Shoot The Transtraitor! The Translator as Homo Sacer in Fiction and Reality
Abstract. This essay applies the concept homo sacer, as put forth by Giorgio Agamben, to the social perception of translators and interpreters when they intervene in situations of violent conflict. Examples are drawn from history, from contemporary events (including the investigation of Guantánamo ‘linguists’), from nonfictional writing (such as Daoud Hari’s The Translator), and from fiction (for example, Mia Couto’s Last Flight of the Flamingo). Real and fictional ‘case studies’ agree on the parlous status of the translator. The homo sacer is a literal out-law, that is, someone who is neither punished nor protected by the law. The concept owes much to that of the pharmakos as analyzed by Jacques Derrida, and both philosophers (Agamben and Derrida) claim to be reviving concepts from the classical world, among them the necessity of logos to the polis as posited by Aristotle. The article argues that by the nature of their profession, translators and interpreters in situations of conflict do not belong fully to any of the languages they are translating into and out of; to the non-bilinguals who hired them they seem to be speaking with a forked tongue and in cipher, abandoning logos in favour of mere phoné (voice) and hence moving outside the law of the polis.