29 September 2016
Class Presentation—“What is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?” by Jacques Derrida
“What is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?” is derived from a lecture that Derrida gave in 1998 at the fifteenth annual seminar of the Assises de la Traduction Littéraire à Arles, a French organization that promotes the process of literary translation. This helps to explain Derrida’s address of his inexperience in translation when speaking to an audience well-versed in the subject:
“How dare I proceed before you, knowing myself to be at once rude and inexperienced in this domain, as someone who, from the very first moment, from his very attempts (which I could recount to you, as the English saying goes, off the record), shunned the translator’s métier, his beautiful and terrifying responsibility, his insolvent duty and debt, without ceasing to tell himself ‘never ever again’: ‘no, precisely, I would never dare, I should never, could never, would never manage to pull it off’?” (365)
“If I dare approach this subject before you, it is because this very discouragement, this premature renunciation of which I speak and from which I set out, this declaration of insolvency before translation was always, in me, the other face of a jealous and admiring love, a passion for what summons, loves, provokes and defies translation while running up an infinite debt in its service, an admiration for those men and women who, to my mind, are the only ones who know how to read and write —translators.” (365-366)
Ironically, this lecture and thus text of Derrida’s is considered to be instrumental and revolutionary in the field of translation studies.
Derrida’s reference to lines within the Shakespearean play The Merchant of Venice is integral in understanding his argument for deconstruction. Thus, it is important to understand the contextual situation of his reference. Here’s a quick summary: Desiring to impress Portia, Bassanio borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, and has Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, operate as the loan’s guarantor. Due to his past with Antonio, a candid antisemitic, Bassanio reluctantly agrees to lend the money to Shylock with the one stipulation that he would owe Bassanio a pound of his flesh if unable to repay him by a certain date. Bassanio receives Portia’s hand in marriage. Antonio is unable to repay Shylock by his specified date, thus prompting Shylock to seek Antonio for a pound of his flesh. Ultimately, Portia dissuades Shylock from cutting a pound of Antonio’s flesh by reason that he must be of exact precision or he will lose all his possessions. Importantly, this is where Portia’s speech on “mercy” occurs, the line by which Derrida inspects within his text. Shylock agrees to Antonio’s monetary compensation, yet Portia once again calls upon Venetian law in that Shylock, being a jew and making an attempt at another’s life, must give up half of his payment to the state. Shylock keeps the money yet must convert to Christianity and offer his estate to Lorenzo.
Derrida presents the choice that underlies his entire argument of deconstruction. Words have multiple meanings within various linguistic, cultural and political contexts, therefore you must choose what is relevant. Words do not have any meaning innately attached but rather gain semiotic relevance through human application.
“It is impossible to decide the source language to which, for example, the word ‘relevante’ answers… Nor the languages to which it belongs at the moment when I use it, in the syntagms or the phrases where I move to reinscribe it. Does this word speak one and the same language, in one and the same language? At the same time, we don’t even know if it is really one word, a single word with a single meaning, or if, homonym or homophone of itself, it constitutes more than one word in one.” (367)
Derrida mainly calls into question, as offered by the title, what is considered a relevant translation. His answer is rather diplomatic in suggesting that the assessment of relevance is in relation to the individual (whether translator or reader) in viewing such translation. A relevant translation is that which seems appropriate, whatever feels right, etc.
“What is most often called ‘relevant’? Well, whatever feels right, whatever seems pertinent, apropos, welcome, appropriate, opportune, justified, well-suited or adjusted, coming at the right moment when you expect it” (368)
** Question: Look above, with what you know about Derrida after reading this text, can you make any observations about this passage? Is he demonstrating a deconstructive tendency?**
“A relevant translation would therefore be, quite simply, a ‘good’ translation, a translation that does what one expects of it, in short, a version that performs its mission, honors its debt and does its job or its duty while inscribing in the receiving language the most relevant equivalent for an original, the language that is the most right, appropriate, pertinent, adequate, opportune, pointed, univocal, idiomatic, and so on. The most possible, and this superlative puts us on the trail of an “economy” with which we shall have to reckon.” (368)
Derrida asserts that translation is both possible and impossible. That translation stands between the these two possibilities through his principle of economy.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t believe that anything can ever be untranslatable- or, moreover, translatable.” (369)
He draws attention to two signifying properties: property and quantity.
Law of Property:
“… translation is always an attempt at appropriation that aims to transport home, in its language, in the most appropriate way possible, in the most relevant way possible, the most proper meaning of the original text, even if this is the proper meaning of a figure, metaphor, metonymy, catachresis or undecidable impropriety…” (369)
Law of Quantity:
“…when one speaks of economy, one always speaks of calculable quantity” (369)
In regards to the law of quantity, Derrida is speaking of measurements in lexical units.
For Derrida, translation occupies the space in between being translatable and untranslatable.
“How does a principle of economy permit one to say two apparently contradictory things at the same time (1. ‘Nothing is translatable’; 2. ‘Everything is translatable’) while confirming the experience that I supposed is so common to us as to be beyond any possible dispute, namely, that any given translation, whether the best or the worst, actually stands between the two, between absolute relevance, the most appropriate, adequate, univocal transparency, and the most aberrant and opaque irrelevance?”
Derrida understands translation as participating in an “economy of in-betweenness” as suggested above. The translation occurs within this intermediary realm. Words and languages have multiple meanings rooted in various cultural and social contexts. In translation, the replacement of a foreign text’s signifier with alternative signifying sequence can only be interpreted through the signified that is fixed and established within the target language and culture. Translation thus should be seen as interplay between languages, meanings, and cultures within this intermediary space. This space functions as the proper environment in which semiotic transfers can be assessed and potentially understood.
**Question: In regards to Derrida, is it translation or interpretation”**
Derrida attends to the notion of the interplay of meaning and words in his inspection of The Merchant of Venice. He demonstrates the supposed oath of translation to be continuously subject to treason. To have mercy on the translator/translation is to transcend above and be excused. Translation surpasses the law of language, the law of the source language and text due to its stringent rules based on structure, grammar, syntax, etc. He shows the multiplicity of meaning within the intermediary space. Translation is continuously subject to choice.
“At every moment, translation is as necessary as it is impossible. It is the law; it even speaks the language of the law beyond the law, the language of the impossible law, represented by a woman who is disguised, transfigured, converted, travestied, read translated, into a man of law. As if the subject of this play were, in short, the task of the translator, his impossible duty, his debt, as inflexible as it is unpayable” (372)
“First, there is an oath, an untenable promise… all translation implies an insolvent indebtedness and an oath of fidelity to a given original… a promise that is, moreover, impossible and asymmetrical… an oath doomed to treason or perjury.” (373)
“Then there is the theme of economy, calculation, capital, and interest, the unpayable debt to Shylock: what I said above about the unit of the world clearly set up a certain economy as the law of translation”
“In The Merchant of Venice, as in every translation, there is also at the very heart of the obligation and the debt, and incalculable equivalence, an impossible but incessantly alleged correspondence between the pound of flesh and money, a required but impractical translation between the unique literalness of a proper body and the arbitrariness of a general, monetary, or fiduciary sign” (373)
“This impossible translation, this conversion, between the original, literal flesh and the monetary sign is not unrelated to the Jew Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity… And the relève, like the relevance I am prepared to discuss with you, will be precisely what happens to the flesh of the text, the body, the spoken body, and the translated body — when the letter is mourned to save the sense” (373).
Derrida’s understanding of language as a contract to the “economic structure” of the source language is interesting in relation to his “translation” of Shylock’s contract within The Merchant of Venice. Like Shylock, the translator and the translation are offered “mercy” within the intermediary space due to the “economy of in-betweenness”. The translation is able to rise above the contract and offer a greater and more variable meaning.
“This superb speech defines mercy, forgiveness, as the supreme power.”
“Both place something (the oath, forgiveness) above human language in human language, beyond the human order in the human order, beyond human rights and duties in human law”
**Question: Do you, in general, agree with Derrida’s understanding of translation? Within the intermediary space, how does one judge which choice is the most appropriate? Does Derrida believe that meaning is always able to be extrapolated?**
Derrida offers three justifications in which he express translation as a continuous process of reductions and additions in meaning in order to find the most relevant translation that achieves a higher essence.
“First justification…Relever first conveys the sense of cooking suggested here, like assaisonner. It is a question of giving taste, a different taste that is blended with the first taste, now dulled, remaining the same while altering it, while changing it, while undoubtedly removing something of its native, original, idiomatic taste, but also while adding to it, and in the very process, more taste, while cultivating its natural taste, while giving it still more of its own taste, its own, natural flavor — this is what we call ‘relever’ in French cooking” (382)
“Second justification… ‘relever’ effectively expresses elevation…Thanks to forgiveness, thanks to mercy, justice is even more just, it transcends itself, it is spiritualized by rising and thus lifting itself above itself” (383)
“There is a, finally, a third justification for the verb relever. I used this word justification to reconcile what would render this translation relevant to the conjoined motif of justice and justness or appropriateness, to what must be the appropriate word, the most appropriate possible, more appropriate than appropriate”
**Question: Which text maintains greater meaning, the original or the translation? It seems as though translation according to Derrida. Is this once again a choice in the intermediary space for Derrida?**