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  • The “Saran Wrap” Theory of Translation:Transparency and Invisibility, or the Kernel and the Envelope
  • Brian O’Keeffe (bio)

Transparency is a dangerous word in the vicinity of translation studies. It is a nice idea that a translation would lay itself down upon the original text, cling to it like an invisible film. But this would be a perfect translation—surely impossible. Yet the dream of transparency, of translation as an impeccable, pellucid copy, remains powerful. In this connection, one might be struck by a moment in Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” where he writes: “A real translation is transparent [durchscheinend]; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully” (2004, 260).1 A real translation lets light pass through it. Such a translation does not interpose itself between the original and the pure language. Translation’s cloak must be transparent, refrain from overshadowing the original text, so that original can be lit up and highlighted—the highlighting of the pure language now shining more fully, irradiating the original text with a special kind of purity. A purity the text needed translation to reveal, but only if the translation lets language “float,” as though in its own ideal medium.

Here would be translation so transparent, or following a suggestion of Antoine Berman, so “translucid” (2008, 168), that if it envelops the text at all, it is in the form of a gossamer film, as light and limpid as is possible to imagine. Call it the “Saran Wrap” theory of translation. But how would we see that translation? Would we simply look through it? How, then, shall we [End Page 375] know the translation from the original? These are the imprudent, possibly naïve questions a thought of translation as transparency provokes.

In this essay, I propose firstly a stocktaking of the imagery that emerges in Benjamin, notably when translation is imagined as an envelope that reveals, or alternatively conceals, what it covers. Secondly, a revisiting of Derrida’s essays on translation, particularly “Des tours de Babel,” a text that engages quite intensely with certain key metaphors in “The Task of the Translator” that have to do with cores and kernels, shells and surfaces, fruits and skins. For Benjamin, “content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin” (258). The pith of a text, its content, adheres to the skin of language, adheres as tightly as skin attaches itself to the inner flesh of a fruit. As Derrida writes, “the core is first the hard and central unity that holds the fruit to its skin, and the fruit to itself as well; and above all that, at the heart of the fruit, the core is ‘untouchable,’ beyond reach, and invisible” (2007, 215).2

This, then, is my topic: a review of Derrida’s approach to the inaccessibility of whatever verily constitutes the “core” of a text, and what he has to say about the difficulties of seeing and touching that core. My interest, in this regard, is in how translation theory, at least of the sort that takes Benjamin as a touch-stone, is motivated by an appeal to visual motifs (transparency, in that case, makes an interestingly invisible appearance), but is nonetheless tempted by a thought of the tangible and/or intangible “body” of the text to be translated. The complex relation between the optical and the haptical is a long story, of course, and I will only be able to touch briefly on it here, but translation studies, I will want to suggest, is very much part of that story. Not the least interesting feature of Derrida’s engagement with Benjamin’s imagery, moreover, is that the figure of the core is central to Nicholas Abraham’s article “The Shell and the Kernel,” and it is no less central to the preface, entitled “Me—Psychoanalysis,” that Derrida provides to Nicholas Rand’s translation of Abraham’s essay. I will turn to “Me-Psychoanalysis” in a moment, but first, it may be instructive to give an account...


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