary, back towards consolidation (ENN3 2013; see also Hansen et al., 2017 and Pier 2012/2014). The concept of the 5th ENN conference in Prague was still more resolutely centered around reconsidering the structural roots of narratology and the very concept of “structure” in itself (ENN5 2017). With respect to this recent turn of narratology back toward its origins, the relative “intactness” of Russian narratology from the postclassical effects now presents itself rather as an advantage than as a drawback.

A new Russian-French transfer of ideas on narrative and narratology has an opportunity to draw on the advantageous points of both classical and innovative perspectives. As an option, I suggest that the exchange of ideas should start by reconsidering the potential of the poetics of composition. One of the underestimated but promising perspectives to be explored here is narrative rhythm. Rhythm, in the general sense of the term, represents a universal law of the harmony of nature and the harmony of human speech, with narratives being a variant thereof. A second venue for exploration is the turn toward the narrative theory of translation, one of the many offshoots of postclassical narratology.

I will begin with a few reflections on rhythm and its role in the compositional structure of narrative.

The conception of composition as a speech phenomenon with a particular symmetric structure regulated by constituent rhythmic patterns was set forth by the Russian formalists and their close associates B. Éjxenbaum, B. V. Tomaševskij, V. M. Żirmunskij, etc. as well as S. Éjzenštejn studied text rhythm (“text” taken in the semiotic sense) as a structured pattern regulating theme, plot and psychic processes (archetypes and emotions) within a work of art. Vyačeslav Ivanov, in Selected Works on Semiotics and the History of Culture (1998), notes that Éjzenštejn saw artistic structures as a specific manifestation of the laws of biomechanics and dynamics, of nature and cosmos, and therefore identifiable with certain geometric models such as the golden proportion and the logarithmic spiral. These structures were treated in a similar fashion by the German mathematician H. Veil (1968) and, before him, by Plato, Pythagoras, Kepler and other thinkers of the past. Today’s scholars find rhythmic patterns in a variety of phenomena such as the cyclical fluctuations of economics, births and deaths, climate change, populations of animals, currency rates and other aspects of life.

Andrej Belyj (1929) elaborated on the dialectics of the rigid scheme of meter and the dynamic, fluid rhythm of poetry. L. Vygotskij, in his Psychology of Art (1971 [1965]), interpreted the dichotomy of composition as an inextricable relationship between the “physiology” (the vital dynamics of the plot) and the “anatomy” (the fabula or “skeleton”) of a story. Taking I. Bunin’s story “Light Breathing” as an illustration, Vygotskij brilliantly analyzed the primary dynamics of artistic imagination that transforms “the mud of life” (the disgustingly banal story of a common girl) into “wine” crystallized in the plot structure that evokes catharsis, or aesthetic and emotional excitement.

In their entirety, such conceptions that emerged as reactions to formalist explorations provided a solid theoretical grounding for understanding rhythm as something much more than just a formal regularity, making it part of a work of art’s sense-forming asset. Their key points were further developed in Soviet structuralist literary studies. In Yuri Lotman’s text theory, for instance, rhythm stands out as the structural basis of poetry:

The rhythmicity of poetry is the cyclical repetition of different elements in identical positions with the aim of equating the unequal or revealing similarity in difference, or the repetition of the identical with the aim of […] establishing differences in similarity. Rhythm in poetry is a sense-discriminating element. (Lotman 1976 [1972]: 41)

Such regularity is responsible for the dynamics of meaning in similar or contrastive elements whenever they appear in a new context. Repetition in the structure of composition yields a measure of proportion, a normative law for its dynamics. This law determines the scheme of expectations in the mind of the reader and turns on a feeling of cognitive failure if expectations are deceived. Such reasoning by Lotman fits well with the cognitive principles of narrative perception.

As a phenomenon of discourse, rhythm later became a subject of numerous linguistic studies. However diverse, all linguistic definitions of rhythm rest on the principles of repetition and harmony which have been well-established since antiquity. They can be summarized as follows: rhythm is a consistent pattern regulating human physiological, emotive, cognitive and speaking activities that are fixed in alternations of text structures at different levels of their hierarchy.

Linguists, however, tend to concentrate on the patterns of syllabic or prosodic rhythm, leaving aside discourse segments of higher levels such as paragraphs or compositional blocks. Such neglect looks a bit disconcerting when we think about Vygotskij’s psychological conception of art revealing the ways in which mental, dynamic processes involved in the writing of a story are crystallized in its compositional patterns. A biological analogue to this kind of transformation can be found in the case of plant growth, where the natural rhythms of sprouting culminate in a relatively stable structure of a flower or a tree.

Narratologists, for their part, hardly show any interest in rhythm at all. Mieke Bal, who connects rhythm to the tempo of narration, is rather an exception to the rule (Bal 1997 [1985]: 99–111). What is puzzling about this neglect is that narrative categories of different levels practically “offer themselves” for the part of narrative rhythm components. One aspect which is particularly eligible for that function is point of view. At the formal level of text, this category finds its expression within the boundaries of paragraphs or supra-phrasal units. By this we understand syntactic segments larger than phrases that serve as “blocks” carrying the architectonic structure of a composition. The complex semantics of point of view, as Boris Uspenskij’s linguistic-semiotic model suggests, is imbedded in an inventory of lexical and phraseological referential means related to its four planes (Uspenskij 1973 [1970]). Thanks to Roger Fowler’s interpretation of Uspenskij’s model, this has since become part of the Anglophone theoretical discourse on narrative known as the “Fowler-Uspenskij model” (Fowler 1996 [1973]).

To draw a rough picture of how the rhythm of various points of view works in a narrative, I’ll take here just one of its planes: the plane of temporality. This plane is encoded in the patterns of alternating supra-phrasal blocks as representations of varying time and tempo aspects of the story encoded in a system of temporal text markers such as verb tenses, phrasal time indicators, temporal prepositions, etc.

James Joyce’s story “A Painful Case” will serve as a practical example of Joyce’s aesthetic principle of the rhythm of beauty. When viewed from the perspective of temporality, the text of the story will reveal a perfect pattern of a dynamically balanced mirror symmetry.

Indeed, it seems as though the composition of “A Painful Case” has an axis dividing the text into two halves, four pages each, by a shift in the tempo-rhythm of narration, which is accelerated in the first part and slowed down in the second. The rapid speed in the first half of the story is reached by frequency: repetitions of serial events typical for the protagonist’s daily routine. The other half of the story is built up by repetitions of one and the same event, central for the plot. The fast-motion playback of the protagonist’s life style is done from the external perspective of an ironic narrator, while the central event, the suicide of Mrs. Sinico, is refracted through the protagonist’s internal point of view.

The first narrator emphasizes the frequency and summary of routine events to create a gestalt of the protagonist’s past, while the second narrator, in order to draw the gestalt to a closure, dives into Mr. Duffy’s mind, establishing a temporal close-up by means of slow-downs, pauses and regular flash-backs to Mrs. Sinico’s death.

Regularity of syntax in the first part of Mr. Duffy’s “adventureless tale” is as solid as iron: “Every morning he came in from Chapelizod by tram. At midday he went to Dan Burke’s and took his lunch […]. At four o’clock he was set free.” (Joyce 2000 [1914]: 83). The event that breaks this routine down together with iron-like syntactic regularity is a chance meeting with Mrs. Sinico. And this unique happening is scrolled right away into a series of summarized episodes depicting a new reinvigorating stage in Mr. Duffy’s life as a switchover to another kind of routine: “This was the first of many meetings; […] He went often to her little cottage outside Dublin” (ibid.: 84–5). The new story, however, “emotionalised his mental life” which Mr. Duffy finds disturbing, and he breaks up with Mrs. Sinico in order to go back to his monastic habits of living.

The timeline shift from the past to the “here-and-now” of the story is trigged by a dry newspaper report on “Death of a Lady” in a train accident. The report shocks Mr. Duffy, who from this moment on becomes the master of narration unfolding his inner monologue. His monologue is marked by verbs in past perfect tense indicators of flash-backs: “The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred” (ibid.: 88). Recurrent retrospections to the dead Mrs. Sinico generate the rhythm of fluctuations of his point of view in line with the pattern “now (the scene of action) / then (the image of his dead friend-lover).” The oscillating movement from past to present leads to the moment of visionary understanding (the epiphany) that ends in stupor (a spiritual death). The faltering, intermitting syntax of the epiphany indirectly signals the protagonist’s depersonalization, at which point the agony of crisis is silenced by indifference: “He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. […] He waited for some minutes listening. He could not hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.” (ibid.: 90).

The correlation of metrics and rhythm in “A Painful Case” is unique, but at the same time it resonates with the metro-rhythmic patterns of the rest of “Dubliners,” the whole composition of which is structured around the thematic opposition of Life and Death.

The second possible direction for the Russian-French dialogue to be resumed is what can best be described as narrative-translation theory. The lines of reasoning between narrative and translation are indisputably relevant for the transfer of ideas not only with regard to narrative and narrative theory but also to the critical state of today’s world in general.

The significance of translation for scientific collaboration need not be commented on further. In the case of narrative studies, the lack of Russian translations of works published by Western narratologists like D. Herman, M. Fludernik, M.-L. Ryan and many others is one of the reasons for the isolation of current Russian narratology. This lack of translations is not to be attributed to budget deficits in university translation departments. To make ends meet in the context of the current economic situation, the theory of translation in Russia has taken a distinctly professional approach. A department that is tempted to prepare translators in the field of narratology looks more like a sci-fi project than a possibility.

All in all, the high relevance of translation studies holds not only for narrative theory. In an era of mass migrations, military conflicts and globalization, the very concept of “translation” (from Latin translation: transfer from one place to another) has expanded its meaning and spread from the official and literary spheres into the everyday life of common people.

Salman Rushdie conveyed this extension of meaning with a powerful metaphor: “Having been borne across the world, we are translated men” (Rushdie 1994: 17). Indeed, millions of people who, for one reason or another, cross the borders of their native lands and adapt to other cultures have been literally “borne across the world.” Postcolonial cultural studies, drawing from Rushdie’s metaphor and from Lotman’s semiotic concept of translation as a mechanism of culture, have actually declared “a translation turn” in the humanities (Arduini and Nergaard 2011). In the social theory of translation, translation as “bearing across the world” has become an issue of palpitant topicality for refugees and migrants; meanwhile, narrative is understood by sociologists following Jerome Bruner’s narrative-constructivist conception (1991) as “a reality-constructing tool.” A decisive role in applying narrative theory to highlighting the significance of translation and translators in the real world belongs to Mona Baker’s monograph Translation and Conflict (2006). Indeed, the scope of social applications of narrative-translation theory is boundless if we think of social media, mass media, literature, cinema, theater, the study of wars and conflicts, etc.

The first convincing arguments for integrating narratology into literary translation theory were put forth in Theo Hermans’ and Giuliana Schiavi’s essays, both published in 1996. Hermans (1996, 2014) introduced a number of modes for analyzing “the translator’s voice” in literary texts while Schiavi demonstrated how the translator’s voice transforms the model of traditional narrative communication offered by Seymour Chatman in Story and Discourse (1978). Drawing from an analogy with Wayne C. Booth’s implied author, she introduced the implied translator: a theoretical construct that can be understood both as the reader’s perception of the translator’s presence and as the translator’s interpretation of the source text.

Other theorists rely on narrative instances to analyze language shifts in translation. Charlotte Bosseaux’s (2007) research on textual forms of point of view in the French translations of Virginia Woolf’s novels is quite noteworthy in this respect (Bosseaux 2007). It claims that although translation does not normally alter the structure of point of view in a narrative, microstructural modifications are practically inevitable, particularly when translating free indirect discourse. If such micro shifts are not too numerous, the macrostructure of composition is preserved. However, once the translator uses them on a regular base, their accumulation may lead to an altered perception of the story world. As Bosseaux points out, translation may alter “the ‘feel’ of the text” (2007: 35). After analyzing three French translations of To the Lighthouse, she comes to the conclusion that at least one of them modifies the feeling of the original modernist stream-of-consciousness technique because the translator’s discourse sets up more distinct borders between the characters’ and the narrator’s mental points of view (ibid.: 167).

We will now take a look at a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to see how “the ‘feel’ of it” is modified in a Russian translation:

Clarissa guessed; Clarissa knew of course; she had seen something white, magical, circular, in the footman’s hand, a disc inscribed with a name, – the Queen’s, the Prince of Wales’s, the Prime Minister’s? – which, by force of its own lustre, burnt its way through (Clarissa saw the car diminishing, disappearing), to blaze among candelabras, glittering stars, breasts stiff with oak leaves, Hugh Whitbread and all his colleagues, the gentlemen of England, that night in Buckingham Palace. And Clarissa, too, gave a party. She stiffened a little; so she would stand at the top of her stairs. (Woolf 2003 [1925]: 13)

И Кларисса догадалась; Кларисса все поняла; она разглядела что-то белое, волшебное, круглое в руке у шофера, диск, с оттиснутым именем – королевы, премьер-министра, принца Уэльского? – прожигающим путь себе собственным блеском (автомобиль делался меньше, меньше, скрывался у Клариссы из глаз), чтоб затмевать сверкание люстр, и звезд, и дубовых листьев, и прочего, и Хью Уитбреда, и цвет английского общества – нынче вечером в Букингемском дворце. И у самой Клариссы тоже сегодня прием. Лицо ее чуть напряглось. Да, она будет сегодня встречать гостей, стоя на верху лестницы. (Вулф 2004: 39)

The fragment depicts a scene outside the shop with Clarissa witnessing a minor accident with the Royal car. Elena Surits’ translation conveys the working of Clarissa’s associative mind quite effectively even though some of her manipulations with the linguistic code do cause slight deviations from the perspective framed as hers. We’ll consider just two of them.

In the Russian translation, the objects popping up in Clarissa’s mind as she sees the Royal driver’s certificate are connected by the coordinative conjunction “и” (and), which makes their enumeration more logical and consolidated. The translator also detaches the final clause of this enumeration with the use of a dash: “сверкание люстр, и звезд, и дубовых листьев, и прочего, и Хью Уитбреда, и цвет английского общества – нынче вечером.” Asyndetical joining of various objects in modernist free indirect discourse, meanwhile, has a special function: it serves to render the uncontrolled, illogical nature of thought. In the original, asyndeton also indirectly supports Clarissa’s value implications, namely her adoration of every attribute of the monarchy. By smoothing this implication over, the translator enters the act of narrative communication, probably because of her idea of “good literature.”

The last sentence of the paragraph – “She stiffened a little; so she would stand at the top of her stairs” – is divided in two, and the adverb so is translated by an affirmative “Да.” The detachment rather loosens the integrity of the stream of thoughts and also modifies the focus of perception, neutralizing the original ironic stance. In Woolf’s wording, irony marks the narrator’s voice, otherwise kept behind the protagonist’s part. “Да, она будет встречать гостей” sounds like a serious confirmation of Clarissa’s vision of her oncoming party. If we change it into a phrase a bit closer, approximating the original – “Она немного выпрямилась; вот так она будет стоять наверху лестницы” – the narrator’s ironic effect of Clarissa’s feminine vanity seems to stay.

Of course, a short fragment like this cannot be taken as a conclusive argument on its own. However, it is illustrative of the switch in perspectives that study of the asymmetry of translated and original narratives may take in the future.

To sum up, the transfer between Russian and French narratology can take at least two paths: one classical, following the linguistic-poetic theory of compositional rhythm, and the other expounding postclassical narrative-translation theory. Different in cultural-national origins and principles as they are, both paradigms seem worthy of attention because thanks to their universal groundings, they both secure the principle of integrating our national and research cultures.[1]


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Liudmila V. Comuzzi

Candidate of Philological Sciences in Germanic Languages (Moscow Lenin Pedagogical University, 1993), Doctor of Philology in the theory of language (Saratov University, 2009). Acted as Head of the Department of English at the Balashov Pedagogical Institute until September 2018, where she taught stylistics, the language of anglophone mass media and other subjects. Presently works at Sevastopol University as a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages. Her research area covers multidisciplinary approaches to narrative theory based on literary theory, linguistics and journalism. She has hosted two international conferences: The Russian Trace within Narratology (Balashov, 2012) and Speech Melody (Balashov, 2015). Editor of several anthologies including Semiosphere of Narratology (with J.-Á. García Landa, 2013). She is the author of more than a hundred scholarly articles and of three books as well as of a chapter entitled “Aesthetics of Publicist Narrative” in Aesthetics of Journalism (in Russian, 2018).

[1] Translated into English by L. Comuzzi. Special acknowledgment to Ursula Ganz-Blaettler, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, for her most helpful guidance on style, grammar and some ideas.