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Urgent Translation

University Press Scholarship Online

Edinburgh Scholarship Online

To Follow: The Wake of Jacques Derrida


Peggy Kamuf

Print publication date: 2010


Print ISBN-13: 9780748641543
Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012
DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748641543.001.0001

Urgent Translation
Peggy Kamuf

DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748641543.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords


In 1971, at Cornell University, Derrida's books were being transmitted there under the sign of a
very particular urgency because they upset everything and gave rise to an experience of
thinking that one did not easily get over. This urgency was also political: the American university
had just been badly shaken by the events at Kent State in 1970, where four students had been
gunned down by National Guard troops during a demonstration against the American bombing
raids on Cambodia, which had extended the ravages of the war in Vietnam. With his books,
Derrida called on readers to reflect on everything that connected this unavowable violence of
the fathers towards their own sons and daughters. He thus gave us the means of re-establishing
links between current politics and the metaphysics of presence that he showed to have been
long at work in the philosophical tradition, and summoned us to think this thing – and to respond
to it. But this urgency had first to pass by way of translation if it was to broadcast its call beyond
the very small milieu of readers of French in US universities. This chapter describes the
challenges of translating Derrida's texts.

Keywords:   Jacques Derrida, French texts, translation

He held out the book to us, saying “You've got to read this.” The book was De la grammatologie,
and the young professor of French literature who exhorted us in this manner had just brought it
back from Paris. We did not waste any time before obeying.

This scene took place in 1971, at Cornell University, but no doubt something similar was
happening in those years at other American university graduate schools. Derrida's books were
being transmitted there under the sign of a very particular urgency because they upset
everything and gave rise to an experience of thinking that one did not easily get over. This
urgency was also political: the American university had just been badly shaken by the events at

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Urgent Translation

Kent State in 1970, where four students had been gunned down by National Guard troops during
a demonstration against the American bombing raids on Cambodia, which had extended the
ravages of the war in Vietnam. With his books, Derrida called on readers to reflect on everything
that connected this unavowable violence of the fathers toward their own sons and daughters. He
thus gave us the means to re-establish links between current politics and the metaphysics of
presence that he showed to have been long at work in the philosophical tradition. And he
summoned us to think this thing—and to respond to it.

But this urgency had first to pass by way of translation if it was to broadcast its call beyond the
very small milieu of readers of French in US universities. In 1973, six years after its publication
in France, La Voix et le phénomène appeared in English translation; as for the translation of De
la grammatologie, one had to wait until 1975. Thereafter, the rhythm accelerated, but there
would always be a palpable delay, owing at once to the cumbersome machinery of publication at
American university presses, where the majority of these translations appeared, and to the
formidable difficulties attending the translation of a practice of writing that is as inventive and
crafty as Derrida's.

(p.44) Because Derrida ruses cunningly with the French language and shakes it up, asking it to
render always more meaning. Each sentence harbors a plurality of other sentences. No text of
Derrida's is simple; all shelter an incalculable crowd of other texts beneath the appearance of
their unicity. That such an irreducible and inevitable pluralization characterizes any text as the
very condition of its readability: this is what Derrida thinks and analyzes in works that are
theoretical insofar as they are performative.

About twenty-five years ago, I attempted for the first time to translate one of these pluralizing
texts. Since then, I have often repeated the experience although the repetition has not brought
me much closer to a solution of the dilemma that Derrida poses to all his translators in every
language. What haunts us and keeps us in suspense is that he often borrows from the simplest,
most ordinary language, which is familiar in its tone and rhythm, recognizable by whoever
understands French, so as to slip in something unheard-of, extraordinary, and unrecognizable.
These sleights of hand can be altogether disconcerting, stimulating, exhilarating, and very often
hilarious. One laughs at the surprise of hearing a piece of language fold up its plainest face with
an unexpected and still unknown face. The idiom emerges from these tricky spins like a newborn
and yet, at the same time, one receives it like the oldest of friends. One is unable to distinguish
finally the one from the other. This is the joy that makes translators weep if they cannot find
ways to produce similar miracles in their own language.

But one does not find them often and even, at least in my experience, very rarely. Perhaps if one
were not always pressed for time one would have the leisure to wait for unhoped-for
coincidences to spring to mind; but, even when publishers or the circumstances leave you alone,
there is still the urgency that forces you to let translations go when they are still in search of
their miracles. You weep for them, but especially for the readers who may never know the extent
to which Jacques Derrida, reputed to be a “difficult writer,” writes so easily in his idiom.

And yet, to translate quickly is not necessarily a fault, and it can even be indispensable. When
Jacques Derrida gave the long lecture that became the stunning book Specters of Marx, he had
to deliver it first in English. As the chosen translator for the occasion—I was in California near
the place where the conference was going to be held—I had to work very fast to keep up with
the number of pages Derrida was passing along to me as he finished drafting the lecture. It was
rather comical despite the very serious stakes of this book. When this translation had to be sent

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Urgent Translation

off (p.45) to the publisher a few months later, I did not weep for it even as I feared that my
haste had left many traces of awkwardness. For these traces as well were responses to urgency
and said, however well or ill, “you've got to read this.”

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PRINTED FROM EDINBURGH SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.edinburgh.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Edinburgh
University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single
chapter of a monograph in ESO for personal use (for details see http://edinburgh.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy/
privacy-policy-and-legal-notice). Subscriber: Harvard University Library; date: 07 December 2017