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Translation, (Self-)Transformation, and the Power of the Middle
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Translation, (Self-)Transformation, and the Power of the Middle

The etymologies of the word translation—the real and the imaginary ones—are many and varied across languages and traditions. I want to frame my present remarks by appealing to the well-known derivation of the Latin traducere from trans-ducere, the verb that designates the movement of carrying across, of bringing over across and between heterogeneous and apparently incompatible terms—different languages, different places and times, and more generally different identities and cultures. I propose to indicate with translation the dynamic space of the action that takes place in-between, in the middle between two extremes—whatever these extremes may be. And I propose to dwell in this in-between space—not in order to get anywhere, but to stay there and learn how to appreciate the powerful condition of the middle. My suggestion will be that translation is the intermediate and intermediary space of transformation that precedes that which it transforms as well as that into which it transforms; that translation is the middle that comes before the extremes between which it lies and which it connects, and makes them possible for the first time. The logic of translation, I submit, is the logic of immanent self-transformation that is based on the power of the middle. This is a logic that may help us advance beyond the binary static logic in which everything is instead dictated by the predetermined, fixed identity of the extremes, and by the exclusive choice of either one or the other—the logic that Virginia Woolf aptly describes in this way: “Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old” (Woolf 1990, ch. 5). While this may sound logically indisputable it is also—to [End Page 19] Woolf at least—existentially unacceptable and cognitively faulty when at issue is the understanding of the movement of our lives. Thus, in what follows, I am interested in exploring the meaning—the existential, historical, linguistic meaning—of the predicament of being-in-the-middle, of being-in-transition or in-translation—of being neither one extreme nor the other but both of them at the same time and also neither of them. I want to dwell, in particular, on the cipher of movement proper to this condition, on the idea of transformation that translation constitutively entails—the self-transformation that is proper to translation as such an in-between dynamic activity. But to push this point further, I also want to suggest that the movement of translation is essential for an understanding of how processes move on and advance precisely as processes; of how change and something truly new are achieved beyond the present standpoint and beyond the standpoint of the present; of how, more concretely, the individual and collective self is reconstituted and immanently transformed after a crisis and through it. For translation, in this sense, is the powerful, destabilizing moment of crisis and open possibility that invests individuals and societies alike (but also texts and languages); it is also, at the same time, a strategy of survival and a fundamental tool of advancement and progress.

Let me begin with a famous philosophical scene. Plato’s Symposium opens with the intriguing account of Socrates’s unusual habits in a speech delivered by Aristodemus, and culminates with Alcibiades’s story regarding Socrates’s strange behavior during the campaign of Potidaea. Upon meeting Socrates all dressed up1 on his way to Agathon’s banquet, Aristodemus is asked to come along to Agathon’s house. He accepts, a bit embarrassed at the thought of showing up uninvited. On the way to Agathon’s, however, Socrates becomes absorbed in his thoughts and falls behind his companion. Aristodemus repeatedly waits for him, but Socrates encourages him to go on ahead alone. This puts Aristodemus in a “ridiculous position” when he arrives, all by himself, at Agathon’s house. He shows up, indeed uninvited, as there is still no sign of Socrates. Now everybody at Agathon’s is waiting and looking for him. This perplexing situation goes on until a servant discovers Socrates calmly standing...