Emily Apter, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, questions of translation took on a new urgency: the importance of cross-cultural communication was seen as a means to negotiate the kind of misunderstandings that caused the tragedy. This movement could also be seen as a creation against the idea that something existed called "World Literature", a course of study-often pursued in higher education institutions-that required learners to read texts from as many different countries as possible, often in translation, without considering in any great depth the contexts in which they were produced. The phenomenon of World Literature, taught in the lecture hall via translations, seemed to validate Erich Auerbach's gloomy prediction made in his 1951 essay "Philologie der Weltliteratur" that "in a single literary culture [...] the notion of Weltliteratur would be at once realized and destroyed".
At the same translation studies, although professing to validate plurality and difference, was following the same path. Apter comments: "A course in translation [...] was often deployed as a patch for 'humanities lite' and for literary education that was [...] [amenable] to soft diplomacy and [...] models of one worldliness freighted with the psychopolitical burden of delusional democracy" (8). In its determination to fit into existing curricula translation studies ignored the concept of the untranslatable that prevents rather than enables communication across languages, cultures and disciplines. Consequently the discipline lost its political potential to address issues of cultural misunderstanding.
Emily Apter's Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability reemphasizes the importance of the untranslatable, "an intransigent nub of meaning that triggers endless translating in response to its resistant singularity" (20). The power of the untranslatable lies in the nature of words and their relationship (or lack of relationship) to one another; to understand what they "mean" in different contexts requires a close knowledge of source and target cultures that seems markedly absent from contemporary translation practice, which has tended to flatten out words and phrase in order to render them palatable to the Anglo-American tradition with its emphasis on common sense. To acknowledge the untranslatability of particular terms acknowledges the richness of the ideas in the language of the source text which might not be reproducible in the target text. She cites the example of Auerbach, who fled to Istanbul in 1936 and produced much of his great work, including the seminal text Mimesis, while believing in "the untranslatability of cultural expression and [...] discrepant literary traditions". He was more preoccupied with incomparative rather than comparative literature (195).
Apter uses this framework to mount an attack on World Literature which she believes tends to "anthologize and curricularize the world's [literary] resources" (87). By reading authors in translation only, with little concern paid to the structures of the target-text, learners end up with a distorted view of the world. In a book that covers a bewildering variety of texts, from Auerbach, to Said, to Derrida, Marx, Benjamin and Heidegger, Apter argues for the retention of borders, both linguistic and political; to be aware of such borders represents an implicit acknowledgment of the untranslatability of certain phenomena. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is the one entitled "Thou Shalt not Translate Me" where she discusses the work of Arabic theorist Abdelfattah Kilito, who begins one chapter with the following phrase: "I used to think it my duty to endeavor as best I could to make my language radiate its brilliance, to increase the number of its learners, and so forth. But that noble goal disappeared when I realize that I dislike having foreigners speak my language" (in Apter 253). The term to "speak my language" here might be read more precisely as to "colonize" a language through translation and/or incorporation on to a world literature course.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Against World Literature is Apter's discussion of certain keywords-cyclopaedia", "peace", "sex", and "gender"-which she believes are untranslatable, in the sense that there is no consensus as to what these terms actually signify. She uses mistranslations and misinterpretations to reveal the philosophical specificity of words and phrases in Simone de Beauvoir's Le deuxieme sexe (1949), and contrasts words that correspond to "peace" in various European languages to critique western conceptions of security.
The deeper problem with Against World Literature arises when Apter tries to establish a "politics of untranslatability". Although perfectly justified in believing that the translatable/ untranslatable binary has political and philosophical as well as linguistic significance, there is something troubling about her assertion that words and terms can be "fully mined" so as to discover their significances in different cultures (150). Orhan Pamuk's definition of the Turkish term huzun offers a case in point; he offers two definitions, one arising from Sufi mysticism, the other oriented towards more worldly ends. However there are other authors, notably Elif Safak and Maureen Freely, who have used the term very differently; its meaning depends very much on the context, and hence eludes the "mining" process Apter so confidently describes. On another occasion Apter suggests that the theorist John T. Hamilton's analysis of the term "security" is not just concerned with translatability and politics but shifts the entire focus of the discussion by "marshaling philology in the name of untested configurations: Homeland Security with security blanket [....] security has become the late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century watchword of choice, a control-term for every aspect of private and political life" (131). Apter's conclusion overlooks the potential of the untranslatable to create new linguistic possibilities that elude attempts at control.
The major source of the problem lies in the book's assumption that comparative literature and translation should be "political" in focus-in other words, they should be approached as a means by which the existing neoliberal status can be challenged and new possibilities discovered instead.For Apter world literature should be "an unownable estate, a literature over which no one exerts proprietary prerogative and which lends itself to a critical turn that puts the problem of property possession front and center" (329)Approaches from the right angle, it can expose the "network of political conspiracies and masterminded interests" that exist today (331). Such preoccupations are particularly western in the sense that they are determined by binary oppositions-dominance vs. marginality, capitalism vs. socialism, acceptance vs. resistance. The untranslatable should allow for alternative viewpoints that elude such frameworks; this is what "unownable" truly signifies. By contrast, Apter's conclusions establish alternative patterns of ownership determined by western thought-patterns.
Such contradictions in Against World Literature go far deeper than any quarrel between comparative literature and/or translation theorists. Western philosophy has always been dominated by a basic contradiction between universalists (Hegel, Marx, Badiou) and those belonging to the hermeneutic tradition (Heidegger, Gadamer) and its poststructuralist legacy (Derrida, Deleuze). A satisfactory reconciliation of the insights of both traditions is yet to be achieved.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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