Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation

Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation

by Sandra Bermann

View All Available Formats & Editions

In recent years, scholarship on translation has moved well beyond the technicalities of converting one language into another and beyond conventional translation theory. With new technologies blurring distinctions between "the original" and its reproductions, and with globalization redefining national and cultural boundaries, "translation" is now emerging as a


In recent years, scholarship on translation has moved well beyond the technicalities of converting one language into another and beyond conventional translation theory. With new technologies blurring distinctions between "the original" and its reproductions, and with globalization redefining national and cultural boundaries, "translation" is now emerging as a reformulated subject of lively, interdisciplinary debate. Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation enters the heart of this debate. It covers an exceptional range of topics, from simultaneous translation to legal theory, from the language of exile to the language of new nations, from the press to the cinema; and cultures and languages from contemporary Bengal to ancient Japan, from translations of Homer to the work of Don DeLillo.

All twenty-two essays, by leading voices including Gayatri Spivak and the late Edward Said, are provocative and persuasive. The book's four sections--"Translation as Medium and across Media," "The Ethics of Translation," "Translation and Difference," and "Beyond the Nation"--together provide a comprehensive view of current thinking on nationality and translation, one that will be widely consulted for years to come.

The contributors are Jonathan E. Abel, Emily Apter, Sandra Bermann, Vilashini Cooppan, Stanley Corngold, David Damrosch, Robert Eaglestone, Stathis Gourgouris, Pierre Legrand, Jacques Lezra, Françoise Lionnet, Sylvia Molloy, Yopie Prins, Edward Said, Azade Seyhan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Henry Staten, Lawrence Venuti, Lynn Visson, Gauri Viswanathan, Samuel Weber, and Michael Wood.

Editorial Reviews

Modern Language Notes - Susan Bernofsky
Sure to become required reading for students and scholars of the subject, . . . this new volume presents a well-balanced view of the current state of the profession and contains an unusually large percentage of essays (fully half) that can be considered significant contributions to the field.
From the Publisher
"Sure to become required reading for students and scholars of the subject, . . . this new volume presents a well-balanced view of the current state of the profession and contains an unusually large percentage of essays (fully half) that can be considered significant contributions to the field."—Susan Bernofsky, Modern Language Notes
Modern Language Notes
Sure to become required reading for students and scholars of the subject, . . . this new volume presents a well-balanced view of the current state of the profession and contains an unusually large percentage of essays (fully half) that can be considered significant contributions to the field.
— Susan Bernofsky

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
9 MB

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation

By Sandra Bermann Michael Wood

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11609-9



There has probably never been a time when issues of nation, language, and translation have been more important or more troubling than they are today. In a world where individual nation-states are increasingly enmeshed in financial and information networks, where multiple linguistic and national identities can inhabit a single state's borders or exceed them in vast diasporas, where globalization has its serious-and often violent-discontents, and where terrorism and war transform distrust into destruction, language and translation play central, if often unacknowledged, roles. Though the reasons for this are undeniably complex, they are, at least in broad terms, understandable. Waves of migrating peoples have made the contemporary nation-state, and especially its urban centers, into global sites with multiplicities of languages and cultures. At the same time, the international trade, finance, and information technologies that support these sites both depend upon and often seek to bypass translation for economic growth within world and regional markets.

The global reach of international law and politics only heightens the importance of language and translation. Military networks,governmental agencies, as well as international entities such as the United Nations, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Union translate for purposes of intelligence, negotiation, and the dissemination of information or propaganda, as do the growing number of nongovernmental (NGOs) agencies, be they religious or secular. Global media and information networks provide news and interviews on a minute-to-minute basis to serve multiple linguistic constituencies as well as specific cultural and political purposes.

In a world of rapidly transforming populations and technologies, where language and citizenship are caught up in tightly woven webs of economic, military, and cultural power, language and translation operate at every juncture. Indeed so central is translation's role that, as Ilan Stavans recently noted, with only a hint of hyperbole, "modernity ... is not lived through nationality but ... through translationality."

Yet if language and translation have become increasingly important in national and international relations, and in the processes of "globalization" more generally, their role as cultural as well as linguistic entities is only beginning to be theorized. The social sciences, that have so well described our political, economic, military, and information networks, have, for the most part, ignored these issues or considered them simply a necessary interface. This is most likely because, in their very texture, these linguistic matters belong so fully to what we traditionally think of as the humanities. Yet closely considered, language and translation in fact open up the unavoidable complexities, the historically ingrained problems and prejudices, and the intense day-to-day negotiations that occupy our interwoven global communities, setting into stark relief the difficult suturing of global networks and the over-stressed joints of the international body politic. They tend to raise questions about linguistic power and the dissemination of texts in various media; they bring to the fore issues of human rights as well as intellectual property; they also illuminate disparities among states, nations, and local traditions, and the often tragic problems of linguistic and cultural diasporas; they reveal complex multiplicities in the shadow of apparent unity.

Only a more deeply nuanced understanding of these linguistic ligatures, and a heightened awareness of their relationship to the national as well as to the "post-national," and "subnational," can begin to parse the painful dialectics of local and global, past and present, that cross the contemporary world. Pursued in greater detail, they might begin to sketch a humanistic complement to the theorization of today's economic and information complex by the social sciences and urge, in the process, a very different, more reflective, and more culturally variegated "global consciousness."

The essays in this collection afford an opportunity to rethink national, subnational, and international connections and conflicts, their histories and their futures, from the specific standpoint of language and translation. Though the essays consider a large range of texts, languages, and cultures, all circle around the same densely interwoven issues: (1) the nation, both its discursive construction and its dismantling; (2) language, as a site of power, a means of active communication, and a scene of epistemological reflection; and (3) the ethics of translation, a topic that, as each of these contributions in one way or another reveals, underlies and amplifies our understanding of both of the other, apparently broader, themes.


Wide-ranging in subject matter and diverse in approach, these essays depend upon a recognizable legacy of thought from both cultural studies and literary theory. The work of Benedict Anderson, Timothy Brennan, Partha Chatterjee, Neil Lazarus, Bruce Robbins, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gauri Viswanathan, Robert J. C. Young, and others has brought to our attention the many ways in which nationhood inevitably depends upon cultural-and specifically linguistic-means for its creation, its colonial and imperialist extension, and also its dismantling. Benedict Anderson's well-known description of the nation as an "imagined community," Edward Said's discussion of Orientalism, and Michel Foucault's notion of "discursive formations," have underscored the cultural-and especially linguistic-build, maintenance, and "unbundling" of national identities. Though foundational narratives might claim an originary moment and underlying unity, these more recent critical voices show that nationhood is better described as a never-ending, conflictual process driven by changing cultural practices. They reveal, moreover, that a "nation" need not be syonymous with a "state." The two are often articulated in frankly problematic ways, as any number of territorial disputes attest.

The role of language in the process of nationhood is both powerful and complex. As a means of communication that is notably tied to the demos (the "we-creating" sense of belonging invoked in essentialist descriptions of the nation) language has always been a defining feature of national identity, even-especially-when this "nation" has become diasporic. Nor is language a neutral element. Consciously or unconsciously, it performs deft feats of appropriation and exclusion, supported by a dialectic of otherness. Creating and relying upon notions of cultural difference, groups underscore our "we," our identity and our solidarity. Through what Said has identified as Orientalism, through racism in its multiple forms, or through apparently more benign forms of ethnic, religious, or national enthusiasm, we create solidarity by excluding, marginalizing, if not vilifying and making enemies of, groups identified as other. The rhetoric of war or of propaganda provides ready examples of this strategy. Yet, as Hegel and his heirs have taught us, the "other" so firmly rejected thereby invariably inhabits any sense of self, any notion of identity. It is a strategy we live with in the public world, as in our private lives, on a daily basis.

From this awareness of language's role in the creation of identities have emerged powerful literary and cultural critiques of nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism, and an intellectual vigilance about the complex heteronomy that inheres in all of our constructed solidarities. Seeking to describe, interpret, and ultimately emancipate cultures and literatures suppressed by a legacy of more powerful groups, values, and paradigms, literary and cultural critiques have opened new paths. This has been particularly notable in studies described by the debated term "postcolonialism," a multifaceted approach seeking to understand and rectify the literary and cultural consequences of colonialism in both colonizing and colonized countries, now and in the past.

As is well known, language has often been implicated in efforts to mute a past and, with it, a sense of cultural identity. In the current era, the problem of linguistic 'colonialism' continues in a specific form. Compelled by financial and literary pressure, authors seek to write in English or in one of the other major commercial languages-or else to be quickly translated. Yet despite what is known as "global English," and other locally hegemonic tongues (French, for instance, in parts of Africa and the Middle East, and Mandarin in East Asia), liberatory efforts to assert historical languages and their literary traditions nonetheless persist.

Though efforts to retrieve past languages and literatures extend to cultures and discourses of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as to those buried within dominant cultures in Europe and North America, they may also include gender-specific and class-specific languages and literatures that have failed to find a "home" in the Euro-American space. The importance of such archaeologies, undertaken by peoples around the globe, can hardly be overstated. Unearthing forgotten or excluded linguistic traditions, noting their inevitable interactions with other, more powerful ones, and bringing this knowledge into current discussion are surely some of the most compelling tasks faced in the history of literary studies. Such critiques raise explicit, and often difficult, ethical and political questions concerning the relationship of the national to the international as well as to the subnational, the local to the global, and the esthetic to the political. More self-reflectively, they also highlight ways in which categories of critical analysis can unwittingly subsume the very historical and local particulars they mean to reveal.

Though the discursive reality of nationhood and its dialectic of otherness often drives the literary or cultural critic, the very complexity of language as often makes her pause. For one, language remains radically contingent upon specific local histories and contexts. Cultural practices produce and sustain-and are in turn sustained by-the lexicon and syntax of a given language. Highly particularized cultural markers must therefore be taken into account in any linguistic interpretation-in principle, an infinite task, and a necessarily self-reflective one. Interpreters can always find yet another access to meaning, another pertinent insight, as language weaves its way through dense and rapidly changing webs of culture.

Contemporary epistemological reflections further the sense of a complex alterity at work within language. Inquiries developed throughout the twentieth century in the philosophy of language, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and especially deconstruction, underscore a shared awareness that language can never be viewed as a simple mental tool, or as a transparent medium of representation. On the contrary. Conceived as a process of difference and deferral, scripted by the unconscious, by memory, and by texts and contexts immemorial, language neither mirrors a pure "truth," nor simply reflects discrete referential meanings. Language remains radically impure, haunted by endless semantic contexts and, as emphasized by Derrida and DeMan, an insuperable undecidability. Harboring its own epistemological "otherness," language imposes internal barriers to appropriative understanding as well as to transparent communication. Translation only multiplies this awareness of otherness that inhabits languages as it inhabits human society more generally.


Indeed, translation (commonly defined as "the rendering from one language into another") illuminates both the cultural otherness at stake in contemporary studies of nationhood and the epistemological otherness at work in language itself. Engaging both with "nation" and with "language," with "cultural studies" and with "theory," as well as with more traditional literary history, with close reading and, not the least, with everyday experience in a global context, translation has itself become an important border concept in the humanities, affecting some of the most salient intellectual and ethical issues of our time. It requires attention to cultural values, to economic and political inequalities, to individual choices and, perhaps most obviously, to otherness in its linguistic and cultural forms. In the process, it foregrounds some explicitly ethical questions.

From Schleiermacher's early discussion of the role of translation in the creation of German nationhood (analyzed by Venuti) to twenty-first-century "legal transplants" (discussed here by Legrand), the study of translation has raised important cultural issues of local homelands and "foreign" nations, of national or ethnic histories and global aspirations, as well as of changing power relations. Translators have long agreed that the effort to render one language system into another requires a keen awareness of broad cultural as well as specific linguistic values. It also requires existential choices that are bound to have wide-ranging repercussions for the text and its audience. How much of the "otherness" of the "foreign" should the translator highlight? How much of the foreign should he mute or erase in order to make texts easier for the "home" (target) audience to assimilate? The problems posed demand judgment calls as ethical as they are practical or cognitive.

Translation's distinctive ability to offer insight into the language process itself aligns it with ethics and the question of the foreign in a different, though not unrelated, way. As is frequently noted, translation's etymology-trans(across) and latus, the past participle of ferre(to carry)-suggests a transportation of meaning, a physical displacement. The German übersetzen implies the same. Yet only if we conceive of language as a surface element, ready to collapse into meanings that could take a commanding role and, moreover, be fixed in some univocal way, could translation be a simple "carrying across" of concepts from one signifying system to another. The very impossibility of such a feat, long recognized in the history of translation studies, argues for the need to envision language in the more complicated fashion common to twentieth-century theorists. Here, each language bears its own vast and endlessly transforming intertext of socially and historically grafted meanings, along with their graphic and acoustic imagery. Though different languages clearly provide some semantic 'overlap' in their efforts to relate to the referential world, this overlap is only partial, as is attested by Benjamin's famous example of "Brot" versus "pain" or Saussure's equally well-known discussion of "mouton" versus the English "mutton" and "sheep." If language is not a simple nomenclature for pre-established and universally recognized "meanings," as most contemporary language philosophers agree, translation can never be a complete or transparent transferal of semantic content. Yet even in its imperfect, or simply creative negotiations of difference, translation provides a necessary linguistic supplement that bridges cultural chasms and allows for intellectual passage and exchange.

Such linguistic reflections raise intriguing philosophical as well as practical questions. If, for instance, both translation and the "original" text are, in Benjamin's words, "recognizable as the fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are parts of a vessel," what is the nature of this "greater language"? Does it refer to an archaic essence, or rather to a harmony, where differences and Derridean "différance," with its endless deferral of meaning and therefore of "essence," persist? Though the former describes a return to divine origins, the latter suggests that translation participates in an ongoing creative process, in which the outlines of a greater human language are drawn through the work of translation itself, as each new rendering contributes to the virtually endless delineation of language and understanding. Or might Benjamin's phrase open up an even broader concern, the greater language of human experience in which Levinas's "face of the Other" will be found? In this case, the noncognitive horizon of otherness that human being and language present-and to which we are ultimately responsible-stretches within and beyond each linguistic sign and each effort at translation. Regardless of one's views, the very nature of such questions suggests that the "exorbitant" quality of language, that which remains mysteriously "other" within it, is never more salient-or perturbing-than in the culturally other-directed work of translation. It also suggests that the translator's task is inevitably an ethical one. In attempts to translate, we become most aware of linguistic and cultural differences, of the historical "hauntings," and of experiential responsibilities that make our languages what they are and that directly affect our attitudes toward the world.


Excerpted from Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation by Sandra Bermann Michael Wood Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Andreas Huyssen
The debate on cultural globalization suffers from an inability to tackle the notion of translation in its concrete linguistic and historical reality as well as in its broad philosophical dimensions. This book, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood and lucidly introduced by Bermann, is an incisive contribution to an emerging kind of global translation studies. It contains an enormous amount of valuable material, interesting insight, and fresh learning.
Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University, author of "Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory"
Wai Chee Dimock
This is a wonderful volume, a dance around the idea of 'translation,' threading it through a dozen languages and testing its claims through as many analytic registers. Each of its essays is lucid and compelling, with a substantial argument to make. Translation is given the broadest possible scope here, not exclusively text-based but embracing a wide range of phenomena, taking as its subject any act of revisiting, any 'remake' that brings new life to texts.
Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University
Jean Franco
This book is a major contribution to discussions of translation and should be a reference for years to come. Its scope puts it in a class of its own. I know of no other book on translation that covers this variety of topics, languages, and cultures or that raises such interesting questions. Every single essay merits attention. Sandra Bermann's introduction is a model of clarity and an excellent summary of the issues discussed, and the section introductions are likewise commendable.
Jean Franco, Columbia University, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War"

Meet the Author

Sandra Bermann is Professor and Department Chair of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She is the author of Sonnet over Time: A Study in the Sonnets of Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire, and her translation of Allesandro Manzoni's Del romanzo storico appeared as On the Historical Novel. Michael Wood is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is the author of The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (Princeton) and other books on literature and film.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >