The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dryer, 1928
from “Nay Rather” by Anne Carson:
There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit. I want to explore some examples of this attraction, at its most maddened, from the trial and condemnation of Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc’s history, especially the historical record of her trial, is one fraught with translation at every level. She was captured in battle on 23 May 1430. Her trial lasted from January to May of 1431 and entailed a magistrate’s inquest, six public interrogations, nine private interrogations, an abjuration, a relapse, a relapse trial, and condemnation. Her death by fire took place on 30 May 1431. Thousands of words went back and forth between Joan and her judges during the months of her inquisition; many of them are available to us in some form. But Joan herself was illiterate. She spoke Middle French at her trial, whose minutes were transcribed by a notary and later translated into Latin by one of her judges. This process involved not only the transposition of Joan’s direct responses into indirect speech and of her French idioms into the Latin of judicial protocol, but also the deliberate falsification of some of her answers in such a way as to justify her condemnation (this criminal intervention was revealed at a retrial that took place twenty-five years after her death). Yet these many layers of official distance separating us from what Joan said are just an after-effect of the one big original distance that separates Joan herself from her sentences.
All Joan’s guidance, military and moral, came from a source she called ‘voices’. All the blame of her trial was gathered up in this question, the nature of the voices. She began to hear them when she was twelve years old. They spoke to her from outside, commanding her life and death, her military victories and revolutionary politics, her dress code and heretical beliefs. During the trial Joan’s judges returned again and again to this crux: they insisted on knowing the story of the voices. They wanted her to name, embody, and describe them in ways they could understand, with recognizable religious imagery and emotions, in a conventional narrative that would be susceptible to conventional disproof. They framed this desire in dozens of ways, question after question. They prodded and poked and hemmed her in. Joan despised the line of inquiry and blocked it as long as she could. It seems that for her the voices had no story. They were an experienced fact so large and real it had solidified in her as a sort of sensed abstraction – what Virginia Woolf (in To the Lighthouse) called 'that very jar on the nerves before it had been made anything’. Joan wanted to convey the jar on the nerves without translating it into theological cliché. It is her rage against cliché that draws me to her. A genius is in her rage. We all feel this rage at some level, at some time. The genius answer to it is catastrophe. I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this? Can’t I just send an electronic greeting card or Photoshop a picture of what it was like rather than trying to come up with an original drawing? During the five months of her trial Joan persistently chose the term 'voice’ to describe how God guided her. She did not spontaneously claim that the voices had bodies, faces, names, smell, warmth or mood, nor that they entered the room by the door, nor that when they left she felt sad. Under the inexorable urging of her inquisitors she gradually added all these details. But the storytelling effort was clearly hateful to her and she threw white paint on it wherever she could, giving them responses like:
…You asked that before. Go look at the record. …Pass on to the next question, spare me. …I knew that well enough once but I forget. …That does not touch your process. …Ask me next Saturday.
And on 22 February 1430, when the judges were pressing her to define the voices as singular or plural, she most wonderfully said (as a sort of summary of the problem):
The light comes in the name of the voice (in nomine vocis venit claritas).
The light comes in the name of the voice is a sentence that stops itself. Its components are simple yet it stays foreign, we cannot own it. Like Homer’s untranslatable molu it seems to come from somewhere else and it brings a whiff of immortality with it.