The Translatability of Cultures: Figurations of the Space Between.
This gathering of essays by scholar-critics from Israel, Germany, and the United States represents the third and concluding volume of colloquium transactions to have issued from The Institutions of Interpretation, a collective research project based at The Hebrew University's Center for Literary Studies. The first, Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, was published by Columbia University Press in 1989; the second appeared as a special number of New Literary History (22 [Winter 1991]), with the title The Institutions of Interpretation. Reflective of the commitment to a supple empiricism that has shaped the project's undertaking from its inception, the essays in The Translatability of Cultures come in this order of deployment: ten case studies arranged in chronological sequence according to subject, from ancient through medieval and renaissance to modern instances and problems of cultural translation, make up the first section, "Perspectives in History"; five essays follow (by J. Hillis Miller, Sanford Budick, Wolfgang Iser, Gabriel Motzkin, and Renate Lachmann) assembled under the heading "Models of Relationship." The disposition of the volume's contents bespeaks an intention to found theory on praxis.
While a reliance on the truths of a variety of particular experiences told from many different perspectives is virtuous in cross-cultural studies collectively undertaken, such a way of proceeding runs the risk of yielding confusion, and especially so in a discussion centered on an abstraction as complex and fugitive as "translatability." The opening sentences of co-editor Wolfgang Iser's "Coda to the Discussion" register a keen awareness of that risk: "What usually gets lost when conference proceedings are published is the very debate triggered by the different positions of the participants. This is due largely to the multivoiced discourse which, more often than not, creates a tangle that hardly seems worth documenting" (294). "A recourse to bricolage" and a heuristic defining of "translatability" as nothing more specific than "an umbrella concept that allows [an inspection of] . . . the interpenetration of different cultures and intracultural levels without organizing the encounters" respond to the task of coherently apprehending the "constantly shifting" discussion. They enable Iser to make what he can of justifying the publication of the volume he helped edit (302, 295, 294). Coeditor Sanford Budick's introductory essay, "Crises of Alterity," likewise shows signs of strain in the work of construing an intelligibility or harmony from the multivoiced discourse of The Translatability of Cultures. Not only does Budick's very choice of title for his introduction which opens with the observation that "the essays in this volume engage in a collective critique of a single concept . . . of alterity," imply that The Translatability of Cultures might more aptly or cogently have been named otherwise, but such is the nature of the one figure he finds modeled in the discussion he introduces, of chiasmus, whereby "fragmentary positions . . . rotate upon a space of negativity," that, as Budick observes in his own contribution to the discussion, "Cross-Culture, Chiasmus, and the Manifold of Mind," the species of absence "created" by chiasmus "cannot be located spatially" (1, 20, 229). Quite literally, the subtitle Figurations of the Space Between would seem to be somewhat out of place as well.
This is not to suggest that The Translatability of Cultures is well-designed to induce negative understanding only. For all its apparent jumbliness and the invincible absences and silences it incorporates, the volume's discourse evinces a broadly shared and substantially constructive concern, with the ethics of translation. No essay in the volume infirms the plea in favor of "cortoisie" (60) or "cortesia" (66) made in Karleinz Stierle's "Translatio Studii and the Renaissance: From Vertical to Horizontal Translation". "Cortesia," as Stierle affirms in agreement with the George Steiner of Real Presences, "leaves open the space of understanding. It is always the beginning of a possible dialogue. It means acknowledgment of difference, without making difference into a fetish" (66). The distinction between "charity" and "cupidity" that centers Lawrence Besserman's "Augustine, Chaucer, and the Translation of Biblical Poetics" refers to a morality cognate with such a courtesy (60). However much more Aleida Assmann's "The Curse and Blessing of Babel" owes to a Thomas Mann lecture (against "antiliberal values" and in favor of "a Janus-faced irony which plays in the space between . . . harsh" [and therefore clearly definable] "opposites") than it does to the biblical text she interprets, her essay acknowledges "deference" as a cardinal virtue in translators and interpreters (98). And Emily Miller Budick's contribution, on "The Holocaust" as a hidden agenda in writings by Lionel Trilling, makes no secret of a "hope that in a moral society every self will accord, and also be accorded, [the] . . . courtesy of imagining others, and not itself, as possessing essential identity" (141). Iser quietly reaffirms the ethical merit of such an imagining when he observes in the last paragraph of his "Coda" that "a cross-cultural discourse requires a certain amount of self-effacement, perhaps a suspension of one's stance, at least for a certain time, in order to listen to what the others are trying to say" (302). Only three of the essays - J. Hillis Miller's (on his influence far and wide as a theorist of mis-translation), Sacvan Bercovitch's (on his life as a Canadian student of American culture), and Stanley Cavell's (on his progress and problems in reappropriating Emerson as a philosophical writer) - are materially self-referential to a degree difficult to reconcile with an intention to foster an ethic of self-effacement.
Another positive feature of The Translatability of Cultures is the overall quality of the particular studies it collects. The essays may be uneven in terms of quality of expression, scholarship, and analysis (given the genre of conference transactions, how could it be otherwise?), but not to an extent that would argue for the failure of any one contribution to meet a worthy standard for publication. Suffice it to remark that the value of the entire discussion in this volume is enhanced by the special virtue of some of its parts: Moshe Barasch's "Visual Synchretism," for example, a case study of "tilting or reversal of a figure's or object's meaning, without ever touching its form" (39), stands out for its pedagogical lucidity; Klaus Reichert's contextualizing of the BuberRosenzweig Bible translation, for the range and depth of its learning; Gabriel Motzkin's "Memory and Cultural Translation," for the logical cogency of its analysis and the elegant precision of its prose; and Iser's essay on the emergence of a cross-cultural discourse in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, for the respectfulness of its attention to the matter, syntax, and action of the particular text from which it theorizes. All in all, The Translatability of Cultures seems quite worth the candle.
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|Author:||La Bosseiere, Camille R.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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