- Immigrating Fictions:Unfailing Mediation in Dictée and Becoming Madame Mao
The originality of the Brechtian sign, Roland Barthes once said, comes from its always being read twice. "What Brecht gives us to read," Barthes wrote in 1975, "is, via a kind of disconnect, the look of a reader, not the object of that look; that object only reaches us through the intellectual (alienated) act of a first reader who is already on stage" ("Brecht" 265; my translation). Barthes meant that objects on the Brechtian stage never appear on stage as themselves. They are instead objects—facts, things, people, situations—as someone has perceived them, elements of a story told by an actor who performs a relation to the objects of his regard that subjects them, in advance, to reading. From the edge of the proscenium, the audience sees the reading, not the objects, and sees simultaneously the possibility of reading the objects otherwise. The Brechtian theater thus shows that an object is always someone's object, that any given thing, person, or situation has already emerged, prior to any single perception of it, as the "reading" of someone else whose first reading was simply to make this object the object of a look, thereby differentiating it from the seamless fabric of the real.
Like the Brechtian sign, a translated text appears before its audience only after passing through the alienated act of a first reader. There it testifies to the awkward and complex relationship between author and translator, between the translation that appears and the [End Page 601] original, authentic text that exists somewhere to ground it. The latter's existence and status as origin can be adequately testified to only by the translator who brings the text into its new linguistic home. For it is the translator who assures readers of the translation that, yes, there exists abroad some text very much like this one, some original to which they could return in order to verify this translation. And yet the translator, like an actor, has a strange relationship to the signs whose passage he or she transmits. There must have been a moment at which she thought, not simply, I like this book, but also, I want this book to be translated so that other people will like it. To translate is in this sense always to do something for someone else, or for something else, namely the text. But the sad paradox of translation is that the act of birthing the text into a new space will, by rewriting its language, murder the very thing that made it what it was in the first place. Or at least murder it enough, so that it emerges on the other side of the translation through the "act of a first reader."
Just as the Brechtian sign figures translation, translation can figure the Brechtian theater, where the violence done to the sign can be read more broadly as a violence done to traditional notions of character and identification: Brecht's stage, by making its intermediaries visible, hoped to keep its audiences from forgetting the fact of the translation, from imagining that what they saw up on stage were people and not actors. That in turn was supposed to keep them from seeing "people"—bourgeois constructs all—outside the theater, to keep them from seeing action as personality, so that they could recognize it, quite simply, as acting. The politics that resulted would consist of the audience's seeing the world not as a neutral fact but as a translation, as a made thing produced by historical actors (human and nonhuman), some with interests in making us forget their role in the production.
Because the translator as figure mediates a passing through or a crossing over, it resembles not so much an immigrant as the mediator—coyote or cargo ship, spouse or corporate sponsor, I–129 visa or Alien Exclusion Act—that frames and establishes the circumstances under which immigration occurs. "Immigrant fictions," if by the phrase one means translations or "world" literature in English, cross the path of a series of literary, capitalized intermediaries [End Page 602] (agents or publishers) who judge the texts, rework...