Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Translation and the Desacralization of the Western World: From Performativity to Representation

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Translation and the Desacralization of the Western World: From Performativity to Representation

Article excerpt

The Western understanding of meaning as primarily representational, and therefore translatable, is a relatively recent development in the history of human societies. According to phenomenologists of religion (e.g. Eliade), archaic ontology tended instead to be performative, in the sense that reality (that which had sacred potency) was literally summoned into existence by the ritualistic repetition of archetypes. This article argues that the shift from a performative to a representational understanding of meaning in Western culture, which had implications for all aspects of society, was intimately bound up with translation mechanisms.


The Tower of Babel-the legendary edifice in the land of Shinar constructed after the Great Flood (Genesis 11)-has proved a most fertile trope for commentators on translation since the earliest times. It is invoked by authors as diverse as John Trevisa (1387), Joaquim du Bellay (1549), George Steiner (1975), and Jacques Derrida (1985); it has been used to name books, films, journals, and computer software; and it has decorated the walls of language departments and translation offices as a visual image. Indeed, the mythical destruction of the Tower and the fragmentation of tongues that followed may be seen as the foundational moment upon which the whole enterprise of translation rests, the moment when a new need was generated and (if market forces were as predictable then as they are today) a caste of professionals came into being to satisfy that demand, and, with it, all the reflections and discourses that form our object of study.

The premise underpinning the myth-the existence of a primal language that had once united all mankind until rent asunder by God-is less acceptable to modem scholars, who tend to favor evolutionary explanations of language development. The implication that this language was perfectly congruent with reality is also incompatible with modem semiotics, which is posited on the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure 67-70) and the separation of sign and referent (Frege 103-40). Yet the notion has tremendous potency. Suggesting an absoluteness of meaning before the onset of linguistic relativity, it expresses a mystical longing for meaning without words, a yearning to subsume the individual self in an experience of community so intense that it precludes the need for language altogether. In the Jewish tradition, that mystical Ur-sprache was equated with the Hebrew of the Torah, the language in which God had literally called forth the world (Steiner 159-64; Eco 7-10). One consequence was that the words of the sacred text were deemed utterly untranslatable. They had a materiality and prophetic value that precluded any kind of rewriting, to the extent that "the omission or the addition of one letter might mean the destruction of the whole world" (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13a).

The notion that the original divine language was motivated and performative rather than conventional and representational is not exclusive to Judaism. It is found in other religions such as Islam, and was also present in the Classical tradition, for example in Plato's dialogue Cratylus. Indeed, phenomenologists and philosophers of religion (Eliade; Ricoeur 49-61) have implied that performativity, meaning the ritualistic repetition of archetypes to summon the sacred reality into existence, is a defining characteristic of "archaic" ontology, while the understanding of meaning as representational, and therefore translatable, is a decidedly modern development. Hence, the onset of translatability is bound up with the shift from a performative to a predominantly representational understanding of meaning, a shift that paved the way for many of the other transformations that would mark the history of the western world.

This article argues that, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, two major paradigm shifts were necessary for representationalism to establish itself as the norm. …

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