- A Psychoanalytic Ethics of Translation
Commenting on a text is like doing an analysis. How often have I said to my supervisees, when they have said to me, “I had the impression he meant this and that,” that one of the things we must guard against most is understanding too much, understanding more than what’s there in the subject’s discourse. Interpreting and imagining that one understands are not at all the same. Indeed, they are diametrically opposed. I would even say that it is on the basis of a certain refusal of understanding that we open the door to analytic understanding. (Lacan 1975, 73; Lacan 1988, 87–88)1—Jacques Lacan
A psychoanalytic ethics is one in which the unconscious is always kept front and center—that is, one in which we never lose sight of the unconscious. We keep our sights set on the unconscious by paying close attention to the analysand’s discourse and to the analysand’s jouissance in speaking, [End Page 1] whether that be obvious enjoyment in the form of smiling or laughing or not so obvious Schadenfreude or hidden satisfaction in the form of embarrassment, anxiety, or any other intense negative affect.
To keep the unconscious front and center does not mean that one attempts to understand it, interpret it, or master it; one must begin instead from the position of nonmastery and of deferring understanding—indeed a presumption of the virtual impossibility of understanding, a presumption that understanding is never more than an asymptotically unfolding project (Fink 2010).
Just as I take it for granted that I probably don’t really understand what to others might seem readily comprehensible in an analysand’s discourse, I take it for granted that I probably don’t really understand even what seems most readily comprehensible in Lacan’s texts. A female analysand may say, “I went out with my boyfriend and we had sex,” and I may be inclined to think this means they had intercourse, but when I inquire, I learn the analysand means that they “kissed and cuddled,” or that they had “oral sex”—and I have to ask further questions to learn that what the analysand means by the latter is that he performed cunnilingus on her, and nothing more.
At one point in Écrits, Lacan discussed a male patient of his who had a mistress but who had become impotent with her, and in the course of his commentary Lacan used the word commère (Lacan 1966, 631). On the basis of my ten-plus years living in France, I believed I knew that meant a “gossipy woman,” but it made very little sense in context.2 Luckily, I had learned from experience that French words often have several different meanings and that Lacan was generally aware of far more of them than the average educated French person. When I looked it up, I realized that the word had a particular meaning in previous centuries that made far more sense in the context in which Lacan employed it than the more common contemporary meaning: commère formerly meant godmother, but also a cunning woman, a bold and energetic woman; it was even used at one point to designate a music hall emcee. Given the context—that of a woman who has a dream that alleviates her sexual partner’s erectile difficulties when she recounts it to him—I settled on “shrewd paramour.” The sentence in which the word appeared could then be rendered as: [End Page 2]
On hearing [his mistress’ dream—a dream in which she had a penis, but a vagina too, and wanted the penis to enter her vagina—] my patient’s powers were immediately restored and he demonstrated this brilliantly to his shrewd paramour.(1966, 631)
Indeed, I realized that the more common contemporary meaning made little or no sense whatsoever in the context, and merely turned the passage into gobbledygook! (The English noun “gossip” did refer more simply to one’s companion in earlier centuries, but I felt it would probably confuse most contemporary readers). Lacan wasn’t there for me to ask which meaning he intended, and even if he had...