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  • Delay, Estrangement, Loss:The Meanings of Translation in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985)

“This title, I chose it because I don’t understand Hebrew and because it was very short, because it was opaque and a little unbreakable, like an atomic nucleus. For the first screening of the film at the Empire Theater, George Cravenne asked me: ‘What is the title of the film?’ ‘Shoah.’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘But how, you must translate it! No one will understand!’ And I said: ‘It’s what I want, that no one understands.’”1

—Claude Lanzmann, qtd. in Chalando 28

The common denominator of any translation is delay: this delay is a matter of time and space, a temporal displacement (which is one of the ways of defining “translation”), a delay that exacerbates the ontological differentiation process between sign and meaning.2 Between the moment a text or an utterance is produced, printed and received (read, heard, understood by someone), the process through which it is engaged, and the moment it reappears, is re-uttered, reinscribed, translated, time necessarily takes place, something is displaced. Throughout this process of estrangement, which also entails a degree of loss, different intermediaries, institutions and medias (texts, speech, readers-listeners-translators, dictionaries, publishing houses, rights owners, international law, recorders, note pads) are engaged at different levels that very often, in the end process, tend to disappear as medias and intermediaries (as often medias should, according to a certain doxa), fulfilling a certain desire for communication transparency that is happily resigned to blissful blindness. While one needs to resist metaphorical spins, it is certainly possible to describe translation, on an epistemological level, as a medium, a milieu, a zwischenraum in which a body of statements are voluntarily and forcefully, and often without consent, pulled in and submitted to a certain treatment that works both locally (discreet units) and globally, to transform it. If, more often than not, this translation as medium is invisible to the reader or the listener (limited to the liminary “translated from,” the occasional bracket that reinstates the “original” within the foreign tongue, the translator’s note, the dubbing or simultaneous translation that erases or overlaps the original speech), there are cases where the translation as medium appears, and this is particularly the case—although not exclusively, as many examples in this issue show—in the audiovisual realm. As is often the case, a medium appears when it seems to be working differently as expected, [End Page 108] producing a certain type of very-often medium-specific noise, an unintended artifact in the form of a gap between what is expected and what actually appears. But if we were to turn things around and think about delay outside of the negativity and the deceptive communications paradigm that the notion of “noise” leads us to, we may begin considering it as a productive form of specific cultural process, and moreover, as an ethical and aesthetic principle.

The focus of this paper will be the issue of translation and linguistic difference in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah, a film that presents, by way of its dispositif, an interesting case to discuss ethics, but also the mise-enscène of translation, how it relates to the specificities of this unimaginable and unspeakable event, the variety of linguistic groups it touched and the problem of its testimony (and testimony of such a traumatic event is, phenomenologically and ontologically tied up with questions of delay, estrangement and loss, but also of modes of translation, from the level of experience to the plane of language). In what language can the Holocaust be told, translated into, and interpreted? How is the translation of foreign tongues heard in Shoah somehow part of the experience of this film, but also of the meaning one can make of that particular historical event?

Holocaust, Shoah, Hurban: naming the event

The destruction of the Jewish populations of Europe during the Second World War involves, among many, many other more significant dimensions, problems of translation. This is striking, if we simply look at the common mode of designation: the terms “genocide,” “extermination,” “final solution,” coexist in our common language with “foreign...

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