- Translation as History/History as Failure
The most striking word in translation studies these days is "untranslatability." Or perhaps it's really just the prefix "un-" and its cousins in negation "in-" and "non-." From Emily Apter's Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability and Barbara Cassin's Vocabulaire europén des philosophies (Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, 2014), to Anna Brickhouse's The Unsettlement of America: Translation, Interpretation, and the Story of Don Luis de Velasco, 1560–1945 and Gayle Rogers's Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature, we are witnessing an insistence in very different translation zones (the title of Apter's first book) on what is variously called mistranslation, nontranslation, incomparability, or simply (my favorite) failed translation. From a historical perspective, this is only the latest salvo in the turn away from the translational shibboleth of fidelity versus betrayal, as theorists and practitioners have long advocated. Or, as Rebecca Walkowitz puts it in Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, "this turn away from translation is something of a return" (32).
The tutelary spirit for this return is Walter Benjamin, and the touchstone is his 1923 essay "The Translator's Task." There he both rejects the "concept of accuracy," long the standard metric of "the traditional theory of translation," and actively embraces the positive possibilities of untranslatability as the fundamental condition of the translator's task. "In truth, however, the relationships among [End Page 592] languages in translation proves to be far deeper and more specific than in the superficial and indefinable similarity of two literary texts" (76–77).1 Benjamin's work is de rigueur for translation theorists like Apter, who see him as challenger-in-chief to the reductive dichotomies of the cult of the original—whether assuming the ideal of fidelity or lamenting its impossibility. Benjamin lays the grounds for thinking affirmatively through the "essential core" of translation, "precisely defined as that which is untranslatable" (79), the means of freeing language, unbinding it from the imperative of meaning and expression. As such an emancipatory force, Benjamin's concept of translation historically counters the black cloud that some see in the tendency of translation studies today to focus on the un- and the mis-. For example, the organizers of a 2017 MLA panel, "Translation in the Affirmative," frame their panel in opposition to what they see as mainstream negativity in the field: "providing a counterweight to the recent focus on 'untranslatability,' panelists highlight examples of translation scholarship that are grounded in the rhetoric of possibility."2 There are countervailing views from others beyond the champions of untranslatability. A multiplatform initiative of interactive exhibits and educational programs at the New Museum in New York, "Translation is Impossible. Let's Do it!," ran from July to October 2014 at the "Temporary Center for Translation."3 One display featured Cassin's edits, correspondences, and select entries from her Dictionary of Untranslatables alongside entries from current and forthcoming editions in other languages (select Arabic, Brazilian, Romanian, Spanish, and Ukrainian entries were made available). And finally, celebrated translator of Latin American literature Gregory Rabassa's If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, A Memoir, opens with an epigraph from Patrick Henry: "If this be treason, make the most of it." Judging from this little sample, there are different ways to look at untranslatability, as many of them through its possibilities as its limits.
More important, as Walkowitz notes, "untranslatability" is not a single program with a unified agenda...