Paradoxes of translation: On the exceedance of the unspoken


In this article, I consider what is assumed to be the speculative paradox of translation: that translation is theoretically impossible but actually practicable. My thesis is that this aporia is nothing but a consequence of the limited way in which translation is often conceptualised. In this article, the term ‘translation’ is to be understood as interlingual translation, unless otherwise indicated; more precisely, as literary translation. In order to present my argument, I will examine three examples of translation, namely: (1) the fictionalisation of the translation process in Nicole Brossard’s novel Le désert mauve; (2) Jean-François Billeter’s translation of a poem by the medieval Chinese poet Su Dongpo; and (3) the translation of the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ by the fictional character Averroes in a short story written by Jorge Louis Borges. The analysis of these real or fictitious examples of translation will help to introduce the notion of the unspoken as that which cannot be transmuted or recognised as a sign. This ever-present dimension of the translation process will allow me to show that the thesis of fundamental untranslatability is a false aporia, which derives from a reductive understanding of the phenomenon of translation.

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In 1997, Spivak (2007, 263) began a speech in Oviedo, Spain, by stating that, “in every possible sense, translation is necessary but impossible.” What she wanted to suggest is that, for translation to be possible, each language “is assumed to be or to possess the generality of a semiotic that can appropriate the singularity of the other’s idiom by way of conscientious approximations” (265). Since this assumption is problematic, if not erroneous, the appropriation of the singularity of the other’s idiom is doomed to fail or to remain incomplete. From this perspective, the impossibility of translation relies on what is commonly called linguistic relativity: languages differ in the way they represent reality, and this diversity affects all the operating levels of language, from phonetics to syntax. From one language to another, semantic fields are not superimposable, syntaxes are not equivalent, and utterances that correspond from the denotative point of view can involve different connotations, nuances, inheritances, and implications. This heterogeneity implies that it is impossible to express exactly the same thing in another language. Yet, translation exists precisely because human beings do not speak one and the same language. On the one hand, the diversity of languages gives rise to translation; on the other, it is responsible for its impossibility. From this perspective, what constitutes the condition of possibility of translation also entails its impossibility.

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