Bare life vs. naked life

The most famous term from Agamben is surely “bare life,” la vita nuda. As often happens, this term actually stems from Benjamin, specifically the “Critique of Violence,” where he briefly mentions blosses Leben. As Carlo Salzani pointed out in our ACLA seminar on Agamben last spring, Agamben’s la vita nuda is not his own translation of blosses Leben, but is instead drawn from the original Italian translation of Benjamin’s work. And as a translation of Benjamin, la vita nuda is imprecise — one would probably prefer something like “mere life” (or, less circumspectly, “pure life”).

Similarly, the standard translation “bare life” initially seems questionable. One might have opted for “naked life” — a translation that is more visceral and more immediately clarifies that this life is emphatically post-political, not (as one might dare to think) pre-. You cannot be “naked” outside the context of social norms, while you can in some sense be “bare.”

Yet there is something ingenious in the translation “bare life” that warrants preserving it beyond simple considerations of continuity and tradition. It somehow straddles the gap between the original Benjaminian term and Agamben’s translation — echoing the way that the term itself is in a weird space of indeterminacy where it is neither fully Benjamin’s nor fully Agamben’s own creation.

Agamben translation: Update and request

Work on my translation of The Use of Bodies continues apace. I now have full drafts of the prologue, first major part, first “intermezzo,” and second major part. I have nearly completed all bibliographical work for those segments (the publisher requires that I consult English translations of every work Agamben cites if they are available), and over the next week I will be reviewing my drafts and then passing them over to a generous Italian colleague to check. Then I will return to translating new material. The deadline for submission of the final manuscript is August 1, and I am confident I will get it in on time if not a bit early. After that, your guess is as good as mine as to when it comes out.

There is one lingering citation problem I have [used to have, before commenters helped!]. If you provide a full citation and direct quotation from the English translation of the relevant texts in comments, you will earn your way into my acknowledgment section. The problem is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus that purports to be from Oration 31 (better known as the 5th Theological Oration), section 35. In no edition of the orations have I been able to find a section numbered 35 or a quote that even remotely approximates this: “We Greeks say religiously one ousia in three hypostases, the first word expressing the nature of divinity and the second the triplicity of the individuated properties. The Latins think the same, but due to the restrictions of their language and the poverty of their vocabulary, they cannot distinguish the hypostasis from the substance and instead make use of the term persona… It is believed to be a difference of faith, while it is to us only a diversity of words.” I have already run multiple text searches of the transcriptions of the ANF available online. I’m wondering if it’s been completely mislabelled. Somehow it feels more like something John of Damascus would say. Any thoughts?

Preorder mania!!!

Creepiness is now available for preorder on Amazon, as is my translation of Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus. Both will be released in February.

Adventures in Translation: Besetzung

The issues around Strachey’s Standard Edition of Freud’s works are much discussed–Besetzung being an exemplary case. It was rendered “cathexis.” This has several disadvantages, not least of which that most people have no idea what it means. However, finding a suitable alternative is not as simple as pulling out one’s Oxford-Duden. Our reading group is working through Formulierungen über die zwei Pinzipien des psychischen Geschehens and here is our best attempt to make sense of a particularly difficult passage. I’ve put Besetzung in bold:

“An Stelle der Verdrängung, welche einen Teil der auftauchenden Vorstellungen also unlusterzeugend von der Besetzung ausschloß, trat die unparteiische Urteilsfällung, welche entscheiden sollte, ob eine bestimmte Vorstellung wahr oder falsch, das heißt im Einklang mit der Realität sei oder nicht, und durch Vergleichung mit den Erinnerungsspuren der Realität darüber entschied.”

The standard edition has:
“The place of repression, which excluded from cathexis as productive of unpleasure some of the emerging ideas, was taken by an impartial passing of judgement, which had to decide whether a given idea was true or false – that is, whether it was in agreement with reality or not – the decision being determined by making a comparison with the memory-traces of reality.”

Our translation:
“Repression—which works by excluding certain emerging ideas from occupying [the mind], because they would result in unpleasure—was replaced by an impartial act of judgement, which works instead by deciding whether a particular idea is true or false—that is, whether or not it agrees with reality—a decision made by comparing the idea with the memory-traces of reality.”

I believe that the new Penguin translations use investment, but that doesn’t seem to capture the action that Freud is describing in this paper. The solution here was proposed by Simon. What do you think?

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.

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