- Translating Derrida
This text is about translation. It is about translating Derrida, both in a literal and in a metaphorical sense. Let me start witha personal reminiscence. The students in Jacob Taubes’s Institute of Hermeneutics at the Free University of Berlin—assembling around Rodolphe Gasché and a few other senior students—were reading Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem in reading circles in the late 1960s, at the height of Berlin’s student movement. It was there that I happened, through Gasché, to get in touch with Derrida’s first major book, De la grammatologie (1967a), and together with another fellow student in philosophy, Hanns Zischler, found a German publisher who was willing to publish a translation. It was, however, not the first book of Derrida to be translated into German. The first was L’écriture et la différence (1967c), and it was Rodolphe Gasché who translated it.
Although it was thus in a rather contingent manner that I came early into intense contact with Derrida’s thinking, it accompanied my subsequent [End Page 175] trajectory in a similarly contingent, but captivating, fashion. Indeed, in its proceedings, Of Grammatology itself, as a text, presented exactly that movement of excess through substitution that Derrida developed in this book through a close reading of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues. It is the relation between writing and language that Derrida marked with the expression of supplementation, writing being a “dangerous” supplement in the sense that it is in the essence of the supplement, the substitute, that it engenders effects that no longer obey the logic of the medium for which it is destined to stand. In the end, they instead derive from the materiality proper to the supplement itself. The ongoing tension resulting from such a heteroclite displacement leads, if regulated by the rules of the game of supplementation, into the realm of the unprecedented. For me, then and now, this also means the possibility of a philosophy beyond—or before—metaphysics and systems coercion, but nevertheless under rigorous premises, a kind of celebration of the surprises of thinking.
Let me first say a few words about my experience with translating Derrida, and how this experience links with some of Derrida’s central concerns. The challenge lies, indeed, exactly in the precarious movement of the supplement. After all, the sequence of sentences in Grammatology is of the same structure as Derrida’s deconstructive pretension to insert fissures into the texture of occidental metaphysics, thus punctuating the field in a way that does not simply replace the traditional conceptual framework and its accompanying dichotomies such as presence and absence, origin and end, nature and culture, but nevertheless inscribes new coordinates in it. The game is not about sharp negation, as in some version of dialectics, but about difference. Thinking difference thus reaches right down to the fine structure of Grammatology’s phrasing. And as everyone will agree who has read it, its movement of difference is a challenge to the reader. In the effort of translation, in particular, it manifests itself in that it resists, acts as an obstacle against understanding that cannot be overcome, that can only be circumvented, that forces detour.
One is reminded here of Gaston Bachelard’s “epistemological obstacle” that he conceives as being inherent in scientific knowledge production (1938). The notion of epistemological obstacle refers to a belatedness of clarity that [End Page 176] Bachelard holds to be constitutive of the empirical process of gaining knowledge, slowing it down and yet at the same time, by its inescapable turbidity, keeping the desire to know and thus the search process going. If one reads Derrida’s text—as I suggest one should—as a process of engendering chains of meaning, branching them out through writing and with that, in a certain sense, as an empiriogrammatical experimental system, as I would like to put it, the grammatological obstacle like the epistemological obstacle is one that belongs in the heart of exploration—an exploration through writing, in Derrida’s case. It runs in advance yet at the same time...