Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Emphasis of Titles, the Structures of Language, the Difficulties of Translation and the Authenticity of Choice

I find the English translation of Vivra sa vie to be misguided.  It emphasizes the misleading nature of language.  My Life to Live asserts a first-person, Nana.  The original French title is an observation of Nana in the third-person translated as To live her life/She lives her life.  The English title predetermines a sense of complete agency in her situation as opposed to an observational allowance of an individual as she enacts her limited potential choices “in a world defined by men, money, sex without love, and violence.”[1]  How could these two possessive pronouns, “my” and “her”, be interpreted through the filmmaking itself?  “My” could be more point-of-view shots and “Her” could be more observational as this film predominantly demonstrates.  As Morrey writes: “Vivre sa vie is probably the most austere of Godard’s films: there is a simplicity, a rigour, even a minimalism to the way many of its scenes are shot that resembles Bresson.”[2]  The translated title may seem a mute point, although, when we, as English speakers/translators, first approach this film it is through the title, which is presented as a lens of a first-person agency of assertion as opposed to a third-person external witnessing.  This film predominantly witnesses from the outside.  A title with a first-person possessive pronoun subverts the innate essence of the existentialist approach that Godard approached with his filmic vision and execution. Therefore, I believe the English translation to be categorically wrong in consideration of the essence of this film.

(Same as the French title)

This is my life

The history/story/narrative of Nana S.

On agency and authenticity, what is so particularly authentic about choosing a life of prostitution?  If Nana forged her path as a lone prostitute then maybe this choice would be more individuated, however, she submits into a line of work that is governed by larger social forces, including a pimp and government regulation through registration and required physical check-ups.  And further, this film is populated with other women who have made this choice- whether situated on the street, in the hotels or referenced through Nana’s cursive letters as she writes to a madam in the café scene.  Assuming the life of a prostitute may run counter to popular beliefs but it is a far cry from a revolutionary act. Indeed it is an age-old profession with a well-known, intimate social function.  If, on the other hand, she assumed the role of a dominatrix, I would definitely consider this choice as an authentic step at that time, and probably even now.  However, becoming a dominatrix would suggest a state of power within her social environment, in as such, her choice of prostitution is directly reflective of her limitations within her social setting and the limited potential choices of her sex, of her femaleness.  Although she is living her life and accruing her “essence” it is not a remarkably unique path, albeit authentic. 

Lastly, once Nana’s body is dominated by someone else (whether through her clients in sex or most importantly through her pimp), her choices are inherently out of her control.  She is physically out of control of her body and of her physical realm.  In contrast, one could argue that by becoming prostitute, she has taken total responsibility of herself and her body.  However, I find this argument weak given that there is a pre-existent, male dominated, system of power under which she falls as a prostitute worker.  And further, her lack of control is announced in advance in the tableaux that predict the actions before they happen.  Morrey writes of the Bressonian nature of the predictive 12 tableaux: “One might attribute a different motivation to Godard’s adoption of this technique, for example showing how Nana is caught up in a causal chain of events that is beyond her control…”.[3]  Because of her inherent reducibility to her body (because she is a woman) and because this body is out of her control, does she truly have choices?  Do these tableaux predictions further efface the very argument of her freedom of choice? As I wrote in a post from last Fall, Godard focuses on prostitution as a choice/non-choice within a capitalist system.[4]  And as Morrey quotes from Steve Cannon: “prostitution represents the basic condition of labour under capitalism.”[5]  I don’t view Nana as making unique choices, but choices nonetheless.  This we all do; she does; he does; they do.  And in doing so, are responsibility and acquiescence of one’s life situation dissimilar actions or blurred borders of convergence? 

I find the nuances in these posters fascinating in response to the particular translation.

[1] “Vivre Sa Vie”, Siew Hwa Beh, 185.
[2] Jean-Luc Godard, Douglas Morrey, 40.
[3] Ibid, 41.
[4] See  my blog post: “Femini masculine”, Monday, November 29, 2010.
[5] Ibid, 42.


  1. Terrific post, Courtney. I especially like your discussion of the title and the various translations or mistranslations. (A theme that comes to the fore in LE MÉPRIS.) Of the second half, I remain skeptical. I don't know that the emphasis should be placed on Nana choosing to be a prostitute, and the inauthenticity of this choice. I don't disagree that prostitution is fully incorporated into the logic of capitalism and, as such, precludes choice to some degree (or passes off coercion as choice) but the issue is less whether Nana freely chooses to be a prostitute than what she does with her limited freedom, her ruthlessly proscribed life. The answer to the latter is not simple, of course, but its what I admire about the film: it proposes a problem and not a solution.


  2. If Nana were a housewife, would we be addressing the authenticity of her choices and her limited freedom? Possibly, but the persuasiveness of her role as prostitute poses serious ethical, moral and social questions that a housewife’s role does not. Indeed, looking at the various film posters either implicates Nana as séductrice, such as the bright pink version with “SA” in larger letters than the other letters in the title- thus emphasizing her choice- or the versions where she nonchalantly smokes a cigarette over a “John’s” shoulder. Or, for a more demure appeal, she is apparently topless and looking in profile to the left (in the 2nd image). Prostitution is a divisive topic/action and for that reason it is a perfect role to explore, especially since we see Nana working in the record store while financially broke, to acquiring the role of prostitute to her eventual demise. If we entered into the film without witnessing her choice to become a prostitute then I would agree that it is of a lesser issue- but this choice is essential to the film. And further, her first encounter with a client is one of the most eloquently shot sequences in the film, full of hesitancy and full-blown reality; a bar of soap and a towel; his hand in his pocket; the avoidance of a kiss.