Je Nathanaël’s Self-Translation

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the book cover for Je Nathanaël

Je Nathanaël (2006) is an English self-translation of Nathanaël’s work from French. Nathanaël was born Nathalie Stephens in Montreal, Quebec, and as a poet and translator, some of her works have been published under her legal name, including the first edition of Je Nathanaël printed by BookThug press. Yet with this book, the author deliberately invokes another name, as announced by the title: Je Nathanaël (I Nathanaël). In an archived first edition copy of Je Nathanaël that I accessed, the author goes so far as to cross out “Nathalie Stephens” printed on the title page and pen the name “Nathanaël” underneath. In subsequent reprints by Nightboat Books, the name Nathalie Stephens no longer appears and the author is referred to on the cover only as Nathanaël. The movement from Natalie Stephens to Nathanaël is another act of self-translation, a movement that encounters the self not as a unified self, but as a division between the self and the self as an other. The act of naming produces a self-conscious and self-contained subject, which in turn constrains the body and reproduces certain relationships between the body and legal state apparatuses—which is to say the world. This is a knowledge of the body that is imposed upon it from the outside. Nathanaël, in an attempt to write “l’entre-genre,” aims not only to write between literary genres, but also between gender in order to allow the self to show itself as other. The act of translation—translation of language and translation of the self, which is made up in part by language—is an encounter with this between-ness: “Between two words breath. / Between two bodies grief. / Between two cities pain. / Between two voices desire. / Between us the book to leaf through.”

In her article “A Scene of Intimate Entanglements, or, Reckoning with the ‘fuck’ of Translation” (2018), the poet and scholar Elena Basile highlights this undecidable between-ness that is central to Nathanaël’s work:

The shift to a proper name of masculine gender (crucially unaccompanied by patronym) might constitute at first sight the most obvious signal of the author’s practice of a poetics in which a concern for trans-lation goes hand in hand with the corporeal question of trans-embodiment. We should be wary, however, of conceiving such trans-embodiment in any linear temporal fashion, as a migration from one cohesive bodily form to another.

Rejecting cohesion, Nathanaël writes, “The body opens itself without hesitation to spillages of all kinds, resists being boxed in, becomes familiar with its own shudders, its many sensations, eyes falling where they will, thanks, in part, to gravity.” Language, then, becomes a kind of artificial flesh that we wrap ourselves in to provide some sort of closure and container for the spillages of the body. Language mediates access to our bodies and removes us from the immediacy of our own experiences and sensations. A poetics concerned with “trans-lation” disrupts an assumed singular equivalence between two words (this word means that), between two languages (French and English, for example), and between the linguistic boundaries that delineate our corporeal bodies. Nathanaël writes, “If I say: I am I am lying a little bit. Languages hold this way of living against me.” Identity—that is, the subject that says “I”—is alienated from the body. The “I” takes on a symbolic register, an idealized “I.” It is at once empty, disembodied, and a psychically permanent part of our ego. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” (1949) how a child is inaugurated into the symbolic matrix that establishes our reality: the child sees their image in a mirror and in this (mis)recognition of the self—an identification with the image of the self—the self becomes divided, fragmented, both embodied and disembodied (ideal). The self is a gestalt object, “more constitutive than constituted,” as Lacan would say. It is through this othering, alienating experience that the subject becomes a subject of language.

“André Gide did to language an unforgivable thing,” writes Nathanaël. “He placed it just out of reach.” Gide, who was associated with the French symbolist movement, wrote self-exploratory texts in search of a way to more fully represent the self, including one’s sexual nature. Later, philosophers like Jacques Derrida would critique writers like Gide who posited a distinct structural opposition between language and its symbolic content. Derrida argued that these thinkers did not give enough attention to something he called “force.” “Force,” writes Derrida in “Force and Signification” (1967), “cannot be conceived on the basis of an oppositional couple.” Rather, force is the irresolvable tension between these oppositions. He continues:

Criticism henceforth knows itself separated from force, occasionally avenging itself on force by gravely and profoundly proving that separation is the condition of the work, and not only of the discourse on the work. Thus is explained the low note, the melancholy pathos that can be perceived behind the triumphant cries of technical ingenuity or mathematical subtlety that sometimes accompany certain so-called ‘structural’ analyses. Like melancholy for Gide, these analyses are possible only after a certain defeat of force and within the movement of diminished ardor.

Structuralism opens a gulf between signifier and signified, form and meaning or content. It places difference as simultaneously between and outside of an oppositional couple, thereby structuring the relationship. But for Derrida, the force of difference is reinscribed as something that is always already within Being: “Writing is the moment of this original Valley of the other within Being. The moment of depth as decay. Incidence and insistence of inscription.” Division is not simply located between language and the body; division is located within both language and the body.

For example, Nathanaël writes, “My dear Nathanaël I will not write. Every day I take your name into my mouth. I take it and give it away. I would like to inhabit it as you do.” The voice is paradigmatic of self-difference/non-self-identity, which creates division according to speaker and listener. Throughout Je Nathanaël there are moments of a disembodied voice commanding Nathanaël to action or presence: “—Enter. / I enter. / —Love. / I love,” and later, “Come. / I am coming.” Who is speaking and who is listening? The voice creates an intersubjective space where the subject constitutes itself in relation to the other. Later still, Nathanaël writes, “—Enter. / I become you. I become your voice. That distinction. I reach the last step. I mark a stop. You are not there. I know it already. Still I open the door. Beat you to it. Here I am. My hand. I have come to collect my hand.” The traditional hierarchies between speech and writing are reversed; the voice plays the determining role in producing the self, and not the hand that writes the self. The voice is embodied and singular, while writing is always a disembodied prosthesis—the spectral “body” of the text.

Significantly, the hand that Nathanaël has “come to collect” sounds very much like the phantom limb—the limb that is missing but is still sensed—as described by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception (1945):

The phantom limb is not the simple effect of an objective causality, nor is it a cogitatio [i.e., thinking, consciousness]. It could only be a mixture of the two if we discovered the means of joining the one with the other (the ‘psychical’ and the ‘physiological,’ the ‘for-itself’ and the ‘in-itself’) and the means of arranging an encounter between them, or if third person processes and personal acts could be integrated into a milieu they would share.

For Merleau-Ponty, existence is located between the “psychical” and the “physiological” as a kind of reflex or sense of a situation—a kind of perception that he calls “being in the world.” This is an intuitive knowledge of the body. Being in the world recognizes that psychical conditions and physiological determinants gear into each other to create our worldly perception. This is why Merleau-Ponty writes, “the consciousness of the body invades the body.” Consciousness is not confined to the brain, nor is it purely a cerebral or intellectual activity. We perceive the world with and through our corporeal bodies.

Yet Je Nathanaël is a book of “corporeal-linguistic entanglements,” as Basile describes it, in that the body is always ensnared by the inadequate taxonomies we impose upon it. The body, in all of its ambiguity and raw obscenity overflows the boundaries of language—and yet words insist on remaining. In a poem titled “Scatalogue,” Nathanaël asks: “So how to leave the book and enter directly in the body?” All translation is approximation substituted for the thing itself. This is the core problem of the book: “The problem with Nathanaël has been presented. It is undeniably a problem of translation. A translation is what is least reliable; one cannot help but resent the text for existing in the first place.” So how do we bypass the proximal act of translation with its seemingly clean, neat equivalences? “Most importantly,” writes Nathanaël, “do not fear dirtying yourself.”

Je Nathanaël repeatedly calls the reader’s attention to the eroticism of a body producing language and the eroticism of language itself. Sometimes language slips into sexual innuendo, like the commands for Nathanaël to “enter,” to “come.” Other times language appears latent with bodily desire, a longing to body itself, even if it is unable to properly articulate this desire:

You undress me. Say: A blank. Draw a line. Want me.
Lay me out. Take my hand. Break bones one at a time mine. Sweet dismemberment. By your hand undo me. Broken. I will seek revenge upon your liquid memorial dream soak up your saliva. Your voice on my tongue. Disgorge me.

In “A Fuckable Text,” Nathanaël asks, “What is a fuckable text and is it only fuckable in English? Is there such thing as a literary hard-on?” The problem of translation is not only in translating the body into language (and translating language into a body), but translating the body into languages, plural. In English, the mute k of “fuck” suddenly stops the breath and explodes the word, producing a kind of pleasure in speaking it. This pleasure of speech is hinted at throughout the book: “liquid memorial dream” in the passage above, for example, could be a reference to a group of semivowels termed “liquids” in the English taxonomy of sound families; the semivowels l, m, n, and r are termed “liquids” on account of the fluency of their sounds. Despite this pleasure in language, the voice outstrips the reach of the body as soon as it leaves the body as a speech act. Nathanaël exists only as product of language, neither alive nor dead, since he is without a body: “Nathanaël is long gone he was never here not even once. He is a queer boy a lovable boy maybe even a fuckable boy and we are all wet or hard turning pages imagining his breath. You cannot even mourn him because he is not dead. He is not dead because he is not alive. Nobody knows who Nathanaël is.” Despite its sexual excess, language is impotent without a body. We cannot know (in the biblical sense)—that is to say, we cannot fuck Nathanaël without a corporeal body.


The body is a site f ambiguity in Je Nathanaël and its author is haunted by the irreducibility of the other that says “I.” Despite our attempts to capture the body with language and understand it as a unified whole that is closed off and divided against the world, we are not whole, nor are we closed. The body is open to the world through its holes, so to speak. And the self betrays itself as divided from within as soon as it speaks its name.