In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Betrayal's Felicity
  • Judith Butler (bio)

In translation, there is always the question of fidelity and betrayal, and even Benjamin seemed to understand that fidelity, in its literalness, was one dimension of translation, a dimension, he said, that tended to make translations bad. He thought that in addition to literalness, there was the necessity of "license" understood as "the freedom of faithful reproduction." For him, license is not precisely betrayal, but another kind of faithfulness. But from the point of view of fidelity, understood as being bound to the literal text, it may well be that that other order of faithfulness, the one associated with freedom and license, can only be read as betrayal.

Barbara Johnson's reflections on translation carry many affective tones derived from this ambiguous scene in which faithfulness quarrels with fidelity. In fact, it is unclear whether translations can ever be other than "bad" or, at least, have some badness in them, since the original has to be crossed, if not partially mutilated, with the emergence of the translation itself. In a way, her inquiry into translation becomes, in Mother Tongues, an occasion in which an array of human emotional predicaments are explored as linguistic predicaments. One can discern in her discussion several ways in which translation operates emotionally: it can constitute a slander, a calmuny, and so an accusation. It can become bound up with a nostalgia for a lost wholeness, and so with a problematic of grief. It can refuse the idealizations of the past, and so, in its de-idealizations, release the present as a field of play; it can work the felicities of the arbitrariness of language, and so sidestep a pathos that might bind one to an elusive original. It also brings up questions of pain and damage, whether reparation is possible, and whether it should even be sought. And finally, it establishes a relationship to damage itself, as necessary, even as the means by which the afterlife of any given text is secured.

Johnson introduces her discussion of translation in Mother Tongues by asking whether translation comes after, and is dependent upon, the original. She cites Kafka's The Trial, a book she happened to pick up while thinking about this question. That book begins with the following line: "Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." Johnson registers her amusement and surprise: "Traduced"? She writes, "This is an English word I see only in lame attempts to translate the Italian traduttore, traditore, or the French traduire, trahir. To translate is to traduce—the betrayal of the original in the process of transmitting it is inherent in translation. In other words, 'traduce' is a bad translation of a pun on the inevitable badness of translations. Joseph K. had been betrayed in exactly the same way" [15].

Johnson goes on to remind us that in the German, traduced is translated as verleumdet, implying the idea that this is a false accusation, a calumny, a slander. But Johnson is clear that to have traduced someone conveys something different from "telling lies about" someone. If the text were to read, "someone had been telling lies about Josef K.," then it would follow that there is a truth that could and should be told about him, a truth that is not being told, a truth that would, in fact, exonerate him. Traduce, however, does not allow us to set up that opposition between truth and falsehood. If the translation had read (as some do), "someone had been telling lies about him," then, according to Johnson, the translator would be "making more sense of the arrest, [and] [End Page 82] destroying its senselessness" [16]. It seems clear that someone has said something damaging about Josef K., and this damaging sort of saying is conveyed not only by the word traduced, but by the resonance that traduce maintains with translation itself. Thus Johnson writes, "only translation can betray without necessarily instating the polarity from which it deviates" [16]. The point here is not that translation must betray to communicate well, but that "the act of arresting Joseph K. cannot be better figured than by translation" [16...