- The Parapraxis of Translation
What happens to the theory of translation in an age when philosophy no longer considers language to be the ultimate horizon of being, yet reality constantly confronts us with situations that prove on a daily basis the urgency of translation? Whereas the former tendency might disorient our thinking with relation to translation, the second relentlessly reminds us of its inescapable necessity. It is this state of affairs that has led many of us to believe that translation has finally and irrevocably entered the domain of global politics.1 But in its subtle yet decisive move away from a certain conception of language, philosophy did not simply abandon us. If we are willing to learn from current philosophical inquiries into the meaning of the political, eventually we might have to consider the hypothesis that translation is not merely the infinite production of meaning between languages but a practice oriented by truth. In fact, one of the most important provocations offered by contemporary philosophy for the theory of translation is precisely its revaluation of the category of truth.2 These are the questions, then, that [End Page 47] we need to consider in some detail here: Is it possible to speak about translation in terms other than those of “meaning”? Or, more importantly, is it really possible to speak about translation today in terms of “truth” without falling into the trap of the most banal forms of reactionary essentialism?
Since psychoanalysis is one of the most prominent theoretical discourses that have always insisted on the difference between truth and knowledge, we will start here by evoking a well-known moment of its history involving a significant act of translation. My argument is the following: James Strachey’s invention of the term “parapraxis” sometime around 1916 constitutes an event of translation. For us, the ultimate significance of this event lies in the fact that it allows us to define translation itself as a form of parapraxis. Through this event, an excessive act of translation—that goes beyond the original as well as the intentions of the translator—gave us a new name for translation itself. It was once again the very practice of translation that contained in itself the conditions of its own theorization. It is up to us now to complete this theoretical task belatedly.3
This discussion of the parapraxis of translation, however, must first be prefaced by a brief look at the historical act of translation. Strachey explained himself in the introduction to Alan Tyson’s translation of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in the following terms: “In German Fehlleistung, ‘faulty function.’ It is a curious fact that before Freud wrote this book the general concept seems not to have existed in psychology, and in English a new word had to be invented to cover it” (1960, 5 n. 3). Strachey’s explanation suggests that his translation is intended to render the novelty of a conceptual innovation visible in translation. His translation, therefore, proceeds through two steps. First, one could say that he invents an invention. He has to make an argument that a specific form of conceptual innovation took place without precedent in the original. Second, he himself invents a new word to designate the new concept. The question has long been whether this second step was actually necessary or not.
The point, however, is that Strachey’s invention cannot be derived from any of the available elements of the situation. On the one hand, it is not clear why the German original would demand an innovation on the lexical level in English. On the other hand, it is not clear why this innovation has [End Page 48] to assume the specific form of a Greek rather than an English neologism. So Strachey’s reinvention of a Freudian invention cannot be logically derived either from the source nor the target language. It is in this sense that the term “parapraxis” remains a “pure” invention.
In his famous attack on the Standard Edition, Bruno Bettelheim has criticized Freud’s English translators for their consistent and politically motivated efforts to inscribe psychoanalysis in contemporary medical discourse, when in reality, so Bettelheim argued...