A case of “cultural castration”? Paul de Man’s translation of De Soldaat Johan by Filip de Pillecyn

Elke Brems
H.U.Brussel/K.U.Leuven

Abstract

In his Belgian period, around the time of the Second World War, the famous literary scholar Paul de Man not only wrote his much discussed articles in the national socialist press, he also worked as a literary translator. As opposed to Paul de Man’s other writings, his work as a translator has received little scholarly attention. In this article I focus on De Man’s translation activity in the context of the complex cultural-political situation in Belgium during World War II. I analyse the link between poetics and politics in his French translation of the Dutch novel De soldaat Johan by the Belgian author Filip de Pillecyn (1939). The article undertakes both a contextualisation of De Man’s position and a textual analysis of his translation.

Keywords
Table of contents

“And he undid his coat of mail and commenced his labour.” This is the solemn closing line of De soldaat Johan (The Soldier Johan), a novel by the Flemish author Filip de Pillecyn (1891–1962), published in 1939 and widely circulated in Flanders during the war years. The French translation of this book, which went largely unnoticed, is by Paul de Man (1919–1983), who would later become known worldwide as an American literary scholar. The translation is a remarkable meeting point of poetics and politics, featuring two very different actors: a future prominent promoter of deconstruction and a heimatwriter with national-socialist sympathies. At the beginning of World War II both men worked on the same novel and the [ p. 213 ]translation sheds light on the cultural and political climate in Belgium at the time in particular, and on the political capacity of translated literature in general.

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