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From the Editors: The Liberty of Translating Freedom

From: Ab Imperio
pp. 16-22 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0082

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A single and all-embracing definition of freedom is possible only when approached from within an isolated cultural and political space characterized by a clear differentiation between “us” and “them.” Freedom then means overcoming any restraints experienced by “us.” As soon as one gets outside such a “closed system” with its artificially imposed homogeneity and monologism, freedom acquires a whole range of interpretations, even mutually contradicting ones. In a composite and multicultural society freedom can stand for transcending the isolationism and parochialism of a group (as in the case of Jewish emancipation from the Pale of Settlement) or, on the contrary, for reinforcing the barriers protecting the indigenous way of life (for example, in the case of peoples of Siberia or nomads). Emancipation from economic dependence and inequality can be achieved through a massive onslaught on political freedom. Gender equality comes at the cost of eroding the social order and culture based on the semiotics of the sexes. The political self-determination of a national group on the basis of territorial sovereignty produces “national minorities” and thus amplifies the problem of inequality and discrimination. Eventually, “freedom” emerges not as a universal category but as a practice of self-expression and self-realization of an individual or a group. Thus, in the heterogeneous cultural and political space, achieving freedom becomes a problem of the mutual translation of diverse subjectivities, that is, of the interpretation and coordination of their interests and aspirations. The “technical” question of translation comes to the fore: who translates the Other and how (in what language)?

The problem of the interconnection of freedom and translation (between different languages, in the broadest sense) is vividly and insightfully formulated in the essay “Escaping Intelligibility: Translation and the Politics of Knowledge” published in the “Methodology and Theory “section. Its author, Nivedita Menon, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, essentially describes the predicament of translating between local circuits of knowledge within the imperial situation, which is characterized by irregular and multidimensional diversity. This diversity is always situational and contextual,1 and it is therefore impossible in principle to compose a universal “dictionary” of unequivocal translations between the phenomena and concepts of different clusters of a large open system. Nivedita Menon warns against the temptation of direct translation “of the unfamiliar into the familiar” at any cost, and the belief in the achievability of complete mutual transparency and intelligibility by local systems of knowledge. Duly registering the centrality of the situation of “a radical heterogeneity of voices in public spaces, with which we cannot help colliding, and cannot hope to contain,” she leaves open the question of how exactly a universal communicative space of “incomplete transparency” and partial translation should be sustained. Will the rejection of the normative and universalist common language of modernity alleviate the very threat of establishing asymmetrical relationships between “partly intelligible” cultures and social groups, and the hegemony of one against the other? Is there not a contradiction between the perception of the structure of the multicultural society as an open-ended system (“imperial situation”) and the one-dimensional reading of communicative processes in it (rendered as either parity, or domination)? Obviously, these questions go beyond the scope of Menon’s essay, but it is useful to keep them in mind while reading other contributions to this issue of Ab Imperio dealing with various aspects of the problem of “mutual intelligibility,” freedom, and hegemony.

Opening the “History” section, the article by Michael D. Gordin on the priority dispute over who discovered the periodic system of chemical elements reveals the central role of the translator in establishing and sustaining the hierarchy of academic authority: it was the inaccuracy of the translation of a Russian-language article by Dmitrii I. Mendeleev into German that predetermined the initial perception of his research by the world community of chemists as nonoriginal. But the story of Mendeleev also shows that the hegemony of the universal language of modern knowledge (in this case, of the German language dominating chemistry) was not total, even though mastering that language was a sine qua non for representatives of peripheral academies. As Gordin argues, in the mid-nineteenth century, Russian did not enjoy the status of a universal...

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