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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

Roland Barthes: Empire of Signs

17 Jun

In Barthes’ Empire of Signs, Barthes begins by outlining his desire to “isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system” (trans. Richard Howard, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982, 3). The system, “though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse)” is “[one] which I shall call: Japan” (ibid.). This is the first hint of one of the constitutive limits to Barthes’ project: this fictive “Japan” will also in some sense be based upon a materially existing “Japan” which is implicitly posited, like Derrida’s deconstruction of logos, as the limit of “the West”. Indeed, Barthes openly states as much:

“Hence Orient and Occident cannot be taken here as ‘realities’ to be compared and contrasted historically, philosophically, culturally, politically. I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence – to me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation – whose invented interplay – allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own. What can be addressed, in the consideration of the Orient, are not other symbols, another metaphysics, another wisdom (though the latter might appear highly desirable); it is the possibility of a difference, of a mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems. Someday we must write the history of our own obscurity – manifest the density of our narcissism, tally down through the centuries the several appeals to difference we may have occasionally heard, the ideological recuperations which have infallibly followed and which consist in always acclimating our incognizance of Asia by means of certain known languages (the Orient of Voltaire, of the Revue Asiatique, of Pierre Loti, or of Air France)….[it is absurd] to try to contest our society without ever conceiving the very limits of the language by which (instrumental relation) we claim to contest it: it is trying to destroy the wolf by lodging comfortably in its gullet. Such exercises of an aberrant grammar would at least have the advantage of casting suspicion on the very ideology of our speech” (ibid., 3-4, 8).

It is remarkable to read this passage, published some nine years before Said’s Orientalism, but which seems almost as if Said had used it as his own thesis (Said also used the example of Voltaire). Still, even if Barthes is acknowledging the faults of much popular (and “intellectual”) literature that takes an object of difference as a source of negative knowledge (“the East offers what the West does not/no longer does”), his own project does not seem entirely different from that literature, notwithstanding it attempts to avoid the lure of reading in Japan “another metaphysics”. There remains in Barthes’ project a material basis which it shares in common with the Revue Asiatique: the status of late sixties Japan as a developed, modern country in Asia, one which had become a prominent object of Western interest since the reforms and “opening” of the Meiji period. It is hard to ignore this context, since it is precisely what must be taken into account in accounting for why Barthes has chosen “Japan” as a “system of signs”, and been able to visit this particular “system”, as opposed, say, to Vietnam, or Thailand, or any other number of possible “systems”.

Still, there is much to enjoy in Barthes, not least of which is his style. Here he perfectly captures Pachinko’s boredom and American conservatism:

“What is the use of this art? to organize a nutritive circuit. The Western machine sustains a symbolism of penetration: the point is to possess, by a well-placed thrust, the pinup girl who, all lit up on the panel of the machine, allures and waits. In pachinko, no sex (in Japan – in that country I am calling Japan – sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the United States, it is the contrary; sex is everywhere, except in sexuality). The machines are managers, lined up in rows; the player, with an abrupt gesture, renewed so rapidly that it seems uninterrupted, feeds the machine with his metal marbles; he stuffs them in, the way you would stuff a goose; from time to time the machine, filled to capacity, releases its diarrhea of marbles; for a few yen, the player is symbolically spattered with money. Here we understand the seriousness of a game which counters the constipated parsimony of salaries, the constriction of capitalist wealth, with the voluptuous debacle of silver balls, which, all of a sudden, fill the player’s hand” (ibid., 28-29).

Two more excerpts from this work demonstrate the poetic aspects of Barthes work: much of his writing feels very relevant to performance arts (drama, music, film) because of how it affirms the value of space and action in and of themselves. It often reminds me of the style of writing Ballard developed around the time of The Atrocity Exhibition:

“The other politeness, by the scrupulosity of its codes, the distinct graphism of its gestures, and even when it seems to us exaggeratedly respectful (i.e., to our eyes, ‘humiliating’) because we read it, in our manner, according to a metaphysics of the person – this politeness is a certain exercise of the void (as we might expect within a strong code by one signifying ‘nothing’). Two bodies bow very low before one another (arms, knees head always remaining in a decreed place), according to subtly coded degrees of depth. Or again (on an old image): in order to give a present, I bow down, virtually to the level of the floor, and to answer me, my partner does the same: one and the same low line, that of the ground, joins the giver, the recipient, and the stake of the protocol, a box which may well contain nothing – or virtually nothing; a graphic form (inscribed in the space of the room) is thereby given to the act of exchange, in which, by this form, is erased any greediness (the gift remains suspended between two disappearances). The salutation here can be withdrawn from any humiliation or any vanity, because it literally salutes no one; it is not the sign of a communication – closely watched, condescending and precautionary – between two autarchies, two personal empires (each ruling over its Ego, the little realm of which it holds the ‘key’); it is only the feature of a network of forms in which nothing is halted, knotted, profound. Who is saluting whom?” (ibid., 67-68).

On the zengakuren riots: “All this combines to produce a mass writing, not a group writing (the gestures are completed, the persons do not assist each other); finally, the extreme risk of the sign, it is sometimes acknowledged that the slogans chanted by the combatants should utter not the Cause, the Subject of the action (what one is fighting for or against) – this would be once again to make language the expression of a reason, the assurance of a good cause – but only this action itself (The Zengakuren are going to fight), which is thereby no longer covered, directed, justified, made innocent by language – their external divinity superior to the combat, like a Marseillaise in her Phrygian bonnet – but doubled by a pure vocal exercise which simply adds to the volume of violence, a gesture, one muscle more” (ibid., 106).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Milan Kundera on Eternal Recurrence

28 May

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating curcumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984: 4).