The Death of the Authors A.K.A. Twilight of the Translators

By Merrill, Christi Ann | Bucknell Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

The Death of the Authors A.K.A. Twilight of the Translators


Merrill, Christi Ann, Bucknell Review


For the old gods, after all, things came to an end long ago; and verily, they had a good gay godlike end. They did not end in "twilight," though this lie is told. Instead: one day they laughed themselves to death. That happened when the most godless word issued from one of the gods themselves--the word: "There is one god. Thou shalt have no other god before me!" An old grimbeard of a god, a jealous one, thus forgot himself. And then all the gods laughed and rocked on their chairs and cried, "Is not just this godlike that there are gods but no God?" (1)

let us note one of the limits of theories of translation: all too often they treat the passing from one language to another and do not sufficiently consider the possibility for languages to be implicated more than two in a text ... How is the effect of plurality to be rendered? (2)

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IN an English translation of Roland Barthes's essay, "La morte de l'auteur," the text, referring to a narrative passage in Balzac's Sarrasine, asks, "Who speaks in this way?" and goes on to wonder if it was "the hero of the tale ... ? ... Balzac the man ... ? ... Balzac the author ... ? ... universal wisdom? Romantic psychology?" (3) And just as the Barthes text asks this of Balzac's text, we ask this of Barthes's, Who is speaking to us this way? Is it Barthes the nuanced, exacting reader performing his reading for us? Barthes the clever stylist creating a gap between what he says and what he does? Barthes not so much an Author but an Author-function, a name and a swirl of texts, a body of scholarship accruing under the signature/signifier called "Barthes"? The text then provides an answer: "We can never know, for the very good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, every origin. Writing is that neuter, that composite, that obliquity into which our subject flees, the black-and-white where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes" ("DA," 49). It's only fair to ask first, Which body that writes? Barthes the irreverent critic who wrote this essay in French three decades ago? Or Richard Howard the translator whose name never appears on the covers of books as an Author-function, even though he has written the words I have just quoted? (4) Or Stephen Heath the translator who wrote the same essay and therefore the same question--not in the present imperfect but in the present continuous--"Who is speaking thus?" (5)

"Qui parle ainsi?" Speaking? We talk as if we hear a voice speaking in the present (be it imperfectly, or continuously). What is it that seems to come alive for us? We are sure that there was a hand (or two, or three) that wrote, past tense. And now we imagine a voice that speaks, present tense. Speaks whose tongue? Barthes's French tongue, Heath's English tongue, Howard's American tongue--it's not just the hand that writes which becomes separated from this voice we hear, but the very tongue that speaks. How can Barthes claim that it is language speaking? If it is, language is speaking in tongues.

No doubt it has always been so: once a word has been uttered, written, or otherwise made manifest, it has already become a translation, has already been incorporated into the world's Babel. (6) Book 11 of Genesis teaches us that the profusion/confusion of language is an inherent, most sorrowful condition of man who longs for a transcendent unity the Fall has rendered impossible. "This story recounts," Jacques Derrida writes, "the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translations, its necessity as impossibility." (7) Thus, in these post-Christ, post-Plato centuries we have been taught to believe in the purity of the spirit of words, have been taught to mistrust only the flesh of language and to look instead toward the Truth animating it. That with divine inspiration reader and writer, speaker and listener can rise above the confusion, to a unitary state above Babel. …

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