13 Pages

Translation as cultural politics regimes of domestication in English


I propose these two epigraphs as an extravagant but pointed metaphor for translation. The statement from Roland Barthes concludes his incisive 1961 review of Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folie.1 For Barthes, Foucault’s history shows that madness is the discourse of reason about unreason, and this discourse, apart from the physical exclusions of exile, imprisonment, and hospitalization which it makes possible, also excludes the discourse of unreason about unreason, hence reducing the object of which it professes knowledge. In Barthes’s conclusion, a metalanguage, a second-order discourse that takes a prior signifying system as its object, is found to be reductive and exclusionary and thus likened to terrorism, violent action that is both intense and damaging, that intimidates and coerces, usually in the service of social interests and political agendas, often under the aegis of reason or truth. The epigram from the artist Barbara Kruger was part of a 1991 installation, in which the accusatory aphoristic statements that distinguish her photomontages were painted across the walls and floors of the Mary Boone Gallery in New York.2 Here violence is likened to a metalanguage: it is action with the function of representation, a second-order discourse illustrating a prior stereotype, which can be seen as pathetic in its destructiveness, its reductive and exclusionary relation to a person or social group. Violence is the enactment of a cultural discourse that already constitutes a conceptual or representational violence. Reflection on translation in the context of Barthes’s and Kruger’s statements undoubtedly cheapens violent action, trivializing its serious physical and psychological costs, its brutal materiality. But such reflection will also illuminate the discursive conditions of violence by attending to the material effects of another metalanguage, the power of translation to (re)constitute and cheapen foreign texts, to trivialize and exclude foreign cultures, and thus potentially to figure in racial discrimination and ethnic violence, international political confrontations, terrorism, war. The violence of translation resides in its very purpose and activity: the reconstitution of the foreign text in accordance with values, beliefs and representations that pre-exist it in the target language, always

configured in hierarchies of dominance and marginality, always determining the production, circulation, and reception of texts. Translation is the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target-language reader. This difference can never be entirely removed, of course, but it necessarily suffers a reduction and exclusion of possibilities-and an exorbitant gain of other possibilities specific to the translating language. Whatever difference the translation conveys is now imprinted by the target-language culture, assimilated to its positions of intelligibility, its canons and taboos, its codes and ideologies. The aim of translation is to bring back a cultural other as the same, the recognizable, even the familiar; and this aim always risks a wholesale domestication of the foreign text, often in highly self-conscious projects, where translation serves an imperialist appropriation of foreign cultures for domestic agendas, cultural, economic, political.