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Heterolingualism and interpretation in Atonement: Traduttore, traditore?

Hétérolinguisme et interprétation dans Atonement : Traduttore, traditore?
Pascale Sardin


Cet article prend pour objet l’hétérolinguisme de Atonement, c’est-à-dire la coprésence du français, de langues vernaculaires, idiolectes et sociolectes à côté de la langue principale du texte, qui est considéré dans le prolongement du plurilinguisme expérimental des écrivains modernistes britanniques. Il s’intéresse aussi à la thématisation de la figure de l’interprète. Les deux personnages principaux, Robbie et Briony, déjà associés par la paronomase formée par leurs prénoms, le sont aussi en ce que tous deux, dans des moments clé du roman où se dessine une éthique de l’ouverture à l’Étranger, jouent un rôle de médiateur/-trice. Cet article montre que, dans un retournement dialectique subtilement construit par le romancier, la figure du traducteur-interprète-traître, dans un roman/film qui repose sur une erreur d’interprétation, devient un intercesseur éthique quand il/elle est guidé/e par l’empathie et le désir de rencontrer l’Autre.

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1George Steiner famously defined the literary revolution of the early 20th century as ‘the emergence of linguistic pluralism’ or of the ‘extraterritorial’ (viii). The global, social and technological shifts that took place at the time had resulted in the awareness of language as an inappropriate means to express this new world, while they also brought languages more into contact and nations into conflict. This led to a new awareness of the ‘condition of Babel’ which was expressed in a variety of modernist multilingual devices taking the form of pointillist insertions of German words in Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs or of the pervasive multilingual punning of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Such experimentation enabled modernist writers to question notions of linguistic and cultural stability and also to formulate ‘redemptive ideals of poetic and transnational language’ (Taylor-Batty 3-4).

2Now, in the abundant criticism on Atonement revolving around its relationship to the modernist intertext (see Mitrić, Reynier, Robinson), it has been suggested that the novel presents the reader with a ‘narrow definition’ of Modernism (Quarrie 196), one which seems to ‘deliberately ignore [its] un-English model’, both ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘exilic’ (Robinson 488). If it is true that Connolly’s letter presents literary Modernism essentially as a self-contained type of writing mainly concerned with fragmented form and the representation of psychological realism (McEwan 312), the novel also fictionalises the linguistic situation in which the Modernists found themselves in the first half of the 20th century, when Ian McEwan depicts the war and the linguistic issues emerging from the contact of cultures and the problematic encounter of the Other. As a matter of fact, in key scenes of the novel, because they have translative skills, both Robbie and Briony who are already associated paronomastically through their first names, play a mediating role as interpreters.

3Yet, intriguingly, such a recurrent thematisation of the figure of the translator-interpreter does not lead to a transparent representation of foreignness, as the novel more often than not foregrounds exclusion and difference on the one hand, and mistranslation or missed translation on the other. To what extent can it be asserted that McEwan reconfigures the ‘redemptive ideals of poetic and transnational language’ to be found in Modernism? To answer this question, I will first focus my attention on the inherent heterolingualism of the novel, before moving on to an analysis of the representation of the figure of the translator-interpreter, which will lead to a discussion of the ethical implications of intra- and inter-lingual encounters.

The Functions of Heterolingualism

4In his theorizing of fiction in the 1930s and 1940s Mikhail Bakhtin posited intra and inter-lingual diversity as fundamental to the European novel. According to the Russian thinker, all our utterances (including creative works) are filled with the words of ‘“others” and “varying degrees of otherness” or varying degrees of “our-own-ness”, varying degrees of awareness and detachment’ (Bakhtin qtd in Eells). While he used the words dialogism and heteroglossia to designate this phenomenon of sameness and difference in any kind of speech, Rainier Grutman introduced the term ‘heterolingualism’, a translation of the French ‘hétérolingusime’, to refer ‘to the use of foreign languages or social, regional, and historical language varieties in literary texts’ (Meylaerts 4). This term thus designates the textual insertion of speech differences in literature, a form of code-mixing seen as a literary device, rather than as only reflecting a political or social reality. In fiction, heterolingualism refers to the co-presence of one or several foreign languages, but also of vernacular languages, sociolects and idiolects next to the main language of the text (Grutman 37). Following Grutman, I would like to examine the meaning of the presence of foreign words and phrases in Atonement. Though its heterolingualism is not conspicuous, it is still quite present, and thematically strategic as it partakes in the rhetorical construction of the otherness of the Other.

5Maybe one of the first instances of this is to be found in the characterization of Paul Marshall who speaks in a particularly outdated and affected language: ‘I say, are we still on for some tennis tomorrow’ (McEwan 127). The idiolect here serves a satirical purpose, as it connects with the somewhat comical portrayal of the character drawn by the narrator on page 58, when the soon-to-become villain’s face is compared with ‘Desperate Dan’s’, a wild west character in a British comic magazine. Moreover, thanks to this simile, Marshall is later linked to the lynching scene that takes place towards the end of Part 2 when Mace saves the RAF man to the sound of ‘cheers and whistles, foot-stamping and Wild West whoops’ (McEwan 253). As Jean-Jacques Lecercle notes in an article entitled ‘Les mots étrangers, les mots de l’étranger’, if the foreigner or the outsider is likely to embody the buffoon and is thereby endowed with a comic potential, intimations of tragedy are often attached to him or her. This is the case in Atonement, where verbal stigmatization precedes physical chastisement when the vernacular speech of the tommies is used during the lynching of the representative of the RAF, whom they hold ‘accountable’ for the RAF’s lack of support in the retreat: ‘Oi, Brylcreem job. Where was ya?’ (McEwan 250).

6Such idiolects and sociolects function as mimetic class markers in a plot where class prejudice plays a central part in defining and deciding who will play the part of the pharmakos, a human scapegoat expelled from the community at times of disaster and sacrificed as an expiation in Ancient Greece. Not only do they undermine the myth of a monolingual Britain, but they also help deconstruct the myth of a classless society. ‘On the first night, when they were sheltering in the bike shed of a burned-out school, Corporal Nettle said, “What’s a private soldier like you doing talking like a toff.”’ (McEwan 193) Robbie’s way of speaking is also what sets him apart from Mace and Nettle, who despite their higher ranks, look up to him and follow his lead as they call him with some mock-reverence Guv’nor (‘So, which way, Guv’nor?’, McEwan 192). Still in Part one, class prejudice is what leads to the indictment of Robbie as Lola’s rapist, and is the result of one of the many misunderstandings of the plot, which begins by Cecilia not understanding why Robbie takes off his boots before entering the Tallis House—she mistakes this for exaggerated deference, as if Robbie were ‘playacting the cleaning ladyʼs son come to the big house on an errand’ (McEwan 26). As Brian Finney puts it:

[Cecilia] has imbibed this sense of social difference from her class-conscious mother, Emily, who resents the fact that her husband has paid for Robbieʼs education, an act which she characterizes as ‘a hobby of Jackʼs . . . which smacked of meddling to her,’ that is of upsetting the ‘natural’ order of things (p. 142). The result is Emilyʼs encouragement of Briony in her childish lie. As Cecilia writes later to Robbie in France: ‘Iʼm beginning to understand the snobbery that lay behind their stupidity. My mother never forgave you your first [class degree]’ (p. 196). But tellingly, she goes on in the letter to assume that Danny, the working-class son of Hardman, the handyman, must have been the real rapist. (Finney 76)

7Tellingly, during the night of Robbie’s arrest, a French idiom pops up in Emily Tallis’s interior monologue. Surprisingly, she is actually quoting from someone who is in fact less educated than herself: ‘Plus ça change, PC Vockins might have said.’ (McEwan 147) Here the French cliché closes, climactically, the class-conscious condescending portrayal made of the policeman seen from Emily Tallis’s viewpoint: ‘(PC Vockins) had a sincere way with a platitude which he made resonate like hard-won wisdom in his tight-buttoned chest: it never rained but it poured, the devil made work for idle hands, one rotten apple spoiled the barrel.’ (McEwan 146) While the mention of the PC’s quirk provides some comic relief, it also makes the reader aware of Emily’s class prejudice, which is shared to a degree by her daughter. Indeed, as underlined by Finney in the previous quote, Cecilia will later assume that Danny, the working-class son of the handyman, must have been the real rapist. Such class prejudice will render Robbie’s accusation and arrest all the more credible. As Finney puts it, ‘McEwan subtly suggests the invidious nature of a class system that permeates even those seeking to reverse its effects and works to protect the upper-class rapist from exposure throughout his lifetime.’ (Finney 76) Speech thus functions as class synecdoche; but more importantly, it is revealed to be the means by which the power of the elite is maintained and how the system makes possible its self-preservation. As Foucault writes in the The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, ‘speech is no mere verbalisation of conflicts and systems of domination, […] it is the very object of man’s conflicts’ (Foucault 216).

8Furthermore, the novel shows the extent to which a rhetoric of difference is critical in times of war when ‘the “other”, the enemy, has to be narrated as radically different from ourselves if the violence of war is to be justified’ (Baker 198). To sustain a war, it is necessary to justify it discursively, and thereby to construct the figure of an enemy presented as drastically different from oneself. In Atonement, language is represented as a tool used to achieve this aim. The Germans are referred to as ‘Jerry(s)’, a term of contempt possibly coming from the shape of the German helmet, which was thought to resemble a jerry, a British slang word for ‘chamber pot.’ As Jean-Jacques Lecercle writes:

l’étranger est […] son nom, mais ce nom est ce qu’Alain Badiou appelle un ‘nom séparateur’, c’est-à-dire un nom qui assigne une identité que ni la langue dominante ni la société qu’elle transforme en nation (langue nationale contre langue maternelle) ne reconnaissent, un nom qui à ce titre définit une collectivité de suspects, comme est le nom ‘musulman’ dans notre société.

9Such racial slurring and sociolectal labelling is thus a means of exclusion, which the infantrymen unsurprisingly use to construct the enemy as an Other. But what Atonement also shows is that this rhetoric of difference extends to one’s allies as the absurdity of the war undermines any hope of unity or salvation. Indeed, to make sense of the retreat, the French are presented as traitors or defeatists; these allies-turned-enemies are either disparagingly referred to as ‘Frogs’ (McEwan 235, 239) or as ‘poilus’, a term which, being a foreignism, is flagged, thus stylistically isolated by the use of italics:

Among the British troops the view was that the French had let them down. No will to fight for their own country. Irritated at being pushed aside, the Tommies swore, and taunted their allies with shouts of ‘Maginot!’ For their part the poilus must have heard rumours of an evacuation. And here they were, being sent to cover the rear. ‘Cowards! To the boats! Go shit in your pants!’ Then they were gone, and the crowd closed in again under a cloud of diesel smoke and walked on. (McEwan 234)

10Earlier, the men’s hatred had even turned against their own army, as the Highland Light Infantrymen are mocked by Nettle when he quotes a famous Scottish tongue-twister:

  • 1 This line means: ‘It’s a beautiful bright moonlight night tonight.’

They came upon behind some more HLI men. One of them was playing the bagpipes, prompting the corporals to begin their own nasal whining parodies. Turner made as if to cross the road.
‘If you start a fight, I’m not with you.’
Already a couple of Scots had turned and were muttering to each other.
‘It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht1,’ Nettle called out in Cockney. ‘Something awkward might have developed then if they had not heard a pistol shot from up ahead.’ (McEwan 218)

11Here, McEwan undermines the myth of a unified Britain, deconstructing the British pan-nationalism that was still quite strong in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when the British Empire had reached its peak and stretched across a quarter of the Earth. Multilingualism is presented as a disjunctive symptom of fragmentation, parochialism and a failure of a translational and transnational ethos. Thus atonement, which etymologically means ‘to set at one’, ‘to make one or reconcile’, is in this respect represented as doomed and unachievable.

12In this context, heterolingualism fulfils a mimetic function as it reflects the ‘condition of Babel’, the alienating experience of the characters of Robbie, Nettle and Mace who are lost in the paronomastic ‘maze’ of the debacle, in places with unremembered names, in a Babel-like chaos of a country with its ‘French villages with Belgian names’ (McEwan 239). The linguistic vulnerability of the exile is suggested in the helplessness felt by Robbie when he is unable to help the Belgian woman and child he tries to protect:

The woman answered but he did not understand her. […] He realised then that she wasn’t speaking French. […] She was speaking Flemish to him, soothing him, surely telling him that everything was going to be all right. Mama would see to that. Turner didn’t know a single word of the language. It would have made no difference. She paid no attention to him. The boy was staring at him blankly over his mother’s shoulder. (McEwan 236-237)

  • 2 Tellingly, Dunkirk beach is presented like Dante’s hell with its own ‘circles of suffering—the sea, (...)

13Misunderstanding and lack of identification sow hatred: ‘French, English, Belgian, German. She makes no difference. You’re all the same to her,’ the Bonnet brothers say about their mother to the English infantryman (McEwan 200).2

The Figure of the Translator-interpreter

14Foreign idioms and sociolects do not only function as national or class synecdoches, they also fulfil a metafictional function, in that they reflect the main complication of the plot and ontological issue of the novel. Perhaps the first foreign word that appears in the text is a French Christian name, Jean, which is in fact what Cecilia hears when Briony mispronounces ‘genre’, one word she has unearthed from her treasure trove of words. This happens in Part one, when Briony complains to Cecilia that she should have written a novel and not a play:

‘The whole thing’s a mistake. It’s the wrong….’ She snatched a breath and glanced away, a signal, Cecilia sensed, of a dictionary word about to have its first outing. ‘It’s the wrong genre!’ She pronounced it, as she thought, in the French way, monosyllabically, but without quite getting her tongue round the ‘r’.
Jean?’ Cecilia called after her. ‘What are you talking about?’ (McEwan 45)

15Cecilia has mistakenly translated a word that did not need to be translated. The presence of the foreign name here is evidence of the miscommunication that has taken place between the two interlocutors and a proleptic misunderstanding between sisters, in a novel that, as a whole, problematises the issue of the misinterpretation of reality, and to which issues of transmission, translation and interpretation are central. Decoding and interpretation are quite meaningful throughout. This especially true when Robbie is in prison, and when the two lovers can only speak in coded language which has to be translated before its full meaning can be deciphered: ‘“quiet corner in the library” was a code for sexual ecstasy’ (McEwan 204). This is even truer in a war context, when diverse narratives compete, and when the language of propaganda is to be decoded:

[Briony] knew about the breaching of the Maginot Line, the bombing of Rotterdam, the surrender of the Dutch army, and some of the girls had been talking the night before about the imminent collapse of Belgium. […] The British army in northern France was ‘making strategic withdrawals to previously prepared positions’. Even she, who knew nothing of military strategy or journalistic convention, understood a euphemism for retreat. (McEwan 284)

16Briony is here able to ‘translate’ appropriately the collective narrative provided by the government-led media to legitimise their version of events. Later, to avoid a libel suit the older Briony will be advised to ‘displace, transmute, dissemble’ (McEwan 370), which she will now refuse to do.

17Translation had already been thematised in the first part of the novel in relation to Robbie when we learn that he has been reading pages from a book on Le Nôtre with the help of a dictionary (McEwan 84), and that among his books, can be found, besides, Freud, Keats, Shakespeare and Petrarch, Chaucer’s The Romaunt of the Rose, a partial translation of a French allegorical poem by Guillaume de Lorris, which reminds us that Chaucer, the great founding father of British letters, was first and foremost a translator and imitator. These apparent details function as proleptic hints signalling the importance, later in the novel, of the figure of the helpful though oftentimes mistaken translator-interpreter. Robbie’s linguistic skills will serve the war effort as mentioned in one of Cecilia’s letters: ‘I’m so glad the liaison officer has discovered your French and given you a job that makes use of it.’ (McEwan 213) He will also take advantage of his knowledge of the French language, which he has acquired thanks to his bourgeois education—a form of treason and likely self-exclusion from his working-class background—to meet French people, be they the Bonnet Brothers or the Gypsy woman during his retreat to Dunkirk. In the first scene especially, Robbie’s role as an interpreter is highlighted: ‘Turner did not translate’ (McEwan 198); ‘Through Turner, Mace said’, ‘running translation’ (McEwan 199); ‘He wanted Turner to translate’ (McEwan 201); ‘The Frenchmen […] complimented Turner on his French’ (McEwan 201). Thanks to Robbie’s mediation, the dark candle-lit barn becomes a ‘translation zone’, a notion developed by Emily Apter. Apter defines such zones as ‘sites that are “in-translation”—belonging to no single, discrete language or single medium of communication’ (Apter 6). Here it is a liminal space of exchange, not just of words, but also of gifts and experiences. The men share narratives, food and cigarettes, it is a place of ‘companionship’ (McEwan 199). But to make this possible, Robbie deliberately distorts or refrains from translating what is said when there is a risk of speech seeming offensive to their hosts; Robbie is far from embodying the usual neutrally objective interpretive figure; instead, he is a critical, discriminating intermediary:

Henri wore glasses, which Nettle said looked odd on a farmer. Turner did not translate. […] The wine was taking hold of Corporal Nettle. He began a rambling eulogy of what he called ‘Frog crumpet’—how plentiful, how available, how delicious. It was all fantasy. The brothers looked at Turner.
‘He says French women are the most beautiful in the world.’ They nodded solemnly and raised their glasses. (McEwan 198-200)

18The comic potential of translation and mistranslation is also prominent in this passage, as it in the sow-chasing episode that provides much comic relief and foregrounds again the issue of interpretation in its hermeneutic sense:

He understood immediately she was a gypsy who was not fooled by his speaking French. She looked right into him and saw his faults, and knew he’d been in prison. […] ‘Bring her back,’ she said, ‘and I’ll see what I have for you.’
‘Fuck that,’ Nettle said once Turner had translated.’ (McEwan 254)

‘For the rest of our lives we will remember your kindness,’ Turner said.
She nodded, and he thought she said, ‘My pig will always remind me of you.’ The severity of her expression did not alter, and there was no telling whether there was insult or humour or a hidden message in her remark. Did she think they were not worthy of her kindness? He backed away awkwardly, and then they were walking down the street and he was translating her words for Nettle. The corporal had no doubts.
‘She lives alone and she loves her pig. Stands to reason. She’s very grateful to us.’ (McEwan 256-257)

19In its compounding of a grotesque situation, of feelings of gratefulness and undecidability, and good sense, the humour of this passage is unmistakable. This incongruity produces a therapeutic release and foregrounds the redeeming power of humour and comedy.

  • 3 Already, in part 3, when her impossible task of carrying six bedpans at a time is humorously compar (...)

20A form of redemption is also to be found in another emblematic scene of the novel, when Briony is chosen by Sister Drummond for her knowledge of French to sit by the dying Luc Cornet (McEwan 305). Like Robbie before with the Bonnet brothers, Briony3 plays the part of an intercessor or mediator, accompanying Luc into death. Interestingly, this situation is originally triggered by a serendipitous mistranslation and prolonged by a lie. Because she does not know that ‘sister’ in a medical context translates as ‘infirmière’ not ‘sœur’, and because she accepts to pretend to know him, Luc is able to project onto her his memories of Millau:

She said, ‘The sister told me to come and have a little chat with you.’ Not knowing the word, she translated ‘sister’ literally.
‘Your sister is very kind.’ Then he cocked his head and added, ‘But she always was. And is all going well for her? What does she do these days?’
There was such friendliness and charm in his eyes, such boyish eagerness to engage her, that she could only go along.
‘She’s a nurse too.” […]
‘Do you remember the first time you came in our shop?’ […]
‘Luc I want to tell you where you are. You’re not in Paris…’ […]
‘What do you think of our baguettes and ficelles?’
‘Delicious. […] The best in Millau.’ […] She knew now why she had been sent. […]
‘Do you love me?’
She hesitated. ‘Yes.’ No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die. (McEwan 306-309)

  • 4 In several interviews, Ian McEwan has likewise elaborated on the ethical value of novel writing and (...)

21In this scene, Briony is made to understand the interpersonal value of fiction and imagination, as she pretends to be Luc Cornet’s fiancée in order to soothe his last moments. The fact that Briony’s redeeming scene rests first on a translator’s mistake, takes us back to her initial romanticised misinterpretation of the fountain scene; that this mistake is what leads her, with much dramatic irony, to lying blatantly, takes us back to another blatant lie, that which led to Robbie’s arrest. Both Briony’s misinterpretation and her lie are thus revised in this epiphanic scene. Here lying amounts to a good deed and is justified by empathy for the more vulnerable person in the interpersonal relationship. Moreover, engagement in this scene is central. Whereas in the fountain scene, Briony observes her sister and Robbie’s interaction behind the window, which positions her as a voyeur and eavesdropper, in the scene with Luc, she is engaged and part of the exchange. Later, the older Briony will turn to writing to atone for her sin only to realise this is a useless endeavour, as no Other is present to perform forgiveness, her sister being long dead; in this scene, on the contrary, redemption seems to be possible as there is a form of interlocution, someone to receive or at least acknowledge the act of atonement. The act of translation serves as a model for such interlocutory exchange. As Antoine Berman has famously noted in L’Épreuve de l’étranger (1984), translation does not just involve an act of mediation, it is a process by which our way of relating to the Other is at stake. For the translatologist, no ethical translation is possible without a preliminary movement towards the foreigner (Berman 16).4

  • 5 While the filmmaker was pressed to edit out the scene, which seemed digressive to his collaborators (...)

22Interestingly, Joe Wright chose to adapt this scene, whereas the pig-chasing one was omitted.5In his adaptation of the Luc episode, he actually visually highlights the liminality of the ‘translation zone’, as he encases the characters inside an enclosed area in the ward, creating a sort of huis clos. Moreover, the red curtain signals that something is going to be performed here in the intimacy of the dialogue. What is more, in keeping with a recent tendency in audio-visual translation to respect linguistic difference, the 5-minute long sequence is uttered in French by the actors Jérémie Régnier and Romola Garai and rendered comprehensible to non-French speakers by the use of subtitles. In a way, the film is less conventional in this respect in its use of a foreign language than the novel. In McEwan’s text, dialogues are conventionally in French, but most often written in English, which, as Rainier Grutman notes, was usually the case in 19th c fiction:

Dans toute œuvre, il existe une tendance à mentionner des langues sans les citer. Un exemple pris chez Balzac fera saisir l’importance de cette distinction : “Quoique Sarrasine sût peu l’italien, il entendit sa maîtresse disant à voix basse à Vitigliani :-- Mais il me tuera !” Dans le récit, conformément aux canons de la vraisemblance, la phrase est énoncée en (langue étrangère) ; dans le discours toutefois, elle est rendue en français pour ne pas brusquer les habitudes d’un public présumé unilingue. (Grutman 38)

23Joe Wright goes even further when he plays with a form of linguistic opacity in the Quai des Brumes sequence, as the dialogue between Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin is not translated, nor is it subtitled. In the film, what is said is likely to remain unintelligible to non-French speakers. In that, they will share the experience of not understanding the dialogue, which was Briony’s own experience when she watches the fountain scene involving her sister and Robbie—so that the filmmaker achieves a sort of mise-en-abyme of this foundational situation. But what is probably even more important here is the emotional intensity of scene; the viewer has to reach out to the emotional intensity of the scene, just like Briony will reach out to Luc.

24Finally, in the novel, the coda leaves Briony, and the readers, in a new ‘translation zone’. Firstly, several discreet references to France place Briony in relation to France, as when we learn that she has chosen to marry a Frenchman, now deceased: ‘On my desk was a framed photograph of my husband, Thierry, taken in Marseilles two years before he died’ (McEwan 360). A number of loan words and foreignisms are also scattered throughout the coda, like the pot-pourri (McEwan 365) used to decorate the bathroom of Briony’s country-house-turned-hotel bedroom and the signifier dévoré (used in the phrase ‘black dévoré shawl’, McEwan 361) to designate the velvety fabric made in France (and popular since 1920s) that the older Briony has chosen to wear for her birthday party. Secondly, in the very taxi that drives her to the former Tallis house, the narrator is confronted with the Other in the person of her ‘cheerful West Indian’ (McEwan 362) cab driver. This character embodies a new multi-ethnic Britain whose class system seems to have been markedly altered since the 1930s, a fact Briony humorously acknowledges when she thinks: ‘It is quite impossible these days to assume anything about people’s educational level from the way they talk or dress or from their taste in music. Safest to treat everyone you meet as a distinguished intellectual’ (McEwan 362). Though rather destabilised by—and ironic—about such changes, the older Briony has now become able to fully inhabit this liminal zone when she listens to the creole music her driven has chosen to listen to:

the thumping twangy brass noise resumed, and over it, a light baritone chanting in Carribean patois to the rhythms of a nursery rhyme, or a playground skipping-rope jingle. It helped me. It amused me. It sounded so childish, though I had a suspicion that some terrible sentiments were being expressed I didn’t ask for a translation. (McEwan 362-3)

25This new translation zone is a reassuring, womb-like place in which the character, having accepted, contrary to her younger self, that she did not ‘nee[d] to know, to understand everything that came her way’ (McEwan 180), can now fully enjoy the opaqueness of language and her own lack of knowledge. So, if there is no apotheosis of the word in the Joycean sense in Atonement, there is nonetheless an appeased form of release from the need for interpretation in this unclear ending. This may be Briony’s idea of a ‘happy en[d]’ for herself (McEwan 370).

26In Atonement, textual insertions of foreign and vernacular languages, but also of sociolects and idiolects function as signs of the novel’s preoccupation with the denaturalizing of language and with social critique; generally speaking, heterolingualism, in this respect, mainly serves McEwan’s postmodern demythologizing spirit, which is clearly a heritage of Modernism’s linguistic pluralism. The novel subtly builds a dialectical reversal thanks to which the figure of the treacherous foreigner and translator, in a novel (and a movie) based on a misinterpretation, becomes an ethical intercessor when s/he is guided by empathy and the desire to meet the Other. This representation of the figure of the ethical and critical intercessor serves as an experiential model for the reader / spectator of the work. The space of translation that the novel and the film fictionalise becomes a ‘zone of critical engagement’ (Apter 5), a fertile ground to reconfigure the Self and Other. Finally, in a novel and a film that deal with the art of narrative, McEwan’s and Wright’s heterolingualism can be read more generally in the light of Michel Foucault’s discussion of the discursive power of narratives that have a social normalizing and a legitimizing influence. Indeed, it helps reveal the collective narratives we live by so as to better expose their discursive power.

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Baker, Mona, ‘Interpreters and Translators in the War Zone: Narrated and Narrators’, The Translator, 16.2 (2010): 197-222.

Berman, Antoine, L’Épreuve de l’étranger : Culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique, Paris: Gallimard, 1984.

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1 This line means: ‘It’s a beautiful bright moonlight night tonight.’

2 Tellingly, Dunkirk beach is presented like Dante’s hell with its own ‘circles of suffering—the sea, the beach, the front’ (McEwan 249), a simile announced by the use of the Italian word for ‘promenade, stroll’ in the depiction of the aimlessness of the men who ‘wandered about the sands without purpose, like citizens of an Italian town in the hour of the passeggio.’ (McEwan 248)

3 Already, in part 3, when her impossible task of carrying six bedpans at a time is humorously compared to that of ‘a busy waiter in La Coupole’, Briony is positioned in a symbolic translation zone’: ‘Briony was also aware that she had been observed by Sister Drummond carrying only three bedpans at a time, when now they were expected to go the length of the ward reliably with a pile of six, like a busy waiter in La Coupole’ (McEwan 270).

4 In several interviews, Ian McEwan has likewise elaborated on the ethical value of novel writing and reading, which is an art form able to encourage empathy in the reader. To Anne-Laure Fortin he said:
Our imagination permits us to understand what it is like to be someone else. I don't think you could have even the beginnings of a morality unless you had the imaginative capacity to understand what it would be like to be the person whom you're considering beating round the head with a stick. An act of cruelty is ultimately a failure of the imagination. Fiction is a deeply moral form in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another. I think it is at the level of empathy that moral questions begin in fiction.

5 While the filmmaker was pressed to edit out the scene, which seemed digressive to his collaborators, he chose to keep it: ‘It’s an incredibly important scene, but people, during the development of the film, kept suggesting we should take it out. It seems out of the loop of the narrative.” (DVD commentary, 1:27:00) In Joe Wright’s words, it is a ‘strange scene’:
I think it does something poetically and emotionally for our understanding of Briony that I think is really, really important (…) Briony understands the power of storytelling to heal. She lies to him. She pretends that she understands what he’s talking about. She concurs with his delusions, which, in a sense, is a small piece of storytelling, and it helps him. And so she learns that story telling is not just destructive; it is also a thing that can heal, as well. Or obviously it doesn’t help him physically but it can help his pain. (…) There’s an element of finding herself in this scene and that’s why she tells him her real name. (DVD commentary 1:27:11)

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Pascale Sardin, « Heterolingualism and interpretation in Atonement: Traduttore, traditore? »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Sardin

Pascale Sardin is Professor in English studies at Bordeaux Montaigne University where she teaches translation theory and practice, and literature. Her research focuses on issues of translation, feminism and on Beckettian studies. She has edited Palimpsestes 22 Traduire le genre: femmes en traduction, Paris : Presses de la Sorbonne nouvelle, 2009 and Palimpsestes 26 La Cohérence discursive à l’épreuve : traduction et homogénéisation, 2013, and with Christian Gutleben, Lire et relire Dylan Thomas, revue Cycnos, vol. 31, n°2, 2015. She has published Samuel Beckett auto-traducteur où l’art de l’empêchement, Arras: Artois PU, 2002, Samuel Beckett et la passion maternelle ou l’hystérie à l’œuvre, Bordeaux : PU de Bordeaux, 2009, and Rien à faire : Beckett, L’ouverture de Godot, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, Collection Translations, Pratiques de la traduction, Volume 4, 2014. She is the author and coauthor of articles published in Palimpsestes, French Studies, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, Modernism/Modernity.

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