In the past year, we’ve all faced the stinging reality of not knowing. We’ve summoned new ways to love the world and one another, to confront the distance that has swollen between us. But we may still find ourselves amidst sadness, anxiety, and uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic. Can we invest love in a future we aren’t sure how to believe in? There’s vulnerability in it, a fear of disappointment. But there’s also deliverance in unpredictable, untested love, an antidote of hope to the problem of not knowing.
The language of love—”falling,” “you are mine,” “I am yours,”—implies a kind of danger or possession. In a section entitled, “L’Inconnaissable,” “The Unknowable,” of Fragments D’Un Discours Amoureux, Roland Barthes elaborates on the perils and central misconception of loving another human being. A close analysis of the original French reveals vibrant possibilities in the definitions of words, a rhythmic quality to the prose, and a specific syntax that Richard Howard’s English translation, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, neglects. For Barthes, love becomes a forceful source of denial when people assert ownership or complete understanding of the recipients of their devotion. The structure and meaning of the original French reflect this argument. Yet, Howard’s translation of “L’Inconnaissable” does not align with Barthes’ nuanced perspective on denial, which has surprisingly redemptive potential. An exploration of this lost ambiguity can uncover that potential.
At several junctures throughout Howard’s translation, the significance of Barthes’ precise diction in “L’Inconnaissable” is compromised. From the onset, in the small introduction to the chapter, Barthes explains that the “sujet amoureux,” or “amorous subject,” struggles to “understand and define the loved being in itself,” independently from “des données particulières du rapport amoureux,” or in English, “the particular givens of an amorous relation.” Howard translates “des données” as “data” instead of “givens,” even though the word “données” comes from the French verb “donner” “to give.” Data connotes objective evidence, whereas “givens” is rich with the capacity for assumption, which can oftentimes lead to misunderstanding. Misunderstanding how and why we love people is a key source of denial according to Barthes. Data is what we might long for: decisive facts, authority. But what we want and what we need are not always compatible. To Barthes, misunderstanding is part of the reality of love. Barthes thus liberates uncertainty and misunderstanding from the formulaic bonds of their negative connotations. He instills merit in the unknowable.
Another word that appears throughout “L’Inconaissable” is “l’énigme,” which Howard translates as “riddle.” A “riddle” is something that can be solved; it always has a correct solution, and it is typically a game, a leisurely past-time without the stakes of solitude and devastation. The English cognate is “enigma,” which is often used to describe impenetrable personalities, and generally, more universal mystery. It is this latter meaning that Barthes is gesturing towards. That there exists a secure and definite answer is not a truth we always enjoy. An additional example of a certain phrase’s translation flattening its various connotations is when Howard translates “j’accède à la connaissance de l’inconnaissance,” as “I know what I do not know.” Howard reads this phrase as though it were an equation, when in the French, it is not so reductive. A more apt translation would be, “I reach to knowing from unknowing,” wording that exposes a kinetic narrative of stretching and transformation. It is arguably a story of a person (or society) emerging from denial: initial ignorance, movement, then progression and ceaseless striving towards knowledge.
While in many cases there is a need to safeguard the precision of the French, there are also places where the translation would be more accurate if the ambiguity of the French were embraced and preserved. Admittedly, this feat is sometimes impossible due to grammatical differences between the two languages. For example, when Barthes writes, “D’où vient-il? Qui est-il? Je m’épuise, je ne le saurai jamais,” in French, the “le” before “saurai” could be referring to a man, or all the preceding questions. So translations could range from “I will never know him” to “I will never know (it).” “It” could be the future, the world, any outcome to any kind of disaster. One of these translations is specific, tethered to the example of a single person. The other translation opens to all that we will not know, sustaining the absence of an answer to the previously stated questions, and reminding the reader of all the other uncertainty that exists, and its untamed dimensions. Perhaps, Barthes is qualifying his own knowledge of another human being. Or perhaps, Barthes is harnessing specificity to demonstrate the universal, to show how in one person’s or one situation’s particularities, consistent and communal themes can unfold. Alas, one cannot achieve this kind of ambiguity in English. But Barthes is exhibiting, even in the pronouns of his language, what it means to dwell in unknown possibilities.
Besides altering meanings of words, Howard’s translation also compromises some melodic elements of the text, and evades various literary devices and rhetorical structures. In the French, when Barthes writes about the hope most lovers have—to know the object of their love—he writes, “Il n’y a que moi qui te connaisse bien,” which is translated as “I’m the only one who really knows you.” Notably, in French, there are two ways to say “only”: “seulement” and “ne…que.” It is significant that here, Barthes chooses the negative construction. It emphasizes the point of possession: there is not anyone else who knows you better than I do. In that vein, there is a list of words with negative prefixes in the French—”impénétrable, introuvable intractable” and the translation reads: “impenetrable, intractable, not to be found.” The recurring negative grammatical construction in the French parallels Barthes’ rather dismal view on love. Nonetheless, it is significant that in this treatise on how love fails and frustrates us, there is a poetic sensibility in the French phrasing. While the words insist on the futility of love, and the collective denial of humanity as we try to keep knowing one another, the lyric of the essay swings tenderly. Alliterative phrases and repetition shower the text: “se dépenser, se démener,” “mouvement mystique,” “n’est nullement,” and the argument that it is impossible to know someone becomes ironically romantic in Barthes’ elegiac presentation. This paradox points to the presence of beauty in denial.
Devoting attention to the syntax and placement of agency in each sentence leads to a subtler understanding of Barthes’ words. In the French, Barthes writes, “Il me vient alors cette exaltation d’aimer à fond quelqu’un d’inconnu” which Howard translates as “I am then seized with that exaltation of loving someone unknown.” In the French, the subject is “Il,” or “it” so a more literal translation would read, “it comes to me then, this exaltation of loving someone unknown.” It is a small difference, a pronoun, but the discrepancy carries symbolic weight. The subject is not the speaker, but a vague catalyst, an unknown thing in itself, which inspires the thrill of loving someone unfamiliar.
A punctuation change is another adjustment, which, at first blush, seems inconsequential. However, upon closer examination, Howard’s decision to delete the “…” in his translation of the French radically changes the meaning of the text. Barthes describes how learning the desires of someone and knowing someone are really one and the same. In Barthes’ illustration of this principle, he writes, “Je connaissais tout, immédiamment, des désirs de Y… : il m’apparaissait alors,” which Howard translates as “I knew everything, immediately about Y’s desires, hence Y himself was obvious to me.” The translation exudes a confidence in knowing “Y” that the French words do not deliver. The message of the French text is that we are all in denial about confidently knowing others, and it is that denial that results in heartbreak. The ellipses allow various imaginations: time has passed, a person has changed, a love was fostered. What is more, “apparaissait” does not mean “was obvious.” It has a more nuanced meaning: “Y was appearing to me.” Note the imperfect tense of the verb; this appearing happens over time; it is the gentle and gradual untangling of someone you love.
Finally, Barthes compares people to abstract forces for a thought experiment. In this scenario, all loving relationships become self-referential; we experience them only through the ways in which they affect us. The French is overwrought and unmistakable here, “Et si je me situais moi-même comme une autre force.” Barthes employs the emphatic pronoun “moi-même,” “myself,” in addition to the reflexive pronoun “me.” Suddenly, the grammar of the sentence reflects the content of Barthes’ proposition: everything revolves around him, the speaker, the agent, the lover. Barthes’ argument is that nothing at all is “obvious,” except our denial, the very fact of our unknowing. Barthes begs an unsettling question laden with haunting irony: are our desperate struggles to love and know other human beings really just disguised attempts to understand ourselves? Of course, he denies his reader an explicit answer, but that is just his point.
So, what is denial good for? If you can wholly know someone, then love is lodged in that finite position. In never knowing, but always trying, love is fractal.
Serena Alagappan  is a graduate of Princeton University, where she studied comparative literature and creative writing. She is currently pursuing an M.Sc. in Social Anthropology at St John’s College, Oxford.