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Brett de Bary, Cornell University

Translation and Redress
Post-structuralist and Post-Colonial Translation Theory
Übersetzung und Wiedergutmachung
Poststrukturalistische und postkoloniale Übersetzungstheorie

vorgestellt von Michaela Wünsch


In this paper I would simply like to present a few reflections on the reception of translation studies and translation theory in the American academy. My analysis will concern the political implications of the privileging of the spatial over the temporal in this discourse—already a well-established mode of critique of area studies, but one that has received less attention in emerging studies of translation. Of course, translation and area studies have been inseparable since the institution of area studies in the U.S. academy. More recently, however, translation (with or without accompanying area specialists) and a burgeoning translation studies have been seen as holding great promise for the American humanities, especially for the “dying” discipline of comparative literature. [1]

Although methods of translation studies are varied, it is common for literary theorists to situate themselves in a genealogy descending from Benjamin through Derrida—that is, as generally post-structuralist in approach. Superficially, this orientation to post-structuralism would appear to be shared by prominent translation theorists such as Lawrence Venuti, Emily Apter, Sandra Berman and Michael Wood, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Indeed, in the case of latter two critics, it is often assumed that the relation between the post-structuralist and the post-colonial has been one of seamless accommodation, if not complicity—that, in the provocative words of Sathya Rao, the two are “continuously translatable, the one into the other.” [2] Some of the most influential attacks on post-colonial theory, moreover, have fastened on just this point. [3] Yet I would like to suggest that the relationship between the two has been considerably more complex, for reasons that have much to do with the political stakes of translation theory.

Specifically, in this paper, I will first consider how, despite a generalized interest in the deconstruction of origins, some translation theorists continue to lapse into treating origins as fundamentally spatialized categories, post-structuralist theory notwithstanding. By this I mean that, while their translation theory rejects the privileging of the original and the transparency of meaning, asserting instead the generative nature of translation, the deconstructed origin continues to be interpreted within a spatial register, usually taken to be a national language with its discrete borders. By giving little attention to how the problem of temporality is dealt with in the post-structuralist texts they cite, such critics also risk lapsing into a developmentalist schema in arguing for the transformative power of translation. Simply put, translation and translation theory mapped onto the spatial become that which enables us to move outward and ahead, from the national to the supra-national, the global, or even the planetary, as stages in progressive linear history.

By contrast, the issue of temporality plays a greater role in the work of post-colonial translation theorists (or those working with legacies of cultural imperialism). Less likely to deal with the deconstruction of origins in a spatial register, they pinpoint a problem of modernity in which languages appear to have already been mapped. Since the mapping itself constitutes asymmetrical relations between languages, the enunciation of these arguments assumes a temporality of redress . Wary of the assimilationist capacity of modern schemas of development qua spatial expansion, post-colonial theorists must be more attentive to temporality in the deconstruction of origins. Although aware of the transformative potential of translation, they locate the ethical charge of translation in a politics of relationality that foregrounds the belatedness and dislocation of the speaking subject, and must negotiate repetitive and recursive aspects of the historical.

1. Developmentalism

The problem of spatialization may be teased out in subtle contradictions that can be detected in some of the most sophisticated work on translation published in recent years. We might consider Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation , edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton University Press, 2005). A distinguished comparativist, Bermann in her introduction acknowledges the problem of spatiality for translation, writing that, “indeed, translation might be effectively rethought in historical and temporal terms rather than only in ontological and spatial ones.” [4] Yet in practice it proves difficult for Berman to purposefully describe these essays on translation without recourse to spatialized conceptions of languages. While her anti-nationalist impulses are laudable, her introduction founders in its invocations of Benjaminian translation theory for precisely this reason. For example, Bermann cites the amphora , Benjamin’s figure of a “greater language” composed of fragments, and defines it as an allusion to “the ‘exorbitant’ quality of language, that which remains mysteriously ‘other’ within it,” adding that all languages have their “intrinsic alterity.” [5] Yet throughout her essay, Bermann’s concept of “intrinsic alterity” remains confined within the distinct borders of national languages, regional dialects, and the like. Spatialized categories proliferate in Bermann’s call for what the “ethics of translation” might look like. We must take up questions of language and translation, she appeals, because they “illuminate disparities among states, nations, and local traditions, and the often tragic problems of linguistic and cultural diasporas; they reveal complex multiplicities in the shadow of apparent unity.” Translation leads us to a “more reflective, and more culturally variegated ‘global consciousness.’” Such aspirations notwithstanding, Bermann retains a belief that languages are “systems” that move as discrete wholes, carrying identifiable “cultural as well as linguistic values.” (“*Each* language,” she writes, “bears its own vast and endlessly transforming intertext…”[Italics added.]) [6]

Despite its laudable critique of nationalism and endeavor to go beyond it, Berman’s imagination of the linguistic remains highly determined by the spatial and the national. Perhaps most symptomatic of this is Bermann’s confusing deployment of the time- honored rhetoric of translation as “bridging” or übersetzung . An informed post-structuralist, Bermann dismisses out of hand etymologically-based descriptions of translation as a “carrying across.” Only if “we conceive of language…in some univocal way,” she insists, could we possibly “take translation to be a simple ‘carrying across’ of concepts from one signifying system to another.” Nevertheless, once she has defined a more deconstructive notion of translation, Bermann reverts to and re-affirms the same spatialized concept of “bridging” she had just rejected. Provided we see translations as “simply creative negotiations of difference,” she concedes, “ translation provides a necessary linguistic supplement that bridges cultural chasms and allows for intellectual passage and exchange.” [7] The depiction here of a rather heroic status of translation situated in the dramatic landscape of “cultural chasms” seals our sense of how pervasively Bermann’s conceptions of translation are spatialized.

Just one more example might suffice to illustrate this problem. The Translation Zone , by Emily Apter, was published in the same series by Princeton University Press in 2006. Apter’s textually rich, dense argument is undeniably a brilliant contribution to translation studies and to the theorization of translation as, in her words, “subject re-formation and political change.” Like Bermann, she acknowledges her indebtedness to Benjamin’s contestation of ontological and spatialized notions of translation. (She quotes from “On Language as Such and the Language of Man,” “Translation passes through continua of transformations, not abstract areas of identity and similarity.” P. 7) [8] Apter’s alliance with deconstructive theories of translation seems joyously on display when she playfully frames the “Twenty Theses on Translation” that open her book with the two captions, “Nothing can be translated” and “Everything can be translated.” [9]

Moreover, she makes it clear that the productive sites she terms “translation zones” in her study are sites that are “ ‘in-translation,’ that is to say, belonging to no single, discrete language or single medium of communication.” [10] Nonetheless, one cannot help being slightly stunned upon discovering the following manifesto on behalf of comparative literature in the book:

A new comparative literature, with the revalued labor of the translator and theories of translation placed center stage, expands centripetally toward a genuinely planetary criticism, extending emphasis on the transference of texts from one language to another, to criticism of the processes of linguistic creolization, the multilingual practices of poets and novelists over a vast range of major and “minor” literatures, and the development of new languages by marginal groups all over the world. [11]

This celebratory vision of comparative literature’s planetary future adheres to a familiar modern schema in which progressive time is pictured as centripetal movement through space, as movement outward from a center.

2. The Time of Redress

We might take as a point of departure how certain theorizations of the relations between the translation and the post-colonial have depicted the relationship between the two in an implicitly temporal register, as one of redress . Whether the concern raised has been with injuries inflicted through colonial violence or the reversal of colonial hierarchies, redress is taken to entail transforming an already existing situation. The enunciative temporality of such arguments is often an explicit mode of addressing the modern territorial mapping or geopolitical determination of language. For example, the general preoccupation of Euroamerican Comparative Literature in the early 1990’s with*translation among European languages alone* and, and its lack of attention to interlingual inequality, mapped onto a difference between the “West and the Rest,” was sharply pointed out by Tejaswini Niranjana in her ground-breaking study of post-structuralism and colonialism, Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context (University of California Press, 1992). It was in these terms that Tejaswini Niranjana formulated her intervention into a resurgent Translation Studies in 1992, asking if Translation Studies were not rehearsing an older, unreflective form of universalizing humanism. Drawing a parallel between contemporary Translation Studies and a colonial discourse which “naturalized the historical asymmetry between languages,” Ninranjana drew attention the problematic language of Susan Basnett, a then influential new theorist of Translation Studies, as one who still could speak blithely of “general principles that can be determined and categorized, and, ultimately, utilized in the cycle of text-theory-text regardless of the languages involved .” Statements like this one, Niranjana insisted, “seem oblivious to the relations of power implicit in translation.” [12] An implied temporality of redress characterized the parodic reversal of colonial relations in the title of the influential volume, The Empire Writes Back , and further transposed by Harish Trivedi into “the Empire translates back.” [13] Bassnett (having since taken up the mantle of post-colonial criticism) and Trivedi write in their 1999 volume

We can now (emphasis mine) perceive the extent to which translation for centuries was a one-way process, with texts being translated into European languages and for European consumption, rather than as part of a reciprocal process of exchange. [14]

Finally, we might also consider the work of Lydia Liu, one of the North American pioneers of the study of translation in China. While we should note that not all contemporary work on translation in China would identify itself as “post-colonial,” Liu’s important work in the mid-1990’s also deployed a rhetoric of redress. For example, in her introduction to the collection Tokens of Exchange: The Problems of Translation in Global Circulation , she asks, “…how does reciprocity become thinkable as an intellectual problem when predominantly unequal forms of global exchange characterize the material conditions of that exchange?” [15] Further on, linking translation with universalism in a manner similar to Niranjana, she explicitly problematizes the link between temporality and geopolitical determination when she observes that

universalist translations have produced cultural difference on the world map as an already (emphases mine) translated fact and pretend to speak for that difference in a universalizing idiom…The articulation of difference as value within a structure of unequal exchange thus simultaneously victimizes that difference by translating it as a lesser value or nonuniversal value. [16]

For Liu, the existence of universalist translation in material conditions of inequality leads directly back to matters of temporality and history. For maintaining the dichotomy between the universal and the particular, precisely in its a-historicity, is crucial to modern imperialism’s will to power. Those who have distributed translation according to “the universal and the particular,” Liu reminds us, employ a strikingly “ahistorical dialectic” which should be understood simply as “a recent historical manifestation of the will to the universal.” [17]

Certainly, contest over and negotiation of, demands for redress is a major aspect of the politics of our time. Yet I would suggest that within the limited realm of translation studies, attempts to theorize the articulation of this demand and its reception have received too little attention, or have remained largely misread and misrecognized. This has even given rise to the sense of a fatigue or impasse in a post-colonial theory seen as overly reliant on post-structuralism, at least when viewed from metropolitan academies. Emily Apter describes Peter Hallward’s attempt, in Absolutely Post-colonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific (Manchester UP, 2001), to “displace the field’s preoccupation with what he castigates as a ‘deadened nativism’” and to offer a “corrective to the postmodern relativism besetting post-colonial studies, its fetishization of the politics of difference, and its naïve celebration of ‘the local.’” [18] Yet I would suggest this sense of impasse is not widely shared, and involves a misreading of the post-colonial demand for redress and its imbrication with post-structuralist theory. Do Hallward’s choice of words betray a certain impatience? Certainly, this quite recent characterization of post-colonial studies in words shot through with associations with time-lag and particularity (“deadened nativism,” “fetishization,” “naiveté,” and “the local”) is unsettling, suggesting we have hardly escaped from the colonial shadowing of metropolitan language that Homi Bhabha referred to as a “daemonic doubling.” [19] Similarly, the reference to “post-modern relativism” is puzzling. Is it post-colonialism’s engagement with post-structuralist thought and its capacious paradoxes, or the demand for redress-- with its undoing of fixed hierarchies— that provokes such anxiety about relativism? In concluding these reflections, I would like to reconsider one of the texts most famously situated at the intersection of the post-structuralist and the post-colonial, but in a way that I hope avoids these familiar reductions. Rather than taking the intersection of the post-structuralist and the post-colonial as a source of “relativism,” I will show how this text is at pains to problematize the distinctions among temporality, history, and their representations . Its insistent thematization of doubleness and disjuncture, far from being a disavowal of politics, suggests why Translation Studies must remain a political site.

3. Once Again, Can the Subaltern Speak?

While Gayatri Spivak’s 1988 essay “Can The Subaltern Speak?” has been famously interpreted as a post-colonial rebuke of post-structuralism, the text has been less frequently taken up in relation to translation theory. [20] This is surprising, given Spivak’s status today as one of the foremost proponents of translation and translation theory, in relation to which “The Politics of Translation” and other essays, as well as her book The Death of a Discipline (Columbia, 2003) are often discussed. More interesting still has been the common tendency to introduce “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Into scholarly discussions only by reference to its title, which is assumed to be an adequate, if spectacularly abbreviated, summation of its content.

And yet, critics repeated taking of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”— not understood as a rhetorical question since the answer is taken to be “No”— as a stand-in for Spivak’s argument may be seen as a curious instance of chiasmus, through which important relations in her argument are reversed and displaced. Transposed from an interrogative to a declarative statement, Spivak’s question and the implied answer (“No.”) are construed as a causal and temporal sequence that might read, in the 1988 context, as something like this: “Since European post-structuralists are no longer speaking on behalf of the Third World Other, and since Subaltern scholars have appropriated her voice, the subaltern [woman] cannot speak.” I would like to suggest that this standard formulation of Spivak’s argument is notable, not only for the way in which it firmly forecloses the possibility of a dialogue, but for a politics of blame-shifting which surreptitiously displaces the target of critique away from a European collectivity and onto a South Asian one. In seeking a short-cut around Spivak’s challenging reflections on dislocation, disjunctive representation, and disjunctive temporality, that is, this common interpretation races to a deflating political conclusion whereby difficult speech acts and conversations are shut down.

I would like to suggest that such a conclusion is made possible by readings that elide the painstaking problematization of translation that takes place in Spivak’s text. While her more historical references to the practice of sati have become well known, the extent to which the entire first section of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” hinges on matters of translation is often ignored. Spivak emphasizes the problem of non-equivalence in translation as addresses the political problem of representation by considering both intralingual and interlingual translation of the terms “representation” and “re-presentation” in English, “représentation” and “re-présentation” in French, and “vertreten” and “darstellung” in German.

Let me open my reflections on the essay by proposing that, while Spivak does at some points in her essay appear to answer her own question—“Can the Subaltern Speak?”—negatively (she states flatly at one point, “The subaltern cannot speak.”), her essay is in fact a strong demand for the intellectual, including the “Western” intellectual, to keep speaking and to even to speak more. At the opening of the essay, Spivak plays on many senses of “slippage” when she faults Deleuze for implicating post-structuralism in his refusal of certain types of political engagement. Thus she hones in on, and treats with withering irony, Deleuze’s comment, “A theory is like a box of tools. Nothing to do with the signifier.” To this Spivak responds tartly, “It is when signifiers are left to look after themselves that verbal slippages happen. The signifier ‘representation’ is a case in point .” (Italics mine.) [21]

It is through her attention to translational difficulties posed by the term “representation” that Spivak attempts to intricately formulate, not only a difference but, as is frequently overlooked, a relation between the post-structuralist intellectual and the post-colonial subaltern. Matters of doubleness and disjunctive temporality are crucial to her argument here. For her argument involves Spivak moving back and forth between from Foucault and Deleuze (it turns out she is reading their dialogue in the English translation done by Dan Bouchard and Sherry Simon in the 1970’s) and Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” a text she cites in German. [22] Only by taking up the problem of non-equivalence in translation, it appears, can Spivak expose the problems she wishes to in Foucault’s and Deleuze’s politics. “Representation” (as Bouchard and Simon translate Deleuze’s French) can be translated into German as vertreten (to represent in the manner of pleading for, through substitution, as a proxy) and darstellung (to re-present, as a portrait depicts or describes), a double-meaning Spivak finds crucial to the language of Marx’s text. She cites Marx’s description of 19th century French peasant proprietors—“they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”—as a model of social indirection. According to Spivak’s (anti-positivist, and, for the record, Derridean!) reading of Marx, class agency is seen by Marx as an artificial matter that is not based on “a desiring identity of agents and their interests” but requires contests of replacement and substitution. (“Marx,” Spivak complains, “is so deeply placed in a heritage of positivism that his irreducible emphasis on the work of the negative…is persistently wrested from him.”) Thus for Spivak it must be emphasized that Marx never asserted that social life was a matter of expressing interests directly on the level of the individual or the class. “The complicity of Vertreten and Darstellung —their identity in difference” is precisely what Spivak wants to emphasize. As she further asserts, “My view is that radical practice should attend to this double session of representation rather than reintroducing the individual subject through totalizing concepts of power and desire.” [23]

Rather than finding that Spivak’s admittedly intricate and challenging arguments to simply reach the dispiriting conclusion that the subaltern cannot speak, I would prefer to end my comments by asking whether, by foregrounding her interest in translation, we cannot restore a much more powerful political dimension to her argument. First, let me note that, in reproaching Foucault and Deleuze’s carelessness vis a vis matters of signification and representation, Spivak deploys the temporality of redress we have seen elsewhere in post-colonial criticism. “The reduction of Marx to a benevolent but dated figure most often serves the interest of launching a new theory of intepretation,” she writes, and continues, “ In the Foucault-Deleuze conversation, the issue seems to be that there is no representation, no signifier. (It is to be presumed the signifier has already been dispatched?)” (Italics mine.) [24]

Second, by using her attention to translation to emphasize the dislocation of the political subject, Spivak stunningly analyzes the rhetorical displacement and rhetorical reversal of terms , which allows the European theorists to perpetrate their political “dodge.” For what she shows is how they dodge engagement by projecting their own political interest, disguised as transparent, onto the oppressed other . They thus subtly perpetuate ethnocentrism. My final citation will be somewhat long, for it is important to follow the trajectory of Spivak’s words precisely. If the signifier has “already been dispatched,” Spivak continues to query

… There is, then, no sign-structure operating experience and thus might one lay semiotics to rest?); theory is a relay of practice (thus laying problems of theoretical practice to rest) and the oppressed can know and speak for themselves. This re-introduces the constitutive subject on at least two levels: the Subject of desire and power as an irreducible methodological presupposition; and the self-proximate, if not self-identical, subject of the oppressed. Further, the intellectuals, who neither of these S/subjects, become transparent in the relay race, for they merely report on the nonrepresented subject and analyze…the workings of (the unnamed Subject irreducibly presupposed by) power and desire. The produced transparency marks the place of “interest”... [25]

This passage develops the implications of Spivak’s discussion of translation, and its relation to matters of exchange, substitution, replacement, and dislocation, for her political critique. For Foucault and Deleuze, as intellectuals, share with the subaltern the inevitable characteristics of being, insofar as they are political subjects, the qualities of being dislocated and non-identical subjects. In their desire to conceal the disjunctions that would mark their own positions as interested and but also divided political subjects, they represent the oppressed other as knowing, authentic, and whole. This is what Spivak’s attention to translation exposes. “”The banality of leftist intellectuals’ lists of self-knowing, politically canny subjects now stands revealed,” she declares: “representing them (the self-knowing others) the intellectuals represent themselves as transparent.” (Italics mine.) [26]

I have presented a rather condensed analysis of this complex essay. But I hope I have made it clear that, insofar as “representation” is Spivak’s focus, she uses translation to insist that it is the doubleness and disjunction in the temporality of representation (as translation) that generates the political and political relations in her view. “Can the Subaltern Speak” has, perhaps sadly or perhaps predictably, by and large been recuperated instead as a sentimental tale about the victimization of the Third World Woman. This reading does not trouble identitarian politics in any way.

In fact, to invoke the self-knowing, authenticity of the Other, may involve a transferential wish to consolidate one’s own authenticity, Spivak suggests. Here her analysis rejoins the Derrida of Grammatology , which she translated, who suggests that ethnocentrism can be manifested in the hyperbolic admiration of the other. “Each time ethnocentrism is precipitately and ostentatiously reversed, some effort silently hides behind all the spectacular effects to consolidate an inside, to draw from it some benefit.” [27]

We need to become aware of such problems and possibilities as translation studies gains increasing prominence as a mode of negotiating difference.

[1]In addition to Gayatri Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), translation and translation studies are welcomed in the most recent American Comparative Literature Association Report on the State of the Discipline, Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization , edited by Haun Saussy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
[2]Sathya Rao, “From a Post-Colonial to a Non-Colonial Theory of Translation,” in Naoki Sakai and John Solomon, ed., Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference , in Traces: A Multilingual Series of Cultural Theory and Translation , Vol. 4 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006), 84.
[3]One of the best known of these is Arif Dirlik, “The Post-Colonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” in Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter, 1994), pp. 328-356.
[4]Sandra Bermann, “Introduction,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation , edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 6.
[5]Berman, p. 7.
[6]Bermann, p. 5.
[8]Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 6-7.
[9]Apter, p. xi.
[10]Apter, p. 6.
[11]Apter, p. 10.
[12]Tejaswini Niranjana, Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), p. 59. Interestingly, in this passage Niranjana was criticizing a statement from an early work on translation studies by Susan Bassnett (Translation Studies , published by Methuen in 1980), who has now become a prominent figure in post-colonial translation theory.
[13]Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, “Of colonies, cannibals, and vernaculars, in ed. Bassnett and Trivedi, Post-colonial Translation: Theory and Practice (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 8.
[14]Bassnett and Trivedi, 5.
[15]Lydia Liu, “The Question of Meaning-Value in the Political Economy of the Sign” in ed. Lydia Liu, Tokens of Exchange: the Problems of Translation in Global Circulation (Duke University Press, 1999), 14.
[16]Liu, p. 19.
[17]Ibid,. 20.
[18]Apter, p. 90.
[19]Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 305.
[20]My comments are based on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak “Can the Subaltern Speak?” first published in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture , edited by Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988), pp. 271-313.
[21]Spivak, p. 275.
[22]See Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews , trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 205-217.
[23]Spivak, p. 279.
[26]Spivak, p. 275.
[27]In page 293, Spivak cites this passage from Derrida, On Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), and p. 80.