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Crossing Worlds: Translation, Eventfulness and the Political

An international conference, “Crossing Worlds: Translation, Eventfulness, and the Political,” jointly organized by the Barnard Center for Translation Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.
 

This event is free and open to the public.

Translation has long been approached in terms of linguistic reciprocity, equivalences, commensurability or incommensurability, as well as the promise or withdrawal of meaning among languages. But can the eventfulness of translation itself be thought? For instance, in what ways may translation help us reimagine the boundaries of past and present, of here and there, moments of epistemic rupture, cultural negotiation, political violence, mediation and remediation, and so on? Does the eventfulness of translation reside in the textual world, such as treaties, novels, letters, news, legal code, and other documents and publications? Or does it lie in the translation machine, mechanical, bureaucratic, automatic, or otherwise? Or rather, is it to be located in the mind of the translator and his/her reader? Since the problem of translation is ubiquitous and cuts across so many disciplines and fields, the study of this subject cannot but move beyond conventional translation studies. Currently, new approaches are being developed here and there to open up the field to other kinds of inquiries, and we have arrived at a point where the eventfulness of translation needs to be interrogated.

To that end, we are convening this conference so we may collectively develop some new thinking and speculations around the problem of translation, eventfulness, and the political. Through this formulation, we seek to understand the processes of political conflict, cultural exchange, difference, mapping of boundaries, universalism, etc. While taking language and literature seriously, we will not treat translation as if it were a purely linguistic or textual matter, nor will we reduce linguistic differences to so-called “cultural differences.” If universalism thrives on difference, it does not negate difference so much as absorb it into its familiar orbit of antithesis and dialectic. The situated articulation of cultural difference is often already embedded in the universalizing processes of past and present that determine what counts as difference and why it should matter. Can we perhaps explore such processes to better understand the temporality and spatiality of translation? What light, if any, do these processes throw on the eventfulness of translation, along with its inevitable inclusions, exclusions, and boundary making?

Conference Schedule:

  Friday, May 2 - James Room, Barnard Hall (Map)
 2:00-2:30 Opening Remarks (Peter Connor and Lydia Liu)
 2:30-4:15 Nergis Ertürk & Shaden Tageldin
Discussant: Brent Hayes Edwards
 4:15-4:45 Coffee
 4:45-6:30 Karen Van Dyck & Naoki Sakai
Discussant: Rosalind Morris
 6:30-7:30    Reception

 

  Saturday, May 3 - Columbia Maison Française (Map)
 9:00-9:30 Coffee
 9:30-11:15 Tamara Chin & Michael Hill
Discussant: Lydia Liu
 11:15-11:45 Coffee
 11:45-1:30 Brian O'Keeffe & David Wills
Discussant: Phillip John Usher
 1:30-2:30 [Break]
 2:30-4:15 Souleymane Bachir Diagne & Emily Apter
Discussant: Stathis Gourgouris
 4:15-4:45 Coffee
4:45-6:30 Hent de Vries & Avital Ronell
Discussant: Peter Connor

 

Conference speakers:

 

Emily Apter (New York University):
"Translation and Event: Re-reading Reading Capital"
Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar’s Lire le Capital [Reading Capital] was and remains a game-changing work of theoretical translation on a par with James Strachey’s “Standard Edition” of Freud. As an instance of theoretical translation, it might be thought of as a philosophical event, comparable in certain respects to Alain Badiou’s recent experimental translation of Plato’s Republic which is itself in some ways a theory of the event and a renewal of the role of translation in philosophical politics. This paper will examine Althusser’s Untranslatables as and against “theory,” with and against political concepts. We will also briefly consider, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Reading Capital, how the materialism of the published text, in its different guises, formats, authorial history, interventions and translations archives a history of theoretical transmutation and praxis.
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Tamara Chin (Brown University):
"The Silk Road Cave and the Tower of Babel"
Around 1900, a single Buddhist cave containing tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts and books in nearly fifty scripts and languages was discovered in the deserts of western China. Over subsequent decades the majority of these texts were taken to museums abroad or disappeared into private collections. This paper explores the allegorization of the cave--both its ancient past and its modern discovery--in colonial, anti-colonial, nationalist, and “Silk Road” historiography. In the case of Great Game-era explorer Aurel Stein, the medieval translation of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese heralded the invasion of China by Hellenic/Indic civilization. Manuscript translations physically embodied the past event, and thus the potential advent, of East-West conjunction. Although intimately associated with the Silk Road today, such cave antiquities (manuscripts, sculptures, murals) and their dispersal only became retrospectively tied to the term “Silk Road” in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in 1970s Chinese diplomacy with Europe and the US. A counter-figure of sorts to the Tower of Babel, the Silk Road cave raises the specter of prelapserian polyglottism, not universal language. Instead of inviting philosophical questions concerning the limits of translation and the task of the (individual) translator, the Silk Road cave provokes debates concerning cultural property, the international task of co-operative translation, and the geopolitical conditions of translation, ancient and modern.
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Peter Connor (Barnard College, Director, Center for Translation Studies): Conference co-organizer & discussant
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Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University):
"Translation, the postcolonial and the universal"
My presentation will first examine the figure of "the interpreter" in colonial context and the significance of the move from the status of "interpreter" to that of "translator". It will then examine Merleau-Ponty's affirmation that in our postcolonial world universality has come to mean "lateral universal" and the end of "overarching universal", in order to show that the meaning of "lateral universal" is precisely "translation".
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Karen Van Dyck (Columbia University):
"Translation and the Homophonic Space of Multilingualism"
Literature today asks us to think about how we can translate the foreign accents and hybrid idioms of the immigrant and how this might alter set categories of them and us. From Nabokov to Junot Diaz the question arises: what does the translator do with texts that are already working between two or more languages and cultures? What can translation learn from multilingual literature? My paper takes the case of two contemporary Greek novellas – one about a Greek immigrant in America (Valtinos) and the other about an Albanian immigrant in Greece (Dimitriou) – and examines how creoles such as Gringlish and Gralbanian create homophonic spaces between languages and the possibilities this poses for translation. I consider the limitations of existing English translations of contemporary Greek literature of immigration, namely their tendency towards one-to-one correspondences, whether as overt explication or recognizable dialects, and point to other alternatives that take homophony as an excuse to create puns and sound patterning contextually in the translations themselves. By viewing migration through the lens of multilingualism we can come up with new categories of cultural belonging and translation that don’t fit traditional patterns of immigrant assimilation or Diaspora separatism, domestication or foreignization.
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Brent Hayes Edwards (Columbia University): Discussant
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Nergis Ertürk (Penn State University):
"Language as Event: On Russian Muslim Writing and the Communications Revolution of the 19th Century"
This paper will address the imagination of language as event in the work of the most influential 19th century Russian Muslim jadidist, İsmail Bey Gasprinski (1851-1914), in the context of the translation and communications and revolution of the 19th century. Despite Russian imperial censorship and control, the late nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented increase in print and translational activities among Muslim subjects in Turkic languages of the Russian Empire. Considered the founder of modern Turcology and pan-Turkism, Gasprinski edited the most influential and enduring newspaper of the period, Tercüman/ Perevodchik (Interpreter), seeking to establish a simplified common written Turkic language as the “mother tongue” (ana dil) of a wide reading public that by the late nineteenth century stretched from Istanbul through Caucasia to Turkestan. His 1887-1889 serialized novel, Frengistan Mektupları (European Letters), which thematized the translative travel of Turkic across other languages (most notably French), constitutes an important archive of not only the register but also the imagination of the Turkic language itself as a medium. Through a reading of his newspaper articles and this serialized novel, I will suggest that Gasprinski imagined the Turkic language as an unheimlich force linking its users to unseen and unheard places, rather than as a homogeneous empty medium. If Gasprinski’s writings ultimately gave way to a discourse of Muslim Turkic identitarianism, I suggest, we can ascribe that to his profound enchantment with and fear of an overwhelming translative Turkic producing unpredictable effects. Although Gasprinski's project to generalize a common written Turkic language and identity did not persist into the twentieth century, it was revived in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR, which saw the rise of a new pan-Turkic continentalism claiming a linguistic and cultural unity stretching from “the Adriatic coast to the wall of China.” Where Gasprinski's writings are read today so as to reflect an impossible self-sameness, I suggest that we counter such appropriations by emphasizing the eventfulness of language and translation in his work as staging the inherent internal otherness of Turkic language and identity.
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Stathis Gourgouris (Columbia University): Discussant
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Michael Hill (University of South Carolina):
"On Not Knowing: Translation, Knowledge Work, and Modern Literature"
Behind the well-worn standard of “faithfulness” in translation lies the assumption that translators should know the language from which they translate. But for some of the most influential translations of modern world literature—works such as Ezra Pound’s Cathay— we often find the opposite to be true: ad hoc, fast-and-loose translations abound, gaining acceptance for the beauty of their language or for the way they inspire their readers. The same is true for many important translations into Chinese in the twentieth century, even as the critical judgment of these translations is much less charitable than that afforded to Pound, taking the use of tandem translation, relay translation, and retranslation as signs of cultural belatedness, institutional backwardness, or a general “lack” of coevalness between modern Sinophone literature and modern world literature. This essay argues that well-known translators’ reflections on the problem of not knowing the source language offer important insights not only into translation but also on the formation of modern literary writing. I examine three important moments in the history of translation into Chinese, including the “creative” translations of Lin Shu (1852–1924) and Su Manshu (1884–1918); the translations of “weak and oppressed peoples” and their theoretical and critical packaging prepared by writers associated with the New Culture movement; and the ambitious work of Mao Dun (1896–1981) to translate Russian novels into Chinese (via English) after the 1949 revolution. Beyond their importance for Sinophone debates about the nature of translation and the affective relation between literary text and reader, these critical writings and translations also offer possibilities for rethinking the role of language and Benjaminian “pure language” in modern world literature.
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Lydia Liu (Columbia University): Conference co-organizer & discussant
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Rosalind Morris (Columbia University): Discussant
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Brian O’Keeffe (Barnard College, Associate Director, Center for Translation Studies):
"Translation, Death, and Survival"
The eventfulness of translation: the technicality of the term ‘eventful’ seeks to give some sense that what happens, when translation happens, is not easy to describe, not easy to theorize or conceptualize. At the very least, a fair bit happens – the event of translation is full, it is of great moment, and the stakes are high. But how high? Is it a matter of life and death, as vitally important as that? It would seem so, if Walter Benjamin is right to relate translation to the exercise of ensuring that texts enjoy an afterlife. But then again, that would prompt us to consider what, in the event, a translator might actually feel, when that demand – Translate me! Safeguard my afterlife! – is registered. What does it feel like, that is to say, when one is bidden to undertake a work of translation as vital as that? What is a translator to do, in responding to that extraordinary appeal? My paper attempts to answer such questions by way of a modest commentary on the Derridean way with translation – it is a deeply ethical way, and Derrida gives us, so I will hope to show, a beautiful sense of what it means to ensure the text’s living-on in translation.
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Avital Ronell (New York University):
"The Prayer of Babel"
A liberatory consideration of constitutive trip-ups in translation.
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Naoki Sakai (Cornell University):
"Translation and the Tropics of Collective Individuality/Indivisibility"
A plurality of peoples inhabits the world, and frequently the world is presented as a common space where differences among peoples are manifest. Each people is a group, so differences among peoples are not entirely reducible to differences among individuals. In order to tell the plurality of peoples from the plurality of human individuals, we often rely upon categories for collective identities such as family, kin, race, nation, ethnos, and culture. The most commanding category for collective unity in the modern world is found in language, so that a language is represented as expressing the primordial union of a people. If one human body is somewhat a marker of human ‘individuality,’ the image - or figure, trope, or schema - of a language gives the sense of an individual or indivisible collectivity. Yet, on what grounds is it possible to claim that the image of a language is autonomous and self-oriented?

My paper argues that what is primarily given is not an image of a language but the image, figure, trope, or schema of languages; the locale where languages are identified is never contained in a language. The identification of a language is possible only in a heteronomous encounter of a frontier where translation is conducted. Differences among peoples precede the union of a people, just as translation comes before the identification of a language. I refer to this process of social encounter as “bordering,” a term borrowed Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson.

Then, in two directions, my argument seeks the consequences of the language’s pluralist origin: the first is a historical analysis of a schematism by which the image of languages was reorganized in modernity. The national language comes into being through this schematism. The second is the question of culture, and of its subordination to the schematism of national languages; culture is often modeled after the image of a national language.

From these two perspectives, I want to explore the concept of ‘heterolingual address’ and “bordering.”
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Shaden Tageldin (University of Minnesota):
"Fénelon’s Gods, al-Tahtawi’s Jinn: Comparison, Translation, and the Compulsion to Realism"
This paper explores the relationship between nineteenth-century comparative literature, empiricism, and the drive toward the “vernacular” realism of the novel. I focus on an 1850s Arabic translation (published 1867) by the Egyptian intellectual Rifa'a al-Tahtawi of Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d’Ulysse. Reading al-Tahtawi’s translation against the realist impulses of British and French literary comparatism—from Joseph Reinaud and Thomas Macaulay in the 1830s to Hutcheson Posnett in the 1880s—I posit that translation as a transformational moment in the reception of the “European” literary tradition in the Arab-Islamic world. By arguing that the Greek gods who populate Fénelon’s 1699 sequel to Homer’s Odyssey are analogous to Muslim jinn—spirits of smokeless fire understood to be real—al-Tahtawi rewrites what Muslims long had dismissed as pagan “fiction” as Islamized “truth,” thereby negotiating a crisis of comparison and mediating a literary-epistemic sea change in modern Arabic fiction. Indeed, the “untrue” gods of the Greeks (and of French literature) turn not just real but historically referential: al-Tahtawi translates Fénelon’s original into a text that evokes the real-historical world of 1850s Egypt, exhorting an unjust Ottoman-Egyptian sovereign to heed lessons that Fénelon’s original addressed to French royalty. Recent critics, notably Catherine Gallagher, have defined the fictionality specific to the modern European novel as neither pure deceit nor pure truth. I argue that al-Tahtawi’s rehabilitation of the mythological as the supernatural/historical real, of the “blasphemous” as a speaker of sacred or secular truths, reflects a parallel process of fiction-making in Arabic. Yet a divergent process too, for al-Tahtawi’s translation actively solicits belief in the unbelievable by making Fénelon’s gods and heroes refer to “realities” (Islamic jinn, live Ottoman-Egyptian rulers) beyond the inner world of the text. Al-Tahtawi’s engagement with Fénelon, I suggest, invites us to rethink the translational politics of modern literary comparatism.
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Phillip John Usher (Barnard College, Associate Director, Center for Translation Studies): Discussant
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Hent de Vries (Johns Hopkins University):
"Translating Jerusalem into Athens"
From at least Tertullian's De praescriptione haereticorum up to Emmanuel Levinas's Lectures Talmudiques, the problem of translating Biblical language, prophecy and wisdom, into the concepts and categories of Greek and Latin philosophies has imposed itself. But the need to do so, with all its accompanying difficulties, reaches further back and beyond. From Philo of Alexandria's allegorical readings to current discourse on the untranslatability of philosophical vocabularies, the question has been one of understanding translation as a type of interpretation, as an argument in its own right, to be distinguished from apologetics and anachronistic homogenization. This paper investigates this predicament of all predication by way of some salient examples.
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David Wills (Brown University):
"The After Life of Translation After Benjamin"
Somewhat overlooked in Walter Benjamin's famous "Task of the Translator" essay is a nevertheless explicit emphasis regarding the "unmetaphorical objectivity" of "the idea of life and afterlife in works of art." “Even in times of narrowly prejudiced thought,” he immediately adds, “there was an inkling that life was not limited to organic corporeality.” That emphasis can be linked back to his use of the word "translation" in "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man" in the context of man's act of naming versus God's creation. I will argue that in both cases Benjamin can be read as elaborating not just a concept of translation, but a concept of life that in no way reduces to the organic; and that it is precisely the sense he wants to give to translation that serves as the basis for such an unmetaphorically objective nonorganic life; a form of life I call “inanimation.”

My paper will first trace the development of those ideas by comparing elements of the two essays by Benjamin and then examine how Benjamin’s iconic “angel of history” is itself drawn into similar relations of inorganic life and translation as it moves from Klee’s painting into Benjamin’s theses on history. What emerges in the case of the angel is a more disjunctive understanding of translation based on the idea of history as montage or as blasting out of the continuum, in which case, as Carol Jacobs suggests, it becomes a “metaphor for criticism” or commentary in general, and gives license to not just liberal but radical translation(s).
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