Chapter 7: Poststructuralism
7.1 In the last twenty or so years a number of very different approaches have come to the fore. They have altered the landscape of translation studies quite radically. The last three chapters of this survey cover poststructuralism, gender studies and postcolonial theory.
7.2 Translation has loomed large in poststructuralist and especially deconstructive thinking, particularly that of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, the entire philosophical enterprise is predicated, and precariously so, on translation. As he sees it, the relations and transitions, first between concept and word, then between everyday word and philosophical term within one language, and finally between utterances in different languages, are beset by paradoxes and impossibilities. In each case he questions the notion of an invariant content, which, in order for it to be transported, by itself, intact, from one signifier to another, would have to be presumed somehow to exist independently of its formulation and therefore of language. Derrida is critical of the idea that meaning can be thought of as something transportable and extra-linguistic. His critique is encapsulated in the notion of ‘différance’, the constant regression and dispersal of meaning into new texts and textual networks. Put simply: explicating the ‘meaning’ of a word requires the use of words, the meaning of which needs in turn to be made clear by means of other words, and yet other words – an endless regression that never leaves language (‘différance’, a non-existent variant spelling of ‘différence’, appeals to both ‘difference’ and ‘deferral’ and simultaneously marks the fact that the deviant spelling can be seen but not heard: writing plays its own games with language). If meaning cannot be isolated and carried across from one language to another, translation is in trouble. The poststructuralist or deconstructive perspective highlights the fundamentally problematical nature of translation. It sends translation studies back to the drawing board.
7.3 Many of Derrida’s comments on translation have focussed on cases of untranslatability. Wordplay and polysemy, for example, flaunt and exploit the economy of a particular language. In what language other than English are the words ‘jeans’ and ‘genes’ homophones? The coincidence in sound of these two words, and the punning it permits, is not repeatable in a different idiom and therefore untranslatable. Derrida’s own texts abound in wordplay, because he is keen to demonstrate that ideas do not exist independently of the language in which they are couched. In his essay ‘Living On: Borderlines’ (1979) he directly challenges his translator to find a way of coping with the numerous French puns in the text.
7.4 Just as wordplay has traditionally been glossed over as a marginal phenomenon which resists systematization, somultilingual texts too are incompatible with standard views of the discreteness and homogeneity of languages and cultures. How to render the impact of phrases involving more than one language, as in James Joyce’s ‘And I war’, which invokes English and German simultaneously: ‘war’ is here the German equivalent of English ‘was’ (German ‘und ich war’ would translate as ‘and I was’), but English ‘war’ has a meaning of its own and the word ‘war’ therefore carries a double load? What to do with words located on the periphery of the language system, as is the case with proper names: where do proper names fit into a language system, when and how do we translate them, how much meaning do they carry (and could ‘carry’ be the right word?), is English ‘Peter’ a translation of French ‘Pierre’? Etc.
7.5 A different, more ‘institutional’ kind of untranslatability arises when a particular language affirms itself, or, as Derrida says, ‘re-marks’ itself. Imagine an English novel in which the passage occurs: “He looked at her. ‘No,’ he said, ‘not a word of Dutch will pass my lips.” What would happen if you were to translate this passage into Dutch? Something similar occurs in the final chapter of René Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (‘Discourse on method’, 1637).
7.6 In all these cases, untranslatability figures both as an inescapable given and, paradoxically, as a challenge. Not only are we condemned to translate due to the plurality of languages in the world, but in Derrida’s view it is precisely that which is not evidently or easily transferable, or not transferable at all, which invites the translator’s attention, positively begs to be translated and at the same time dares the translator to try the impossible
7.7 In one of his most substantial reflections on translation, the essay ‘Des Tours de Babel’ (in Graham 1985), Derrida argues that if we try to theorize translation from the outside, or from above, we run into a brick wall, for the reasons mentioned above. Instead he takes a different route. He will paraphrase, expound, expand and complement Walter Benjamin‘s essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), ‘translating’ it in Benjamin’s own spirit by giving it an ‘afterlife’ and allowing its ‘fruition’ to reach another stage. Part of Derrida’s point here is that, instead of theorizing translation, he reflects on the subject of translation by translating, however ironically or perversely, someone else’s reflections on translation; and the mode in which he translates takes its cue from those reflections. The performance demonstrates the profound complicity between object-level and meta-level, the illusory nature of a strict separation between the language of translation and the different discourses about it.
7.8 The implications of such a practice for those who purport to produce scholarly or critical meta-discourses on translation are far-reaching. At the same time, the preoccupation with the very possibility, or impossibility, of translation, whether in a philosophical, a linguistic or an institutional sense, urges a reconsideration of the very foundations of translation theory. In many ways Derrida’s reflections constitute an invitation to reconsider basic assumptions.
Further reading (see Chapter 11): Davies 2002; Graham 1985