Economy of Babel: The Problem of Minimalist Translation in the Intellectual Discourse of Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida

By Yang, Manuel | Nebula, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Economy of Babel: The Problem of Minimalist Translation in the Intellectual Discourse of Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida


Yang, Manuel, Nebula


   Now you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
   The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
   And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong ...

   Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
   I ache in the places where I used to play
   And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
   I'm just paying my rent every day
   Oh in the tower of song

--Leonard Cohen, "Tower of Song"

As a working bilingual translator (to and from English and Japanese), I constantly confront the perennial dilemma every translator must face in trying to recapture the meaning of the original text in a different language: the degree to which one errs on the side of literalist loyalty or on the side of necessarily paraphrased, "natural" language-use. The novelist Haruki Murakami, who has made various translations of modern American fiction, once spoke on this contrary polarity of translation in terms of his two major American translators and his own attitude as a translator:

... speaking for myself as a translator, I tend to be a literal translator, close to Mr. Rubin. I think Birnbaum's translation is interesting, but I don't think I'd do it that way. My method is to do it verbatim. Otherwise there is no reason for me to translate. If I wanted to create something on my own, I'd write something on my own from the outset. Of course, this is why selecting a text that you can respect firmly is indispensable (Hon-yaku yawa 20).

Partly the reason for tending toward the literalist or the paraphrasing approach is decidedly personal, reflecting in many ways the personal literary and linguistic sensibility of the translator as much as the author he or she is translating.

My field of translation is largely scholarly and intellectual--although this is applicable to my translation of poetry as well--and initially I was so rigidly "literalist" in my translation, including even the very order of words, that my English rendition was often as incomprehensible, that is, literally "Babelian," as the original Japanese would have been for English readers. However, I was weaned quickly out of this habit, with not a little help from the first reader of my manuscript (translation of Japanese thinker Takaaki Yoshimoto's Karl Marx), the social historian Peter Linebaugh. He circled gently in red ink passage after passage whose meanings entirely eluded him. Through my second, third, multiple revisions that followed, I was forced to strike a dialectical balance--as much as my limited ability allowed--between literalism and paraphrase, even though to this day I still have not completely shaken off an adulterous, secret loyalty to the "literal truth" of the original language.

Readers familiar with the work of Jacques Derrida may guess correctly where I am going with all this. One of the major targets of Derrida's deconstruction was language, to endlessly problematize (as opposed to "deny," as his critics falsely accused) the "presence" of irreducible, permanent truth in it, arguing among other things in Of Grammatology that the traditionally assumed priority of speech over writing is greatly misconstrued on a metaphysical assumption of "presence" shot through from Plato to Rousseau. Furthermore, Derrida cautioned against all kinds of closures--semantic, linguistic, philosophical, political--which would have us believe that we have come to the end of building the last theoretical system (i.e., the completion of "Babel"), or even entertain such a possibility, which, in my case, means the achievement of a definitive translation that, in Leonard Cohen's words, "time will not decay" and be a perfect-pitched mirror-image of the original. Put another way, this was a caution against Western modernity's too ready faith in progress and its hubris about having transcended the materiality of collective or social "original sin" (e.g., of primary accumulation)--issued very self-consciously as an immanent critique from within the discursive tradition of Western philosophy itself (whatever we may think of Derrida's work, his deconstruction was built paradoxically on the language and concepts of the tradition which it critiqued fundamentally and to which it belonged securely at the same time--a gesture that, in a nutshell, captures the spirit of deconstruction as much as such "capture" is possible). …

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