Theorizing in Untranslatables

Emily Apter

Emily Apter has been professor of French and Comparative literature at the New York University since 2002. After her doctorate at Princeton University, she taught at UCLA and Cornell University, and was a Humanities Council Fellow at Princeton University in 2014. In 2017/18 she was the president of the American Comparative Literature Association. Apter has published widely on the topics of translation theory and practice as well as political theory, including Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic (2017), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (2004/2014), On The Politics of Untranslatability (2013), and The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (2006). She is also editor of the series Translation/transnation at Princeton University Press.

Notes for a Talk given on January 11, 2019 at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in the frame of the Opening Days of Das Neue Alphabet. https://www.hkw.de/de/app/mediathek/video/69579

Untranslatables are identifiable within the lexicographic turn in theory today – by which I refer to the contemporary critical preoccupation – evinced in the series of events grouped under the HKW initiative Das Neue Alphabet/The New Alphabet – with graphology, digitality, data-management, dictionary rubrics and encyclopedic knowledge-objects. The English term “Untranslatable” – used unconventionally as substantive rather than adjective – is itself a kind of misnomer grafted from the French intraduisible. Barbara Cassin used the term in the subtitle of her monumental Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles which I and several co-editors published in English as Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon in 2014.

We fixed on the term Untranslatable, partly because it doesn’t work in English. When you add the definite article – the Untranslatable – it is patently ungrammatical, but that is just the point. In insisting on its weirdness, we hoped to set in motion a rethinking of philosophy through the lens of translation. Working with Untranslatables was a collaborative, laboratory-like experiment. As a mad exercise in translating the untranslatable, the Dictionary, through the efforts of far-flung teams, passed into many languages, among them Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Hebrew, English, and Arabic. The Untranslatable in this context and beyond, gave full thrush to ungraspable, inaccessible dimensions of language, in the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s use of unübersetzbar to describe Hölderlin’s strange, idiosyncratic German renderings of Sophocles’s Greek.

For Cassin the Untranslatable was crucial to a practice she called “philosophizing in languages.” This involved imagining a history of terms or words (rather than pure concepts) that become philosophical by virtue of their transit in and through languages. As deterritorialized, plurilingual constructs, as political philologies traversing sovereign borders, Untranslatables are distinguished by their energeia; their performativity as “symptoms” of lalangue, Lacan’s name for the workings of the unconscious in language. Premier symptoms include a term’s high incidence of mistranslation, retranslation, and non-translation (its carry-over to other languages in the original tongue, say the use of Dasein – marked by Heideggerian metaphysics in English – rather than some approximative expression like “being there.” The history of philosophy as a history of what resists or confounds translation offers up a cognitive map marked by voids, breaks and ruptures rather than connected vectors. Remnants of idiom and dialect, those irritants that Begriffsgeschichte tends to sweep away, are here given their due as elements that change the way we define epistemology, metaphysics and cognitive science. Theorizing in Untranslatables is, in this sense, synonymous with asking anew some of the oldest questions: “How is philosophy named? How should thought be called? (Heidegger’s “Was heisst Denken?”) At a moment when digital languages, AI, powerful search engines, and blockchains are blurring distinctions between natural languages and code, substituting, if you will, an algorithmic baseline for a philological one; as we enter the era of what Jacques Lezra dubs “Google Translate’s Time; the Babel Fish epoch,” characterized by “a different keying of value to time and to labor …a different indexing of labor to human action, intention, body, and, as a result a different concept of the human altogether;” 1 and as we move from rational choice and regimes of maximal calculability to hypothetical orders of “the cognitive nonconscious,” (N. Katherine Hayles), we could say that “theorizing in Untranslatables” is itself a gathering term for the denomination of the unthought as such. 2

Branching out in another direction, theorizing in Untranslatables implies forging political concepts that have, as yet, no name, no standing in canonical political theory or classical political philosophy. Inventing fresh terms for politics, not for the sake of a new nominalism but in the interest of developing a vocabulary of micropolitics, was a central concern of my most recent book Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse and the Impolitic.

It included terms like disentrenchment, interference, obstinacy, nanoracism, thermocracy, and Schadenfreude, as part of a lexicon of psychopower, affect, calculation, ambient political influence, and social milieu. One of the operative premises of the book is that translation seeds new political concepts. “Languaging the political” becomes a way of remapping the field of ordinary politics onto structural transformation and scenes of disjunctive synthesis. A concrete example can be found in the phrase “the Dream Deme,” – a kind of oneiric demos, or phantom of democracy, or political inceptionism – hatched from a translation of Homer and glossed by the poet Ann Carson in “Short Talk on Homer and John Ashbery.” Carson, herself a famous translator of Greek, implicitly situates herself within a circle of philia, of friends and fellow-travelers, anchored on one side, by the translator Stanley Lombardo, and on the other by the poet John Ashbery:

In the twenty-fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey the souls of the suitors all go down to Hades. Hermes leads them, gibbering like bats, past various underworld landmarks, the white rock of Leukas, etc., and on their way they pass the δῆμον ὀνείρων, which Homer leaves undescribed and unexplained. Δῆμον means “people, population or country.” Όνείρων means “dream.” A demographic of dreams. My friend Stanley Lombardo, translator, translates it “the dream deme.” But so how would this work? Is it a big file catalogue with all the dreams waiting in alphabetical order to go appear inside some head at night? Or standing around easy with drinks and anecdotes? Or so bored with signifying they’re lying on the ground in heaps? Do they have a gift shop? Does it sell books by Adorno? Are there factions and animosities and a row of chairs like an audition? A smell of sweat? Exhaustion and tears? Or is it blissful, beyond meaning, barefoot, organized by gentle bells? Do they have to practice all the time to keep in dream shape or is it like having perfect pitch? Are there dream trees to shade them and small dream boys who climb up and sit quiet while others search for them gradually losing heart? Do their dream streets fill with mobs drifting fast and slow at once over the sidewalk, each sealed into a private membrane as clear and dense and general as death? If there are dogs in the dreams do they need to be walked? If Freud is there (“I know I am overdue!”) is he aloof or enjoying himself? 3

I particularly like the image of the “file catalogue” with its possible worlds of democracy milling around in the narrator’s head. The arresting image of a dictionary of democracy, that recognizes that democracy is untranslatable insofar as it is undecidable (an “is it this or that?” structure demonstrating what Renata Salecl calls “our unhealthy obsession with choice”) – will serve as the header for what follows: a digest of speculative prompts organized under general rubrics. Though far from exhaustive, the list includes signal topics and issues that I associate with untranslatability theory.

The Lexicographic Turn

  • The “new Enlightenment:” the valorization of Knowledge Alphabets: Dictionaries, Lexicons, Vocabularies, Keywords, Concordances, Data-Mining programs
  • C. S. Pierce’s “general predicates of thought” transmitted through formal icons,diagrams, schematic images, the plotting of moves in a game or on a playing field
Peter Eisenman, Visualization of a sports game
  • the return to universal, unipolar language: monadological, transparent, pan-translatable
  • system diagrams of information storage and refining
Schemata for data-mining languages
Data refinery diagram
  • new glossaries of data management
  • the concept of “overburden;” a term referring in the extraction industry to disposable or removable eco-material; by analogy, a knowledge waste-product The idea of “overburden” may be increasingly applied in the era of digital humanities, to the “excess” of multiple languages, to plurilingualism in education
  • the quest for a ‘global criticality” (the term is Spivak’s) that challenges the flattening, homogenizing effects of World Literature, biennials, art fairs
  • the critique of Globish: the language of “optimization” and “best practices,” Keller Easterling’s “patois of managementese”
  • the fetishization of a new Logos of machine translation, the algorithmic Trieb or pulsion underlying hyper-instrumental communication

Alphabetic Symptoms

  • the alphabetic unconscious, understood as that which over-determines the processing of random notations as language, legible scrip, aleph, (and the ordinality of first letter)
  • the elision of distinctions between alphabetic letter and stroke, pixel, point.
  • units of visual information that induce illegibility, blur, low-def, out of focus, image immaterialization: Thomas Hirschorn’s “pixel collage”: unit of visual abstraction, interrupters of normative visual surfaces
  • Hito Steyerl’s “Sea of Data.” “Seeing,” notes Steyerl, “is superseded by calculating probabilities (…) Snowden’s image of noise could stand in for a more general human inability to perceive technical signals unless they are processed and translated accordingly.” 4
  • Unrecognizable pattern. Alphabetize my face! Facial recognition software that is less likely to recognize non-whites; linked to the larger political question of non-recognition
  • the relational non-relation between natural and digital (or cybernetic) language systems (e.g. Claude Shannon’s stochastic processes for telegraphic symbols).
  • the transcoding glitch that impedes pantranslatability (between biogenetic and cognitive signals)
  • modes of information-jamming or hack
  • the missed encounter between critical theory and cybernetics, (a contention of Lydia Liu’s The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious, 2010).
  • the problem of transmedial apperception (the reading, the listening, the looking, the touching as defined by Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophical sensorium 5
  • singularities of sonic materiality – Daniel Heller Roazen’s notion of the discordant note ascribed to Pythagoras’s “fifth hammer,” the “harmonies of a music that no numbers can transcribe”. 6
  • Film theory: “baroque alphabetics:” an expression coined by Akira Mizuta Lippitt in relation to film characters that function as heteronymous elements of cinematic narrative. In “David Lynch’s Wholes” – an article published online in Flow Journal in 2011 – he describes: “Figures that serve as conduits, mediums, servers, in the culinary and virtual senses. The quasi-human baby of Eraserhead (1977); The Night Porter in The Elephant Man (1980); Ben (Dean Stockwell) in Blue Velvet (1986); virtually every character in Twin Peaks (1990-91).” These characters are “devoid of subjectivity (…) they belong nowhere”.

  • “Indifferentism.” This term has been applied by John Burgess to “the general phenomenon of indifference of working mathematicians to certain kinds of decisions that have to be made in any codification of mathematics.” Juliette Kennedy associates indifferentism with “examples that abound in logic” where mathematics becomes “entangled” in the vocabulary of logical formalism: as in “real numbers,” “zero-one laws,” “recursive function,” “constructible hierarchy,” or Quine’s pronouncement “Second order logic is set theory in sheep’s clothing.” I would extrapolate “indifferentism” to computer science’s entanglement of program with the vocabulary of ‘intelligence” evident in expressions like computer “memory,” machine “learning;” “Artificial Intelligence” (coined by John McCarthy in 1956), “Artificial Superintelligence,” qualified as an “intellect that is smarter than the best human brain, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills according to Nick Bostrom), “smart” technology, “deep” neural networks.
  • These metaphors – naturalized in the language of AI from Turing to Kurzweil to Hubert Dreyfus – indicate indifference to the pathetic fallacy that arises with the assignment of cognitive function to machinic processing. The phenomenon is sometimes called the “Eliza effect,” referring to a phrase manipulator given the identity of “psychotherapist” in the early days of machine translations of “feelings.” Machinic “intelligence, I’m suggesting, is a “translation” (into the language of human understanding) of programming, algorithmic word-clustering, outputting, and “automated apophenia” 7 AI really has no other mode of representing how it “thinks.”
  • A similar problem besets references to “the language of DNA.” Who decided DNA was a language? How did it become standard practice in the life sciences to, as Lydia Liu argues, recast “the biochemical processes of the living cell as coded messages, information transfer and communication flow,” and from thence, effectively allowed alphabetical writing to “shed its old image of phonetic symbolism to be the “speechless” inscription of the genetic code.” 8 Is it linguistic by analogy to natural languages or simply by virtue of the fact that humans have naturalized the metaphor? DNA, a kind of alphabet soup of life, is simply the code name of what Renata Salecl calls “the secret in the body (…) the fantasy structure of genes and brains.” A line from Safiya Sinclair’s poem Dreaming in the Foreign says it best: “What the body speaks is untranslatable.”
  • Morphing Intelligence is the title of a book by Catherine Malabou on the process of epigenesis. It follows on her controversial earlier treatise What Should We Do with Our Brain? Malabou alerts us to the importance of translation as a metaphor used to describe aspects of the genetic “code,” the “language of the genome, or “epigenetics,” coined in the early 1940s by the Cambridge biologist C.H. Waddington with reference to the study of the “causal interactions between genes and their products which bring the phenotype into being”. 9 This metaphor of translation is broadly applied today to the ways in which random mutation is eventually assimilated into the genome. 10 Homing in on how certain “interpretive molecules” such as “interfering RNA” can alter the appearance and structure of the phenotype’s expression by inhibiting, de-differentiating, or de-progamming certain parts of the genetic sequence or code, (such that certain genes – say cancer genes – are silenced), Malabou links this interpretive function to her own notion of plasticity, or “self-transformation.” For Malabou epigenetics “translates” between the highly polarized disciplines of neuroscience and philosophy. It mediates subjectivation and non-subjective biological processes, inducing a kind of awareness or second sense of our biological plasticity. 11

Philosophy and Language: Poesis, Meaning, and Sense

I will proceed propositionally: Untranslatability is identifiable….

  • as a poetics of opacity (Glissant)
  • as a theological interdiction in language (Kilito)
  • as an expression of sovereign exceptionalism in language
  • as a philosophical limit, a border of sense-making (Kant, Wittgenstein)
  • a culturally specific vocabulary, including slang, dialect, creoles 12
  • as Unverständlichkeit, un-understandability, unintelligibility, speaking in tongues, nonsense, echolalia, Babel
  • as a praxis (a way of thinking philosophically)
  • as pure language (reine Sprache) (Benjamin)
  • as translation failure
  • as the incommensurate and the non-equivalent in translation theory and practice (departing from Gödel’s axiom: “a truth is not a proof”)
  • as the not-translated: strategically withheld, withdrawn, refused; the translational katechon.
  • as the Gavagai (Willard Van Orman Quine’s invented term for that-which-cannot-be-translated, which exists under “a penumbra of vagueness” 13. Quine, drawing on a scene of ethnographic imperialism, imagines the ethnologist in the field, conjecturing on the basis of minimal information gleaned from a native informant, what the meaning of the word Gavagai might be. Is it a whole rabbit? Or some qualia of rabbitness? A time-slice of rabbit? A set of moving rabbit parts? The event of rabbiting? The idea of rabbithood? Quine’s gavagai is a lesson in the indeterminacy or inscrutability of translation, and of reference more generally. The gavagai undergirds a pragmatic approach to translation, the appeal to context in defending a hypothetical translation, along with the understanding that any hypothesis can be defended if one adopts enough compensatory hypotheses about the other parts of language.

“For, consider ‘gavagai.’ Who knows but what the objects to which this term applies are not rabbits after all, but mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits? In either event the stimulus situations that prompt assent to ‘Gavagai’ would be the same as for ‘Rabbit.’ Or, perhaps the objects to which ‘gavagai’ applies are all and sundry undetached parts of rabbits; again the stimulus meaning would register no difference. When from the sameness of stimulus meanings of ‘Gavagai’ and ‘Rabbit’ the linguist leaps to the conclusion that a gavagai is a whole enduring rabbit he is just taking for granted that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit stages or parts. (…) Does it seem that the imagined indecision between rabbits, stages of rabbits, integral parts of rabbits, the rabbit fusion, and rabbithood must be due merely to some special fault in our formulation of stimulus meaning, and that it should be resoluble by a little supplementary pointing and questioning?”14

  • I was drawn into thinking about the “Gavagai” after reading A.S. Hamrah’s review (in n + 1) of Rob Tregenza’s film of that title.It seems that the filmmaker has over-translated the term, treating it as a category name for impossible communication; of locked-in syndrome; of translation as a testament to the bottomless depths of language, its inexpressible recesses of mood and emotion; its proximity to death. Hamrah writes, “the film is about the impossibility of closure and the endlessness of grief.” In it, “a man (Andreas Lust) goes into the woods alone. Unfriendly and embittered, he arrives in a remote Norwegian town and hires a driver (Mikkel Gaup) to take him farther north for reasons he doesn’t explain. This is not a road film in which two men wax philosophical and overcome their differences on a journey through the European countryside. Tregenza shoots quiet people in long takes with complicated camera moves. The two men barely speak and never quite bond. …The man’s journey comes to an end short of his destination. In the rain on a cliff overlooking an expanse of forest, he rips up his late wife’s translations of the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas and flings them into the wind. His anger, destructive and futile, seems to compound his wife’s death by destroying what’s left of her work.” The poems haunt Gavagai in this confrontation with the void. Sometimes they appear in the form of the man’s wife, a ghost who shows up as an awkward memory-in-translation.

From “Journey,” Reisa
At last we emerged
from the night mist
No one recognized anyone now.
The faculty was lost on the journey.
No one asked or demanded:
Who are you?

We couldn’t have answered,
we had lost
our names

Far away hammered
an unbending heart
still at work.
We listened without understanding.
We had come
farther than far.

Translation as a Two-Worlds Theory

Translation theory has been marked historically by what one might think of as “Two-Worlds Theory,” the schism of worlds represented by semiotics and analytic philosophy; Derrida and Searle; Sophistics (Logology, Barbara Cassin), and Logocentrism (Idea, Matheme,Truth-Event, Badiou), the demos of language-plus (lalangue, plus d’une langue) and sovereign monolingualism, (one-and-only,univocity). 15

Here, the two worlds are conjoint, yet mutually exclusive: wave and particle, quantum field and string theory, perception and phronesis, Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan [good and bad object and objet a or object cause of desire], the glass box and the purple room (that’s from Twin Peaks), heaven and hell.

The reference here is to Plato’s model of two-world theory, where, to paraphrase the philosopher Gail Fine, “in one world there is belief but not knowledge about sensibles and in the other world, there is knowledge but not belief about forms.” 16 In Plato’s Phaedo the two worlds in question consist of a sensible world, populated by visible, physical imitations of Forms, that’s the one in which humans live, and the intelligible world of invisible, non-physical forms, pure forms apprehendable as such only by soul-beings. The imperfect beings in the sensible world are destined by a life of error to be stripped down to a naked state, and all their appurtenances strewn over the earth; while the inhabitants of the intelligible world get the benefit of pure justice, or just judgment, as they cycle off happily into eternity. The dichotomy may be cartoonish, but it drives home Albert Einstein’s point with respect to wave and particle theories in quantum mechanics: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” 17

Glossed as the “duality paradox” by Niels Bohr, cast as an obstacle to Unified Field Theory by Einstein, and the point of departure for “alternative views,” (both particle-and-wave; many worlds interpretation; wave-only; particle-only; neither wave-nor-particle etc.), Two Worlds Theory is applicable formally to the relational difficulty of Translatability and Untranslatability, Equivalence and Equality where Equality is used to calibrate political injustice as well as linguistic equivalency of “just translation.”

Zones of Trans-Justice

The cover of my book The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (2006) features a work titled On Translation: The Games 1996 by Catalan artist Muntadas.

He designed the cover as a wrap-around, featuring, on the front, an archival shot of a Cold War international congress (with diplomats wired up to their translators, their faces contorted by expressions of exhaustion, anger, consternation and despair), and on the back, buried under the blurbs, an image of the translator alone in his booth, a kind ofghost in the machine. Muntadas’ work was especially resonant because I was interested in language warzones, taking off from the adage that “language is a dialect surrounded by an army.” The book investigated infrastructures of diplomacy, transnational sites of justice and adjudication. These zones of trans-justice are localized on sovereign borders and in international courts of law: The International Court of Justice (The Hague), the International Maritime Organization; the Geneva Convention International Criminal Court. We see such spaces critically examined in the project by Giulia Bruno and Armin Linke’s project on “Multilingualism at the European Court of Justice,” exhibited during the Opening Days of The New Alphabet at HKW in January 2019. In such work, the invisible army of interpreters are recognized as key players in the life of politics, and the law itself is seen to be contingent on acts of translation.

Conflicted Phonemes 2012. Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Installation view at Tate Modern, London 2013
Photo: Tate Photography /Andrew Dunkley

In my current book project on translation and justice I consider how translation and untranslatability are weaponized. A chapter on “Cosmopolitics” develops a political philology of unsettlement, exile, transit stations, temporary permits, statelessness, dispossessed articles. Another chapter focuses on the “shibboleth,” (the mispronounced vowel, consonant or stress) in the work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Abu Hamdan examines the infrapolitics of sound and speech, much like Slavs and Tatars, who write in Wripped-Scripped of “the twisted nexus of politics, affect, and society at the heart of alphabet politics.”

In Conflicted Phonemes Abu Hamdan models a cartography of enunciations and accents; andexamines the fallout of accent tests administered on refugees and asylum-seekers. He registers the psychic violence of linguistic passporting and checkpointing, the material traces of linguistic occupation within the larger sphere of imperial incursion and conquest.

Throughout this new project, in trying to delimit what is “just translation” within the wide parameters of “being” in and across languages, or across sound and sense barriers, I emphasize the politics of hearing rightly and wrongly. Imagining the translationscape as a soundscape, filled with treacherous landmines, I track “the Untranslatable” in the audio cues that trigger violence within linguistic call and response.