Panel: Examining the Cultural Politics of Translation in Jewish
Copanelists: Rosanne Kennedy and Kris Peleg
In this presentation, I discuss the potential and perils of a Levinasian dialogic ethics of response as a framework for responding to difference in translating cross-cultural texts. My analysis focuses on the moments of rupture within differing systems of meaning between the author and the translator, as well as the cultural, political, and religious tensions inevitable in translation. I argue that the translator should make such moments—moments of untranslatability—visible to the reader rather than masking them by attempting transparency.
The site of my examination is letters written by my great-grandfather, Mordecai Ben-Ami, to his son. The former was a writer, a Zionist, and an early settler (1923) to pre-state Israel. I consider efforts to acknowledge what transparent translation omits as potential steps toward a utopic project of dialogic translation, a form of translation that would let moments of untranslatibility stand, thus inviting the reader to become more aware of the complicated presence of the other, despite asymmetrical power relationships and cultural differences. In my view, the translator must interrogate her own process of identification (as problematized by Butler and Fuss among others) when it is relevant to the process of translation, while attending to the “remainder.” A dialogic translation would acknowledge the Derridean space “between languages that occurs before the right word has crystallized” (Gentzler). This vision for the potential of translation is tempered by an understanding of translation as a “deliberate and conscious act of selection, assemblage, structuration, and fabrication, and even, in some cases, of falsification, refusal of information, counterfeiting, and the creation of secret codes” (Spivak). It thus collapses as soon as it is articulated, a form of flawed translation (from desire to practice) itself.
Daphne Desser is Associate Professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Much of her academic work has examined interactions among discourse, identity construction, and power, with her most recent publications located in the unique cultural context of Hawai‘i. Articles more immediately relevant to this conference presentation include “Writers in the Family: My Great-grandfather’s Letters, Identification, and Rhetorics of Identity,” Rhetoric Review (2001), and “An Unexpected Heir: A Jewish Feminist Response to Letters from Pre-State Israel,” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal (Winter 1999).