Emily Apter – Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability

let me say what a pleasure it is to be here with a group of friends whose writings and critical interventions have inspired me for years and with whom I've had the pleasure of collaborating it seems really not accidental that stathis kagura's John Hamilton Tom Keenan as well as Jacques lesser and Jane Silas have work which is coming out or has come out roughly the same time because it's germinated in a common scene I would call it New York uptown and downtown but of course it extends to the many places we live and work and you know to make a grandiose claim I think actually in many cases ways our collective projects have shifted the contents of complet what our books collectively highlight are topics that have political traction in the real world while also extending certain technical formations in the humanities deconstruction philology poesis eggsy Jesus translation practices media theory and especially philosophy these topics on which we all write include and I think these are some of the worst places we overlap the politics of secularization the application of philology to modes of existence secular criticism is non transcendental metaphysics and war as that which needs no translation this is an idea Thomas worked on indeed which represents the limit case where translation is impossible or to extend this also towards his project another problem the impossibility of visualizing democracy which is separate from imagining or writing it so now a few words about my own book as some of you know it grew out of an ambitious project that I worked on with bah bahah casa en Bolivar Jacques lesra and Michel wood which involved editing the English edition and translation Casals vocabulary and a philosophy dictionnaire de Santa Brasilia which is going to come out with Princeton in 2014 in February hopefully celebrated here as well under the controversial e translated title dictionary untranslatable as a philosophical lexicon and I won't go into that choice but it's something hopefully we'll have a chance to talk more about in other occasions and of course the vocabulary was an impossible project how do you translate the untranslatable and especially into sort of a hegemonic language like English and this in turn was involved taking very seriously castles one of her working premises which is that she wants to philosophize in languages philosophize and languages this means that this project is not an encyclopedia of static concepts it's not a concept history as in cosa lek and others it is a question of what happens when philosophical problematics are viewed through the lens of how they don't translate across languages or why they're continuously retranslated or why they are since preserved as terms within Azam's loanwords in other languages so that's those are some of the very basic ways one can define this term and it's at the key of course at the heart of what I'm calling untranslated bility but of course I'm also drawing on terms that and work by Samuel Weber on the abilities of ability in a sense he talks about Benjamin's Translate ability the ability within that and I'm pushing this more in terms of the opposite effects so the untranslatable in castles project was used to projected a cartography of national differences in the field of language it treated the concept word as I mentioned not as an abstracted entry within concept history but as a politically situated locution and it was polemically Marshall two-stage especially in the French context a a difficult confrontation between continental and analytic philosophy between philosophy that engages in a critique of metaphysics logos sovereign truths and philosophy that presupposes the language of the world centered on the referential value of truth claims that's a real simplification but I just throw that out now of course it's kind of counterintuitive to argue for untranslatable 'ti in the era of what some called the translational term and there are critics who consider such a move to be unconvincing if down if not downright folly I'm thinking of David bellows this book is that a fish in your ear translation and the meaning of everything which because he has an agent is selling a ton and but he writes that the circulation of novels among all of the curricula now languages of the world and there are incontestable conversations with one another demonstrate without a shadow of doubt that style does survive translation in some the widespread notion that style is untranslatable he says it's just a variant of the focus Nostrum that a translation is no substitute for the original and he treats the idea that certain contents are ineffable or ungraspable to similar skepticism arguing with clever reverse logic that the ineffable quote is not a problem for translation but translation is one big problem for the ineffable so for bellows he says one of the truth is that translation teaches us is that everything is F Abal everything is f abomb now in my view to say that everything is F Abul implies faith in the limitless capacities of human rationalist epistemology it's more of a categorical statement about the conditions of optimal cognise ability proof of linguistic ineffability or untranslatable 'ti bellos suggests that translators breached the limit of expression simply by doing what they do which is to say translating yes I would reply translators make headway against the ineffability with ingenious discoveries of words for saying the unsaid with felicitous feats of synonymous this doesn't make a translate ability the operative rule or disqualify untranslatable 'ti so part of what I'm doing here is activating the untranslatable not as pure difference which is rightly suspect as just another non coeval form of the romantic absolute or a fetish of the other but as a linguistic form of creative failure with homeopathic use so also in my book untranslatable tease becomes a way of working i explore how it harks back to theories of translation the bands and this is where it coincides I think with staff thesis work the bands and prohibitions on translating sexual sacred texts translation is a term used to refer to God's inscription on the world humans and objects the idea of being translated in a religious sense which is very often taken to mean to die to be transported or to be in a State of Trance finitude or theologies of translational justice which echoes in the french expression had via or justice which means literally to prosecute the books original title I recall was the politics of untranslatable 'ti in comparative literature which seated the whole project in a meditation on the discipline but I soon realized that comparative literature for me really wasn't the center of gravity or if it was it was because it was a problem of translating itself it's a trick it's in a sense a term generating machine that seeks to name a relate comparative non national entities or units and it's an idea and if it's an idea that congeals around some notion some of utopian idea of a planetary paradigm with an eco political purview it's continually facing the problem of repeating the unipolar logic of global capital lots of terms try to get around the ontological nationalism of names for languages and countries and regions and ethnic groups diaspora transnational circum Atlantic South by South evil a huge Paris states the list is endless but as they proliferate they call up phantom identities that themselves soon become ossified and so in a sense comparative literature for me is that and continued criticality that sense of always new terms but also a suspicion that those terms very quickly become hardened into something that then has to be to keep on translating so it's a kind of translation terminable interminable do I have a few more minutes okay all right well then you'll just have to get the book for what I was going to say but as it went to press versus marketing department sent me a questionnaire containing queries that I found very difficult to answer what needs will the book be fulfilling what will it help its readers to do better if the book could be said to fulfill a need or help readers do anything better I would point to its potential contribution to forms of literary compare it ISM that recognized the importance of non translation mistranslation in comparability and untranslated ability and I will stop there you

4 thoughts on “Emily Apter – Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability

  1. I have such a hard time in understanding what she writes. And the video does not help… But the idea seems to be interesting!

  2. I would describe this sermon as "merde" which is VERY translatable.

  3. …too read; too prepared; too written. Too wantonly intellectualised. Too lost in its own language, its own self-important, self-referential labelling Though interesting and challenging, it lacks – essentially – persuasion. It s principally an academic exercise in vainly showing off to academic peers…

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