Samuel Beckett’s Translation Drafts

In celebration of the current exhibit and upcoming colloquium at the Washington University Libraries honoring the life of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), we are featuring selections of translation manuscripts and typescripts from the exhibit, starting with an autograph draft of Va et vient (Come and Go). 

Autograph draft of “Va et vient”

Autograph draft of “Va et vient”

A “dramaticule,” as Beckett called it, Va et vient (first written in English as Come and Go) lasts only three to four minutes on stage and centers on three women wearing dull colors who move in and out of the central spotlight, whispering secrets to each other inaudible to the main audience and reminiscing about the past. As the Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote of the play:


“Visually, they evoked Chekhov’s three sisters rather than Macbeth’s witches or Lear’s daughters. The whispered destiny insinuates a hint of the three Fates, and not until the final tableau does a mannered pose recall the three Graces. […] When the three women sit together in the light, they recall their bright schoolgirl dreams of love. When one glides into the dark, however, the remaining pair share the knowledge of her doom. Their choral “Oh!”s (changed in French translation to “Misère.” “Malheur.” “Miséricorde.”) punctuate the secret each paid shares about a third. Choral chant and dance, offstage doom and onstage courage – this is minimal Greek tragedy.” 


Beckett wrote his works in either French or English, then translated them to the other language himself, leaving behind manuscript and typescript drafts of both versions. The Samuel Beckett Papers also holds two heavily corrected typescript drafts and four typescripts of the original, English version, Come and Go. 


Cover of Beckett’s “BING” notebook


Typescript draft of “Bing”


“Ping” (also first written in English, then translated into French as “Bing”) is a short story by Beckett that opens “All known all white bare body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn.” Beckett himself characterized the story as  “a recurring twang (pizzicato) punctuating icecold monotone.” It is interesting to note, then, that the cover of Beckett’s notebook with an autograph translation draft of “Ping” from 1966 features a furry round beaver in a snowy landscape. The notebook is an Italian school notebook with the caption “La vita degli animali” (The Life of Animals) and “BING” hand-written underneath. One of Washington University’s ten typescript drafts of “Bing” is also on display in the exhibit, one page of which is featured above. 


First page of Becketts “Texts for Nothing” notebook


In another notebook from 1966, Beckett translated into English thirteen short short prose pieces that he had written fifteen years earlier in French that he collectively named Texts pour rien (Texts for Nothing). As this notebook shows, with its first twelve pages crossed out, self-translation was sometimes a frustrating experience for Beckett. Still, with one exception (the novel, Molloy, which he collaborated on with the writer Paul Bowles), Beckett always handles his own French-English and English-French translations, rather than trying to edit what another translator attempted.

According to S.E. Gontarski and J. Ackerley, the title Texts pour rien “was derived from the musical term mesure pour rien, a silent prelude to performance, a soundless interval conveying nothing but tempo and so an essential part of the musical whole even in its silence.” They write, “They appear to be shards and aperçus of continuously unfolding narratives that can never be complete or completed, as the coherent entity of “character” is disbursed among a plurality of disembodied voices and echoes, origins unknown.” 


These three drafts are only a small selection of the exhibit “Connecting Contexts: The Modern Literature Collection and The Letters of Samuel Beckett,” which spotlights manuscript materials and published texts from the University Libraries’ Modern Literature Collection (MLC), one of the foremost Beckett repositories in the world, organized by Joel Minor, curator of the MLC, with consultation from Lois Overbeck, co-editor of The Letters of Samuel Beckett and director of the Letters of Samuel Beckett Project at Emory University. The exhibit is on view through December 15 in the Ginkgo Room of John M. Olin Library. An online version is coming soon. 


On November 7–8, the University Libraries will host a colloquium to honor Beckett’s literary legacy. What is the Word: Celebrating Samuel Beckett will include talks, exhibit tours, workshops, performances, a film screening, a reading, and a reception. For a schedule of colloquium events and to register to attend, go here. 

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