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  • The Muse of Translation“Pure Language” in de Man, Derrida, and Agamben
  • Kevin Attell (bio)

The Basque language may be however perfect Meillet wishes, but the fact is that it forgot to include in its vocabulary a term to designate God and it was necessary to pick a phrase that meant “lord over the heights”—Jaungoikua. . . . For that reason they were very slow in being converted to Christianity; the word Jaungoikua also indicates that police intervention was necessary in order to put the mere idea of divinity in their heads.

—Ortega y Gasset, “The Misery and the Splendor of Translation” (2000, 56)

In his classic essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin reminds us that there is no muse of either translation or philosophy (1996b, 259). Although translators and philosophers may thus be left to conduct their work without help from above, translation—or better, the philosophical reflection on translation—has nevertheless provided inspiration for a number of literary artists. In the first part of this essay, I will briefly review two [End Page 69] literary texts of the 1930s whose muse seems to sing of (and in) translation, and attempt to introduce through these texts certain philosophical lines of inquiry that will be taken up more directly in the essay’s second part, where I will examine the way the question of translation has been addressed in two major camps of contemporary theory, namely, deconstruction (in the figures of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man) and the work of Giorgio Agamben, whose influence, though already considerable in the fields of political theory and philosophy, is only recently beginning to be widely felt in literary studies proper. Although there is, to say the least, no need now to introduce deconstructive thought into literary studies, one aspiration of the present essay is that an examination of the affinities and contrasts between deconstruction and the work of Agamben—here specifically with regard to translation—will cast new light on this well known body of work as well as contribute to the growing body of critical thought that draws on Agambenian insights into language and literature.

1. Persian and Basque: Variations on a Theme

Tommaso Landolfi’s “Dialogo dei massimi sistemi,” published in 1935, is a story very much about the peculiarities of translation. And fittingly enough, its title is not so easy to translate. In English it has been published as “Dialogue on the Greater Harmonies” and “Dialogue of the Greater Systems.”1 More recently, in texts by writers who also happen both to be fine translators, it is referred to as “Dialogue of the Greatest Systems” and “Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems.”2 I myself would probably opt for “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” accepting the standard translation of the title of the book to which Landolfi’s title refers, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican.3

Landolfi’s “Dialogo” is the story of a literarily minded man identified only as “Y” who recounts to his equally literary friend (who in turn is the narrator of the tale) how he had some while ago made the acquaintance of an English sea captain, a man who would animate the talk in a local trattoria with his tales of adventure. Among the many experiences this captain had brought [End Page 70] back with him from his exotic travels was an excellent knowledge of Persian, which he offered to teach to Y. Having himself recently devised a theory, not unlike the one Beckett would adopt a few years later, that “having rich and varied means of expression at one’s disposal is hardly a favorable situation for an artist” (Landolfi 1986, 249), Y decides to take the captain up on the offer so that he might learn rudimentary Persian and test his hypothesis.

The lessons proceed and Y develops his proficiency in Persian to the point where, when the captain must return to Britain, he can continue to refine his skills through the dedicated practical application of the basic grammar and lexicon he has learned from his teacher—that is to say, through composition in Persian. Y...


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