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Force and Translation; Or, The Polymorphous Body of Language
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Or un corps verbal ne se laisse pas traduire ou transporter dans une autre langue. Il est cela même que la traduction laisse tomber. Laisser tomber le corps, telle est même l’énergie essentielle de la traduction. Quand elle réinstitue un corps, elle est poésie.

—Jacques Derrida, “Freud et la scène de l’écriture”

The materiality of a word cannot be translated or carried over into another language. Materiality is precisely that which translation relinquishes. To relinquish materiality: such is the driving force of translation. And when that materiality is reinstated, translation becomes poetry.

—Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing”

Babel Revisited (The Mother Tongue and The Translation Machine)

On January 20, 2012, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard and former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, boldly announced a six-point vision for reforming the U.S. education system in a New York Times Education supplement editorial modestly entitled, “What you (Really) Need to Know.” For the purposes of this discussion, I will limit myself here to a brief examination of what he says about the study of foreign languages and the merits of machine translation in the item listed as “number 5”:

5. The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism—that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

For those of us who still earn our living by teaching literary texts written in foreign languages in foreign language departments in the university, Summers’s breezy assessment that the university of the future need not (indeed ought not) include extensive foreign language study is, sadly, not exactly news. On the contrary, there is nothing particularly innovative or original about the position he advocates here: his vision of a future “global” American university—in which virtually all speculative activities are conducted solely in English—has already begun to be implemented in various colleges and universities around the world. If his remarks are nonetheless noteworthy, it is because of his apparent willingness—even eagerness—to defend a policy that university officials often officially still pretend to abhor. Indeed, Summers’s position goes far beyond the more familiar pragmatic voices that have concluded that the reduction of foreign language instruction is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of the unfortunate economic reality that the American university as we once knew it has become financially untenable and hence unable to accommodate areas of study that can be construed as nonessential. Instead, Summers goes a step farther: he actively advocates against investing precious university resources in foreign language study on ideological, political, quasi-philosophical, or dare I say it, perhaps even theological, grounds. By appealing to the value of what he calls here “cosmopolitanism,” he clearly implies that English’s status as “global language” discharges English speakers in the U.S. university system from any potential obligation to any other language on the globe.

According to Summers, English is optimally positioned to be a vehicle for genuine “cosmopolitanism” because, as a so-called “global language,” it constitutes a receptive, inclusive, and welcoming “common ground” for multicultural exchange that would be otherwise impossible given the sheer volume and overwhelming diversity of all the other languages in the world. In other words, in his opinion, recourse to English actually facilitates and enhances—rather than inhibits—genuine multicultural encounters as it offsets the potentially destabilizing confusion of tongues that would otherwise ensue were one to attempt to grapple with the unmanageable...



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