:: Article

The Sovereign is HE who Translates: An Interview with Emily Apter

By Krishnan Unni.P and Mantra Mukim.

Photo: Annette Hornischer

Emily Apter is the Silver Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the New York University. Along with the French philosopher and thinker Barbara Cassin, she has developed the notion of “un-translatability” in relation to the relative impossibility of interpreting world literatures as a monolingual entity in translation. Her most recent projects engage with the ideas of political theology, ethics and the question of the Sovereign in language and literature. In an interview with Krishnan Unni.P and Mantra Mukim, conducted following her keynote lecture in the World Literature Conference at the University of Delhi in March 2018, Professor Apter articulates her views on untranslatability, issues of the “Other” in world literatures, the question of what is “sovereign” in translation studies, and the challenges of Digital Humanities.


3:AM Magazine:  Professor Apter, your book Against World Literature: The Politics of Untranslatability opened up a new discourse in the field of world literatures in general, and the philosophic ideas that work behind the process of translation as an act of appropriation and resistance. However, there are a few issues at stake. One involves the politics of secularization. Can you throw some light on this idea in relation to translation?

Emily Apter :  The question of secularization in translation studies reverts to translation’s long and complex history as a medium of commerce and metaphor for brokerage.  This history foregrounds the Arabic/Turkish figure of the dragoman, the avatar of merchant capitalism in trading cities like Venice, Constantinople and Bombay who brokered cultural differences as part of the process of brokering financial transactions. In this context, when one speaks of language or translation as a currency (whether false coin or unit of real value), one is implicitly entering the secular arenas of finance, economics and business. But translation is also defined as a force of secularization positioned in opposition to theological and religious discourses that impose proscriptions against translating divine languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Latin). In this context, the “untranslatable” refers to languages marked as holy, the direct word of God, synonymous with divine revelation. Variants of this Biblical/Koranic model of untranslatability include cultural interdictions of the kind we find in Abdelfattah Kilito’s command “Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language.” Kilito’s injunction pulls the translational interdiction away from its strictly religious connotations.  The translation proscription is issued not as a blanket censorship but as a protective shield against the kind of violence translation performs on “my” language, on native speakers, and local speech communities. Translation promises unimpeded access to the private linguistic life of a culture, and this experience can be invasive, profoundly disrespectful, disregarding of the other. What Kilito wants to safeguard is that X-factor in language that should remain off-limits to inquisitive visitors. If there is a “fundamentalism” at stake here (and I do not use that word lightly), it is linked not to organized religion, but to something fundamentally withheld or recessed within language as such, and which manifests itself in cultural codes of propriety, piety, refinement, decorum, civic responsibility—what in Arabic often goes by the name Adab.  In this sense, the untranslatable serves as a mechanism for maintaining social cohesion, peaceful coexistence, political solidarity, and the cultural commons against the kind of cultural appropriation endemic to mass consumerism and tourism. I would not identify untranslatability with religious bans or fatwahs, with restrictions on the circulation of ideas, with language patrolling and policing. Instead, I would associate it with those intangible qualities that endow certain kinds of language with theological aura, philosophical density, and poetic opacity. Because it is conceptually applicable to both secular and religious usage and moves back and forth between them, untranslatability breaks the chokehold imposed by false dichotomies between the two terms— “religious fundamentalism” and “terrorism” on one side, and “secularism” and “democratic values” on the other—that one continually finds in contemporary discourse, and which exacerbates sectarianism, schism, civil disorder, and culture wars the world over.

My own thinking on untranslatability has been greatly influenced by the work of Barbara Cassin, a French philosopher and classical scholar of sophism who came up with the novel idea of a  “dictionary of philosophical untranslatables.”  I worked on the English edition of this massive work for six years!  Cassin is now embarked on a new project devoted to “the three monotheisms.” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). I won’t get into how this project might or might not extend its remit to polytheism, animism or atheism (it’s in the very early stage of planning and already the team is sensitive to the exclusions produced by the fixation on monotheism).  Suffice it to say, where the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon aimed in Cassin’s words, “to philosophize in languages,” here, it would seem, the idea will be “to theologize in languages.”

3:AM: It seems that in your project on translation you were deeply influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.  You have mentioned a number of times Heidegger’s idea ‘dasein’ in the context of time, being and translation. Can you elaborate on this philosophical leaning?

EA:  I’m by no means a Heidegger expert but his work provides an extraordinary example of a thinker (not unlike Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy or Barbara Cassin) who philosophizes in languages, even if one must take issue, as Cassin has, with his “ontological nationalism;” his identification of Dasein (the highest form of authentic “Being”) with German, his election of Greek and German as the premier languages of philosophy.  My notion of untranslatability is indebted to Heidegger’s treatment of aletheia (veiled truth, the essence of language under erasure), but most importantly, I have relied on Heidegger’s Being and Time for conceptualizations of  temporalities of translation. Following Cassin, I’ve defined untranslatability  not as “that which can’t be translated,” but as “what you keep on translating,”  which is to  to say, “analysis interminable” (in Freud’s sense), or a translational infinitude that has affinities to Walter Benjamin’s  notion (set forth in his famous essay “The Task of the Translator” [Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers]), of the afterlife of translation.

Benjamin used the opaque term “Fortleben” meaning “forthlife, or forelife,” for a perseverant mode of existence.  It comports with his sense of translation as a modal operator that allows the “being” of a work of art to attain the peak stage of its historical fame. This process does not occur in linear time; Benjamin grafts from the future rather than from the past (or source text).  He describes translation as the process of a work’s issuing forth  “not so much from the original’s life as from its ‘survival’ (Uberleben ).” What he meant by Fortleben—whether something messianic, eschatological, revolutionary or capable of surviving catastrophe—will remain open to debate.  Suffice it to say that Derrida’s rendering of Fortleben as“sur-vie” (often translated in English as “Living On”), richly underscores the Heideggerian valence of infinitude.  Fortleben, sur-vie, living-on, all are  essential components of the Derridean concept of language as inscription and trace, a concept that is crucial to translation seen as a kind of plasticity that transforms language in time and by rendering it untimely (Nietzsche), that is, out of joint, historically off-axis. It is Heidegger to whom we owe the impetus to  think of translation ontologically, and in the “trans” space between being and time, life and death.  This leads to deeper reflections on what it means to live, so to speak in the “trans”: the trans of transindividuality (Spinoza, Simondon), the trans of transversality (Deleuze and Guattari), the trans of transgender. This habit of over-hearing also allows one to channel violence and aggression beyond words.  Recently I was watching video footage of forcible entry raids on the houses of African-Americans and Latinos that register shocking soundtracks of “armed response.”  The agents scream in English and Spanish for everybody to put up their hands or get down on the floor, showing how language is weaponized, thus becoming part of the arsenal of militarized policing.

3:AM:  This reflection brings us back to your central concern of migrants, exiles and other dispossessed classes and groups in the world now. And how their ideas, issues and movements can be translatable. Also, in the recent histories of torture, particularly from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the footage available raises the question of this inseparable relationship between sound and translation.

EA:  My current work involves bringing political theory to bear on translation theory. What does it mean to apply notions of political inequality (rather than linguistic equivalence) to translation theory? It’s proving to be a difficult task. But one way in which I’ve made it more concrete is to take up certain case studies that deal with language violence. I’ve looked at how accent tests administered on refugees in transit zones and processing centers are used as ways of excluding dispossessed people from access to citizenship and the right to care. I would like to undertake a collective project on the philology of unsettlement; examining how the terms for “detention zone,” “camp” and “penal colony” signify differently in different languages.  I made a stab at this project in a recent essay titled “Cosmopolitics” that came out  in the online journal Political Concepts. I’m also currently writing about untranslatable terms for “gender violence,” “triggering” and “safe space” across languages, a project that points up the difficulty in every language of expressing non-binary genders and sexualities. Take the word Hijra for example. It doesn’t map easily onto available gender categories in English like queer, drag or transgender. If you are stuck on English gender terms you won’t understand who is a Hijra.

Emily Apter, Against World Literature (Verso Books, 2013)

3 AM: Giving due credit to your idea of “untranslatability’,” what do you think of the future of world literatures?  Does world literature enhance sensitivity to the untranslatability of languages or impede our sensitivity by encouraging a monolingual, globalized culture industry?

EA: I was reared as a world literature reader ( laughs). My parents were the children of immigrants and belonged to the intellectual left in New York.  My father worked on decolonization in Africa and we spent time in Uganda. I remember reading Tagore and Achebe when I was very young, alongside Chinese folk tales and the epic of Gilgamesh. In my early twenties I lived in Senegal and Algeria and was steeped in extra-hexagonal French literature and political thought. So if I have reservations about world literature it’s not because I’m in favor of re-provincializing reading.  It’s that I prefer a model of “world literatures in languages” over and against the institutional model of “World Lit” that one finds increasingly in the United States. As I argue in Against World Literature, I’m not against the worlding of the canon or genealogies of comparison that encourage the study of complex regional entanglements and identifications or a critical aesthetics of translation.  But World Lit, as it is taught in the context I know best, tends to be Anglophone and Americanocentric. David Damrosch has spearheaded World Lit as a model for comparative literature, and though he himself has capacious knowledge, multilingual competence and great sensitivity as a reader, he has modeled World Lit on a mega-macro scale. Franco Moretti has, in a different vein, advocated for literary models that rely on “big data” and “distant reading.” This bigness and farness can (doesn’t always, but can) lead to speed-dial literary access modes—the sense that everything that’s foreign can be accessed fast via translation.  There is an obvious risk here of reinventing an imperial literary project in the name of diversifying the canon.

3:AM:  What is your opinion about close reading?

EA:  For me close reading rests on serious philological/theoretical work and the willingness to allow something you don’t understand to lead you to embark research that will probably disturb your habitual thought grooves. It’s about paying special attention to moments of non-translation in the text.  While flying from the U.S. I was reading Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Happiness. In the first chapter I encountered the word kitchady, obviously familiar to Anglophone Indian readers. I looked it up and discovered it meant porridge or mush. A British-Indian hybrid? A language mark of British colonialism? A category mistake?  It’s clearly all of the above and more, but for me it served as a prompt, a stirring up of the mess of porridge, perhaps the beginning of a theory of edible language…

3:AM:  Sometimes, the dictionary word meanings also can be surreptitious.

EA:  That is true. But the search is what matters. Mulling over surreptitious, lost or fleeting significations is what makes the labour of translation something of a labour of love.

3:AM:   Does close reading work for all languages?

EA: I think close reading works in any language, but ferreting out surreptitious meanings may not be every person or culture’s idea of a productive way to read.  It strikes some as too indebted to hermeneutics, too associated with the era of “high theory” (Derrida, de Man, Barbara Johnson, Shoshana Felman et al) and with elitist readers.  But close reading, which often grapples with translation difficulty, also encourages respect for difference. It brings about a humbling encounter with epistemic limits and cultural blinds spots, it motivates readers to undertake the Herculean effort of learning other languages.

3:AM: Recently, there has been much debate about the inescapable contours of feeling and passion in world literatures and how that affect the translation. You have cited the Portuguese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes as a case study. Of course, there are scores of other writers who have also resisted the imperial agenda of translation from within. Writers such as Augusto Roa Bastos from Paraguay and W.G. Sebald from Germany are good examples. Yet, their texts are translated into English and widely read. A few of their texts are also translated into other languages. Where do you place Antunes’s resistance when we look at the improbable question of translation?

EA: (Pause) A thought-provoking question which brings us to the matter of how texts circulate (or not) in translation. Let me point to a text by Edward Said called “Embargoed Literature” in which Said refers to the Egyptian poet Adonis.  Adonis’s work is marked by the publishers as “difficult,” It doesn’t travel well or lend itself to translation. It’s effectively embargoed, as if it were politically off-limits.  In The Translation Zone I wrote about the problem of literary zoning, the triage of writers who get written out of the picture of literary history because of something deemed rebarbative in their style.  The “difficult” writers refuse to write in “translationese,” they refuse the easy path of works that, as Rebecca Walkowitz has noted, are “born in translation.”  I’m not sure where a writer like Lobo Antunes fits here.  He’s certainly less famous outside Portugal than other Portuguese writers (Pessoa, Saramago), but these writers are also difficult, engaging themes of Fado and Saudade, of disquiet, dream-life, melancholia, split personality, madness. Antunes fills these themes with the ambiance of the colonial aftermath. The haunting memory of Portugal’s maritime empire, the psychotic effects of the colonial encounter, the soul-sickness induced by mad travel, these are features of Antunes’s prose fiction that bring him close to Frantz Fanon, particularly Fanon’s novelistic case studies of Algerian prisoners and French soldiers. The psychic life of colonial violence in Antunes’s work is less a matter of thematic content and more a matter of language. His prose poses significant challenges to the reader.  He doesn’t perform a genre exercise in magical realism; rather, he uses disorienting, seasick syntax and diction in ways that compel the reader to ask: “Did I understand that?” It’s an experience of Unverständlichkeit, of un-understandability, akin in many ways to untranslatability. Texts like Fado Alexandrino and South of Nowhere use untranslatability to capture the peculiar symptomologies of postcolonial cultures.

3:AM: It seems to me that another writer who is in some sense similar to Antunes when we look at the question of translation is the French writer Georges Perec. His texts such as W or the Memory of Childhood and A Void , the novel written without the vowel E, are classic instances that raise the question of translation…

EA: (Interrupting) One of my favorites, A Void

3:AM: Yes, Perec in his writings was translating the question of trauma into the French language.  Another contemporary writer is Edouard Louis.  What these writers do is to translate trauma by creating a quasi- language. Can trauma be translated?

EA:  You kind of answered the question by saying that there is a quasi-language. In Perec, the quasi-language of symbolic blanks and voids also sometimes approximates the rule-based systems typical of algorithmic coding and computer languages. The rule that rules out certain vowels or consonants introduces not only a writing restriction, but also a severe constraint on translatability. The text becomes a problem set: how will the writing machine surmount the stumbling block?  How do you make sense when sense-making structures are impaired or disabled? Perec’s use of constraints—which contort and reconfigure basic orthography— can be seen to reference trauma on the oblique (rather than by means of direct representation of content), if by trauma one understands traces of lack, absence, scars, sutures that commemorate the withdrawn or disappeared object of attachment.  Trauma has also been defined as that which is beyond language, or unspeakable.  This has always posed a problem for Holocaust or genocide narratives that must try to say the unsayable.  To resolve the contradiction, some writers experiment with speaking “in horror,” as if it were its own autonomous language. Perec is another matter, he translates trauma by encoding voids.

3:AM:  In India, we had a number of political riots, carnages and pogroms. We also had similar experiences, perhaps more virulent ones compared to some of the post-Holocaust moments in Europe.  Writers such as Sadat Hassan Manto wrote excellent works depicting the tragedy of partition and associated issues of madness and loss. But it seems they were not that experimental like some of the Western writers we were talking about.

EA:  Though I haven’t read Manto your question points to the need to work comparatively on the literature of political violence, riot, uprising and assembly. Experimental or avant-garde approaches have a certain hold on me; they often tend to affect me more than realist accounts of war and carnage. Yambo Ouologuem’s Le devoir de violence, Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma, Pierre Guyotat’s Cinq Cent Mille Soldats, Paul Celan’s “Stimmen,” and “Wohin mir das Wort” stand out for me as works that push language to the syntactic limit in order to produce the effect of the unsayable.

3:AM:  It’s interesting how you pitched your idea of translation earlier, in the keynote address, comparing it with the Kantian notions of reason and the larger project of Enlightenment. But how exactly do you think translation-work—an exercise of craft and similitude—escapes the rational human subject of the Enlightenment?  Or do you think “untranslatability,”, in some ways, retains the idea of a rational human subject through a retraction exactly the way Kant does in Critique of Judgment?

EA:  The history of translation is a history profoundly marked by European Enlightenment and Romanticist writers (Voltaire, Herder, Schleiermacher, the Schlegels). The Goethean dream of Weltliteratur (a cosmopolitan commons) and the Kantian dream of perpetual peace (a federation of nations secured by plurilingual communication), the Rousseau/Hegel/Bentham vision of political compact grounded in the philosophy of right and rational deliberation, all have given rise to the possibility of a citizen subject for whom reason is paramount, in which plural language is a condition of freedom. The Enlightenment has come under attack for its Eurocentrism and for the many ways it deployed rationalism to justify the colonizing mission and the privileging of whiteness.  But enlightenment universalism (and humanism) were essential components of Marx’s construct of the “citizen of the world,” undergirding the emancipatory  program of class and decolonial struggle. Translation—the translation of the Communist Manifesto into multiple languages for example—contributed to liberation movements the world over. But one can also argue that translation (and the dream of a universal language of equality, an Esperanto of the people), devolves all too easily into the regime of sameness, uniformity, cultural standardization (from a master-Logos to Basic English, Globish, the Digital Unicode). Translation in this sense supports an economy of the General Equivalent, itself a staple and hallmark of late liberalism. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “global criticality” pushes back against this unipolar political economy of language.  It mobilizes plurilingualism to transregionalize differences and to recognize heteronymy embedded in the nomos. I would also mention that the materiality of language— particularly its non-commodified modes of exchange—leads to a model of translational materialism that challenges public sphere models of universal communication (Habermas), rational choice models of politics, and monolingual models of education oriented to digital knowledge transfer.

Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics (Verso Books, 2018)

3:AM:  In your work you have discussed the “uncommunicability” of the word in the face of translation. What do you think happens to the remainder—whether as meaning, typography or syntax—that gets left behind as the “untranslatable”?

EA: This picks up where the last question left off. The “remainders” coincide with those bits of communication that are classed as waste product, non-utilitarian information, disposable text, what the extraction industries call overburden. With translation, such remainders are often identified as that which is un-understandable.  This ungrasped or ungraspable material can be threatening and many readers would prefer to see it discarded or domesticated by means of smooth translations.  The norms of professional translation practice encourage conformity to the grooves of conventional logic, the pathways of inductive or deductive argument. For me, these remainders, these nodes of untranslatability, operate as openings onto possible worlds of thought:  different orders of cognition, new ways of thinking and writing, and ways of translating new political concepts into existence (what Ian Hacking has called “dynamic nominalism”).  This is nomination forged at revolutionary junctures.  Black Lives Matter, with its vocabulary of “wokeness,” or LGBT  replacement of he and she with the non-binary pronoun “they” are instances this emancipatory languaging.  This activist translating makes of the translation zone a battleground of the contemporary culture wars between left and right. In the U.S. right now the lines are increasingly being drawn between English-only nativists and defenders of English-plus dedicated to fighting the rising tide of Hispanophobia and Arabophobia.

3:AM:  What do you think of the migrants and the dispossessed within language? Unlike the Deleuzian nomad, who is a political pariah entering and exiting languages for very strategic purposes, do you think there is still a migrant for whom a language remains at its very heart always foreign?

EA:  The refugee is arguably the test of how we define the new “citizen subject.”  The undocumented, the sans-abri, the stateless migrant poses a direct challenge to the political legitimacy of the nation-state. But part of the difficulty of talking about the refugee crisis today is that the very terms “migrant” and “refugee” are tainted by racist usage and exclusion. Etinne Balibar’s most recent work on the fate of Europe brings into focus the urgent need to invent a new lexicon for the dispossessed, the new wounded, the “damnés de la terre.” How to speak of those in quest of safe harbor and unconditional hospitality without demeaning and excluding them?  Perhaps the answer lies in retranslating the word “citizen,” such that “citizen” signals the person who deprives others of the right to have rights! And whose own precarity is masked by a state power claiming to secure his safety of the person. The “citizen” in this sense is the one who remains oblivious to the passive violence he commits on the refugee, just by virtue of being a citizen.  It is this dark side of “citizen” that needs to be translated out from the Enlightenment source languages of modern citizenship. The refugee, in this context, is the name of the citizen subject worthy of the name.

3:AM: If on one hand we are thinking of “hospitality” and exclusion on a social scale, on the other would we also benefit by thinking of a self-imposed exclusion?  I am thinking particularly of Samuel Beckett, who wrote in French because he cherished the discomfort he felt writing and speaking in a foreign language. He said it made him more aware of language in general.

EA: In some sense, yes, a self-imposed exclusion. To feel yourself excluded from your mother tongue is possibly a way of identifying with the other. But recognizing that your own language is itself hybrid and impure is another step to be taken towards a renewed ethics of translation. Languages are dialects that have been politically brought to a standstill, separated out by fiat. If language, as the adage goes, “is a dialect surrounded by an army” then translational ethics can be associated with the demilitarization of language zones.

3:AM:  In your recent project you are engaging with political theology and related discourses.  The political theology as developed by thinkers such as Carl Schmitt needs some reflection here. Schmitt defines the “Sovereign” as the one “who decides on the exception.” In recent times, Giorgio Agamben has worked on this concept in relation to the construct of the Homo Sacer.  How do you look at the notion of the Sovereign from the perspective of untranslatability?

EA: An important dimension of the untranslatable is its conjugation with the “state of exception,” or sovereign exceptionalism (as formulated by Schmitt and Agamben). Jacques Lezra’s recent book Untranslating Machines: A Genealogy for the Ends of Global Thought addresses this directly. “Sovereign is he,” Lezra writes, “who decides on the translation, sovereign is he who decides what is or is not translation, …‘Sovereign’ my Schmitt says, ‘is he who decides what is untranslatable.’” For Lezra, the untranslatable in sovereignty is identified as “a quality that resides with one, indivisible, singular term….. The conceptualization of modern imperial sovereignty, with its delegated, distributed and bureaucratized translations of unitary sovereignty.” Lezra proceeds to distinguish market translation from imperial sovereignty, based on dispersal of the “one;” its dissolve into transactional world systems of commodity exchange and abstract financial operations. This dialectics of the “one” translation (untranslatable in its remove from conversion economies), and the not-one of market translatability, was a constant theme of discussion in a Mellon seminar I co-taught with Jacques, and it underwrites my just published book Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse and the Impolitic.  A glossary of political keywords, it doubled as a theory of “unexceptionalism;” an exercise in contriving names of forms of power unbound by the aporia, which is to say, by the mystical foundations of authority concentrated in the state or the sovereign ruler.  Unexceptional politics is an experiment in translating phenomena outside regimes of sense and expression regulated by sovereign decisionism, itself, as Lezra stipulates, the basis of theologico-political sovereignty.

Krishnan Unni. P is an Assistant Professor in English at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University. He is a bilingual writer in English and in Malayalam and his debut novel in Malayalam Keralam: Oru Documenta received Karoor Neelakanta Pillai award in 2016.  His articles and poems have appeared in national and international journals. His areas of interests include Third World literatures and films,  politics of the dispossessed, Memory studies,  changing patterns in Gender identities, football, astronomy and walking.

Mantra Mukim is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 16th, 2019.