Comparative Literature Studies 41.2 (2004) 289-292
Douglas Robinson's most recent monograph asks its readers to reconsider the peculiar and indeed paradoxical demands tradition places on translators working today: that they both be the author when they write and not be at the same time. This line of inquiry will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Robinson's many previous books—most notably, The Translator's Turn (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991)—or that burgeoning area of interdisciplinary scholarship known as Translation Studies. How is it possible, he writes, to expect that a translator "should 'submit' to the source author and/or source text" while still believing "that such submission is impossible: that translators are the active interpretive agents in the act of translation and control the entire event . . .?" (24) Who Translates? offers a professedly "post-rationalist" approach to the question, juxtaposing accounts by spirit channelers, economists, psychoanalysts, religious prophets, cognitive scientists, and philosophers to suggest that our attitudes towards subjectivity in this modern era have been based as much on a mystical understanding of translation as a rational one.
What authority do we appeal to, for example, when we wish to condone or condemn a Finnish translator for rewriting significant chunks of a Shakespeare play? The authority Marxist poet Matti Rossi invokes to defend his 1972 translation of King Lear is the bard himself: "With Shakespeare's permission I have cut the high nobility of the ending," he explains in his preface (via Robinson's translation from the Finnish), "and offered as an alternative the real behavior of power-holders when a battle for a crown truly begins" (117). While we might take exception to Rossi's creative decisions, the logic behind them is familiar, and the implications far-reaching. Robinson includes the example to ask, "What exactly is the ontological status of this talk of Shakespeare's permission?" (119) Here and elsewhere his intellectual forays help unravel the delicate strands of inspiration that bind us to a given text—translated or otherwise.
He demonstrates implicitly through a provocative selection of materials that the systems of faith undergirding our scholarly endeavors have more in common with religious traditions than we may care to admit. Robinson points out that Marx spends much of his writing distinguishing between the "spirit of the revolution" that is the Geist he urges people to move towards and the "ghosts of the past" that are the Gespenst he'd like people to leave behind, but in the end continues to be, as Robinson wryly puts it (after Jacques Derrida): "h(a)unted" (131). "We are all haunted," he avers, "by the spiritualist imagination" (31). Part of the problem he is at pains to describe is the very expectation of duality that reason forces on us. "The logic of the ghost," Derrida describes in The Specter of Marx, "points toward a thinking of the event that necessarily exceeds a binary or dialectical logic, the logic that distinguishes or opposes effectivity or actuality (either present, empirical, living—or not) and ideality (regulating or absolute non-presence)" (qtd. in Robinson: 121) That Robinson would liken these collective, post-rationalist "fantasies" to Jacques Lacan's notion of the Other or Louis Althusser's interpellated ideology may come as some surprise. More jolting may be the comparisons with the act of speaking in tongues that Paul warns against in his own ecrits (which Robinson calls Christianity's "first policy statement on translation" ), or with those erratic market forces Adam Smith once labelled the "invisible hand." The surprises and jolts set by such a range of examples allow Robinson to show that agency is never neat and well-bounded, that translator subjectivities "have only seemed tidily ordered by reason when artificially reduced to rationalist schemas" (144). He urges us instead to see consciousness as something fragmentary, even "pandemoniac" (borrowing Daniel Dennett's term).
The book circles around the (not quite post-rationalist) premise that these forces which are as much internal as external can be reduced to four broad, fairly...