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  • Translating (as) ExcessToward Communitas in the Hermeneutics of a Saturated Phenomenon
  • Jordan A. Yamaji Smith

Literary translation—as a hermeneutic event laden with competing demands, an impossibility of simultaneously performing, replicating, transferring, mediating too many functions—has been understood as something of an interpretive heresy toward the literary sublime: that untouchable, perfect complexity of the text must be profanely touched for translation. And the touch of translation is always too rough, too awkward, leaving traces, damaging delicate appendages, or knocking the structure off balance.

This view posits translation as something inherently at odds with a text’s fundamental ontology: the text is always damaged or silenced piecemeal in translation. The restrictive emphasis on the ontology of a literary text allows translation critics to judge and dismiss a translated text according to impossible standards. It is not that translation itself is impossible so much as that a virtual infinitude of interpretive emphases creates or reconstitutes a text in too many ways to render in a single translation. Literary translations simultaneously face so many competing demands, it is as though in translation, a text is suddenly responsible for standing up and declaring its laden ontology in one polyphonic burst. Structure, rhythm, meter, cadence, syntax, connotation, political implications both subtle and overt, characteristic diction, allusions, allegorical suggestions, mood, tone, deconstructive gestures, affinities, aporia, latent ideologies, echoes of literary influence, diachronic literary historical relationships, genre conventions: these are the basic componential standards that variously coalesce on translated texts in addition to the supposedly basic criterion of semantic “accuracy” of varying degrees of “literalness.” Translation criticism yields abundant examples, some of which are discussed below. Although critics may not go so far as to articulate their thoughts on the categorical impossibility of translation, their critiques nonetheless effectively enforce the notion that good translation must be sublime translation, accounting for any and all meaning that hermeneutic traditions have ascribed to the original.

As an alternative to this critical mode, translation practice must face excess as “saturated phenomenon” (building on Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological notion) by shifting toward regarding translation as a mode of invitation: acknowledging [End Page 6] the “excessive” demands on translation and its essential incompleteness and, instead, offering its object as an index of other texts—both the translated text itself as well as future texts (interpretive, translational and creative)—that will function systemically. Translation can only respect the primary excess of the text when it declares itself a node and invites infinite linkages.

The concept of “excess” always implies a judgment, be it critique or celebration, of a degree or magnitude of a quality or substance without which the thing to which that quality pertains could (somehow, essentially) still successfully exist. With literature in particular, the “excess” of textual meaning should neither be thought as an essence, nor as an ontological fact inherent to the text, but as something produced through multiple communicative contexts articulated across multiple interpretive engagements and multiple (hermeneutic) discourses. If the excess of the “original” text can be thought as a product of interpretive communities and networks of meaning they generate in traditions of cross-reading, then translational communities can function analogously by translating transparently in excess; that is, sublime translation requires a hermeneutic excess that only begins with the act of translation proper.

Rather than yield to the reductive impetus implicit in crediting translations as even partially complete avatars of “originals,” translation should be understood as matching an excess of meaning in the text as sublime with a parallel excess of hermeneutics as communitas of interpretation, wherein excess is regarded as infinite invitation rather than repellant, scornful ideal. The latter would demand that translation retreat or admit defeat. “Retreat” here designates the kind of extreme of anti-translation, the demand that the excess of the text be met with the infinitude of language proficiency and a congruently sublime hermeneutic; and “to admit defeat” is typified in the trope of the translator’s humbly apologetic preface. This essay proposes a third route for translation, where the incompleteness of translation is neither an inherent weakness nor a shameful confession; instead, translation of the text as excess, as unattainable nexus of hermeneutic demands, must be practiced with the a...


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