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  • An Interview with Emily Apter
  • Simona Bertacco (bio) and Emily Apter (bio)

Postcolonial writing, translational texts, reading, global humanities, Dionne Brand, Tomson Highway

Simona Bertacco (SB):

How have you defined “untranslatability” or “un-translatables” in relation to what you have called “translational humanities”?

Emily Apter (EA):

My interest in untranslatability grew out of collaborative editorial work on the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, an English edition of the French Vocabulaire européeen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des Intraduisibles edited by Barbara Cassin. In my book Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability written while working on the Dictionary, I looked at how nontranslation, retranslation, mistranslation, sovereign exceptionalism, and the translational interdiction in law, cultural prohibition, and theology might be used to recontour the map of the comparative humanities, such that difference and incommensurability would be foregrounded over and against similitude and commensurability. The book pointed to the development of comparative pedagogies that highlighted areas of linguistic difficulty, translation failure, and forms of nonnegotiable singularity that are negotiated nonetheless. I was of course well aware that many critics and theorists working on comparative translation acknowledged radical [End Page 9] difference and untranslatability, but in my reckoning, these acknowledgments tended to be perfunctory. I wanted a cosmology that recognized the universe of comparison as more dark space than connective constellation; a cartography that added voids and subtracted from solids. This would entail pedagogical practices that did not just substitute “difference” for cross-cultural equivalencies, but a way of thinking language opacity as philosophically, spatially, and temporally everywhere. The Untranslatable was not an essential, noncoeval otherness that could be localized or exoticized but something dialectically apprehended like a political antinomy. Just as Etienne Balibar, when adumbrating his neologism “equaliberty” (égaliberté), had recourse to “antinomies of citizenship” grounded in “moments of a dialectic that includes both historical movements and relations of force,” which traced “a differential of insurrection and constitution lodged at heart of the relations between citizenship and democracy,” and which took aim at neoliberalism’s “unlimited promotion of individualism and utilitarianism” in response to the “crisis of the national-social state,” I have had recourse to antinomies of translation residing in the polar yet relational forces of “Nothing is translatable” and “Nothing is Untranslatable,” and the conjuncture, in disciplinary terms, of postcolonial theory and juridical critiques of sovereignty and force of law (Balibar 2014, 2, 3).

Against World Literature used translation theory to redress power imbalance in cross-cultural and cross-lingual comparison. It built on my earlier book The Translation Zone, which took as its point of departure the situation of minority writing in translation in which the native voice was often silenced from within, as evinced in an author’s autocensure of difficult style for the sake of a market-friendly, translation-ready mode of expression, sometimes referred to as translatese. Primed for absorption into the “world republic of letters” (Casanova), the so-called “voices from the margins” often became locked into placement on a periphery that had been cartographically foreordained. Their marginal status was constantly being reconfirmed by a global market conditioned by publication networks, prize distributions, and other structures of literary legitimation that sorted world authors into major and minor, metropolitan and “emerging.” Translators would often enter this system as brokers of the margin, playing [End Page 10] a significant if often unwitting or unintentional role as arbiters of marginalization and mainstreamization.

My response to such conditions in Against World Literature was to put critical pressure on the Eurocentric lexicon of world literature, translation theory and literary criticism more generally. I questioned the basic terms of (1) literary cartographies that continue to prevail in critical global mapping; (2) periodization, and the timing or measure of comparative temporality in the naming of styles, eras, epochs, and historical frames; and (3) genre, with its European taxonomies of “epic, tragedy, or the novel” that relegate non-Western aesthetic modes to outlier status in the ecosystem of narrative forms.

Cartography, periodization, genre: the terms of each were imagined as becoming untranslatable to Western lexicons. The categories or concepts fundamental to Western literary criticism and world literature were to be no longer treated as pregiven, no longer hallowed as the standard...


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