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.

Blood: Book Event Open Thread

I would like to extend my gratitude to all the readers, commenters, and especially the contributors who have made this book event so generative. The wide range of responses is a testament to the text’s careful attention to the Christian process of disciplining (in multiple senses).

I wanted to provide an open thread for any thoughts or questions about the text that didn’t fit in pervious responses. In particular, how readers think Blood will affect their future research and thinking. Or, if you have any questions for Gil Anidjar, what would they be?

Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy

I woke up this morning to a retweet of JKAS’ Wall Street Journal “Has Anyone Seen Last Year’s Promising Freshman?” It was, umm, “interesting” to read a pedagogical perspective dripping with utter contempt for his students especially as I had gone bed late last night reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. hooks encourages her readers to foster an openness in the classroom driven in part by student desire but also that recognizes that every pedagogical decision is a political decision, that when one teaches only the canon that one has advocated something. Teaching is never simply teaching and if you think it is you’re either not thinking or being willfully ignorant. Now, if we take JKAS at his word at being “invited into this exclusive club” of “liberal enlightenment”, would should, I suppose, trust that he is smart enough to know how insulting his article will be taken as an insult. After all, in it he lambasts professors, his very colleagues (I suppose tenure makes rascals of folks), for not simply  extolling the virtues of the Western and instead “confuse teaching with advocacy”. But setting aside the veracity of such a claim (it seems to me to lack merit) we may assume that while JKAS is aware enough to know it will cause offense we may also assume, since he wrote the article, that he enjoys the fact that it will be offensive. He may even feel that he’s struck a blow against the complex of PC college professors whose only taste for intolerance is against the intolerant. In other words, JKAS is a contrarian and so shares less in common with the lover of wisdom than he does with the sophist who likes the way the words feel in his mouth. Ironically this means he shares more in common with the common right-wing caricature of “social justice warriors” who get off on their outrage as he clearly is enjoying his own smug denigration. Read the rest of this entry »

Altizer: “America and the Death of God”

Thomas Altizer asked that I pass this along on here.

“America and the Death of God”

by Thomas J. J. Altizer

Our most revolutionary prophet, William Blake, in his first prophetic poem, America (1793), enacted the American Revolution as the initial realization of the death of God, the deity here named as Urizon, the preincarnate and alien God, whose death initiates apocalypse. This is the God whom Hegel named as Abstract Spirit and the “Bad Infinite,” a God not realized until the advent of the modern world, and who is the consequence of an absolute self-negation or self-emptying of the Godhead. Both Blake and Hegel enact the death of God, indeed Hegel and Blake are the first enactors of the death of God, a death that for each is an absolute self-negation or self-emptying, a self-negation that is the absolute source of all and everything. Hence the death of God is both genesis and apocalypse, or absolute beginning and absolute ending, the absolute beginning of all and everything, and the absolute consummation of everything. That consummation itself proceeds out of an original self-negation or self-emptying, one negating or emptying an original absolutely undifferentiated Godhead, and only this self-negation makes possible either apocalypse or the world itself.  Hegel is our most profoundly apocalyptic thinker, while Blake is our most totally apocalyptic visionary, each recover and renew a long lost apocalyptic ground, a ground that is the original ground of Christianity, one that is wholly transformed in the great body of Christianity, and only recovered in revolutionary movements, which are the most revolutionary movements in our history.

Both Blake and Hegel are profoundly Christian, but they are radical Christians, even atheistic Christians, who absolutely negate the given God, or who deeply and comprehensively realize that this God has absolutely negated itself, a self-negation that inaugurates the modern world. Each could know the French Revolution as the historical realization of the death of God, but Blake, at least in America, could know the American Revolution not only as the initial realization of the death of God, but as the inaugurator of absolute revolution. This is the deepest calling of America, one known to every deeply American seer, and actualized in that America which is the first secular nation, the first not only to separate Church and State, but to create a public realm that is a truly secular realm. This inspired an assault upon America by many European Christians, but Europeans have never been able to understand America, and the question can be genuinely asked if America has ever understood itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Laodicea, Conclusion: “Don’t just stand there, naked ones, cover yourself!”

Ramsey regarded her letters as though they were treasures not to be cherished, their value neither monetary nor sentimental. These were not love notes whose excesses one might later come to regret. He once suggested to Miriam that he thought they told a story so slowly as to be imperceptible to him. This made her laugh. —If they tell a story, it is one I’d never want to read.

The shuffling of a dozen church bulletins and the sudden firefly glow of phones displaying the time told Ramsey he needed to find his ending. How to get to repentance, this was always the question. Forgiveness, that’s the easy part, softly and gently Jesus is always calling, he could sing this until his face was blue. If he’s done the job, if he’s laid out the sin and he’s described the shame, getting too specific about how to avoid either was a bit redundant. Everything else about the religion was built on the solidest foundation of assumption, from the a priori beginning to the predestined end, but not this? Though it frustrated him that the church allowed no leeway or shortcuts when it came to navigating the narrow path of their salvation, he nevertheless tried to make it as difficult for them as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

This fall

This week, I’ve been settling back into my Chicago apartment and mostly letting my brain rest after the brutal monastic discipline of this summer. I’ve also had a couple meetings at Shimer, which has got my mind starting to churn on my teaching. I think it should be an interesting semester. At Shimer, I’m teaching two sections of Humanities 1: Art and Music (something like “intro to fine arts”) and an elective course on Islamic thought, and I’m also doing a graduate seminar at Chicago Theological Seminary based on my devil research. It strikes me as a good balance — I get a chance to solidify a course I taught for the first time last year (Hum 1), do a new course in a new area, and rethink an old course in a new setting.

On Hum 1, I’m teaching in parallel with my colleague Aron Dunlap, and we both agreed that we needed to make the class more rigorous. Students have sometimes not taken it seriously, in large part due to their skepticism that fine arts are a “real” academic topic, but also in part because we sent the wrong message with the workload. So we’ve beefed up the reading and (more crucially) the writing requirements. We’re hoping that the need to write a paper on the materials will help to add an element of urgency and focus to the discussion. To compensate, we’ve cut the previous element of requiring students to do brief “conversation-starter” papers, an assignment that is often very helpful in other classes but never seemed to work as intended in Hum 1. Another element I’m excited about is that all the sections are scheduled during the Art Institute’s hours of operation, so that we’ll have multiple class sessions that will meet directly at the museum.

While I’m going to be doing more teaching than I’m used to, I’m hoping the CTS devil course will feed directly into my writing due to the ability to incorporate a lecture element into the course (an option unavailable to me with the Shimer version I taught last spring). Being in Hyde Park every week should also be helpful as I work on the complex bibliographical elements involved with my Agamben translation. Another nice element is that my Shimer classes are all bunched together in the morning, so that I should be able to keep working steadily on the translation in the afternoons.

In addition to my teaching, I’m going also to be presenting at a conference on core curricula at religious and secular schools hosted by the Association of Core Text Colleges and giving a talk and a seminar session on Zizek and religion at Portland State University.

Overall, it should be pretty busy — so much so that I can’t really “see” beyond the end of the semester, if that makes sense. So if anyone has recommendations for TV shows to binge-watch starting around December 15, let me know.

Laodicea, Part 5: “that one should represent his past, the other his present, and neither his future.”

Of course, the handwritten letters, too, were her idea. Email was, in her opinion, utilitarian to a fault, and she was convinced that no one reads any that are longer than two paragraphs. Modern information technology, she continued, is well and good for when you simply need to convey something you do not want to trust to memory, like workaday names, places, dates, and times. Quite the opposite, though, for those things which the additions and the failures of memory are not only inevitable but required if the message is to be properly received at all. Not to mention, —Your Baptists, they want life to be like it was in the 1950s, don’t they? With all those women stirring their stews as the men return from work, the boys rough-housing in the front yard with good-nature’d, correctable grace as the girls set the table with the forks and knives in proper array, all those dirty aprons, dusty hats, scuffed knees and pig-tails. Ramsey, who are we to upset this picture of slowed-down, southern-drawled bliss? No, email won’t do at all in that world of yours.

Miriam loved to play the role of city sophisticate, but the fact that she lived in a place as mid-sized and amorphously suburban as Lexington was not lost on her. She had returned after college to care for her mother, who as it happened cared little for Ramsey. Neither cancer in her stomach nor congestion in her lungs diminished Miranda Porter’s thoughts about “the boy turned Baptist.” Read the rest of this entry »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,875 other followers