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  • Untranslatability, or Mourning Translation (Darwish with Schmitt and Agamben)
  • Jeffrey Sacks

for Fady

Nahnu al-duyuf `ala al-farasha

—Mahmoud Darwish, Jidariyya

One must translate. But what is the provenance of this imperative? Does this imperative not respond to a call for translation, if also translatability? One must translate, because language is already more than one, and because there is already translation, between and within, and this imperative compels a question about what translation is. But is translation? Does translation belong to being? Is translation a belonging? Or, and if you allow me the conceit of a translation, was heißt Übersetzung? I press the matter of language to remark the onto-carno-phallo-politico-christo-theologic of the idiom we are constrained to speak, and to underscore that when one speaks, and not only of translation, one does so in a language, if one that is, already, in itself, and if it is or is a self, more than one.1 And one must therefore translate. [End Page 1083]

“Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” Carl Schmitt wrote (Politische Theologie 13/5).2 In what follows I consider translation and its imperative in the perspective that opens with Schmitt’s reflection on sovereignty. I do so because this reflection compels us to read as it endlessly recalls us to translation and its law. To read this law I underscore Schmitt’s mournful retention of the Greek word nomos and trace its elaboration in the work of Giorgio Agamben. But the reflection on the law pursued in this juridical and philosophical writing reiterates a colonial and colonizing idiom and inheritance that continues to impose itself upon the world—as it translates. This imposition is marked and interrupted in the word of the poet and in Mahmoud Darwish’s Athar al-farasha, because this text recalls us to the dissonant mournfullness of language, and because it recalls us to the devastation which that imposition continues to unequally and asymmetrically impart. And the poet therefore teaches us that with language, already, and at the interiority of the inside of the poem, there will have been translation. For would not the worst violence be that one which told us that it was not translating, and that it entailed the peaceful installation of meaning, civilization, emancipation, democracy, and sense—as, for example, the United States of America is doing now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? Would it not be that violence that would shelter translation beneath the transparent presentation of being, and that would announce that being entailed a simplicity anterior to presentation and language, to literature and institutions, and to the call and the imperative of translation?3


For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law (nomon) but under grace

—Paul, Romans 6:14 [End Page 1084]

Everything begins with translation. But translation presupposes decision, and decision is nothing if it is not “exacting” (“anspruchsvolle”; Schmitt, Politische Theologie 69/65). To consider the exacting press of translation I read decision in Schmitt and elaborate its relation to the law. The thought I pursue is twofold. First, there is a law of Schmitt’s reflection on the law: nomos must not be translated as Gesetz. Translation already responds to a law of translation. The reflection on decision becomes a moment at which one is given to think this law, and it imparts the thought that the reflection on the decision of the sovereign may hardly be said to be sovereign. It points to an aporetic and compulsive non-sovereignty at the heart of sovereignty and the juridical reflection on it. But Schmitt also gives one to think translation as translatability, where decision would be left behind to institute life and peace. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Rom. 8:7). If this teaches us to think translation as pacifying appropriation, it also recalls it as the designating proliferation and management of difference with the repetition of idiom and inheritance—and this is the second thought I pursue in reading Politische Theologie (Political Theology...


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