about deconstruction as a general theory of translation
Published in TradTerm
(São Paulo) 2 (1995), 11-18. Passages in red have been
added for clarification in view of subsequent responses.
Abstract: Comparison of four versions of a sentence
from Derrida poses the question of how deconstructionist philosophy
should be related to translation theory. Doubts are raised with
respect to the general pertinence of deconstruction, the possibility
of extending its insight beyond source-text analysis, and the
reasons for a certain residual inferiorization of translation.
It is suggested, in the spirit of quiet dissent, that translation
theory should not be unduly upset by the fact that source texts
are semantically unstable points of departure.
Andrew Benjamin begins his Translation and the Nature of Philosophy
by citing and translating Derrida:
"With the problem of translation we are dealing with nothing
less than the problem of the passage to philosophy." (1989:1)
To talk about translation would thus be to talk about philosophy,
and perhaps vice versa. Little of this obviously very important
discussion would be held up by petty suspicion of the way Benjamin
has translated this claim from French, nor by the significantly
different version on the back cover of the book in question:
"With the problem of philosophy [sic.] we are dealing with nothing
less than the passage to philosophy."
We've all been victims to similar slips. To make much of them
would be decidedly below the belt. Yet some variants, as deconstructionists
know, mean more than they mean to. The secret of this one might
be found through Barbara Johnson's version of the same sentence
from Derrida's La dissémination:
"With this problem of translation we will thus be dealing with
nothing less than the problem of the very passage into philosophy."
The differences are surely trivial. There is no overwhelming
reason why two or three disseminations of Derrida should come
out even nearly the same. Benjamin is translating an authoritative
starting point for his "new theory of words;" he needs as much
of an axiom as non-axiomatic thought can provide; he has little
time for deictics that might mislead away from the point, be it
backwards ("this problem of translation," says Johnson) or indeed
forwards ("we will thus be dealing with . . ."). The only real
site to be cited should be Derrida's apparent imprimatur. And
if the words concerned are to function with any authority they
must be self-sufficient in the present tense, present as a point
of departure for the new translator-philosopher. Benjamin's situation
thus requires more than overtly interpretative reported speech
("Derrida suggested the problem of translation was . . ."); his
starting point is well served by translation in a stronger sense,
where the first person belongs to Derrida himself. And this translation
would have worked, no doubt, had its status not been tainted by
the unfortunate back cover (which arouses the question of what
Derrida really said) and, less unfortunately, by Johnson's previously
available version, itself re-cited and prominently disseminated
in the volume edited by Graham (1985:146). Only in the absence
of rivals can a translation really function as a solid point of
departure. Only in the absence of variants is it really received
as translation rather than economically reported speech. We shall
return to this in a moment.
Johnson's position is different. Translating a book, or more
exactly an essay on certain problems of translation, she has every
interest in pointing both backwards and forwards to the connections
in a typically arabesque argument. She helps the reader orient
the point. The "this" of her "this problem of translation" refers
to a rather specific difficulty:
." . . situated less in the passage from one language to another,
from one philosophical language to another, than already, as we
shall see, in the tradition [sic.] between Greek and Greek; a
violent difficulty in the transference of a non-philosopheme into
a philosopheme. With this problem of translation we will thus
be dealing with nothing less than the problem of the very passage
into philosophy." (1985:146)
The problem referred to, now a piece of deconstructionist folklore,
is Plato's use of the word pharmakon as at once a common
term (non-philosopheme) and a technical philosophical term (philosopheme),
as at once a polysemous part of a language (both "cure" and "poison"
in Greek) and as a unitary proper name (for a concept in Plato).
The example contains most of what Derrida's translators have to
say about translation. "This problem of translation" is thus rather
specifically the traditional transfer leading to philosophical
terms, no matter what language we are working in or from. One
might say it was really the problem of philosophy tout court,
in which case Derrida would of course be saying, "With the problem
of philosophy we are dealing with nothing less than the passage
to philosophy." So perhaps Benjamin's back cover is not entirely
Justification for the back cover can be found in a further translation
of the same passage, this time into Rosemary Arrojo's Brazilian
"Ao lidarmos com o problema da tradução, estamos
lidando com nada menos do que o problema da passagem para a filosofia."
The version possibly owes much to Benjamin's English. But now
we find a new ambiguity. The Portuguese "para" would normally
be read as "to," rendering the idea of a "passage to philosophy."
However, with a pause after the term "passagem," it could also
be read as "for," suggesting that the real problem here could
be "for philosophy." The latter reading, although willfully perverse
[and despite the fact that this is
how my Brazilian students first translated it into English, before
being questioned more closely], seems to find support in
Arrojo's gloss (if I may translate):
"If the passage of a signified from one language to another,
from one context, time and place to another context, time and
place, is irredeemably marked by difference and displacement,
if that which is supposed to be the 'same' is revealed to be 'different'
and 'other,' in an implacable game, how can philosophy protect
its inaugural interest in the possibility of a 'passage' for a
universal truth, anterior and exterior to any language?" (1993:75).
This makes sense. But it does not make the same sense as Benjamin's
and Johnson's reference to a "passage to philosophy." The English-language
versions concern translation within Greek. Arrojo's problem here
is the translation of philosophy from one language to another
(although the in-Greek problem is translated, explicitly from
English, on page 207 of her book just cited). Within this more
conventional frame, the gloss asks a question that is fairly easily
answered. Philosophy could protect itself from translation by
not being translated, by aspiring to the formalized language of
music, logic or mathematics. Alternatively, it might make its
readers learn languages. Derrida went back to the Greek to recover
a problem lost (or solved?) in translation. And philosophers might
at this stage be tempted to go back to Derrida's French, to find
whatever the above translations might have displaced. Deconstruction
at once invites such a move (to find the difference) and condemns
it as logocentric (the initial search would be for a stable meaning
that is not to be found). One can only deconstruct an attempted
Arrojo's version of Derrida's sentence eclipses the passage from
Greek to Greek. Her translation seems peculiarly unworried by
any return to original languages or anterior contexts. The resulting
approach can even deconstruct Laplanche's translation of Freud
without any visible return to the French or German texts (1993:35-50).
Such analysis admirably escapes the aspiration attributed to philosophy.
Translation is not logocentric philosophy, and all philosophy
is apparently logocentric (but what of twentieth-century philosophies
of science based on falsifiability instead of truth?). This particular
translation moreover performs the displacement it describes. It
could be of considerable value. After all, such a passage of philosophy
could only be a problem for a discourse that wanted to remain
the same. It could only be a problem for philosophy as defined.
If translation is not philosophy, there is no reason why translation
theory should be embedded in a philosophy. No search for stable
transfer need be involved in any categorization of the various
versions of Derrida. We could say, for instance, that Benjamin's
back cover looks like a mistake; his in-text version could be
a contextually calculated use of error; Johnson's work might be
something like translation with a reader in mind; Arrojo's reading
simplifies the problem for the sake of pedagogical or evangelistic
interests. We would thus be talking about different kinds or levels
of translation, without presupposing any transfer of stable meaning.
Yet deconstructionists would no doubt find these charitable categories
unacceptably normative. There are no lines between classes, and
each class norm would falsely presuppose a correct version from
which the actual results diverge to various degrees. Deconstruction
correctly wants none of this. As far as possible, all outcomes
come out from an anterior plurality. So one must proceed differently
with the differences involved.
Can Johnson's "this problem of translation" also be Benjamin's
and Arrojo's "the problem of translation"? The passage to philosophy
(from non-philosopheme to philosopheme), just like the passage
of philosophy (from one context to another), is certainly a problem
of philosophy (could it be anyone else's?) and thus of translating
philosophy. But does anything guarantee it is a problem of all
translation, let alone the problem of everything translators do.
Is it the only problem of translation, nor indeed a problem only
of translation? The only generality firmly attributed to this
problem is of a kind accrued by negation, through the fact that
other approaches to translation appear to ignore it. The argument
is not entirely perverse: If everyone else fails to perceive a
truly problematic problem (non-philosopheme to philosopheme, stable
meaning across contexts), then the problem can be as general as
the perception that fails to see it. Let's see how this works.
Benjamin's use of this argument involves repeated reference to
something called "the conventional understanding of translation,"
"translation in its most naïve understanding" (1989:60) and
so on, implying a mode of perception that is at once general and
yet unable to perceive a problem that is just as general. The
discursive strategy shares the same circuit as the translated
phrase. Derrida is similarly wont to disdain "le concept courant
de la traduction" (1985:221); Johnson is ironic about translation
as it has "always been" (1985:145); Arrojo attacks the "common
sense and theories of language" that presuppose fidelity to originals
(1993:28). These references all project a benighted notion of
translation as the transfer of stable meaning. Deconstruction
can thus enter to dispel darkness and confusion. What you thought
was transfer is revealed to be transformation; the generally accepted
notion was wrong, so the previously unseen problem must rightly
be general. This is similar to what students are told as they
enter some German translation institutes: Whatever you think you
know about translation, you're wrong. But here, in deconstruction,
the new generality is of rather larger dimensions. It must at
least be postmodern, if not post-Enlightenment, post-Christian,
post-western-metaphysics, post-logos or even posted, belatedly,
Such a scenario requires quite massive ignorance of the the many
historical alternatives to theories of translation as a transfer
of stable meaning. Deconstructors are correct to react against
simplistic theory. But they should first locate their opposition
with some precision. Meaning transfer is, to be sure, a common
basis for twentieth-century linguistic theories of translation,
especially those suited for mechanizing translators. The notion
has further been assisted by the development of service ethics
and a broad feminization of the translator's profession. However,
as we have seen in Benjamin's need to translate a point of departure,
meaning transfer can be something more than a theorist's theory.
It is also an assumption made in any reading of a translation
as a translation. Rival translations are less translational precisely
to the extent that they challenge assumptions of stable meaning.
If, for example, we do not read French and have no access to Derrida's
text, four different versions of the same phrase can only raise
doubts because some meaning transfer is presupposed. If this were
not the case, no questions would be asked and the texts would
be consumed indifferently as translations or non-translations.
Meaning transfer is thus an assumption - certainly a social illusion
- operative in the use of translations as translations. Yet it
is not ubiquitous. Inasmuch as there are users for whom the source
text is unavailable, this assumption of meaning transfer is specifically
external to actual translation processes. No translator or translation
critic need believe that translation is the transfer of stable
meaning. Indeed, inasmuch as there is a plurality of translators
for whom source-text meanings differ, internal knowledge of translation
is quite likely to accept the initial plurality of translation
processes. Users have to believe in meaning transfer, but most
translating translators are quite likely to accept deconstructionist
arguments about the instability of their sources.
Just as deconstruction requires a search for original meaning
in order to reveal differences, so translation requires the external
reader's belief in meaning transfer in order to produce internal
differences. Yet the deconstructive difference is something that
happens in the move to and of philosophy. The translative difference
concerns moves between internal and external social positions.
The deconstructionist insult comes from confusing socially operative
external illusions with professionally retained internal knowledge.
"This" problem can become "the" problem only from the perspective
of users who have no access to the specificity of "this" except
through translation. Internal knowledge is arguably aware of its
initial plurality. So what can deconstruction say that most practising
translators don't know already? And what can it say to actual
users of translations?
Complexity, if nothing else, must be a feature of whatever could
be said. If deconstructionist argument were interested in the
four versions of Derrida's sentence, its prime reaction would
of course be to go back to what Derrida actually wrote, if not
further back to some antecedent in German or Greek. The first
move towards complexity would perhaps be to leaf through at least
the 1972 French text of La dissémination, reaching
page 80, recapturing some of the master's argument and perhaps
concluding that neither Benjamin, Johnson nor Arrojo have fully
recuperated the play of Derrida's significance. Needless to say,
anyone engaged in this process has no social need of the translations.
They might appreciate the various versions as extensions of Derrida's
game, but such appreciation is the privilege of an internal position.
Those who need the translations, in their admittedly relative
externality to differential epiphanies, could only go back by
learning French, reading Derrida "in the text" and occupying internal
positions. And as such enlightened readers, now transformed from
translation-users into amateur philosophers, as they ask what
Derrida really said - but for whom should it matter? -, the complex
answers they receive might function as caveats but are more likely
to incur unprofessional frustration, or frustration with the translator's
(non)profession. An essentially internal discussion about the
plurality of translation, held between translators or those who
presume to know about translation, cannot be expected to enthuse
someone who necessarily assumes and uses translation as meaning
There is some irony in the way that the critique of origins tends
to invest all its efforts on the level of origins, to the detriment
of efficient, formal or final purposes (bearing in mind that Aristotle's
categories displaced the pre-Socratic fixation on initial causes).
A critique of origins is inevitably locked into a backward vision,
to the detriment of present action or future agreements. In its
psychoanalytic metaphors, this critique focuses on the imaginary
status of initial causes but forgets that the analyst's final
cause is to help cure someone. Deconstruction might perhaps be
able to say something about how a translator should accept semantic
plurality - hopefully beyond the luxuriously expensive solution
of perpetual retranslation -, or how a user should assess a translation
in terms of this plurality. But as soon as the specific problem
of anterior origins becomes "the" problem of translation, deconstruction
reduces translation to a form of source-text analysis. In fact,
it turns translation into what could only be an inferior form
of the kind of readings undertaken by deconstruction itself. Translators
would be people who should write literary or philosophical critiques
but are unable to, lacking textual space, paid time and perhaps
sophistication. They can only introduce real philosophers to the
passage to real philosophy.
This could explain the peculiar way deconstructionist texts tend
to inferiorize translation, even when they have no real interest
in doing so, even when they proclaim they are doing precisely
the opposite. In his early work Derrida made a point of saving
écriture from the status of mere translation, "a technique
in the service of language, a porte-parole" (1967: 17-18). He
even defined translation as "a wholly linguistic movement [i.e.
not working from thought] ensuring the transportation of a signified
from one language to another" (1972b: 226). Kinder and more interesting
things were later said (possibly for reasons suggested below).
But actual translations are nevertheless mostly seen in a rather
traditional way, often saying less than their antecedents. Although
not as explicit as in Heidegger, considerable inferiorization
remains in Derrida. It is a kind of devaluation inherent in philosophy
as a discourse on great philosophical texts, at worst confused
with a history of all texts, thus reducing translation to work
on the same great texts. When "this problem" becomes "the passage
to philosophy," the resulting theory follows Schleiermacher's
"Methods of Translating" (1813) in eliminating from consideration
all the lesser tasks of commerce, negotiation and interpretation,
mere facts of everyday life. Since the only kind of translation
worth talking about becomes (written) work on great texts, no
translation worth talking about is considered better than the
plurality of its original, by definition accorded the textuality
of greatness. Philosophers have no real time for the rubbish that
most of us have to improve when we translate.
These then are three related elements of what might be called
a certain deconstructionist approach to translation: opposition
to a generalized external conception of translation, restriction
to a problematic of origins, and a residual inferiorization of
This is not to say that the deconstructionist problem has nothing
to do with translation. Most translators would enjoy being called
sites of difference, plurality, conflict, rupture, productivity,
even of translativity anterior to the work paid for as translation.
Anything that can be translated as stable meaning transfer is
best left to machines anyway. But having agreed with this, are
we any better off? Do we know how to translate, when and where
to translate, or how to get paid for translating and retranslating?
Can we make our internal knowledge compatible with external criteria
that require us to limit the range of interpretations we present?
The problem with deconstructionist propositions, like those based
on the obverse dominance of target-side or final causes, is that
they are decidedly unhelpful once agreed to. One eventually has
to ask "So what?" and then get on with solving concrete problems.
But few concrete problems are addressed by the strangely binary
way in which Benjamin indicates two possible directions then returns
to the labyrinth:
"If it is no longer possible to provide the conditions of existence
for the possibility of translation in terms stemming from rational
recovery - where what is recovered and re-expressed is the original
content of the original text - then the emphasis must shift to
the text itself and hence to a concern with language." (1989:86)
Not at all. There are many other places requiring attention,
with or without the actual possibility of meaning transfer. Translation
theorists could ask, for example, how it is possible for anyone
to believe in rational recovery, why translation exists even when
this condition is known to be illusory, how translators actually
proceed despite source-text plurality, for whom they reduce or
convey that plurality, why plurality could or should be reduced
or conveyed or augmented, at what social cost, when, where and
by whom. None of these questions can be addressed by focusing
on the text itself or indulging in nebulous mysteries of language.
All of them require awareness that translation actually does something
in and of itself.
Original textuality is just an initial problem for translators.
Since theirs is an action that is to become a starting point for
future actions, just as Benjamin's translation from Derrida becomes
his own starting point, translators must weigh up the costs of
conveying relative complexity. They have to make choices between
available alternatives, many of which involve potentially beneficial
reductions of plurality. Such choices require ethical guidelines.
And yet the question of ethics, which is where translation theory
needs real help from philosophers, is precisely the point obscured
by fixations on origins.
[Cf. at this point Arrojo's gloss on the
last sentence (1997: 5-24): "Pym suggests that the task of devising
an appropriate ethical code for translators should be conferred
upon philosophers, provided that such philosophers do not get
mixed up with Derridean deconstruction, that is, provided that
such philosophers rely on the possibility of stable 'originals',
stable 'laws', and, of course, the possibility of imposing them
worldwide and for all time." Where the hell did she get that from?
Will someone please teach this woman to read? Now back to the
Witness Benjamin's sad deconstruction of Davidson's very elegant
recommendation that our attributions be charitably rational. Davidson
could mean that contradictory back-cover variants should be overlooked
as mistakes; in-text simplifications should be understood in terms
of their argumentative function; orientative deictics should be
appreciated as space for readers; simplification should be regarded
as a pedagogical virtue. In each case, what is attributed to the
source is rational in terms of the receptive situation, regardless
of whatever plurality or irrationality might have actually been
at the source (the truly external user of the translation, who
ultimately makes the attribution, does not know the source anyway).
But Benjamin, whose translative endeavors require at least this
charity, obscures Davidson's originality by reducing attribution
to an unrequired Kantian universalism, converting a present-tense
ethical recommendation into an historical belief in origins. He
thus eternally returns to the only problem that deconstruction
was equipped to deal with in the first place. His deconstruction
heads back to the labyrinth because it cannot see anywhere else
[Interestingly, Arrojo's citations charitably integrate Davidson's
charity (1993: 64-64) and concordantly describe deconstruction
as a "new humanism" (92). The Brazilian Derrida might eventually
find somewhere else to go.]
Translation theory currently faces many important challenges:
to envisage intercultural relationships that presuppose neither
sovereignty nor hegemony; to construct a workable language regime
for multicultural empires; to define the authority of intermediaries
and their ethical capacity to intervene; to work productively
with machines; to develop intercultural communities and transnational
training programmes, hopefully without paternalistic impositions
southward and eastward; and most generally, to achieve understandings,
not in the sense of returning to any naturally established rational
universality but certainly in the sense of directing attributions
in and for the present and future, as contracts and treaties,
potentially indifferent to different origins. For example.
In a world where everything is to be constructed, deconstructionist
theory can and should raise passing doubts on the way to concrete
action. But translation theory has a lot of other work to do,
awaiting the philosophers' return from Derridean islands.
Check Derrida's text (page 80 of the 1972 Minuit edition). It
doesn't really matter which translation was closest to the master.
There are interesting things to be found in the relations between
the translators themselves.
On the page in question Derrida certainly pays brief homage to
the difficulty of translation. But his chief source of delight
here, and again 21 pages further on in the text, is his ability
to correct the authority of the previous translators, whose edition
of Plato "fait autorité." The previous translators effaced
the duplicity of "pharmakon;" they were not good philosophers.
Or rather, Derrida the philosopher can show himself to be a better
translator. The passage to philosophy is a matter for new French
philosophers, not for authoritative French translators of past
generations. In this context some attention should also be paid
to the place and date of the text's first publication: Tel
Quel, 1968 (our passage is on page 9 of the first installment).
The questioning of authoritative translators was also a questioning
of French authority. Derrida's text was of its age. But it may
not be immediately applicable to subsequent conjunctures.
Translated into American English by Barbara Johnson in 1981 and
commented upon by her in 1985, Derrida's "Pharmacy" became something
more than a contestation of official translators. In the United
States, the established New Critical emphasis on reading made
Derrida a theorist of reading, and thus an ally of translators
as writers of critical readings. The American Derrida was not
the Derrida of 1968: Johnson stresses the difficulty of translation,
underplaying the irony of the French Plato that "fait autorité."
Further, I suggest, Derrida responded to this new market location.
He wrote directly on translation and directly for his own (American)
When Benjamin cited Derrida in Britain in 1989, he did not do
so as an acolyte unable to theorize without the master (cf. Benjamin
1976). He was instead indicating an established academic location
with a certain contestational value in the English-speaking world.
Indeed, he might have been trying to tap an established deconstructionist
market, very belated in its arrival in Britain via a long American
detour. Hence the prominence of the translated citation.
Translated from American English into Brazilian Portuguese by
Arrojo in the early 1990s, Derrida [I
mean the Derrida of the sentence under analysis] is something
else again. He has become a "guru for a whole generation of scholars
[...] at the Sorbonne, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Yale,
Harvard, the University of London, and most of the linguistic
and philosophical centers of universities in the developed world
[do mundo desenvolvido]" (Arrojo 1992: 10). Really? To read and
translate Derrida in Brazil is a sign of development, a sign of
how translation should be in the developed world, a sign to be
pedagogically simplified and imitated if one is to catch up.
As Baudrillard said of marxism (1973: 38), Europe exports its
ideas when they no longer work at home. When post-1989 Europe
is self-deconstructing without any visible help from philosophers,
other parts of the world can accept deconstruction as a postmodernist
theory of translative reading, or even as a very modernist sign
of development, on a par with buying Europe's old trains and airplanes.
But post-1989 is not 1968.
* A version of the first sections of this paper was
published in the proceedings of the 1993 FIT conference held at
Brighton. The final version was written with the help of a research
fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for work carried
out at the Sonderforschungs-bereich 309 "Die literarische Übersetzung"
at Georg-Universität Göttingen, Germany.
So does Anthony Pym support
the idea of translation as meaning transfer? Not at all. The book
and Text Transfer(1992) builds from the notion of materially
moving signifiers, not signifieds, and borrows its materiality from
the initial Derridean gramme. That book also has a section called
should not lecture translators", by the way.
Arrojo, Rosemary. 1992. "Apresentação." In Arrojo
(ed.) O Signo Desconstruído. Implicacões para a
tradução, a leitura e o ensino. Campinas São
Paulo: Pontes. 9-12.
Arrojo, Rosemary. 1993. Tradução, Desconstrução
e Psicanálise. Rio de Janeiro: Imago.
Arrojo, Rosemary. 1997. "Asymmetrical Relations
of Power and the Ethics of Translation." TextconText 11/1. 5-24.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1973. Le Miroir de la production ou l'illusion
critique du matérialisme historique. Paris: Castermann.
Benjamin, Andrew. 1976. "A Theory of Reading with Respect to
Freud and Lacan." Working Papers in Sex, Science and Culture.
Darlington (Australia), 1/1.
Benjamin, Andrew. 1989. Translation and the Nature of Philosophy.
A New Theory of Words. London and New York: Routledge.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit.
Derrida, Jacques. 1968. "La pharmacie de Platon." Tel Quel 32/33:
Derrida, Jacques. 1972a. La dissémination (includes "La
pharmacie de Platon"). Paris: Minuit.
Derrida, Jacques. 1972b. Marges de la philosophie. Paris: Minuit.
Derrida, Jacques. 1981. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1985. "Des Tours de Babel." In Graham (ed.).
Graham, Joseph F. (ed.). 1985. Difference in Translation. Ithica
and London: Cornell University Press.
Johnson, Barbara. 1985. "Taking Fidelity Philosophically." In
Graham (ed.), 142-148.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1813. "Über die verschiedenen
Methoden des Übersetzens." Sämtliche Werke, Dritte Abteilung
(zur Philosophie). Vol. 2. Berlin: Reimer, 1838. 207-245.
Last update: 8 June 1999
URV. Av. Catalunya, 35
45002 Tarragona, Spain
Fax: + 34 977 299 488