- Reviewed by
For a while now, some of the most urgent debates in contemporary cultural and literary studies have emerged out of the troubled interface of poststructuralist theory and historical studies. In its most basic formulation, the problem is that of articulating radical political agendas within a deconstructive framework. For a discipline like literary studies, the raison d'être of which is the analysis of representation, the critique of representation coming from within has engendered profoundly self-reflexive anxieties. It is in the context of this crisis that Tejaswini Niranjana's examination of translation as critical practice is made possible. Her analysis seems to amplify and elaborate the possibilities of the claim made by other postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, as well as feminists such as Jane Gallop and Nancy K. Miller, that deconstruction can be used in politically enabling ways. Insisting that a questioning of humanist or Enlightenment models of representation and translation "can underwrite a new practice of translation . . . reinscribing its potential as a strategy of resistance" (6), Niranjana persuasively shows that a critique of presence can be taken to its limits and yet not incapacitate the interventionist critic.
She begins by addressing what she sees as deconstructive criticism's failure to address the problem of colonialism, as well as the neglect by translation studies to ask questions about its own historicity. Contemporary critiques of representation have not extended themselves to the point of questioning the idea of translation, of re-presenting linguistic meaning in interlinguistic transfers. Translation is made possible by the belief in mimesis, which in turn assumes the purity of the original. Niranjana cites powerful examples from the post-colonial context to show how translation was "a significant technology of colonial domination" (21); the use of translation to codify Hindu law, for instance, is revealed as imperialist cathexis, "to create a subject position for the colonised" (19) which would "discipline and regulate the lives of" Hindu subjects (18). In other words, the notion of "original" text was itself used to fashion the native's essence-an instance of colonialism's attempt to erase heterogeneity.
Insisting repeatedly on the importance of historicity in critical studies, Niranjana attributes the failure to redefine history to both poststructuralist theory and its "admiring" antagonist, the polemical left; both have a curiously "monolithic view of what history means" (36, original emphasis); neither camp acknowledges that history is a mode of writing rather than an object of analysis. Niranjana's analysis is particularly useful here in that it suggests that the highly contested and often devalued category of experience can be recuperated in non-essentializing ways through radical writing practices. (Critics like Spivak have already affirmed the need to posit a strategic essentialism in the interests of "a scrupulously visible political agenda"; Niranjana seems to be elaborating this along the lines of "invention" suggested by some postmodern feminists.) In fact, Niranjana makes for postcolonial theory and translation the specific claim that they will be able to "reinvent oppositional cultures in non-essentializing ways" (46). [End Page 204]
Translation in Niranjana's text is argued for as more than "an interlingual process"; since it determines or tropes the functioning of whole disciplines such as ethnography ( which purports to translate primitive thought into the modern), it can be analyzed as "an entire problematic" spanning a multiplicity of discourses. The task of the translator (a phrase borrowed from Walter Benjamin), is now to invent rather than represent, to privilege a political model over an epistemological or even a poetical one. This will involve asking "a series of questions from a partially political perspective" (37) while taking advantage of poststructuralist insights. Niranjana's text, as well as the approach she advocates, is characterized by a willingness to read texts against the grain—critiquing the politically unviable while appropriating the usefully radical modes of deconstructing hegemonic discourses. Her reading of de Man reading Benjamin is a case in point. She can take from de Manian deconstruction the critique of metaphor as "the totalizing figure par excellence" but...