Untranslatability

A lecture by Jeffrey Sacks, UC Riverside

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Duration: 25:48

This paper considers the imperative which forms the occasion for translation. It considers the questions which this imperative entails as they are performed in a collection of late writings by the poet Mahmoud Darwish entitled Athar al-farrasha (Touch of the Butterfly) (2008). It traces the touch of others—of inconsolable loss and of death—which partakes in forming the poetic word, and it underscores the dispersive dissemination of butterflies throughout Darwish’s corpus. And it attends to the dimensions of appropriating violence which translation—and perhaps most decisively translatability—occasions. For it is not that untranslatability entails an opaqueness or obscurity which ought to have been translated but which may not, but that the impossibility of translation involves an anterior and constitutive mode of interruption which means that the text of the poet is not itself. It means that those grids which would wish to secure translatability—for example the separation of life from death—remain constitutively fractured and divided, even as one must translate. But from where does this imperative come? What is this injunction that calls for translation, if not also for translatability? The singular imperative that this sentence entails immediately multiplies itself, and it must. And it is therefore necessary that one must translate. It is not only that this call multiplies itself without end, and it does, but that it names the condition and the imperative of translation. It is an imperative which is untranslatable, and it may not be said to entail or to belong to a sovereignty, especially and perhaps most decisively to the sovereignty of the sovereign decision, if there is or ever has been one. And it is an imperative which touches at the heart of translation and its law, even as this law commands that translation become an object of systematic incorporating exclusion. And it is therefore necessary that it be the case that one must translate, even as the decision to exclude translation as the supplement of originary speech and of the singularity of an originary tongue reiterates the hierarchical inheritance—the onto-phallo-politico-christo-theology—of this language which we are constrained to speak, and even as the place of this language and the delimitation of its inside becomes less and less certain each day. Yet one must translate. For would not the worst violence be that one which told us that it and its utterances were not actively, and at decisive moments, translating? Would that violence not be the one which presented itself as the peaceful installation of meaning, progress, civilization, emancipation, and sense—as, for example, the United States of America is doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? Would it not be that violence which would shelter translation beneath what it wished to be the transparent presentation of itself and of others, and which announced that its being entailed a unity of self anterior to presentation and to language, to literature and to institutions, and to the call and the imperative of translation?

Lecture was part of the one-day conference held on November 5, 2009.