Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mistranslated Kites: une Chose without a Cause

“Ernst Jones, in his biography of Freud, has called the mistranslation
‘a singular lapse in Freud’s knowledge of natural history.
Kites were as common in Italy as vultures in Egypt.’”
—Alan Bass, “On the History of a Mistranslation in the Psychoanalytic Movement”

James Wagner’s “Auralgraph 6” reads like a joke; in fact, commentary on Wagner’s contemporary “homophonic translation” or “ear writing,” treats it as a joke, as a language game, an aesthetic exercise that surprisingly yields a little more than nonsense, but a nonsense that, for some, sounds like every other homophonic translation.[1] “Auralgraph 6,” a translation of a poem by the German poet Paul Celan, is one of fifteen auralgraphs published in Wagner’s 2003 collection, the false sun recordings. The auralgraph presents a case in which the correspondence between the original and the “translation” resembles hieroglyphic inscription, a correspondence of sound that also registers a certain sameness in content.[2] But what is this certain sameness? Here is Celan’s English version:

“The eternities struck / at his face and / past it, / slowly a conflagration extinguished / all candled things, / a green, not of this place, / with down covered the chin / of the rock which the orphans / buried and / buried again.”

Like other translations of Celan, Hamberger’s negotiates the paradoxes of the original, its preservation and transformation. Wagner’s auralgraph presents (or perhaps exposes) the problem of the original (i.e. in the generic way that Celan’s German is not German) as the paradox of “original” language. Wagner’s choice of “original” (Vallejo and Reverdy, in addition to Celan) reveals his interest in the internal difference of language, one that might begin in dialect, or with an accent. The auralgraph, even if we don’t take it seriously, presents the problem of a version that is simply more interesting than either the original or the translation. I will read the German, now, if you would follow along with Wagner’s English translation.

[Die Ewigkeiten]
Paul Celan

Die Ewigkeiten fuhren
Ihm ins Gesicht und druber

langsam loschte ein Brand
alles Gekertzte,

ein Grun, nicht von hier,
umflaumte das Kinn
des Steins, den die Waisen
begruben und wieder

Auralgraph 6
After Paul Celan’s [Die Ewigkeiten]

The highway kite in foreign
Hymen gets sick and drew bare
In house

long song locks brandy
all is get hurt

A groan, nicked veneer,
O, flower dump that can
Destine eyes, then the wayside
by grubbing and wider

“Auralgraph 6” interprets the erotic content of Celan’s original, and in so doing, we lose sight of if that erotic content was there in the first place. The erotic content of Wagner’s poem is superficial—better: it is the surface translated—“him in,” “ihm in,” as “hymen, or as in another of the auralgraphs, “I hear,” “Ich hore,” as “Each whore. The auralgraph is a poem presented as dream, one that ironically defies interpretation based on the wish-fulfillment.

The erotic content of the poem is apparent in the “foreign Hymen,” and, as we know, once we open the door to reading innuendos, it is difficult to shut, and this, perhaps is the impossibility that translation affords. It is the process not of reading either what is or is not there, but the uncertainty of reading both at the same time that replaces the original paradox of translation. I would like to suggest that the case of the auralgraph allows us to think about translation as being not only proper, as in the transporting of meaning from one site to another, but as a particular mode of exchange that is not only not based on the transference of content, but that positively values another mode of transference, a method of dream interpretation that is not based on wish-fulfillment.[3] The auralgraph presents a limit for thinking about psychoanalytic translation as the movement from the unconscious to consciousness.[4] In this sense the parallel between the movement from the unconscious to consciousness can be seen as a model of translation in which priority is placed upon moving from unknown to known, of bringing dark to light, something that transference, in a sense, is all about. But the problem of keeping things in the dark in transference is another altogether different problem.[5] What is the practice of psychoanalytic translation, or transference, that takes seriously the case of the auralgraph’s defiance of wish-fulfillment as a means of interpretation?

According to Alan Bass (translator of Derrida and psychoanalyst), psychoanalysis, and more precisely transference, is a mistranslating machine. In his article, “On the History of a Mistranslation in the Psychoanalytic Movement,” mistranslation is a fetish, similar to translation that if not good, is bad. The problem of being so good that you are bad follows a logic of the fetish that Bass describes in terms of a mistranslation that is, for one reason or another, too “precious” to give up.
[6] Bass gets here by pointing to a logic in which the fetish, or mistranslation, is a fantasy, a childhood memory, and notably, one that “may become unconscious” (118).[7] His topic is Freud’s mistranslation (and the many subsequent mistaken translations) of the Italian nibio (kite) as the German Geier (vulture) in his study of Leonardo’s notebooks.[8] Freud not only translates nibio as “vulture,” the bird of prey, but uses this to discuss the role of the vulture as mother in Egyptian hieroglyphic in relation to the fantasy of the maternal phallus. Bass writes, “the vulture, then, is a mistranslation as precious as the “precious object” for which the fetishist searches so passionately.” Bass’ threadlike question: “What is a mistaken translation in psychoanalysis?” results in the end in the positive content of mistranslation, the confusion of “transference-translation,” something pointing to transformation as the nature of transference.

One of the ways that I want to think differently about transference and the “impossibility” of translation is by questioning the common and somewhat homophonic practice of translating “translation” [übersetzen] as “transference” [übertragen]. Bass’ articulation of the fetishistic, substitutive logic that combines translation and transference puts the “impossibility” of translation to work; he shows that the latent content resides in transference, and describes the process of translation as a code that transforms “baffling inscriptions” into “everyday language” (103). Derrida’s presentation of translation in “Des Tours de Babel” as “necessary and impossible” looks for the limits posed to theories of translation by the paradoxical nature of the necessary impossibility.
[9] He considers more radical the complexity introduced by needing to translate more than one language within one language—thus to translate the internal difference of language.

The mistranslated poem, “Auralgraph 6,” repudiates but also registers the difference within language. My reading here, of its ironic and erotic tension hopes to disturb the double fantasy of Benjaminian “pure language,” on the one hand (the fantasy of “essential” language), and on the other hand the fantasy of coming as “close as possible” to the original, something like the unity of form and content (the fantasy of the completeness of expressive voice).
[10] Both of these logics, I think, are based upon a homophonic model of language, one that holds that learning to speak (and thus to translate, and to interpret) consists of identifying a given originary language in which expression is total.[11] In this model, expression and activity are modes in which obscurity and passivity signal the inhibition of the wish-fulfillment, and thus represent stages to be worked through in order to attain the clarity of expression or the decisiveness of action. The logic is one of a “homophonic method” of translation, noted by V.W. Quine in Word and Object, which involves the idea that sound—and perhaps best to say not only “sound,” but the correspondence of sounds, “creates” meaning.

Quine’s discussion in this section is on “Translating Logical Connectives” and the example he follows in his discussion of the “normal” homophonic method has to do with negation: “That fair translation preserves logical laws is implicit in practice even where, to speak paradoxically, no foreign language is involved. Thus when to our querying of an English sense an English speaker answers ‘Yes and no’, we assume that the queried sentence is meant differently in the affirmation and negation; this rather than that he would be so silly as to affirm and deny the same thing” (59). The homophonic model defends against both nonsense and difference within the same language, against what Quine calls “the hidden differences of language” (59). Here Quine wants to think about examples that would suspend the homophonic method, instances in which “the hidden differences of language” even in the same language create a problem for translation. For him, the hidden differences can account for bad translation, “or in the domestic case, linguistic divergence,” and this is interesting, since he says that “beyond a certain point” bad translation is more likely to account for these differences than “the interlocutor’s silliness.” What happens to the “hidden differences” in the case of an interlocutor’s silliness that is also a bad translation?

The mistranslated auralgraph presents the impossibility as something we can feel differently about and pushes us to think about situations in which “becoming unconscious” is more compelling, or “too precious,” in other words, in situations in which our interest in the other is simply more compelling.
[13] The interest in one that Freud identifies as erotic—in the form of liking, love, and lust; this erotic content, or the mere possibility of it, presents the difference between thinking of the other as an ethical bind and thinking of the other as one liked. The difference in such a case involves the occurrence of unavoidable feeling for the other in a situation, such as transference or interpretation, where one is best instructed to keep feelings, especially those of the erotic interpreter’s, out of it. The erotic interpreter (could he be someone like Balibar’s “vanishing mediator”?) is there on both sides, to obscure and make ambiguous, to keep some things in the dark. I have articulated this problem of the “impossibility” of translation differently because I saw the metaphysical problem of individuality presented by the necessary impossibility of translation to be the same as the ontological failure of the subject to find its origin. Although the ironic transposition of erotic content in “Auralgraph 6” exposes the fantasy of complete translation, the hope or wish for complete transference might be more difficult to dislodge. These problems, in particular that of equating the moment of the self’s failure with the recognition of the other, are ones that seemed to me to need another logic that is not the interpretive logic of wish-fulfillment, of making conscious, or of translation as transference proper.[14]

Ironically, the erotic interpreter does not deal with the erotic content of wishes, but with the model of the joking unconscious. I would like to turn to the case of the joke as a way of situating the work that the auralgraph does and the work that it frees us from. The auralgraph, unlike other translations, takes the job of mistranslation seriously.
[15] It is, perhaps surprisingly, jokes and the logic that Freud develops for them that can tell us most about this process of “reverse censorship,” in which the obscurity of the form is preserved by the sense that it has meaning. Unlike the process of censorship that uses the form to obscure the content of a potentially damaging or dangerous transmission, Freud writes that jokes cause pleasure by the “alternation between ‘thinking it senseless’ and ‘recognizing it as sensible.” He continues, “The psychogenesis of jokes has taught us that the pleasure in a joke is derived from play with words or from the liberation of nonsense, and that the meaning of the joke is merely intended to protect that pleasure from being done away with by criticism” (131). Freud calls this process of “reading” “reducing”; he writes, “It will be recalled that when we had succeeded in reducing a joke (that is, in replacing its form of expression by another one, while carefully preserving its sense) it had lost not only its character as a joke but also its power to make us laugh—our enjoyment of the joke” (112). Throughout these sections on both purposeful and innocent jokes, Freud continuously makes the point that the source of pleasure in joking is related to what we don’t know; he writes: “Thus, strictly speaking, we do not know what we are laughing at” (121).

In the case of innocent jokes, like the wordplay of “Auralgraph 6,” pleasure seems to be something aesthetic, something derived merely from the form. Freud seems to suggest here a sense of the aesthetic that might not be in his other writings on art and literature. Here, the pleasure is not something that is merely aesthetic, rather, the aesthetic is that which seeks “to derive pleasure form its own activity.” Freud’s emphasis on the idea that the “from its own activity” counts as a form of pleasure refers us again to his main point (as he winds about a variety of possible causes for the pleasure) that the pleasure of jokes relies on the obscurity of cause. He here presents cases in which the pleasure principle, which functions to assure the equivalence of exchange or translation, is suspended in some way so that a qualitatively greater pleasure can be attained. It is important to note that the logic of this “suspension,” like the “precious mistranslation,” is not an exception but is all too caught up in pleasure. The suspension is a descriptive difference that amounts to a reason for keeping things in the dark. Freud writes, “What we have before us here is in fact no simple effect of force but a more complicated situation of release” (134). The shift “to release” instead of “force” serves to introduce the complex situation in which factors of pleasure (and in other cases, pain) become quantitatively indistinguishable. Freud writes here, “we have said above (p. 94) that a good joke makes, as it were, a total impression of enjoyment on us, without our being able to decide at once what share of the pleasure arises from its joking form and what share from its apt thought-content. We are constantly making mistakes in this apportionment” (italics mine).
[16] The “mistake in apportionment” is the characteristic unconscious of jokes; it is not that jokes allow for greater pleasure, but that the joke relies on what is unknown as its source of pleasure. In so doing, it creates situations of complex release, and therefore it also creates new forms of satisfaction, new forms, I might say that come “from its own activity.” This ambivalence of activity is something I will return to in a moment.

I would like to note that I have moved through this discussion of joking without being clear that the questions posed by the translation of jokes differs from the “mistaken” translation of Freud’s “kite,” his vulture, since the translation is situated within one language. And this returns us to the case of the auralgraph, which refers the impossibility not to the sameness of content between languages but to the representation of difference via the sameness of sound. The joke’s unconscious is a pervasive, unknown code. The ambiguity that arises in the situation is most interestingly related to the joke’s capacity not to increase the force of expression of the first person (and who is the first person? The analyst? The patient? Celan? The auralgraph?), but to complicate the situation of release by introducing a third person. The complication seems to result from the fact that the first person speaks as the patient. The relationship is not just one in which the analyst is the translator who is making conscious the unconscious of the analysand, but that in doing so, he creates a third position, similar to the case of innocent jokes, in which the second person becomes the third person. Freud writes: “But this second person in the case of jokes does not correspond to the person who is the object, but to the third person, the “other” person.” As I have been suggesting, the third person is the erotic interpreter, one who brings, and “always with some irony,” the transference of the individual consciousness through the common possibility of mistranslation, of mistaken apportionment.
[17] Jokes present an alternative to wish-fulfillment, to expression as a gesture or outcome of satisfaction and most importantly and obscurely, they offer a theory of a passivity that is itself a form of activity. I have wanted to think about passions and passivity that do not inhibit the possibility for activity and thus to think about the types of situations in which holding off expression of something would result in an increased capacity for action. Here, even “holding out for action” seems that it would detract from the ability to care for the actions or activity that you take in receiving the impressions of others, the passions, and in dealing with your own passivity as something that is itself a form of activity.

The auralgraph interrupts the desire to even know the meaning of the original, to get to pleasure, and taking seriously this interruption, or suspension, in turn recalibrates the relationship between desire and pleasure. The “total impression” of the auralgraph allows the mistaken apportionment to become the substance of the unconscious, hidden “differences,” not hidden content. It is not so much the “unknown” or the “impossible” as such, but rather that the movements between what we know and don’t know take place not in the realm of consciousness, but in the realm of the unconscious. The antagonism—the “convergence without mutual contradiction”—of what we know and don’t know is the unconscious content.
[18] The erotic content of “Auralgraph 6” is ironic; Wagner’s kite, like Freud’s absent kite, tells us only more of what we don’t already know.
Image above (Not a Kite): Egyptian Shrew, Cleveland Museum of Art

[1] In a journal publication of several of the auralgraphs, Wagner writes: “Maybe the term “auralgraphs” (or ear writings) is new, but that’s about it. I believe my initial interest came via writing experiments mentioned by Bernadette Mayer on the web somewhere. Charles Bernstein’s interests in these things, and a phonetic translation of a Henri Michaux poem in Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, were also components.”
[2] See Derek White and Jessica Fanzo’s brief commentary on Wagner’s 2005 translation of Caesar Vallejo’s Trilce. From “Terrestrial Visitation to the Contemporary Zapotec Underworld” ( “I picked up a copy of Cesar Vallejo's Trilce in Spanish on my last day. Reading it now on the plane. My Spanish is not good enough to fully comprehend, at least the poeticness of it, but in a sense this makes it more interesting, reading into it. I can appreciate James Wagner’s obsession with his parasitic and “homophonic” translation of Trilce (some of which are going to be in the forthcoming SleepingFish). You can read it for the sound or pure language of it, more than for the content, and from the sounds alone create something entirely new of your own invention. It's like viewing Mayan hieroglyphics without a codice, without fully understanding the original intent. Appreciating it just for the superficial look or sound. Or like appreciating mole without knowing what goes into making it. The meaning surfaces on its own and hits the sense organs directly without any cerebral processing from the brain.” (July 17, 2005). For a full on discussion of hieroglyphic interpretation, see Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing” in Writing and Difference. See also Freud (cited in Bass 103) in The Interpretation of Dreams (V): “The productions of the dream-work, which, it must be understood, present no greater difficulties to their translators than do the ancient hieroglyphic scripts to those who seek to read them.”
[3] For an account of the significance of improper transation, see Dina Al-Kassim, “The Faded Bond: Calligraphesis and Kinship in Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano” in Public Culture 12:1 (2001), in which she describes the practice of “transgraphing” which “shifts the emphasis from a concern with semantic meanings toward a search for new terms and new forms of writing that might materialize the social transformations of kinship that are evident in the modern postcolonial state.” In Des Tours de Babel, Jacques Derrida cites Jacobson’s definition of a “proper” translation in One Tranlsation (1959) as being (in contrast to interlingual (rewording) and intersemiotic (transmutation)) interlingual, transferring content from one language to another.
[4] As such, psychoanalysis seems to consistently offer a compelling analysis of how the transference from individual to collective organization is made.
[5] Bass’ book, Difference and Disavowal: The Trauma of Eros (Stanford 2000), describes resistance to interpretation in the psychoanalytic setting as a problem of the concrete patient, a term that he provides a psychoanalytic genealogy of, surrounding Edith Jacobson’s description of such patients as those who “treat their psychic strivings as if they were concrete objects.” (cited in Difference and Disavowal 14-15. Cf. Jacobson, “Denial and Repression” (1957)).
[6] See also Freud’s essay on “Fetishism” (1927) in which he writes: “In the last few years I have had an opportunity to study analytically a number of men whose object-choice was dominated by a fetish…. For obvious reasons the details of these cases must be withheld from publication; I cannot therefore show in what way accidental circumstances have contributed to the choice of fetish. The most extraordinary case seemed to me to be one in which a young man had exalted a certain sort of “shine on the nose” into a fetishistic precondition. The surprising explanation of this was that the patient had been brought up in an English nursery but had later come to Germany, where he forgot his mother-tongue almost completely. The fetish, which originated from his earliest childhood, had to be understood in English, not German. The “shine on the nose” (in German, Glanz auf der Nase) was in reality a “glance at the nose” [Blick auf die Nase, Blick = glance: Glanz]. The nose was thus the fetish, which, incidentally, he endowed at will with the luminous shine which was not perceptible to others.”
[7] See Bass page 119, cf. Freud in “Leonardo” page 85. emphasis in this quotation Bass’.
[8] Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910), in SE XI.
[9] For a related notion of the effect of co-constitution, see Fechner’s principle of aesthetic assistance: “If determinants of pleasure that in themselves produce little effect converge without mutual contradiction, there results a greater, and often a much greater, outcome of pleasure than corresponds to the pleasure value of the separate determinants—a greater pleasure than could be explained as the sum of the separate effects.” (Vorschule der Ästhetik 1: chpt V), see Freud’s reference in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious 135.
[10] Adorno has a similar account of poetic language in “Lyric Poetry and Society.” He writes: “The moment of unself-consciousness in which the subject submerges itself in language is not a sacrifice of the subject to Being. It is a moment not of violence, nor of violence against the subject, but reconciliation: language itself speaks only when it speaks not as something alien to the subject but as the subject’s own voice.” (in Notes to Literature page 45).
[11] Quine, in Word and Object, refers to the “homophonic method” “so fundamental to the very acquisition of language.”
[12] The logic that I am interested in is that which is not “rhymes,” as Derrida notes in his foreward to The Wolf Man’s Magic Word. Taking “tieret,” the magic word of the wolf man, Derrida writes: “tieret, on the other hand, tieret alone produces no speech at all. The pleasure it gives rise to is only that of a living tableau. But tieret is not contrasted with this tableau-fetish in the way that the thing itself is traditionally opposed to its fetish. This thing is not the thing-in-itself philosophers speak of. It is a mark or cipher, a piece of a cipher that can only be translated into a vast interminable sentence or into the scene of a tableau with more than one object, more than one entrance or exit. A trace with no present in its wake, a Thing, ein Ding, une Chose without a cause, “Cause” to be designified in the crypts of anasemia” (xlv).
[13] I’m thinking here of both David Berman (“the feelings about the feeling…”) and Rei Terada’s comments on the importance of the matter being how you feel about the feeling (the demand, in this case, of impossibility).
[14] See Daniel Tiffany’s reiteration of the “impossibility” that defines translation in Radio Corpse: “What distinguishes translation historically—and what makes deconstructive theorists so enamored of it—is its nihilism: its repeated admission that extreme literalism—the very principles that condition translation itself—is impossible. In other words, translation discourse proclaims with self-destructive candor what is often forgotten or submerged in the history of aesthetic philosophy and literary criticism: a realistic image is no more possible than an exact translation” (200).
[15] I see the implications of this as being three-fold, and all are related to what Etienne Balibar describes as “problematic individuality,” and what I understand as the problem of coincidence of self-ownership and the “desire” for a community. The first is in terms of transference and the work of psychoanalysis as the “mistranslating machine”; the second is in terms of non-literary translation and the political stakes of the mistranslation of essential “inessential” information; and the third is in terms of literary translation and a practice of textual interpretation retains the registration of difference (i.e. in paradox).
[16] In German, the passage reads: “Wir täuschen uns beständig über diese Aufteilung.”
[17] The logic of the traumatic dream is similar, since Freud acknowledges it as a situation in which wish-fulfillment is interrupted. Freud writes, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, “We may assume, rather, that dreams are here helping to carry out another task, which must be accomplished before the dominance of the pleasure principle can even begin. These dreams are endeavoring to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.” See further: “If there is a ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ it is only consistent to grant that there was also a time before the purpose of dreams was the fulfillment of wishes. This would imply no denial of their later function. But if once this general rule has been broken, a further question arises. May not dreams which, with a view to the psychical binding of traumatic impressions, obey the compulsion to repeat—may not such dreams occur outside analysis as well?” (page 38)
[18] This phrase is taken from Gustav Fechner, one of Freud’s strong influences on the matter of psychophysical phenomenon. The effect of “convergence without mutual contradiction” is based on a ‘principle of aesthetic assistance or intensification,’ which Fechner describes in Vorschule der Ästhetik as the Vorlustprinzip (the “forepleasure” principle”).

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