Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability
by Emily Apter
Published June, 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. ‘Jaw-jaw 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-paying students. The phenomenon of World Literature, taught in the lecture hall via translations, 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.’
But if translation, in the broad sense of cross-cultural understanding, can make the difference between war and peace, quibbling over such niceties as cultural appropriation and the depredations of the market can seem dangerously wrong-headed. Gayatri Spivak’s insistence on the paramount importance of ‘linguistic and cultural particularity’ is thus trenchantly denounced by Djelal Kadir, who makes the hyperbolic claim that her anti-translation rhetoric is tantamount to aiding and abetting terrorism:
Incomparability is the dynamic, not of criticism or of comparatistic counterpoint, but a handmaiden of terror. Terror thrives on unbreachable difference, on exceptionalism, on the cultural and political monads that lie beyond the plausibility of dissensus and outside the possibility of the negotiable consensus.
Strong stuff indeed. The Translation Zone attempts to reconcile the extremes, not by finding a middle ground, but by taking both on board and playing them against each other. The book opens with ‘Twenty Theses on Translation’: a series of axioms beginning with ‘Nothing is translatable’ and ending with ‘Everything is translatable’. Invoking the last words of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (1953) – ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ – Apter takes translation failure to be an unavoidable fact, despite which one must nevertheless carry on with the struggle to translate, ‘to balance the singularity of untranslatable alterity against the need to translate quand même.’
Apter’s new book, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability, was written in the shadow of another great event, symbolically marking the unravelling of post-Cold War globalised unipolarity. Not an attack but an implosion: the global financial crisis. In keeping with the times’ diffuse yet pervasive sense of catastrophe, Against World Literature is less agitated, but more deeply pessimistic. It traces a line from the paranoid globalism of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, through a discussion of melancholy and nostalgia in Portuguese literature, to end on an apocalyptic note with the ‘the premonition of earthly extinction’ in Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound (2007), which elevates Freud’s theory of the death-drive to planetary scale, and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), a film that juxtaposes human depression with the absolute horizon of life and of the world, made imminent by another planet that is about to collide with the earth.
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, an ‘intransigent nub of meaning that triggers endless translating in response to its resistant singularity’. The power of the Untranslatable lies in the nature of words as parts of a whole, as identified by the semotician Ferdinand de Saussure – that is, how they derive their meanings from their relationship to each other. Truly understanding all the layers of meaning in a single word or phrase thus requires knowledge of its linguistic context.
Apter uses the concept of Untranslatables to locate significant differences in thought that are conditioned by language and culture. The idea of the Untranslatable – or rather, the notion that the Untranslatable represents not merely a technical problem to overcome, but a rich site for philosophical inquiry – derives from Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire europeén des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (2004), which Apter and others are currently translating into English, to be published next year under the title Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon.
To translate a lexicon of untranslatable terms: a quixotic endeavour, to say the least. But perhaps a perfect example of facing the impossible and doing it anyway (‘to translate quand même’). We are probably safe in assuming that Apter, with her appreciation for the irreconcilable, relishes the antinomy.
Cassin’s Vocabulaire is a remarkable book. Structured as an encyclopedia, it consists of around 400 entries, each under its own headword: a word or phrase of both philosophical significance and linguistic specificity. The headwords are drawn from many European languages, and also from Hebrew and Arabic. If the word is foreign, an approximate synonym or two in French is supplied, then equivalent words in other European languages, and a list of related headwords. The main article gives a careful treatment of its meanings, its history and philosophical valence, and finally a bibliography. Probably due to the scope and complexity of the material, the basis on which terms merit inclusion as headwords is not entirely clear: the English people gets one, with a discussion of its unusual pluralisation (person and people—people and peoples) and a second, more in-depth, section on its significance to American history and politics; whereas the German Volk is tucked in as a subsection to the larger entry on the French peuple, race, nation.
The Vocabulaire reveals ambiguities and nuances that differentiate philosophically important words of approximate equivalence in a variety of languages. Its format emphasises its linguistic pluralism: although the text is in French, its multilingual structure demonstrates that there is no definitive version of a given concept, but a ripple of related ideological phenomena, subtly or strikingly distinct as the case may be, that are shaped and coloured by their linguistic and cultural contexts. In her introduction, Cassin takes the difficulty of translating philosophy as the project’s point of departure, and presents us with a choice. We can either opt for a single master-language (probably English) and, by translation, flatten out the world in a way that makes it palatable to the Anglo-American tradition, with its emphasis on common sense and ‘ordinary language’; or we can preserve the specificity of untranslatable words and expressions, and retain the full richness of ideas in the language in which they were originally inscribed.
We might expect Against World Literature to apply these principles to Comparative Literature. And it does, mounting an attack on World Literature’s ‘entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources’. Apter is sensitive to the costs involved in globalisation, the papering-over of difference and the generalisations that – intentionally or not – privilege dominant languages, literatures and cultures. But the book’s scope is much broader, sometimes at the expense of coherence. Apter discusses the politics of borders and checkpoints, with a special focus on Israel-Palestine; performative activism and politically-charged graphic art; concepts of the universal and the particular in various branches of continental philosophy; the practice and theory of ownership, intellectual property and the commons; and the relative ontological status of individual human beings, inanimate objects, ideas, and human and nonhuman collectivities.
For a book that sets out to deflate ‘the expansionism and gargantuan scale of world-literary endeavors’, Against World Literature has some sizeable ambitions of its own. Even when Apter talks about literature, it is usually at one or two removes. Often, the real object of her attention is the theoretical exegesis of a work, rather than the work itself. 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, and for what purpose. The density of the prose does not make it any easier to follow the thread. It is no small feat to write a gloss that is more opaque than the quotation from Jacques Derrida it is intended to explicate.
What saves the book from entropy is the central concept of the Untranslatable. Apter uses the idea to break down generalisations, and the tendency to submerge inconvenient details in overarching theory. With a forensic attention to detail, she uses mistranslations and misinterpretations to reveal the philosophical specificity of words and phrases in Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe (1949), and compares words that correspond to ‘peace’ in various European languages to critique the ideology of the security state.
Throughout Against World Literature, Apter uses the concept of the Untranslatable to make sure we don’t miss the trees for the wood. That is why she looks askance at Franco Moretti’s maverick reframing of World Literature as a project that requires ‘distant reading’, which assumes too large a field to rely on close readings of texts. Her criticism here is a little uneven. She points out the partial failure of The Novel (2007) – an international, multi-volume history of the genre edited by Moretti – to overcome Eurocentrism, but concedes that such a criticism is ultimately ‘unsatisfying’. She pivots to consider Moretti’s quantitative experiments and statistical surveys, and the sacrifices of the ‘contraction of the economy of expression’ involved in reading literature through such a radical lens of distance. 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, and should do so – and researchers of World Literature, who, according to Moretti, must rely on the work of their single-literature colleagues to draw their inferences.
It is understandable that Apter finds Moretti hard to pin down, because he works in several very different modes. There is the traditional close reader of The Modern Epic (1996) or The Bourgeois (2013), who theorises via the careful treatment of individual works; the encyclopedic overseer of a broad-ranging project like The Novel, in which individual works are studied at close range; and the distant reader of Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005), who delights in ‘quantitative history, geographic maps, and topological schemata’. Apter is justified in pointing out the limitations of Moretti’s theories of ‘distant reading’, but it seems a little perverse to conflate his theory and practice. Some of his work is guilty of an uncritical enthusiasm for the scientific method (empirical testing of hypotheses, quantified data models) in a field to which it is poorly suited. But that is certainly not true of The Novel. By working with many scholars of individual national literatures, Moretti provides an example of literary collaboration that, while not exhaustive in scope, goes some way towards justifying World Literature as a project that does not have to sacrifice either breadth or depth.
At a mundane linguistic level, untranslatability is a familiar phenomenon. It is the most common reason for one language to borrow a word from another: we didn’t have an Engish word for pizza, so we imported the Italian one. Modern English has absorbed such a large number of words from other languages that those derived from its Anglo-Saxon base are a minority, outnumbered by borrowings from French alone. It is startling to realise that when we talk about God or the gods, we are using a word that was, initially, 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, another word without a convincing Indo-European etymology.
Following the Vocabulaire, the words and terms Apter picks out as Untranslatables are usually charged with philosophical, political or aesthetic meaning. The tensions that animate both Against World Literature and The Translation Zone – between translatability and untranslatability, the universal and the particular, cosmopolitanism and localism, World Literature and discrete national literatures; 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. To some extent, this is because Apter sees value in insights from widely divergent traditions of thought (’trying to conjugate Cassin with Badiou’). It is tempting to characterise this as simply trying to have her cake and eat it. But much of what is valuable in her work depends on the creative use of these tensions.
The deeper problem with Against World Literature is indicated by its subtitle: ‘the politics of untranslatability.’ Apter is correct to identify the dialectic of translatability and untranslatability as having not just literary and linguistic implications, but political and philosophical ones as well. Yet there is something very odd, and rather troubling, in Apter’s claim that ‘the politics of borders was fully activated in my book The Translation Zone’, and her assertion that John T. Hamilton is ‘marshalling philology’ against the excesses of the security state. 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, as Apter claims, that ‘in studying the history of translation within the history of philosophy and theory, we are not just performing a philological or intellectual exercise … we are doing philosophy.’ The border between literary theory and philosophy is a porous one, although it probably looks that way more from the literary side than from the philosophical. But the sine qua non of political thought – at least, the kind of emancipatory politics to which Apter shows a clear allegiance – is that it has the potential, as Marx’s aphorism has it, to change the world rather than merely interpret it.
This brings us back to the question of what is at stake, politically, in Comparative Literature. For all the fiery exchanges between comparatists – accusations of providing ideological cover to neoliberal global capitalism (Spivak), or of a ‘default complicity’ with terrorism (Kadir) – it is hard to see what impact literary theory can have outside academia. 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. Translation as a kind of leveraging of language, causes the university, and the entire world, to pivot, eventually if incrementally, on its axis.’
To be fair, this isn’t a foible unique to Apter. While the political sphere in Western democracies has been narrowing to a technocratic set of choices in submission to the markets, supposedly radical and subversive theories have sprung up everywhere in the humanities, full of grand political ambition, but with no possibility of having a meaningful effect on the material circumstances of the various groups whose interests they are intended to champion. The thinking appears to run something like:
1. Critique hegemonic power
In Francis Mulhern’s acerbic analysis, cultural critique, as ‘a redemptive substitute for blocked or defeated movements’, 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’; or as Todd Gitlin sarcastically writes, it is ‘marching on the English Department while the Right takes the White House’.
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. At a theoretical level, the ‘linguistic turn’ is highly significant: an umbrella term for related anti-metaphysical shifts in both analytic and continental philosophy, advanced by thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein (‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’), Derrida (’il n’y a pas de hors-texte’) and Lacan (‘the universe is a flower of rhetoric’). The implications of the linguistic turn – if justified – for political activism are profound: if the world is created by language and culture, then judicious interventions that affect how we use language can have real political impact. But this puts the cart of ideology before the horse of material circumstance. Positing the critique of language as a central vehicle for political agency tends to dissipate intellectual energy into semantic quibbling, and makes its unlovely appearance in the public sphere as a heavy-handed attempt to police thought via choice of words, an impotent censoriousness easily derided by opponents as ‘political correctness’.
So Apter is not alone in mistaking politically-minded cultural critique for politics itself. But it is surprising that she does so. She seems sympathetic to the emergent philosophical currents of speculative realism, quoting several of its leading figures (Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier). 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’. Levi Bryant argues in The Democracy of Objects (2011) that an excessive focus on signs, culture, semantics and the symbolic is a ‘hegemonic fallacy’, a reductionism structurally similar (though opposite in content) to a vulgarised Marxism that admits no causes for any social phenomenon outside economics. He suggests, by contrast, a ‘flat ontology’ that does not ignore discourse or ideology, but does not privilege them either, placing them on an equal footing with the many other factors that shape our world: technological, ecological, social, physical.
The project of speculative realism is a controversial one. Its basic insight, however – the decentering of discourse – is a useful corrective to the hubristic claims made for any project of emancipatory politics based in literary theory. The contradictory traditions that make themselves felt in Against World Literature are divided by a fault line that goes far deeper than any quarrel between comparatists. Various and varied positions with a universalist tendency (Hegel, Marx, Badiou) have, throughout modernity, been in tension with the hermeneutic tradition (Heidegger, Gadamer) and its legacy in poststructuralism (Derrida, Deleuze). It would not be too much of a stretch to see in this conflict an echo of Plato’s hostility to the Sophists. 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). It seems a safe bet to assume that no literary theory, however adroit, will be up to the task.
Setting aside its claims for politics and philosophy tout court, there is much value in Apter’s insights into the ambiguous nature of translation and language barriers. The idea of untranslatability has a double-edged significance in the Australian context. For Australian literature, the lack of a language barrier is both a blessing and a curse.
In theory, Australian writing has access to the enormous market of the Anglophone world. In practice, with certain celebrated exceptions, traffic tends to flow the other way. Michael Wilding has cited Australia’s small population, coupled with a language shared by the USA and England, as a problem for the local publishing industry: ‘national cultures that have their own distinct language – France, Italy, South Korea – are protected from this imported product; foreign works at least have to be translated.’ Australia’s relatively short history as an English-speaking nation, together with its strong cultural links to Britain and the influence of American film and television, has meant that there has been relatively little linguistic divergence, 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’; or in Apter’s formulation, ‘untranslatability within a common language.’
Matters have improved since Henry Lawson advised any young talented Australian writer to ‘go steerage, stow away, swim, and seek London, Yankeeland, or Timbuctoo – rather than stay in Australia till his genius turned to gall, or beer.’ But it is still the case that Australian writers feel the need to establish themselves abroad in order to be recognised at home, as Sam Twyford-Moore wryly notes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, although the centre of gravity in English-language literature has shifted from London to New York. In an essay for this publication, Emmett Stinson argues that this new, more insidious form of ‘cultural cringe’ acts with the market in a pincer movement to foster homogeneity, conferring prestige upon works that conform to the unadventurous norms of contemporary Anglophone literature, marginalising the experimental and the formally unorthodox.
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. Although ‘essential to the dissemination and preservation of textual inheritance, [translation] is also understood to be an agent of language extinction.’ In Australia, this dilemma has especially sharp horns. Edmund Barton’s project of ‘a nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation’ was achieved via the obliteration or extreme marginalisation of the many nations already on the continent prior to the English invasion. Two centuries of repression, land grabs, ethnic cleansing, genocidal violence and kidnapping have taken a heavy toll on the indigenous peoples of Australia. Enforced monolingualism and social disruption have resulted in the loss of many languages. Writing in Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians (2003), 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. So it was drummed into our heads that English was the only language we had to learn.’
In other former British colonies, legislation has been introduced to protect and foster the growth of the languages that survived the onslaught of English. No such legal protections exist in Australia. Claire Bowern and Bentley James, writing in Re-awakening Languages (2010) on the Yannhaŋu language of Eastern Arnhem Land, describe the difficult choices involved in attempting to reverse the decline of an endangered language. If the limited funds available are channelled into documenting the language, there is a danger that this effort ‘is in essence a type of media migration; transferring knowledge from a speaker’s head to an archive which fossilises the language … and renders speakers almost unnecessary.’
In the face of this history, the notion of Australian literature becomes problematic. The idea of a national literature effectively drafts literature to fulfill a patriotic duty, to confer cultural prestige on its country of origin. 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, establishing heft, breadth and a je ne sais quoi that relates the individual works to each other, despite their variety. The texts become not merely parts of a whole, but instantiations of an essence, a hypothesised ideal of which each work is but an imperfect avatar.
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, though welcome, does not ameliorate the monolingual basis of the national literature, or the fact that a literature has been established atop linguistic erasure in a nation founded on the fiction of terra nullius.
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, a secular version of interdictions against the translation of holy books. The most important challenge Apter’s theories present for Australian literature is not how to negotiate the international market and assert its cultural identity. Viewed in this way, World Literature becomes a national competition: the literary equivalent of the World Cup. The challenge is, on the contrary, to pluralise itself, to recognise and foster Australian literatures of many languages, the literatures of its indigenous as well as its settler population; it is to create the conditions in which ‘Australian English Literature’ is not a tautologous phrase of hand-wringing political correctness, but a meaningful descriptor for one literature among many.
This cannot be achieved at the level of literary studies. The linguistic conditions in which indigenous national literatures are able to thrive – both in translation and, more crucially, untranslated – are a long way off, and can only be achieved with the goodwill of a society that has not only come to terms with its past, but is willing to act to redeem its future. Words of respect and regret come cheap. 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, given our current political climate and the attitudes of much of the public. But such a future would allow Australian Literatures to represent not just a historically shallow tributary of global Anglophone culture, but a unique network of traditions that combine the internationalism of a continent mostly populated by immigrants with deep roots to land and peoples. Perhaps then we could truly consign the ‘cultural cringe’ to the past.
Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton University Press, 2006).
Erich Auberach, ‘Philology and Weitliteratur,’ Centennial Review, XIII (1969).
Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, translated by Alberto Toscano (Stanford University Press, 2005).
Robert S. P. Beekes, ‘God Is Non-Indo-European,’ Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik, 54 (2000).
Jeanie Bell, ‘Australia’s Indigenous Languages,’ in Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians, edited by Michèle Grossman (Melbourne University Press, 2003).
Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011).
O. N. Burgess, A History of Australian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, translated by M.B. DeBevoise (Harvard University Press, 2004).
Barbara Cassin (editor), Vocabulaire europeén des philosophies: dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Éditions du Seuil / Dictionnaires Le Robert, 2004).
John Hobson, Kevin Lowe, Susan Poetsch, and Michael Walsh (editors), Re-awakening Languages: Theory and Practice in the Revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous Languages (Sydney University Press, 2010).
Djelal Kadir, ‘Comparative Literature in an Age of Terrorism,’ in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (John Hopkins University Press, 2006).
Franco Moretti, ‘Conjectures on World Literature,’ New Left Review, 1 (2000).
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verso, 2007).
Franco Moretti (editor), The Novel (Princeton University Press, 2007).
Francis Mulhern, Culture / Metaculture (Routledge, 2000).
Christopher Prendergast (editor), Debating World Literature (Verso, 2004).
Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, Death of a Discipline (Princeton University Press, 2005)
Emmett Stinson, ‘In the Same Boat,’ Sydney Review of Books (26 March 2013).
Sam Twyford-Moore, ‘Letter from Australia,’ Los Angeles Review of Books, (25 June 2012).
Giani Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx (Columbia University Press, 2011).