Derrida powerfully critiques a certain philosophical view of language—logocentrism—and the ideal of translation it implies. According to this ideal, the function of language is to express meaning while the task of translation is to find an equivalent expression for this meaning in the target language.

Derrida’s critique consists, first, in showing that logocentrism entails thinking of meaning as radically transcendent to language and, secondly, that such transcendental meanings are impossible. Meaning is necessarily language-like; therefore it cannot anchor language, nor assure the possibility of successful linguistic equivalence between languages. The philosopher John Searle has argued that if we accept Derrida’s claim about meaning, we must also accept the nonsensical view that language is a meaningless game of reference between signifiers without resolution.

According to Derrida, this interpretation of the claim that meaning is textual assumes what it ought to contest: the absolute difference between signifier and the signified. In fact, the signified element is not “outside” the text, depending on language users to give and restore meaning—it is inscribed on the “inside.” Derrida argues that language is “parasitically” structured—or iterable, one set of differential elements encode another, texts are nested in other texts. The difference between signifier and signified, then, is something like the difference between negative and positive space, latent and manifest content, or again, as Derrida suggests between a parasite and host. “Meaning” is the inter-modal effect of differences resonating in other differences.

Deconstructively speaking, translation is not a derivative linguistic practice with respect to establishing meaning but essential and primary. Indeed, texts are defined by their capacity to “translate” heterogeneous texts. More narrowly, deconstructive theories of translation help us to see how the ideal of inter-linguistic equivalence masks the productive role of translation and the power of translational practices to enrich and shape language.