- Making the "One" Impossible
The last paragraph of the first chapter of Mother Tongues presents the book's argument. "What I hope to argue in this book," writes Johnson, "is that the plurality of languages and the plurality of sexes are alike in that they both make the 'one' impossible" . While I am not convinced that Mother Tongues actually demonstrates the similarity between the plurality of languages and the plurality of sexes, my reading nonetheless does find its thesis in this sentence. I would say that Johnson's project in this book is to "make the 'one' impossible," that throughout this book, Johnson continually and consistently argues against the "appeal" of "the 'one'"—repeatedly locates herself in, and exhorts us to join her in, resistance to the powerful seductions of "the 'one.'"
In the sentence I just quoted, the word "one" is in quotation marks because the word is not quite the proper name for what Johnson is talking about. When I use the phrase "the 'one'" here, as I do in my title ("Making the 'One' Impossible"), and as I will do throughout this paper, the word "one" will always be in quotation marks, scare quotes.
In Mother Tongues, "the 'one'" goes by a number of different names. In the last paragraph of the first chapter, for example, where we found our thesis, it is called "universality." Under that guise, we might recognize the politics of this resistance to "the 'one'" (a politics we are, at this point in critical history, all more than ready to climb on board for). Johnson's resistance to "the 'one'" in Mother Tongues, however, usually appears—I'm happy to say—in other, less politic, more perverse guises.
The most widespread elaboration of Mother Tongues's resistance to "the 'one'" is through its active interest in the practice of translation. The theory and practice of translation elaborated in this book is one I'd like to call insubordinate translation. At a number of places, Johnson looks at multiple translations of a text along with the original, not in order to determine which is closer to the original, but in order to enlarge the network of meaning. At times, Johnson productively follows meanings which appear in a translation but are not in the original.
The first time this occurs is in the first chapter, in a section entitled "Translation." Johnson is looking at two different English translations of Kafka's The Trial: an "old translation" she "happened to have on hand" and "a more recent edition" in which the old translation "had been revised." Studying the first sentence of the novel in the original and the two translations, Johnson seizes on the word traduce, which she finds in the old translation but not the revision and proclaims: "The translation . . . is thus even better than the original" [16, emphasis added].
The next chapter of Mother Tongues gives us a sense of where, theoretically, this insubordination comes from: "the theory that transformed literary studies utterly transformed the practice of translation. Translating Derrida or Lacan became an art in itself" . "An art in itself" suggests a primary creation, not secondary. (We would certainly want to recall here that Johnson herself translated Derrida's Dissemination). [End Page 77]
In the third chapter, "The Task of the Translator," we find Johnson comparing an English translation of Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" to the German original. At one point she ponders the associations of "light" in the word lightly, which is translating the German fluchtig, associations that are not in the original. She concludes: "We have no way of talking about these creations ex nihilo of translation" . Like the earlier "an art in itself," the phrase "creations ex nihilo" again makes translation a primary rather than secondary art. We may have "no way of talking about" these creations, but Mother Tongues does talk about them, regularly, throughout the book.
The fifth chapter opens with an epigraph from a letter Benjamin wrote to Horkheimer, or rather an English translation of that letter. The conclusion to the first section of the chapter returns to the word apprehend, which appears in this epigraph: "the psychological...