“There is a certain curiosity in it that exceeds melancholy.” I took this quote out of a notebook of mine, my “Praha” Moleskine that has never seen Prague, for I translate a “Praha” out of wherever I am, going to Prague by simply writing always in the pages of Praha, even when I am elsewhere, knitting these elsewheres together into Prague or Praha. At times I even take out the map of the city and use it to find where I am, though I am nowhere near Prague.
What does Prague and a notebook I bought on The Danforth in Toronto (a reject)—and have no right to use—have to do with translation, you ask? Perhaps all translation has to do with curiosity and melancholy, I respond.
I open the notebook two pages further on and find a quote from Giorgio Agamben scribbled there, from page 340 of his Puissance de la pensée: “La facticité est la condition de ce qui demeure caché dans son ouverture, de ce qui est exposé par son retrait même.”
There is a sense in which every reading of a text by an individual is a translation, because ink and paper, or pixellated light and darkness, are “read” through a body, an individual apparatus impossible to replicate in terms of its cells and experiences and the ways that experience has affected its neural maps and capacities. This body may not even know its own filters and how they act when it “reads”. Because of this, we can study literature, which is the act of sharing readings and benefitting from other filters: in reading groups, in university classrooms and cafeterias and libraries, and on-line with brilliant teachers, in cafés, in living rooms, on ferries, at bus stops.
One question I am sometimes asked is: given this, is it possible to translate without having a second language? It’s a sly question, for people know very well that Elisa Sampedrín, my nemesis-polynym who has no interior, has done this.
Playing with translation is learning about one’s own language, one’s own history, how it came to be that certain words emerge from the mouth. I was working this morning on a wee project from last August, started after a research group meeting (working together on the question What is production?) where we considered Hannah Arendt and, inevitably, Heidegger.
Translators translate not just from one language to another, but from one space-time continuum into another. It’s a slippery movement, an open jaw, a stammer or wince whose sound is heard (mistakenly) as clear. “Like any act of writing,” writes Sergio Waisman in Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery, “translation is always undertaken from a specific site: the translator’s language, but also the entire cultural and sociohistorical context in which translators perform their task.”
In peering with care into Jorge Luis Borges’ two essays on translation from almost eighty years ago, Waisman reminds us how Borges long ago insisted on the intricate cultural and social weight of words and culture in the transposition of text across languages. To read Borges’ essays is to depart forever from the old saw traduttore, traditore.
Performance, reading, embodiment, translation. Time to turn back to Foucault, or forward to him, because Foucault is always ahead of me in his Archaeology and the way it forms and unforms Knowledge.
A discursive formation does not occupy all the possible volume that the systems that form its objects, enunciations, and concepts legitimately open to it. It is essentially full of gaps, due to the systems that form its strategic choices. From this comes the fact that a given discursive formation, when taken up again, placed, and interpreted in a new constellation, may reveal new possibilities… There is a modification in the principle of exclusion and possibility of choices that results from the insertion into a new discursive constellation.