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Julien Leyre on translation

29 Dec

Much of continental philosophy actually grows in the gap between Greek semantic and conceptual structure and those of modern European languages. One of the most original and stimulating books I ever read on language is a little-known opus by Italian Professor Lo Piparo, and consists entirely of proposing an alternative translation of a short passage by Aristotle on language, then expanding as commentary the basic assumptions that led to that new translation.

Translation is a radical alternative to debating. In debate, thinking happens collectively, and the debating tradition acknowledges this phenomenon. It relies on the presence of an intellectual opponent – past, present or imaginary – and offers ideas in the form of a contention. Fresh, original thought emerges dialogically between competing contenders. Translation follows a different model, and obeys a different set of values: here, the translator-interpreter is a mediator between an author and an external reader, whose worldviews are assumed to be different. Translators bring across foreign or forgotten thoughts within the conceptual world of their audience.

For all its diplomatic underpinnings, translation is a fantastic bullshit detector. Abstract bureaucratese, vapid thought, loose constructions based on cloud-like associations of words, or sheer ‘sound-good’ rhetorics dissolve under the harsh acid of translation. Translation is the great enemy of sophistry, because sophistry, fake reasonings and paralogics, are often harder to translate, but also because sophistry goes against the core ethics of translation.

Translation is a school of honesty and humility for the mind. It teaches how difficult and resistant language is to the feeling of intellectual power that we may have – and forces us to acknowledge the resistance of the real. A good translation is judged on two criteria: how faithful and generous it is to the original, and how well it fits within the shape of its host language. The two, however, are inseparable in their material expression. The task brings translators a special benefit. By challenging our own inherited, sclerotic intellectual constructs embodied in lazy language, translation forces us to stretch our brains, because foreign ideas don’t spontaneously fit within the shape of our own clichés.

Translation is a remarkable writing exercise. Translators are directly confronted with the resistance of language. Different grammar systems or bodies of vocabulary will not allow an idea to simply come across on its own.

Translation also teaches us how much can – and unfortunately sometimes does – get lost in the process: ideas have to be pared down, folded over, flattened, in order to translate easily. In this regard, translation teaches us to listen and read better.


  • Julien Leyre


19 Dec


Brian Turner: Elegy for Peter Hooper

17 Dec


(novelist, poet, teacher, environmentalist)


A grey day in Greymouth and a gathering of people

most of whom I’ve never met and won’t again.

There’s scripture, hymns, eulogies and that undeniable

finality that never fails to reduce me to tears.


Time alone will fill the spaces your going’s opened up

like evening shadows stealing into the valleys

of the Grey and the Arahura that you knew and loved.

I’d like to think Westland’s laureate will one day


receive his due but doubt it, for writing that conveyed

a love of place, respect for people and other creatures,

and an unwavering faith in the force of patient instruction

has never been sexy in a land where cultural cringing’s


enduring. Add to that work which celebrated natural beauty,

advocated continuance and expressed a desire for peace,

and you were always going to be swimming against the tide.

Peter, with your calming goodwill, you were that rare


sort of man we call decent if not saintly. At your service

I was awash with memories and regrets

while up and down the Coast and over the mountains

a raw wind blew, and bells tolled wherever I turned.


Shingle ground on the shore like pebbles in a crop

and the wind off the Tasman badgered the flax

at the top of the beach where you gathered wood often.

Offshore, pickets of rain were driving into a slowly


heaving grey sea. I know you hoped for a longer life

in your green-painted wooden house

on the edge of the forest a kilometre or more

inland at Paroa, a stream talking constantly


within metres of your backdoor. Instead a friend

found you dead several days on the floor

under your bed, and it all seemed tragic and unfair,

the stingy absence of dignity or justice that fate


decreed for you. Now, asking Where to go from here?

and What more could I have done? – the one a puzzle,

the other futile – I think of the people who admired and maybe

even loved you, too, and never told you so because we seldom do.


  • from Taking Off (2001)

On the Korea-China-Japan Relationship

31 Jul

“If China has a dream of a great renewal, Abe’s Japan also has a dream of becoming East Asia’s leader with a military that can wage war. Within the U.S.-China confrontation, China’s dream and Japan’s dream collide at the East and South China Seas. Preventing a collision on the Korean Peninsula is the difficult yet urgent task of Korea’s diplomacy. The proposal of Xi for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank must not be accepted because it came from China, or rejected because the United States protests it. A decision that best serves Korea’s national interest must be made.

“Korea must not be part of the U.S. ambition to contain China nor be seduced by Xi’s sugarcoated China Dream. A strategic view that includes the larger picture of Northeast Asia is what we need.”

-Kim, Young-hie, “China’s Ties With South Korea: A Snake Wrapped Around a Rabbit?” The World Post. July 14, 2014.




Can open economic borders break down national ones?

7 Nov

An interesting question posed by Aihwa Ong is that the close economic ties between mainland China and countries like Taiwan and Hong Kong is creating a scenario where, regardless of whether these countries are officially or politically united with China, their fates are so intertwined with the mainland that they may as well have become unified (as China seeks to do). It is undoubtedly a great example of pragmatic accomplishment: “you can say you are a separate country as much as you like, but our economic links will eventually lead to unification.” See the excerpt below.

“The Chinese axis is also an imaginary line of cultural sovereignty that runs along an ideological plane of the graduated geopolitical field. As technological and commercial networks and economic zones increasingly articulate along a Chinese axis, we see an emerging political archipelago that suggests the wider possibilities of an ‘imagined community.’ This loose alliance suggests a regional patterning anchored in China that is very different from Western discourses of regionalism such as the ‘Pacific Rim.’ Instead, regional narrative increasingly invoke ‘East Asia,’ a rhetorical term that signals the growing connections between the Sinic parts of Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines) with Taiwan, the Hong Kong SAR, and mainland China. For instance, overseas Chinese scholars have invoked a confluence of histories, languages, cultural, and kinship practices among widely dispersed sites to define an emerging field of Sino-Southeast Asian studies. Despite ongoing political tensions and opposition to Beijing leaders, ethnic Chinese in the Asia-Pacific take great cultural pride in the emergence of China as a global actor. The imagined axis also creates an ideological sphere of exception within the Asia-Pacific, marking off a space of rising China-centric hegemony. The Sinocentric discourses, further enhanced by the mainland and Hong Kong popular media, are growing even as the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China remain in a standoff. Meanwhile, the economic integration between Taiwan and the mainland, especially in Fujian Province, Shanghai, and the Yangtze Valley, is so advanced that a de facto absorption has taken place even before a formal political integration has begun. Thus, the emergence of a Chinese axis is based on Beijing’s very distinctive deployment of zoning technologies, which lay the groundwork for transnational market integration, making intelligible the political and cultural goals of variegated sovereignty in formation. As technologies of ruling, zoning mechanisms become an economic detour leading to broader political integration. It is therefore not unthinkable that the logic of the exception and zoning technologies have shown a path toward the reunification of divided nations.”

Ong, Aihwa. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham and London: Duke Univ. Press, 2006, 115-116.

Hybridity in Taiwan

25 May

Yet it is important to be wary of the trap of casting a particular culture and a particular history as the paradigmatic, illustrative example of the abstract quality that is currently privileged in academic discourse. Given that “cultural hybridity” appears to constitute for the current generation of scholars the object of collective desire that “cultural tradition” was for a previous one, it would be all to easy merely to celebrate Taiwan’s palpably syncretic cultures as though their hybridity were itself proof against the continuing effects of unevenly held power. One way to avoid such a trap is to demand specificity rather than generalization. One might ask: Which people in Taiwan, specifically, experience “in-between-ness” as productive or liberating? And for whom does it constitute, on the contrary, an unlivable condition? 

–Fran Martin, Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture (Aberdeen, HK: Hong Kong Univ. Press, 2003), 35-36.

Big Brother

3 May

I came across a new edition of a classic Penguin book the other day:

Photo taken in Univ. of WA Co-Op bookstore, May 2, 2013

Photo taken in Univ. of WA Co-op bookstore, May 2 2013

Upon closer inspection:

Photo taken in Univ. of WA Co-op bookstore, May 2 2013