Thursday, June 28, 2012

Translation's Haunt (The Rolle Excursus), Part II


When we examine Rolle’s practice in the Name of Jesus cult through the lens of medieval Christograms, we arrive at a truly demanding juncture of translation, (non-subjectivist) ethics, and the materiality of language—all facets of Blanchot’s own philosophical project that undergird this project.  Throughout the Middle Ages, the late (originally mistransliterated) Latin inscription IHS was used both to refer to the Greek transliterated name ΊΗΣΟΥ̃Σ [or Ίησου̃ς, Iesous] as well as to abbreviate various Latin phrases such as Iesus Hominum Salvator [“Jesus, Savior of Humankind”], in hoc signo (vinces) [“in this sign (shalt thou conquer)”], and in hac salus [“in this (cross is) salvation”], among others.  We have also heard it used as an English abbreviation for “in His service.”  Such multivalency and polysemy can inform our understanding of IHS not only as invocation of Jesus’s name but also as appellation (qua Iesus Hominum Salvator), advocation (qua in hoc signo), and the resulting (and seemingly necessary) equivocation.  Christograms, in general, are more than examples of linguistic literalism, however:  devotees would embroider them on their clothing as an indication of their faith, thereby turning IHS into a doubly literal sign, particularly when we cross the ascender of the lower-case h.  This monogram-cum-sign designates the disseminated possibilities of meaning inscribed upon the clothing of the faithful, thereby marking, quite literally (that is, with letters, with the material of language) the faith of its wearer.
With this invocation of Rolle, who not only gave us the first (and most common) definition of the term translation but also exposed us, at such an early date, to the problems of polysemy, especially as read across the literalness of Christograms, we wish to further problematize translation’s relationship to ethics.  We human beings are thrown forth into the doubly vexing, twin problems of ethics and translation, and we must try to unravel the questionable questionability as well as the radical radicality of these problems.  The statement ethics haunts translation radicalizes our understanding of these terms in that translation, haunting, language, and ethics—at least how we want to understand what is at issue here—are but various modes of one another.  That is, for example, translation can be best understood as language grounded within an ethics (as ή̃θος) that haunts us.[1]  Here, our hauntology bespeaks the haunt that is our language, where we find ourselves (and the fact that we exist).[2]  Language haunts us, too, in that it brings to mind that which is no longer present, the trace of that which does not remain.  Each term, then, actively translates and stands as a consequential translation of the other, fundamentally reflecting and refracting the rootedness of these terms in the same phenomenon and by way of the event of translation.  Of course, we, too, are acknowledging the play inherent in such terms as radical—this term that speaks of the rootedness and common root of language and ethics.  It is by way of language and the ensuing necessity of translation that we human beings come to understand ourselves (and perhaps each other) ethically as beings with and within language, wherein—according to Heidegger’s estimation—being itself resides.  Also from this deployment and play, it hopefully becomes clear that we do not employ the term ethics to mean merely normative directives by which a translator is capable of transferring meaning from a source language to a target language.  For example, ethical translation does not necessarily occur when a translator chooses the best word in the new language to semiotically refer back to, correspond to, or to represent an original idea or thing.  We will come to see later how Walter Benjamin overturns our traditional conception of this mode of translation.  Not surprisingly, the ontological turn in twentieth-century hermeneutics that we have already examined will also deeply inform this conception of ethics.  We can see this Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian deployment of ethics as another translation of language and translation themselves—that is, ethics not as instructions about how to behave toward one another, but rather as a mode of our own being, how we find ourselves within a world that necessitates dialog and understanding.  Translation, then, activates and makes manifest an ethics grounded upon a foundation informed by the Heideggerian notion of Mitdasein, of being-there-with.  To be within a there [sein da] necessitates a resonance with the ethical demands of finding oneself mooded and thrown within a shared world of others, among other Dasein(e).


[1] See Martin Heidegger, “Über den Humanismus” (Frankfurt am Main:  Vittorio Klostermann, 2000).  Martin Heidegger, “Letter on ‘Humanism,’” trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, ed. William McNeill (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[2] For more on hauntology, a portmanteau of haunt and -ology and near-homophone with ontology, see Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx:  The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York:  Routledge, 1994).

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