Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?

The experience of translating

Seamus Heany once said that the best part about translating is that you get to finish something you didn’t have to start. It’s a strange feeling, though, finishing up something for someone else — and not only that, finishing something that is always necessarily secondary and supplemental to that work by someone else. It is supplemental in the full Derridean sense, insofar as a mistranslation can become a “dangerous supplement” whose incorrect rendering replaces and obliterates the author’s original meaning.

That’s not where my anxiety lies as a translator of Agamben, however. Agamben is not a “difficult” author to translate in the same way that, for instance, Laruelle is. His writing style is smooth and straightforward, and he very rarely places a lot of emphasis on the specific resources of the Italian language (in the way that Derrida could be said to push French to the limit, or Heidegger German). My anxiety is less dramatic — I worry I’m going to make some dumb, low-level error. Nothing that obscures or distorts Agamben’s meaning, just the kind of thing that makes me look like an idiot.

There are errors of that kind in my published translations. They’re not huge, but they bother me. The worst is when I simply transcribed the Italian word “due” instead of translating it as “two.” It’s surprising in a way that something like that doesn’t happen more. When I run a spellcheck over my translation work, I notice how my spelling has been strangely influenced by Italian, and more generally how the quality of my typing deteriorates when I’m doing the relatively mechanical work of translating rather than producing material in my own name. Most of that comes out in spellcheck or at the various stages of editing and revising (whether I’m pressing friends into service or responding to the press’s copy editor). I comfort myself that some Agamben translations have more such errors than mine, and I have yet to find a translation that has none.

The worst part with Agamben isn’t the translation as such, but the vast apparatus of citations. For every source he cites, I must determine whether an English translation is extant. If so, the press requires that I base my quotations on that translation, though I must often “triangulate” between the English, the original text, and Agamben’s provided translations. Sometimes I must supply formal citations where the text lacks them (above all in classical references), and just for the sake of thoroughness, I have also taken up the habit of supplying macrons and breathings in Greek citations where the text lacks them. Agamben also loves to cite untranslated Latin, sometimes a paragraph at a time, and I must often provide my own translation in a concession to the monolingualism of the other.

Tracking down these sources is extremely time-consuming and often frustrating. The method I’ve developed is to put quotes in boldface in my draft. If it’s a long quote from a text I know to be translated, I’ll often simply put “quote” at that point in the text. If it’s a short quote, I’ll usually do a rough rendering of Agamben’s Italian just for my own convenience in tracking it down later. Then I go back after I have a full draft and fill in the quotations. Every time I do a translation I consider whether there’s any way around leaving them for the end, and I’ve decided it’s unfortunately the only way to go — tracking down quotations and translating are two fundamentally different tasks, and switching back and forth hurts the quality of both.

Better to stay “in the zone” of translating, I say, so as to get a full draft as quickly as possible. And sometimes I can really, really be “in the zone.” Those days can be satisfying, albeit in the weird way that intensive data entry is satisfying. I feel like I’ve accomplished a feat, but I weirdly don’t have anything to show for it. This is not to say that I don’t benefit from doing these translations. I get paid, and I also get the credibility of an “expert” on Agamben (or on certain texts of his), with the invitations to speak and write that go along with that. But at the end of the day, the person who really has “something to show” for my work is Agamben, who is after all the author of the text.

The best I can hope for is to be invisible, not to draw undue attention to myself through mistakes or overly aggressive translation choices. My fondest hope is that my translation will “hold up” after three or four close readings, at which point anyone wishing to go further would have to turn to the original Italian in any case. My nightmare, of course, is that I’ll wind up one of those accursed translators everyone hates (like the poor guy who did Adorno’s Negative Dialectics) or that one of my translation choices will later be regarded as having set back the scholarship by a generation (like the translation of Freud’s Trieb as “instinct”). I’ve probably already avoided the former, and the latter seems intrinsically unlikely given Agamben’s writing style.

And yet, and yet… I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, panicked at some translation error I’ve surely made. The feel of those incidents is not like a social anxiety dream (like where one shows up naked to school), but like one of those “work dreams” — the kind where you’re waiting tables and discover you’ve completely neglected one for an hour. That’s what it is, at the end of the day: a job. It’s a relatively cool job, one that helps me keep on top of my language skills, but it’s still a job.

Announcement: Future Agamben translations

I have been contracted by Stanford University Press for two further Agamben translations. The first is a pamphlet-length book entitled Pilate and Jesus, which I have promised to complete this summer. The second, and presumably more interesting to most, is the final volume of the Homo Sacer series, entitled The Use of Bodies, which I have promised to complete by the end of next summer.

I have received the text of The Use of Bodies, but I have not had time to read it as of yet. I plan to discuss it at length in my paper for the ACLA panel on the Homo Sacer series that I have organized with Virgil Brower. For now, I can say that its size is comparable to The Kingdom and the Glory, that Agamben disavows any claim to be “concluding” the series or making a decisive shift from the critical to the prescriptive, and that it promises an explicit engagement with Agamben’s debts to Debord, Foucault, and Heidegger.

Two questions on Heidegger translation conventions

  1. Dasein — the convention of leaving this term untranslated seems to be the single most consistent trait across all English translations of Heidegger. It does have the disadvantage that leaving foreign words untranslated can make them seem like mysterious occult terms, and it can also make it seem as though Heidegger virtually created this term. I wonder if translating Dasein as “the existing being” might have been a better idea, all things considered. It makes it clearer, for example, that Heidegger is using a common term in the region of “being” in a narrower terminological way. It’s admittedly clunky, but it’s also clunky to leave a German word constantly untranslated, particularly when you then also need to leave it in German in Heidegger’s quotes from previous philosophers who used the term more broadly.

  2. Germanic and Latinate synonyms — the convention of distinguishing a pair of Germanic and Latinate synonyms (zeitlich, temporale) by capitalizing the latter is probably the least bad option in many cases, but I wonder if enough of an effort was made to find and perhaps even coin synonyms. Obviously one wants to avoid the worst excesses of the first translation of the Contributions, but would “timely” and “temporal” be so hideous, for example? I’m at a disadvantage because I only really know philosophical German, but my understanding is that many of the terminological usages of “common” German words ring foreign for German readers as well.

These are small points, since anyone who wants to study Heidegger’s texts at a detailed level is going to need to read the German in any case. But what do you think?

Heidegger’s Verstehen

My students and I agree — Heidegger’s use of the term “understanding” (Verstehen) in sec. 31 of Being and Time seems very counter-intuitive. His “interpretation” (auslegung) seems to be closer to what we would commonly designate as “understanding,” insofar as it involves something like reflection. By contrast, “understanding” seems to be almost reducible to action, given that “understanding” has the structure of projection (entwerfen). This connection to action is reinforced by the implicit contrast between state-of-mind (Befindlichkeit), which is a more passive condition of “finding oneself” in a given mood and which is associated with Dasein’s “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). Having been thrown (state-of-mind), Dasein then has no choice but to throw itself (understanding).

This makes me wonder if Heidegger is leaning harder on the etymology of Verstehen than he explicitly lets on. The English translation “understanding” (which seems essentially unavoidable) does bring us the connection with “standing” that makes “understanding” a kind of Being-in — but what I wonder about is the ver-. I find ver- to be the German prefix that is most difficult to get a handle on, particularly insofar as it sometimes has a negative or privative meaning but also sometimes serves as an intensifier. Perhaps the common usage of would lean more heavily on the latter, insofar as “understanding” something means dwelling upon it in a more intense way than usual. But if Heidegger’s Verstehen is associated primarily with the kind of projecting or throwing of oneself that responds to a situation of thrownness, perhaps the ver- is meant to carry its negative connotation — Dasein finds itself in a situation in which it can’t just stand still, in which there is no secure place to stand.

If Dasein is always already in a state of Verstehen, then that would mean that its ground is always being cut out from under it, that part of the possibility of its Being that it has to be requires Dasein to constantly de-stand — it is always forced out of what it factually (tatsachlich) “is” into its factical possibilities. Or perhaps we can even hear the ambivalence of the prefix, insofar as Dasein’s “ground” is precisely the perpetually ungrounding possibility that weirdly serves as something like an “essence” for Dasein. Dasein very emphatically stands in a place where it cannot merely stand.

A Freud question

In his essay on “Fetischismus” (Studienausgabe, vol. III, pg. 383), Freud’s first example is a puzzling one:

Am merkwürdigsten erschien ein Fall, in dem ein junger Mann einen gweissen “Glanz auf der Nase” zur fetischistischen Bedingung erhoben hatte. Das fand seine überraschende Aufklärung durch die Tatsache, daß der Patient eine englische Kinderstube gehabt hatte, dann aber nach Deutschland gekommen war, wo er seine Muttersprache fast vollkommen vergaß. Der aus den ersten Kinderzeiten stammende Fetisch war nicht deutsch, sondern englisch zu lesen, der “Glanz auf der Nase” war eigentlich ein “Blick auf die Nase” (glance = Blick), die Nase war also der Fetisch, dem er übrigens nach seinem Belieben jenes besondere Glanzlicht verlieh, das andere nicht wahrnehmen konnten.

He seems to be citing it only because of the weirdness of the cross-linguistic pun — which surely is weird and interesting! And yet there are other weird things going on here. Does he have a fetish for… shiny noses? How could that have originated out of “glancing up the nose”? He never returns to this example, so I’m kind of lost at sea here. Any ideas?

A German question

What’s the deal with the final syllable of Bewusstsein, the German word for “consciousness”? It seems as though the more natural formation would be something like Bewusstenheit — I’m not aware of other words that substitute a -sein. Does anyone have any insight here, or any passages to cite where a German philosopher makes a big deal about it, etc.?

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