Circulating Translation


Lee and LiPuma’s masterful essay Cultures of Circulation caught my attention the first time I read it as a sophomore in university. I’ve since reread it many times. I have to admit, the bulk of their analysis of derivatives is lost on me. I know next to nothing about currency hedging or financial markets. But the introduction, wherein they describe performativity and new forms of cultural analysis, has become something of a manifesto of mine. Not only is it hip, new and different from a lot of the cultural theory I’ve had to read, but it very neatly outlines several points which I’ve found incredibly enlightening and important during my studies.

However, on my latest rereading of this essay, I noticed something strange. Lee and LiPuma introduce these concepts—or rather, they introduce their piece with these new conceptions of reading—and then launch into their analysis and argument about the changes in markets and national economies. That’s well and good, and I don’t believe the piece suffers for it. In fact, it makes sense. They explain their tools. What struck me was the way the piece could be reversed if one desired to reverse it. Rather than explaining the instruments they will use to analyze changes in the modern economy, they could have begun by laying out these changes, and explaining the necessity of their new hermeneutic tools.

While, again, I don’t have much knowledge about markets or derivatives, that’s what I’d like to do here. I’d like to briefly talk about the changes in economics Lee and LiPuma analyze, and begin to elaborate on the ways they require the shift from analysis that focus on interpretation and the transmission of meaning, to performative analysis. By way of conclusion, I’d then like to begin examining why these same analytic tools are useful for the study of literature, in particular translation. Translation, after all, is a sort of transnational production that is both part of literature as we normally consider it, and also exceeds national literature. In many ways, I believe translation to be the perfect example (maybe 2nd to circulating capital) of why a new sort of reading is necessary.

As I stated earlier, the bulk of Lee and LiPuma’s analysis focuses on derivatives, or new financial forms used to hedge risk. This marks a shift from traditional Marxist analysis by creating a system wherein value itself becomes self-reflexive. It used to be the case that value was created by workers who offered up their labor in exchange for money. Thus, “Marx creates a model of collective agency in which objectification and fetishism embed a third-person perspective on exchange relations within a first-person dialectical model of social totality.”1 By offering up one’s labor, the first-person subject can be incorporated into the third-person, objective system. Lee and LiPuma analyze the very unmooring of that system through the development of systems like derivatives. Finance capital takes what was once value and multiplies it by separating it from labor. Value thus floats in its own world, growing and shrinking without any explicit relation to labor. As they state, “Marx’s analysis affords no place for these new financial instruments.”

What kind of analysis can help us understand these new financial instruments? Answering that question requires a critique of contemporary analysis as well. Performativity, as Lee and LiPuma put it “objectifies the object’s own praxis.” That is, “The performative dimension to each imaginary is located in a new form of collective agency through the coordination of specific actions” (6). There is, however, a difference between the collective agency of the market and other imaginaries. Unlike in the case of the nation, there is no “we, the market.” Though ostensibly created through acts of buying and selling, the market itself is somehow conceived of as separated or removed. Thus we performatively construct the market, while simultaneously alienating ourselves from it. 

Traditional Marixst analysis, as well as performative accounts, fail to properly account for this distance between the agents that compose the market and the third-person collective agent itself. Lee and LiPuma see this distance partially as a result of complex financial instruments like derivatives, the functioning of which are completely mysterious to normal people. However, it also illustrates a failure of much contemporary analysis. To quote the final sentence of “Cultures of Circulation”:

Any contemporary account, to succeed, will have to theorize and thematize the historical transition we are undergoing: from production-centric capitalisms linked to modern social imaginaries privileging the nation-state, which seek to encompass rival capitalisms through the extension of production-based capitalism—to the emergent circulation-based capitalism and its concomitant, a transformed set of social imaginaries that privileges a global totality as it produces new forms of risk that may destroy it. (22) 

We must analyze derivatives and contemporary financial instruments because they are the latticework upon which we have build our contemporary culture and literature. As Lee and LiPuma write on imagined communities “if the first imaginings of the nation required the global circulation of printed material, the spread of print capitalism relied no less on a host of financial institutions” (18). Returning to translation, it shouldn’t be shocking that readers silently consent to reading foreign novels, ignoring the original text, in the same societies where there currencies are silently tied to foreign stocks and products. Yet, at the same time, these processes do make international literature increasingly possible and necessary.

If we apply these lessons to the world of literature (or world literature), particularly literature in translation, I believe we can learn a thing or two about how we read translations. There is a deterritorializing force at work in every act of translation. The text is set to become something else. It is ripped form its original context, and forced into a new form. However, that for is immediately reteritorrialized onto a new national form. As such, each translation represents both a specific cultural (and therefor, national) moment, while also simultaneously being international. It lives within, and illustrates certain borders, even when everything culturally specific about it is removed.

This dual nature is most obvious when we consider it from an academic perspective. When a student encounters a work in translation, it often looks like any other book. Usually there is only the author’s name on the cover, and we have to hunt to find the name of the translator. Yet, we still conceive of the text as somehow foreign. It is a piece of another culture. It will not be assigned in normal literature classes, but rather specific, national literature classes. We will be asked to read it, but not to perform close reading, because it is translated. Rather, we are given assignments wherein we hunt through these texts looking for signifiers of difference, moments of cultural specificity, or maybe even the awkward moments that somehow confirm it is a work in translation.

The average person’s relation to translations might be more ambivalent. Maybe they bought the book without even realizing it was a translation, and didn’t notice until they opened and found all the characters’ names to be bizarre. Maybe they wanted to encounter some exotic place or culture, so they bought a book set in a far off country. Maybe the untranslated words left in italics with slight explanations added to aid comprehension are exciting, fresh and new. Or maybe they’re obnoxious and obtrusive. It’s hard to say. Either way, the reader gets a little bit closer to something far away, foreign and different. But in a specific way. In a way that locates that difference, and makes it knowable as difference. 

Much like in the imagining of the modern market, reading in translation seems to create an imaginary, from which we are instantly alienated. For any performative reading of translated literature to be effective, it must account for both the national character, as well as the international character of the translated text. That is, the reading of a translation simultaneously strengthens national boundaries while crossing them. As such we must move from a conception of boundaries as the thick, black lines on a map, to one that considers permeability. What is allowed to pass through in translation? What can cross the border form one language, into another? What is held back? And, possibly most importantly, what new substances are created through the creation of a border? These are the questions we must ask.

1. “Cultures of Circulation.” Lee, Benjamin and LiPuma, Edward. Public Culture, Volume 14, number 1. Page 9.

Nation, Translation and the World


The modern nation state may seem like quite a strange place to begin a blog about translation, but I assure you, it isn’t. Literature is often discussed in a national context, and as a national product. In English language literature, there’s a huge difference between British and American literature: a difference that divides courses at high school and university levels. Literary prizes are often awarded to national writers. There are also national institutions across the globe that support translation of their authors into other languages. Thus, I think it’s worth dwelling on the question of the nation. Literary translation is as often an act of translating between nations as it is one of translating between languages.

In his seminal book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson defines nations as “imagined political communities—and as imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Anderson elaborates, claiming nations are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members.” He is also quick to explain that imagined does not mean “false” or “fabricated.” They are quite real. However, their reality lies not only in the geopolitical powers that support them, but in the citizenry’s powers to imagine their compatriots. Thus, the nation is “limited because even the largest of them . . . has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations.” [1]

Anderson offers us a detailed, historical explanation of how the modern nation state came into existence, but here I would like to focus on one element of his argument in particular. Anderson writes that the imagining of the nation is enabled through the rise of print capitalism. The newspaper enables a simultaneous mass reading, sa sort of national ritual through which the citizenry acquires the same news, the same knowledge, and can therefor imagine each other. Similarly, reading a novel requires an understanding of multiple actors moving simultaneously (even when not present on the page) along with the ticking of a clock. “The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” [2] While a combination of other historical accidents (language, religion, ethnicity, etc.) actually shaped the rise of the modern nation state, these technologies enabled and reinforced their formation.

This raises many questions as to how we read translation. If it is text that allows the nation state to be imagined, how do translations of texts affect our imagining? If we consider translation as a movement of the material that helps one nation imagine itself into another nation, we might consider it a transgressive action. Our own national borders are being crossed, and foreign matter is being carried over. We are creating an international, cosmopolitan imagined community. However, this is an oversimplification. Translation has been around for a long time—longer than the nation state—and it clearly hasn’t torn down national borders.

Furthermore, one can easily imagine a translation that emphasizes the strangeness of another nation. Period pieces and pieces that focus on foreign rituals, behaviors or subcultures must allow us the same space to inhabit and imagine their stories and characters as actors within a nation, similarly moving through the same empty time we do. But, in these cases, maybe material is carried over only to reinforce difference. We can now imagine how they live, but are paradoxically struck by an inability to actually imagine living that way.

This brings me to the biggest and most difficult question that I struggle with in thinking about translation. In fact, it is such a broad question that I don’t even know how to word it productively yet. Maybe something along the lines of:

What about world literature?

Goethe wrote long ago that “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” However, centuries after Goethe, our literature is still hemmed in by national borders, and translations account for a pittance of the texts published in any given language.

World literature is an incredibly difficult topic to discuss for two reasons: one, it carries with it all the problems of discussing canonization more generally; and two, it has a rather ambivalent relationship to translation. As with any question of canonization, it’s impossible to decide the criteria for a “classic” of world literature. For that matter, it is impossible to decide even who should decide. Academia? Avid readers? The general public? And if we acknowledge the possibility that there are multiple canons, then the whole exercise seems to lose its meaning.

World literature stands in an ambivalent relation to translation because, on the one hand, any world classic must be recognized as a classic in its home country first. If a text isn’t a classic on its own right in the original, than it wouldn’t be a proper classic on the world stage. Instead, it would be a strange cooped or colonized piece of writing absorbed into a potentially international, but not world-inclusive, canon.

On the other hand, any world classic obviously deserves to be translated. It needs to be made available for the erudition of the general human population. A true classic will simultaneously stand on its own, in the vernacular, while also commanding its own death and rebirth into a foreign tongue.

Finally, the very idea of “world literature” stands quite antithetical to that of “national literature.” It seems to imply that great works cut across all national boundaries (both geopolitical and imagined) and affect all humans equally. One can see this is also quite a problematic claim simply by considering the international status of a work considered great only on a national stage. If it fails to affect the masses across the globe, it is at best national propaganda. It sustains or rides the wave of national ideology, and does nothing else. That said, given the state of literary translation as part of the publishing industry today, almost all texts would be reduced to “national propaganda.” At the same time, the “great works,” the “classics of the world” are so often praised for their very local nature, or the way they portray something “essentially national.”

Let’s consider for a second Per Wästberg’s speech to Nobel Prize in Literature awardee, Mo Yan. Wästberg begins by claiming Yan’s home county of Gaomi “embodies China’s folk tales and history.” Yet, in the next sentence he claims that Yan’s “imagination soars across the entire human existence.” Throughout the speech we are tugged back and forth between the national and humanistic poles. The most ironic moment may be when Wästberg claims that in Yan’s writing “We never meet that ideal citizen who was a standard feature in Mao’s China.” Wästberg reminds us at once of Yan’s nationality and historical heritage, while also praising him for deviating from his nationally supported narrative in favor of creating characters who “bubble with vitality and take even the most amoral steps [. . .] to bust the cages they have been confined in by fate and politics.” [3] Nationality is constantly reinforced, only to be used as a sort of goal. To be a great author, it seems, one must be aware of their national borders, only to move past them.

I believe this tension carries over into the reading of translated literature. On the one hand, we are allowed the space to imagine another nation. We see the similarities, and recognize them, in some way or another, as being similar to us. We are thus enabled to imagine not only a national, but a worldwide space, all rotating together with the same global clock’s second-hand. On the other hand, our national borders are still reproduced through these readings. Reading translation seems to leave us in a paradoxical position, whereby a work can only move beyond its own national borders by first clearly demarcating them. Thus, while translation may allow us the chance to imagine a world, connected through a world literature, it is still a divided world. We come not only to imagine our own nations as necessarily limited, but we also imagine other nations that way as well.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities 4-5.
Ibid. 26.
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 – Presentation Speech”. 29 Apr 2013