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  • Conrad's Mystic Writing Pad:Translation and the Unconscious Labor of the Text
  • Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan (bio)

Translation has long been a generative concept for psychoanalytic theories, beginning with Freud's polysemic deployment of the German "Übersetzung" to denote diverse, albeit related terms like "translation," "transposition," "metaphor," and "transference," whose complex affinities of these terms were highlighted by Patrick J. Mahony in an inaugural essay on translation and psychoanalysis (1980/1987). Mahony intriguingly relates to translation as "a unified field concept which illustrates the interaction of intrasystemic, intersystemic and interpsychic phenomena" (p. 3), but he stops short of articulating the dynamics of this interaction, nor does he explore the relations between the textual and the psychic as they come to the fore in translation. The following discussion would offer one possible conceptualization of these relations through a literary prism, engaging with Freud's essay on the "mystic writing pad" (1925) as an interpretative model for a reading of three novels by Joseph Conrad. The distinctive commonality of these novels is, I suggest, a form of self-translation or mistranslation, which may yield some productive insights into the unconscious labor of the text.1

The most recent and extended post-Freudian engagement with the nexus of translation and the unconscious has been offered by Jean Laplanche, whose early work, written in collaboration with Serge Leclaire (1972/1999), inaugurated a life-long project of recovering the "Copernican" thrust of the Freudian revolution by reformulating Freud's initial conception of the unconscious as the "drive for translation" [a traduire] [End Page 691] (Benjamin, 1992, p. 139). That-which-is-to-be-translated becomes, for Laplanche, the very definition of the unconscious, as originally presented by Freud in a letter to Fliess on December 6, 1896, where he equates repression with "a failure of translation" (Laplanche, 1992/1999c, p. 157). Laplanche's essays of the late 1980s and early 1990s discard much of the tradition of classical psychoanalysis, which he views as overly deterministic inasmuch as it conceives of the past as "containing the truth of" the present text, and of analytic work as a project of recovery (Laplanche, 1990/1992, p. 170). Psychoanalysis, he writes, "is not a translation but a de-translation, a dismantling and a reversion of the translation […] so as to permit a 'better' translation; that is to say one that is more complete, more comprehensive and less repressive" or "less symptomatic" (pp. 170–171). Undoing existing self-translations presented by the patient in his/her life, dreams, and symptoms, the analytic cure consists of a movement of "detranslation-retranslation" (p. 173; see also Laplanche, 1989; Laplanche, 1992/1999c; and, for a broader theoretical context, Laplanche, 1992/1999). Notably, Laplanche's reformulation of the unconscious as a traduire is still profoundly Freudian in its focus on the "double inscription" which characterizes the unconscious, and the "radical opacity" of the cogito to itself (Laplanche & Leclaire, 1972/1999, p. 227). This opacity is precisely what calls for the analytic work that "aims at bringing into relief the nodal points ('Knotenpunkte') in the patient's speech; points of intensity, of absence of intensity, lacunae, hollows" (p. 230), through which the "radical heterogeneity" of the unconscious finds expression (p. 232).

Translation theories have, for their part, taken up the concept of the unconscious mostly as a force to be reckoned with in the dynamics of the translator's work or the analysis of the translated text. Translational choices, which sometimes produce ambiguities or errors are, it is argued, neither accidental nor technical, but are often generated by the translator's unconscious relations with the source texts or with their authors (Frota, 2004; Basile, 2005; Quinney, 2004). Most comprehensively, Laurence Venuti (2002), a prominent theoretician of translation, takes up Lecercle's concept of "remainders" (1990) and relates it to the process and the product of translation. The "remainder," according to Lecercle, might be considered "the [End Page 692] linguistic equivalent of the Freudian unconscious, excluded or repressed by the rules of grammar, but trying to return in jokes, slips of the tongue, solecisms, and poetry" (Lecercle, 1990, p. 23). Venuti suggests that such linguistic effects that direct the reader's attention to the "utter heterogeneity...


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