Thoughts on untranslatability, intellectual property, and hummus

Emily Apter. Against World Literature: On the politics of untranslatability. Verso, 2013. Print.

In her introduction to this, for the lack of a better word, superbly badass book, Emily Apter writes that her “aim is to activate untranslatability as a theoretical fulcrum of comparative literature” in order to “challenge flaccid globalisms that paid lip service to alterity while doing little more than to buttress neoliberal ‘big tent’ syllabi taught in English” (3). Her vehemence against “world literature,” as it is commonly used today, rivals George Orwell’s impassioned rant against overused cliches and dead metaphors in “Politics and the English Language” (1946). Similarly to Orwell, who regarded attentiveness to one’s choice of words as the first line of defense against totalitarianism, Apter argues for paying attention to the Untranslatable (keywords and concepts that challenge notions of cultural and linguistic equivalence) in order to resist what Debjani Ganguly describes as the “three negative models of human existence [challenged by Edward Said]: nationalism, religious ethnocentrism and exclusivism derived from identitarian thought” (cited in Apter 212).

In Apter’s hands, the Untranslatable becomes a powerful weapon adroitly manipulated with the help of translation theory and philosophy, and she manages to do this by discussing concrete, material examples drawn from the fields of:

  • contemporary politics (discussion of Palestine and statelessness)
  • border politics (the disconnect between the ostensibly “border-less,” fluid world literature and start reality of strictly policed national borders and checkpoints)
  • intellectual property (translation as peculiar genre susceptible to plagiarism)
  • humanism and the university (Derrida’s “duty to translate”)
  • media ecology and translation as comparable to natural selection (Moretti’s world-systems theory)
  • paranoid globalism (works of DeLillo and Pynchon) and hacktivism.

Apter appears to write confidently in these areas, drilling in depth as well as in breadth, occasionally veering away from the Untranslatable and reintroducing it again — a joy ride that ends, a bit unsatisfactorily, with a short discussion of “planetary dysphoria,” a term the coined herself mean to describe “the type of dark ecology that suffuses every aspect of economic, social, and terrestrial life” (338). Referencing Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, Apter offers a planetary vision that is rather bleak, full of “manifestations of pride, indignation, shame, and bellicosity” — and it is unclear whether the Untranslatable is the cause, the palliative, or (probably not) the panacea to the condition (339).The ride itself, however, is fascinating. If it was Apter’s intention in organizing her book to help the readers experience the plastic, mercurial, confusing, and generative qualities of the Untranslatable, then she succeeds with panache.

Perhaps the best approach to illustrate Apter’s methodology is to focus on one chapter. In one of her most fascinating pieces, “Marx’s Bovary,” she presents a case study of Eleanor Marx’s (Karl’s daughter’s) translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and examines the relationship between the father of Marxism and the father of style indirect libre. Although the two never met, Apter argues that Eleanor’s translation is a sort of intermediary, in which the daughter, influenced by her father’s radical ideas and unconsciously (or consciously) wove those into the fabric of Flaubert. Eleanor’s use of “wealth” rather than “riches” in her English translation is one of such examples, Apter explains, that prompted “Anglophone readers to associate luxury as version of money, hardened by congealed capital” (284).

In addition to the political dimension of Eleanor’s translation, Apter highlights how it also challenged the Romantic notion of ownership (Eleanor fessed up to being a “conscientious” translator faithfully (almost mechanically!) reproducing the original). Apter then compares Eleanor’s version to later English translations, including de Man’s (who “improved” on her translation for Norton rather than translating it from scratch) and Lydia Davis’s. Just as the reader grows comfortable with comparative analysis of these translation, Apter switches gears and discusses how Eleanor’s approach to translation is related to the French geneticist field of manuscript studies, leaps to the disconnect between the theory and practice in Walter Benjamin’s translations of Baudelaire, moves back to Eleanor’s “language of labour” and Derrida’s theory of “hauntology,” and concludes that in the translation the internationalism of The Communist Manifesto is sustained by a language “released from the burden of possession by a single authorial signature” (298). It is unclear how the Untranslatable fits in exactly in the chapter — unclear because it is not stated outright and the reader is invited to make his or her conclusions. The Untranslatable, for me, is the fact that a word (“riches” or “wealth”?) can have multiple connotations, that a text is malleable, living, and slippery thing, and that the work of translation is to come up with a viable solution.

Clearly, the Untranslatable is not a new concept (Andrew Chesterman includes it among the five “supermemes” of translation theory), but Apter deserves credit for bringing it back to the spotlight. Together with the recently issued translation of Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles by Princeton University Press (Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, 2014), I hope that this book will spark new debates on the subject to make good old George proud. For myself, I will never be able to look at a package of store-bought “Mediterranean hummus” the same way again. What the heck does “Mediterranean” mean anyway and why was this hackneyed food label chosen over so many exciting others?  Why not the more authentic “Levantine dip”? Clearly, “Palestinian” and “Israeli” is out of the question — too controversial. But perhaps “Middle Eastern” is your cup of tea?

 

 

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