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February 5, 2004


Translating Beckett’s works in French
Found in translation

Dr. Magessa O’Reilly
Photo by Chris Hammond
Dr. Magessa O’Reilly

By Kristin Harris
SPARK Correspondent
Samuel Beckett is perhaps best known for his playwriting, but Dr. Magessa O’Reilly, professor in the Department of French and Spanish, has taken a deeper look at some of Beckett’s novels. The major result is the text Samuel Beckett: How It is/Comment C’est et L’image, published in 2001, as well as an upcoming volume, Samuel Beckett: Molloy.

Beckett was a prolific writer in both English and French, the latter earned him a Nobel Prize. One especially interesting fact about Beckett’s writings is that he translated many of his own works from one language to another.

“He was able to translate his own work so beautifully, so nicely, that there are interesting equivalencies in the English and French that others would not have thought of,” said Dr. O’Reilly. “During what is arguably Beckett’s most creative period, he wrote in French first, then translated the text into English.”

These texts are part of a larger project that is headed up by Dr. Charles Krance, a retired scholar at the University of Chicago. The long-term goal is to publish the complete bilingual works of Beckett.

What is unique about this project is that researchers are not only providing Beckett’s text side-by-side in the two languages, but that manuscript material is included. Much of these manuscript materials were scattered in various libraries and private collections, so making these raw documents available to interested parties makes this an invaluable series of publications.

In addition to the value of this material to Beckett scholars, Dr. O’Reilly sees it as applicable to those who are interested in manuscript material. By examining the numerous manuscripts for any one text, the reader is able to see the different layers of the creative process, and the development of writing style.

For example, How It is/Comment C’est et L’image is an unusual text in that it is neither poetry nor prose. Dr. O’Reilly likens Beckett’s writing in this piece to be the literary representation of oral speech, with its short, repetitive phrases and lack of punctuation.

He attests that Beckett, “was digging down to the depths of what an individual is, like peeling layers off an onion,” through the content and style of this piece. Because grammatical tools are so integral to language and how we interpret the world, it was naturally difficult for Beckett to free himself from the confines of the sentence.

This is evident when examining the three early versions of the text in manuscript form, where Beckett breaks down his use of sentences more and more. The final version illustrates his success at achieving this seeming lack of style.

Dr. O’Reilly’s current interest in Beckett comes from his doctoral dissertation at the University of Ottawa, which focused on Beckett’s French writing and style. Since then, he has expanded to working on Beckett’s works written in both English and French. His text on Molloy has an anticipated publishing date of 2005.


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Next issue: February 19, 2003

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