Michael Wintroub on Translation

Michael Wintroub, in his paper “Translation: Words, Things, Going Native, and Staying True,” offers a precious reminder that it is only fairly recently that translation came to mean primarily the literary translation of texts between languages. From the Middle Ages through Renaissance to the Early Modern world, translation had distinct material and commercial connotations. Today as well, the term should not be reduced to common usage.

Wintroub begins with translation’s role in Early Modern colonial encounters. The association of (literary) translation with conquest is at least as old as Saint Jerome. Traders and explorers had to rely on social and cultural outsiders as translators with non-Western nations. These early contacts were haunted by the risk of them “going native,” of translators and crews deserting to the other side. Similar anxieties plagued the textual efforts on the part of Christians in translating pagan authors as Erasmus’ warnings document.

Later on, as settlements became more permanent, “going native” came to be seen as a necessity, if a dangerous one to some European colonialists. Only when one has fully penetrated native customs, language, culture – only when one has fully transitioned into their world can one “civilize” the Other, the logic went. The fascinating Chinese Rites Controversy, which pitted Jesuits against Dominicans and others in a debate over how far Christian, Western culture may adapt to local circumstance in the colonies, belongs to this history, too.

Nevertheless, to imperial European authorities going native continuously appeared a dangerous risk. Wintroub shows how, again and again, imperial, European authorities, by imposing homogenous standards and networks of translations, sought to neutralize the risks that local circumstances would subversively assert their particularity,

One early such network was the trade in relics in Europe, which were given and received as gifts between medieval European authorities, a process referred to as translatio. The networks of these gift economies analogically mapped the networks of power and, like all the gifts of such economies, the relics, seeking to return home, tethered the periphery to Rome.

Later on, multi-centered gift economies were replaced by the more standardized economy of eucharists, a more homogenous, universal currency for the transmission of grace. And again resistance “popped up at every turn” in the form of Christian sects who debated the nature of the sacrament and challenged papal authority. Desecrated hosts, marked through some particular history to stand out from the others, could become objects of veneration, ‘martyrs’ around which local cults crystallized.

The notion of a currency of grace, Wintroub argues, is not misplaced since hosts and money did not just resemble each other in form but were referred to with the common term denarii and functionally were two different media for one same purpose: the exercise of theologico-political authority.

The question whether kings could debase the value of currency was debated by theologians with vehemence. Orthodoxy denied that such debasement was permissible: the value of something must not depend on the will of some authority – neither royal, nor divine rule could be based on something as arbitrary. (The discussion of the theological debates on value remains close to the surface here. The problem is at least as old as the Euthyphro. The question of whether value is a form of appraisal of an objective quality or conferred by an act of will is a live philosophical debate and, in some form, I suspect, a subject of much economic debate.)

An elaborate set of rituals were set up and maintained by Early Modern monarchs to cover up the “non-universal and constructed nature of value” and often, when something went wrong with currency production and stability, or simply in the case of royal fraud, Jews were the scapegoats.

The intricate procedures of measurement and weighing involved in these rituals finally direct our attention to the development of scientific instruments. Wintroub cites Donna Haraway:

Science has been about a search for translation, convertibility, mobility of meanings, and universality—which I call reductionism, when one language (guess whose) must be enforced as the standard for all the translations and conversions. What money does in the exchange orders of capitalism, reductionism does in the powerful mental orders of global sciences: there is finally only one equation.

(There are plenty references to Bruno Latour in the footnotes and the sociology of translation, which is always to be welcomed.)

To summarize, Wintroub shows how the circulation of goods and words, hosts and specie was both a condition for imperial rule to assert itself over local particularity and possible as a consequence of imperial authorities’ imposition of homogenous, “neutral,” allegedly universal standards.


It is sometimes hard to see what what exactly links all these phenomena and why we need the term translation to designate that which links them. Surely, in all the cases something is ‘carried over,’ ‘moved,’ ‘transmitted’. Generally, it feels though as if what he’s trying to get at would be better captured by terms like standardization or communication – which in turn make these transmissions / translations (of words, things, grace, power, etc.), however imperfectly, possible. Wintroub’s largely implicit concept of translation allies it politically with imperialism and philosophically with Metaphysics (in the sense of the term shared by Heidegger, Rorty, and also Latour).

As a consequence, translation appears both as a kind of evil and a kind of farce: on the one hand, it appears as a drive towards imperial domination and flawless, lossless rational communication; on the other, it always fails, remains imperfect, remains subverted by local resistances. We can do more interesting things with the concept of translation than making it a farcical evil.

As Paul Ricoeur has argued, translation is not just a work of remembering, or preserving, but also always a work of mourning, of letting go, namely of the dream of a perfect, loss-less translation. The acceptance of imperfection is conceptually built into the *idea and the practice* of translation. Local resistance and changes are not a failure of translation but part of its very essence and beauty. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

The imperialist, Metaphysical drives that Wintroub describes, by the same gesture, are not drives of translation, but the political enactment of, what John Sallis called, the dream of non-translation, a dream as dangerous and impossible as all fanatics’ dreams.

However, this insight should not propel us to to simply associate translation with the opposite pole. As Ricoeur also points out, translation always finds itself beset by enemies from two sides: on the one hand, those who insist on radical heterogeneity and incommensurability, who declare translation to be impossible. Let us call them poets. On the other side, again, the metaphysicians.

The latter acknowledge that translation is evidently possible and that hence there must be something universal tying all meaning-contexts (worlds, cultures, languages, idioms, etc.) together: underlying structures (Chomsky), a historical point of origin (German 19th-century philology), or a future point of convergence on the day of Messianic return (Walter Benjamin). Both Ricoeur and George Steiner argue, convincingly to my mind, that all thee options are not just equally fictional but fundamentally deny, if not the possibility of translation, then the necessity. They all dream the dream of non-translation.

The concept of translation is developed in its full potential only if we firmly establish it in opposition to both the poets and the metaphysicians.

For only if we acknowledge the specific position of translation between those poles will the ethical imperatives inherent to the notion of translation become apparent. Only when we see it as ontologically possible, even inevitable – we will never not live in a world in which we do not need to do the arduous labour of translating – will we come to see also the ethical beauty of it. And once we have an understanding of what it means to translate with responsibility, with justice, with generosity, and what forms of hospitality are enabled by it, we will have gained from it a normative standard with which we can criticizes and resist against the imperial projects that Wintroub describes for us with such erudition.

He might well insist that, historically, no such ethical translation is attested to. It depends on where and what we are looking for. Ricoeur’s and especially Steiner’s notions of translation emerge from the careful study of hundreds of literary and more broadly cultural examples. I have argued myself that we find great translational achievements in a Steinerian sense within a pre-modern culture, the Crow tribe in North America, when it was attacked by Western imperialist forces. But much more work needs to be done here.

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