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Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability by Emily Apter

Verso 240pp $46.00AU Published June, 2013 ISBN 9781844679706

Quand même
by Joshua Mostafa
13/08/2013

When Emily Apter began writing The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (2005), the world was still in that supposedly ‘post-ideological’ intermission of history – infamously mistaken by Francis Fukuyama for its end – in which the great ideological struggles of the twentieth century had subsided following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Two years into writing The Translation Zone, Apter was working at the City University in New York when hijacked aeroplanes flew into the World Trade Centre. History had stubbornly refused to end. Violent conflict had ceased to be something that happens – from the American perspective – far away, seen only on television. Now it could irrupt, had irrupted, in the homeland. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, questions of translation took on an urgency. ‘Jawjaw is better than war-war,’ as Winston Churchill put it, and cross-cultural communication depends on translation. Suddenly, disputes in the academy over such abstractions as ‘globalisation’ versus ‘planetarity’ seemed to become charged with life-and-death significance. Many of the debates are based on deep, perhaps irreconcilable contradictions inherent in studying a field so vast and heterogeneous. The discipline of Comparative Literature has traditionally placed an emphasis on the study of works in the original language: translation is no substitute for close reading of the actual texts. When upstart courses in World Literature began to proliferate in the 1990s, sacrificing depth for breadth with their eclectic surveys of texts chosen to represent as many literatures as possible – and read, moreover, in translation by undergraduates – many comparatists treated them with disdain as a superficial vulgarisation of their area of expertise. This gave ammunition to those colleagues in single-language literature departments, who tended to view the whole notion of Comparative Literature as suspect, the domain of the dilettante and the dabbler. Meanwhile, theorists of postcolonialism criticised translation’s direction of traffic in World Literature, characterising it as a plundering of cultures that entrenched the global hegemony of the English language. The process both exoticised other cultures and created a false sense of equivalence between them, fetishising the appearance of alterity while erasing difference. Others objected to the commodification of literature for an elite market: the creation of an easily digestible World Literature canon, constructed by the academy, to attract a broader pool of fee-

not of criticism or of comparatistic counterpoint. and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).’ Apter’s new book. It traces a line from the paranoid globalism of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Terror thrives on unbreachable difference.’ But if translation. Apter uses the concept of Untranslatables to locate significant differences in thought that are conditioned by language and culture. an ‘intransigent nub of meaning that triggers endless translating in response to its resistant singularity’. a film that juxtaposes human depression with the absolute horizon of life and of the world. In keeping with the times’ diffuse yet pervasive sense of catastrophe. quibbling over such niceties as cultural appropriation and the depredations of the market can seem dangerously wrong-headed. in the broad sense of cross-cultural understanding. made imminent by another planet that is about to collide with the earth. the notion that . but by taking both on board and playing them against each other. can make the difference between war and peace. how they derive their meanings from their relationship to each other. despite which one must nevertheless carry on with the struggle to translate. Invoking the last words of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (1953) – ‘I can’t go on. but a handmaiden of terror. as identified by the semotician Ferdinand de Saussure – that is. to end on an apocalyptic note with the ‘the premonition of earthly extinction’ in Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound (2007). Not an attack but an implosion: the global financial crisis. but more deeply pessimistic. The idea of the Untranslatable – or rather.paying students. on the cultural and political monads that lie beyond the plausibility of dissensus and outside the possibility of the negotiable consensus. who makes the hyperbolic claim that her anti-translation rhetoric is tantamount to aiding and abetting terrorism: Incomparability is the dynamic. not by finding a middle ground. seemed to validate Erich Auerbach’s gloomy prediction that ‘in a single literary culture … the notion of Weltliteratur would be at once realized and destroyed. The book opens with ‘Twenty Theses on Translation’: a series of axioms beginning with ‘Nothing is translatable’ and ending with ‘Everything is translatable’. The central concept of Against World Literature is the ‘Untranslatable’: a word or other semantic unit that cannot easily be rendered from one language to another. Truly understanding all the layers of meaning in a single word or phrase thus requires knowledge of its linguistic context. The phenomenon of World Literature. Against World Literature is less agitated. symbolically marking the unravelling of post-Cold War globalised unipolarity. I’ll go on’ – Apter takes translation failure to be an unavoidable fact. was written in the shadow of another great event. The Translation Zone attempts to reconcile the extremes. taught in the lecture hall via translations. Strong stuff indeed. Gayatri Spivak’s insistence on the paramount importance of ‘linguistic and cultural particularity’ is thus trenchantly denounced by Djelal Kadir. which elevates Freud’s theory of the death-drive to planetary scale. ‘to balance the singularity of untranslatable alterity against the need to translate quand même. through a discussion of melancholy and nostalgia in Portuguese literature. The power of the Untranslatable lies in the nature of words as parts of a whole. on exceptionalism. Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability.

and retain the full richness of ideas in the language in which they were originally inscribed. the basis on which terms merit inclusion as headwords is not entirely clear: the English people gets one. Its format emphasises its linguistic pluralism: although the text is in French. bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources’. And it does. nation. flatten out the world in a way that makes it palatable to the Anglo-American tradition. We can either opt for a single master-language (probably English) and. race. subtly or strikingly distinct as the case may be. We are probably safe in assuming that Apter. that are shaped and coloured by their linguistic and cultural contexts. to say the least. concepts of the universal and the particular in various branches of continental philosophy. or we can preserve the specificity of untranslatable words and expressions. But perhaps a perfect example of facing the impossible and doing it anyway (‘to translate quand même’). which Apter and others are currently translating into English. In her introduction. the papering-over of difference and the generalisations that – intentionally or not – privilege dominant languages. to be published next year under the title Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. with her appreciation for the irreconcilable. The main article gives a careful treatment of its meanings. Cassin takes the difficulty of translating philosophy as the project’s point of departure. the practice and theory of ownership. literatures and cultures. intellectual property and the .the Untranslatable represents not merely a technical problem to overcome. and presents us with a choice. relishes the antinomy. We might expect Against World Literature to apply these principles to Comparative Literature. each under its own headword: a word or phrase of both philosophical significance and linguistic specificity. * Cassin’s Vocabulaire is a remarkable book. To translate a lexicon of untranslatable terms: a quixotic endeavour. but a rich site for philosophical inquiry – derives from Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire europeén des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (2004). whereas the German Volk is tucked in as a subsection to the larger entry on the French peuple. But the book’s scope is much broader. section on its significance to American history and politics. by translation. If the word is foreign. more in-depth. an approximate synonym or two in French is supplied. Probably due to the scope and complexity of the material. Structured as an encyclopedia. Apter is sensitive to the costs involved in globalisation. Apter discusses the politics of borders and checkpoints. sometimes at the expense of coherence. with its emphasis on common sense and ‘ordinary language’. its multilingual structure demonstrates that there is no definitive version of a given concept. its history and philosophical valence. The headwords are drawn from many European languages. and finally a bibliography. and a list of related headwords. but a ripple of related ideological phenomena. then equivalent words in other European languages. mounting an attack on World Literature’s ‘entrepreneurial. it consists of around 400 entries. and also from Hebrew and Arabic. with a discussion of its unusual pluralisation (person and people—people and peoples) and a second. performative activism and politically-charged graphic art. The Vocabulaire reveals ambiguities and nuances that differentiate philosophically important words of approximate equivalence in a variety of languages. with a special focus on Israel-Palestine.

because he works in several very different modes. Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). and the sacrifices of the ‘contraction of the economy of expression’ involved in reading literature through such a radical lens of distance. There is the traditional close reader of The Modern Epic (1996) or The Bourgeois (2013). The density of the prose does not make it any easier to follow the thread. and the relative ontological status of individual human beings. must rely on the work of their single-literature colleagues to draw their inferences. and human and nonhuman collectivities. Throughout Against World Literature. What she ignores is Moretti’s notion of the ‘division of labour’ required between scholars of national literatures – who can afford to do close reading. who delights in ‘quantitative history. Her criticism here is a little uneven. according to Moretti. Against World Literature has some sizeable ambitions of its own. quantified data models) in a field to which it is poorly suited. But that is certainly not true of The Novel. and topological schemata’. and compares words that correspond to ‘peace’ in various European languages to critique the ideology of the security state. Some of his work is guilty of an uncritical enthusiasm for the scientific method (empirical testing of hypotheses. It is a hectic journey through such a wilfully eclectic range of intellectual terrains that it is sometimes unclear how we came to be discussing the point in hand. For a book that sets out to deflate ‘the expansionism and gargantuan scale of world-literary endeavors’. which assumes too large a field to rely on close readings of texts. and the distant reader of Graphs. and for what purpose. in which individual works are studied at close range. she uses mistranslations and misinterpretations to reveal the philosophical specificity of words and phrases in Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe (1949). multi-volume history of the genre edited by Moretti – to overcome Eurocentrism. She pivots to consider Moretti’s quantitative experiments and statistical surveys. it is usually at one or two removes. Apter uses the concept of the Untranslatable to make sure we don’t miss the trees for the wood. ideas. inanimate objects. Even when Apter talks about literature. Often. That is why she looks askance at Franco Moretti’s maverick reframing of World Literature as a project that requires ‘distant reading’. the encyclopedic overseer of a broad-ranging project like The Novel. and should do so – and researchers of World Literature. who. Moretti provides an example of literary collaboration that. who theorises via the careful treatment of individual works. rather than the work itself. geographic maps. It is understandable that Apter finds Moretti hard to pin down. She points out the partial failure of The Novel (2007) – an international. Apter uses the idea to break down generalisations. It is no small feat to write a gloss that is more opaque than the quotation from Jacques Derrida it is intended to explicate.commons. . With a forensic attention to detail. goes some way towards justifying World Literature as a project that does not have to sacrifice either breadth or depth. but it seems a little perverse to conflate his theory and practice. What saves the book from entropy is the central concept of the Untranslatable. Apter is justified in pointing out the limitations of Moretti’s theories of ‘distant reading’. and the tendency to submerge inconvenient details in overarching theory. while not exhaustive in scope. but concedes that such a criticism is ultimately ‘unsatisfying’. the real object of her attention is the theoretical exegesis of a work. By working with many scholars of individual national literatures.

To some extent. we are using a word that was. It is the most common reason for one language to borrow a word from another: we didn’t have an Engish word for pizza. But much of what is valuable in her work depends on the creative use of these tensions. This brings us back to the question of what is at stake. the kind of emancipatory politics to which Apter shows a clear allegiance – is that it has the potential. as Marx’s aphorism has it. but political and philosophical ones as well. the words and terms Apter picks out as Untranslatables are usually charged with philosophical. another word without a convincing Indo-European etymology. But the sine qua non of political thought – at least. this is because Apter sees value in insights from widely divergent traditions of thought (’trying to conjugate Cassin with Badiou’). It is startling to realise that when we talk about God or the gods. The deeper problem with Against World Literature is indicated by its subtitle: ‘the politics of untranslatability. that ‘in studying the history of translation within the history of philosophy and theory. World Literature and discrete national literatures. Hamilton is ‘marshalling philology’ against the excesses of the security state. Following the Vocabulaire. causes the university. It is as if the critique of literature and other cultures from a position of political commitment is political action in and of itself. It may well be. we are not just performing a philological or intellectual exercise … we are doing philosophy. Translation as a kind of leveraging of language. cosmopolitanism and localism. so we imported the Italian one. although it probably looks that way more from the literary side than from the philosophical. to pivot. or of a ‘default complicity’ with terrorism (Kadir) – it is hard to see what impact literary theory can have outside academia. considered sufficiently untranslatable that the Germanic ancestor of the English language had to borrow it from a non-Indo-European linguistic substratum about which we know little – perhaps the same language from which we derive folk. on its axis. It is tempting to characterise this as simply trying to have her cake and eat it. to change the world rather than merely interpret it. the universal and the particular.’ . between Alain Badiou’s assertion of the ‘universality of great poems’ and Gayatri Spivak’s insistence on the ‘specificity of the autochthone’ – are not resolved. as Apter claims. politically. in Apter’s claim that ‘the politics of borders was fully activated in my book The Translation Zone’. political or aesthetic meaning. The tensions that animate both Against World Literature and The Translation Zone – between translatability and untranslatability. Yet there is something very odd. and rather troubling. and her assertion that John T. There is more than a touch of wishful thinking in Apter’s suggestion of ‘harnessing political will through the aggregative force of small numbers and almost imperceptible percentages. For all the fiery exchanges between comparatists – accusations of providing ideological cover to neoliberal global capitalism (Spivak). and the entire world. in Comparative Literature. initially.* At a mundane linguistic level. Modern English has absorbed such a large number of words from other languages that those derived from its Anglo-Saxon base are a minority.’ Apter is correct to identify the dialectic of translatability and untranslatability as having not just literary and linguistic implications. untranslatability is a familiar phenomenon. outnumbered by borrowings from French alone. eventually if incrementally.’ The border between literary theory and philosophy is a porous one.

full of grand political ambition. then judicious interventions that affect how we use language can have real political impact. But it is surprising that she does so. however – the decentering of discourse – is a useful corrective to the hubristic claims made for any project of emancipatory politics based in literary theory. supposedly radical and subversive theories have sprung up everywhere in the humanities. an impotent censoriousness easily derided by opponents as ‘political correctness’. social. The contradictory traditions that make themselves . Levi Bryant argues in The Democracy of Objects (2011) that an excessive focus on signs. She seems sympathetic to the emergent philosophical currents of speculative realism. it is ‘marching on the English Department while the Right takes the White House’. but with no possibility of having a meaningful effect on the material circumstances of the various groups whose interests they are intended to champion. But this puts the cart of ideology before the horse of material circumstance. and makes its unlovely appearance in the public sphere as a heavy-handed attempt to police thought via choice of words. He suggests. cultural critique. placing them on an equal footing with the many other factors that shape our world: technological. culture. a ‘flat ontology’ that does not ignore discourse or ideology. At a theoretical level. The implications of the linguistic turn – if justified – for political activism are profound: if the world is created by language and culture. by contrast. Positing the critique of language as a central vehicle for political agency tends to dissipate intellectual energy into semantic quibbling. So Apter is not alone in mistaking politically-minded cultural critique for politics itself.To be fair. Yet one of the chief rallying points of these related movements is a critique of the anthropocentric view of the world implied by the ‘linguistic turn’. ???? 3. semantics and the symbolic is a ‘hegemonic fallacy’. as ‘a redemptive substitute for blocked or defeated movements’. or as Todd Gitlin sarcastically writes. REVOLUTION! In Francis Mulhern’s acerbic analysis. Critique hegemonic power 2. ecological. While the political sphere in Western democracies has been narrowing to a technocratic set of choices in submission to the markets. the ‘linguistic turn’ is highly significant: an umbrella term for related anti-metaphysical shifts in both analytic and continental philosophy. this isn’t a foible unique to Apter. Its basic insight. but does not privilege them either. a reductionism structurally similar (though opposite in content) to a vulgarised Marxism that admits no causes for any social phenomenon outside economics. quoting several of its leading figures (Graham Harman. physical. The thinking appears to run something like: 1. One of the reasons for the sublimation of frustrated political energy into cultural critique is disillusionment with authoritarianism and failure in twentieth century post-revolutionary societies. Derrida (’il n’y a pas de hors-texte’) and Lacan (‘the universe is a flower of rhetoric’). thereof one must be silent’). advanced by thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein (‘whereof one cannot speak. The project of speculative realism is a controversial one. Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier). has ratcheted up the rhetoric of its claims to political agency ‘in inverse proportion to the actual political fortunes of the wider left of which it has been a part’.

the lack of a language barrier is both a blessing and a curse. stow away.’ But it is still the case that Australian writers feel the need to establish themselves abroad in order to be recognised at home. and seek London. * Setting aside its claims for politics and philosophy tout court. Edmund Barton’s project of ‘a nation for a continent. or Timbuctoo – rather than stay in Australia till his genius turned to gall.’ Australia’s relatively short history as an English-speaking nation. has meant that there has been relatively little linguistic divergence. and a continent for a nation’ was achieved via the obliteration or extreme marginalisation of the many nations already on the . The idea of untranslatability has a double-edged significance in the Australian context.’ Matters have improved since Henry Lawson advised any young talented Australian writer to ‘go steerage. Emmett Stinson argues that this new. A satisfactory reconciliation of the insights of both traditions is yet to be achieved (Giani Vattimo and Santiago Zabala’s Hermeneutic Communism is a flawed attempt that may nevertheless provide some pointers). as Sam TwyfordMoore wryly notes in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It seems a safe bet to assume that no literary theory. there is much value in Apter’s insights into the ambiguous nature of translation and language barriers. or beer.felt in Against World Literature are divided by a fault line that goes far deeper than any quarrel between comparatists. conferring prestige upon works that conform to the unadventurous norms of contemporary Anglophone literature. In practice. traffic tends to flow the other way. Although ‘essential to the dissemination and preservation of textual inheritance. ‘untranslatability within a common language. It would not be too much of a stretch to see in this conflict an echo of Plato’s hostility to the Sophists. foreign works at least have to be translated. marginalising the experimental and the formally unorthodox. For Australian literature.’ In Australia. Deleuze). however adroit. as a problem for the local publishing industry: ‘national cultures that have their own distinct language – France. In an essay for this publication. Another ambivalent aspect of translation and untranslatability Apter highlights is the relationship between dominant languages and those with a small or shrinking base of speakers. Australian writing has access to the enormous market of the Anglophone world. swim. which Pascale Casanova identifies in The World Republic of Letters (2004) as necessary for a minor national literature to ‘establish [it]self through the assertion of a linguistic difference within a great literary language’. Italy. with certain celebrated exceptions. Yankeeland. Gadamer) and its legacy in poststructuralism (Derrida. Badiou) have. Various and varied positions with a universalist tendency (Hegel. together with its strong cultural links to Britain and the influence of American film and television. In theory. Michael Wilding has cited Australia’s small population. been in tension with the hermeneutic tradition (Heidegger. [translation] is also understood to be an agent of language extinction. more insidious form of ‘cultural cringe’ acts with the market in a pincer movement to foster homogeneity. will be up to the task. or in Apter’s formulation. coupled with a language shared by the USA and England. South Korea – are protected from this imported product. throughout modernity. although the centre of gravity in English-language literature has shifted from London to New York. this dilemma has especially sharp horns. Marx.

Two centuries of repression. but instantiations of an essence. transferring knowledge from a speaker’s head to an archive which fossilises the language … and renders speakers almost unnecessary. Viewed in this way. and can only be achieved with the goodwill of a society that has not only come to terms with its past. to pluralise itself. ethnic cleansing. Writing in Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians (2003). untranslated – are a long way off. land grabs.’ In the face of this history. The idea of a national literature effectively drafts literature to fulfill a patriotic duty. The most important challenge Apter’s theories present for Australian literature is not how to negotiate the international market and assert its cultural identity. the notion of Australian literature becomes problematic. the Murri language activist and educator Jeanie Bell describes the experience: ‘Our parents had been told quite severely that traditional languages were all junk and rubbish – pagan languages even. does not ameliorate the monolingual basis of the national literature. it is to create the conditions in which ‘Australian English Literature’ is not a tautologous phrase of handwringing political correctness. there is a danger that this effort ‘is in essence a type of media migration. though welcome. This cannot be achieved at the level of literary studies. Words of . writing in Re-awakening Languages (2010) on the Yannhaŋu language of Eastern Arnhem Land. the literatures of its indigenous as well as its settler population. World Literature becomes a national competition: the literary equivalent of the World Cup. but a meaningful descriptor for one literature among many. breadth and a je ne sais quoi that relates the individual works to each other. to confer cultural prestige on its country of origin. An important source for Apter’s notion of the Untranslatable is the Arab writer Abdelfattah Kilito’s injunction ‘Thou Shalt Not Translate Me’: a defence of the ineffable specificity of the writer’s own language. despite their variety. The challenge is. The recent upsurge in the publication of ‘Australian classics’ collections acts not only as a celebration of individual Australian works but as an assertion of canonicity. The texts become not merely parts of a whole. No such legal protections exist in Australia. If the limited funds available are channelled into documenting the language. to recognise and foster Australian literatures of many languages. The linguistic conditions in which indigenous national literatures are able to thrive – both in translation and. So it was drummed into our heads that English was the only language we had to learn. but is willing to act to redeem its future. But what kind of Australia is represented by an almost purely English-language literary culture? The inclusion of a few works written in English by Aboriginal writers. establishing heft. or the fact that a literature has been established atop linguistic erasure in a nation founded on the fiction of terra nullius. describe the difficult choices involved in attempting to reverse the decline of an endangered language. more crucially. a secular version of interdictions against the translation of holy books. Enforced monolingualism and social disruption have resulted in the loss of many languages. legislation has been introduced to protect and foster the growth of the languages that survived the onslaught of English. Claire Bowern and Bentley James.’ In other former British colonies.continent prior to the English invasion. on the contrary. genocidal violence and kidnapping have taken a heavy toll on the indigenous peoples of Australia. a hypothesised ideal of which each work is but an imperfect avatar.

edited by Michèle Grossman (Melbourne University Press.’ Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik. Sam Twyford-Moore. Perhaps then we could truly consign the ‘cultural cringe’ to the past. P. and Michael Walsh (editors). 2007). given our current political climate and the attitudes of much of the public. References Emily Apter. Susan Poetsch. Barbara Cassin (editor).respect and regret come cheap. Death of a Discipline (Princeton University Press. 2000).’ New Left Review. Maps. ‘Australia’s Indigenous Languages. John Hobson. Giani Vattimo and Santiago Zabala. Franco Moretti (editor). Kevin Lowe. (25 June 2012). 2011). Alain Badiou. The World Republic of Letters. Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. translated by Alberto Toscano (Stanford University Press. 1 (2000). 2004).’ Centennial Review. Burgess. The Novel (Princeton University Press. Debating World Literature (Verso.’ Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians. Graphs. ‘In the Same Boat. Vocabulaire europeén des philosophies: dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Éditions du Seuil / Dictionnaires Le Robert. 2011). XIII (1969). 2004). Culture / Metaculture (Routledge. ‘Comparative Literature in an Age of Terrorism. 2005). ‘Letter from Australia. Pascale Casanova. 2004). Levi Bryant.B. ‘Philology and Weitliteratur. Erich Auberach. translated by M. ‘God Is Non-Indo-European.’ Los Angeles Review of Books. 54 (2000). Christopher Prendergast (editor). But such a future would allow Australian Literatures to represent not just a historically shallow tributary of global Anglophone culture. O. The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press.’ in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (John Hopkins University Press. Djelal Kadir. 2007). Francis Mulhern. 2009). Beekes. Can we imagine a national curriculum that recognises the plurality of nations and reverses their suppression? One which would include the teaching of the local languages of each area as subjects taught to all schoolchildren? One in which the ‘Australian Literature’ section of a bookshop is no longer composed of books all written in the English language? It seems fanciful. . A History of Australian Literature (Cambridge University Press. Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verso. 2006). 2005) Emmett Stinson. N. DeBevoise (Harvard University Press. Robert S.’ Sydney Review of Books (26 March 2013). The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton University Press. ‘Conjectures on World Literature. Franco Moretti. Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx (Columbia University Press. Franco Moretti. but a unique network of traditions that combine the internationalism of a continent mostly populated by immigrants with deep roots to land and peoples. Re-awakening Languages: Theory and Practice in the Revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous Languages (Sydney University Press. 2006). Handbook of Inaesthetics. 2010). Jeanie Bell. 2003).