Dark blue cover with a white filigree frame reading A Voyage Around My Room

Bête of Burden

During the first summer of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, I decided to tackle my first translation of a book from French to English. Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre seemed like an obvious choice that summer, since it’s a novel about the author’s house arrest in the late eighteenth century. He spent forty-two days in his apartment with only his valet, Joannetti, and his dog, Rosine, for company. It’s a sendup of the travel writing that had become popular at the time: a travelogue of his one little room as he walks from one side to the other, visiting his furniture as if they were islands or cities and sharing the memories each piece calls up.

Maistre also spends considerable time describing the two sides of his inner self. He calls them “l’ame” and “la bête,” literally “the soul” and “the beast.” But “bête” has more meanings than that simplistic translation. It can mean “stupid,” or “bestial,” or “untamed.” He also referred to this side of himself as “the other one.” It took me a long time to find just the right word to convey what Maistre meant by using “bête,” and I didn’t send the manuscript to my editor until I had the question settled for myself. Even then, I asked her to make sure my choice made sense.

In English, “beast” has connotations of menace—we might picture a growling, bearlike, predatory, brutal fiend. But that’s not at all what this side of Maistre’s soul is like; it’s much stupider. It’s dumb and happy and simple and gets Maistre into trouble without considering the moral, ethical, or even physical consequences. “La bête” burns Maistre’s hand by grabbing tongs he’d laid in the embers of the fireplace while making toast. It seems to be used more in the sense of the French idiom “bête comme une oie,” which is kind of like the English phrase “silly goose.”

For that matter, if you plug “bête” into Google Translate, “stupid” is the algorithm’s first choice. And the French dictionary Larousse has it as “One lacking intelligence, stupid; one who says or does something inadequate, reprehensible, imprudent; without self-awareness. Also all animate beings other than man, including insects. Also, in a literary usage, a man in the prison of his own instincts.” This last definition is very much what Maistre meant, and he was a literary man. This instinctual aspect, as opposed to the considered positions of his cultured, high-minded soul, is what he’s getting at with “bête.”

So “beast” wouldn’t cut it in English for being to ferocious, but “stupid one” or “idiot” wouldn’t work either. Those are too derogatory for a part of himself that Maistre clearly likes and appreciates, even if the bête does lead the soul into trouble if left unsupervised. And American English doesn’t really have a word for being trapped by your own baser inclinations. Or does it?

I chose “jackass,” a choice that still makes me happy. It’s an animate being that is not a man, and it’s an idiot, and it’s someone who is operating according to his instincts, no matter how questionable they may be, rather than using his higher faculties. There was an entire show and series of movies devoted to this very idea called Jackass. Seemed right to me.
Does This Jackass Have a Gender?

Here’s an interesting twist: l’ame and la bête are both feminine in French. Both use “elle” pronouns, adjectives, and some verbs. English does not have grammatical gender, meaning that the words themselves do not have gender. A table is neutral in English; it’s a feminine noun (la table) in French. No good reason; it just is. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to dive into the history of grammatical gender here. Yet.)

My choice of “jackass” has a masculine flair to it, but being English, it is not a masculine word. “The jackass” does not use a grammatical gender like “la bête” does. In this, English loses a little of what Maistre plays with in Voyage. His ability to refer to both parts of his soul as “she” helps distance the physical man from the ephemeral soul, even if half of that soul is an idiot animal.

However, “elle” can be translated to “she” or “it” in English, which makes it tricky, and the translator must chose. When the pronoun is referring to a person, the choice is easy: go with the gender that person is presenting. Elle marche, she walks. Easy. But when the noun being referred to is part of a man’s soul, which he often but not always personifies in his narrative, is the soul an “it” or a “she”?

I went with “it,” and I’m fine with that choice. Maistre seems to think his jackass is a rather roguishly masculine, while his soul is maybe more thoughtfully feminine. In one scene where Maistre is reminiscing, his soul had been engaged all day in painting and was happy to remain in that realm, contemplating art and beauty, while the jackass was put in charge of merely getting Maistre’s body to the royal court for a party. While he’s lost in thought with the soul,

instead of going to court as [the jackass] had been told to do, it veered so far to the left that at the moment where my soul caught it again, it was at the door of Madame Hautcastel, a half mile from the royal palace.

I leave to the reader’s imagination what would have occurred if “the other” had entered the house of such a good woman all alone.

Later on, the soul and the jackass get into an argument, and the jackass pointedly feminizes the soul:

“It suits you well, Madame (to underline in the discussion the whole idea of familiarity), to give yourself airs of decadence and virtue.”

But then the soul does the same to the jackass in its answer:

“Madame,” it said in its turn with an affected cordiality (if the reader found this word out of place when addressing my soul, what will he say now in recalling the subject of this dispute? My soul doesn’t feel insulted at all by this manner of speaking. So much does passion dim intelligence!) “Madame,” it said…

The parenthesis and the quotation marks are all in the original text. The author knew what he was doing with these pronouns as he personified both sides of himself as they argued.

By the way, the soul ends this particular argument by having Joannetti make coffee and toast, which distracts the jackass. To be honest, I would also be happily distracted by coffee and toast. Maybe there’s a little jackass in all of us.