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.


One thought on “Circulating Translation

  1. While I’m sure I’d be better served by reading Cultures of Circulation to understand the full extent of your analysis, I think the comparison of literature and currency is an interesting one, especially in the global age that we live in. Both, as you said, have an original purpose as well as a new one that gets created when it crosses a border. My only qualm would be about Lee and LiPuma’s attention on extremely new financial tools like derivatives when we’ve been moving away from Marx’s vision of trading labor for money since before Marx even (I would argue the first loan with interest or the first insurance policy removed the direction connection between capital and labor). In any case, I’m sure that while hopefully not as divisive, the translation community also has split opinions about the proper use of tools and when they should be employed. I would be surprised, however, if translators were creating such tools with the same blind fervor that seems to consume the financial markets.

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