- Prophecies of Language: The Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism by Kristina Mendicino
By Kristina Mendicino. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 281 pages. $115.00 hardcover, $32.00 paperback.
The late 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed an unprecedented amount of translation in the German context. Despite this surge in translational practice, however, remarkably little theoretical material on the topic was written during this time period. While there are scattered references to translation in authors' essays, prefaces, letters, and fragments, these generally do not constitute sustained arguments regarding methods and processes of translation. Much scholarship has thus been devoted to teasing out different theories of translation from this time period. Scholarship by Antoine Berman, Lawrence Venuti, and Susan Bernofsky, for example, has elucidated the significance of translation activity for the emergence of a German national consciousness, considered the value of a foreignizing model of translation, and examined the relationship between authorship and translation, respectively.
In her book, Prophecies of Language: The Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism (2016), Kristina Mendicino takes a fresh approach to questions of translation at the turn of the 19th century through an emphasis on prophecy. In doing so, she also thoroughly troubles the distinction between source and target text/language that theories of translation generally depend upon. Her work thus dovetails with and responds to, but also significantly expands on existing scholarship on translation in German Romanticism. As such, this book broadly addresses translation studies as well as philosophies of language in German Idealism and Romanticism.
Through her focus on prophecy as an act of speaking for, or in the place of, another (9), Mendicino uncovers the structural relationship between prophetic speech, translation, and the origins of language. As a form of displacement, prophecy confounds our expectations that speech can necessarily be attributed to a single source. Throughout five chapters, Mendicino shows how the works of G.W.F. Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich Hölderlin challenge the historical narrative—as drawn by thinkers such as Rousseau, Condillac, and Herder—that the first language was necessarily singular. Mendicino introduces this idea via a fragmentary Hölderlin citation: "Oft aber wie ein Brand / Enstehet Sprachverw(irrt)irrung" (But often as a firebrand, arises confusion of tongues) (1). Through the association of fire with the Pentecost and thus also prophecy, Mendicino shows how the very emergence of language is tied to questions of plurality and translatability in this late fragment.
Throughout the chapters, Mendicino locates moments of irreducible plurality in the language of each author that exceed the limits of any single national language. In her examination of texts that register more than one language at once, she fundamentally challenges the distinction between self and foreign and the modern presupposition of circumscribed national languages.
While the book does not engage with the work of Jacques Derrida in a sustained manner throughout the chapters, the analytical framework of Prophecies of Language [End Page 138] is undoubtedly Derridean. The book is particularly indebted to Derrida's seminal essay "Des Tours de Babel" (1985), which itself engages with Walter Benjamin's "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers" (1923). Whereas Benjamin's seminal essay fundamentally challenges a clear distinction between source and target texts/languages, Derrida's focus on Babel as both a biblical text and a place name that is marked by difference and deferral even more radically emphasizes the original plurality of languages, and the consequences of this plurality for thinking and writing about language and meaning as such.
Mendicino returns to the larger consequences of her Derridean framework in what she terms a "disclosure" to Prophecies of Language. Here she rightly points out that the book cannot have a proper conclusion, as this would reconstitute a telos of wholeness. She further emphasizes that her chapters do not "build" on one another in a traditional sense, but are rather loosely connected through their focus on questions of "oracular, prophetic and mantic gestures" that "cross" each author's work (187). Prophecies of Language does, however, trace clear intersections among the works of G.W.F. Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel...