Reflections on panache and possibility that get lost in translation

November 12, 2004

As a translator, it is hard to capture Derrida's idiom because the language he writes in is intrinsic to his meaning.

Three philosophers kick off a five-page look at Derrida's legacy with thoughts on how he transformed the customs and practices of a discipline.

"I recently fell in love with the French expression ' une fois pour toutes '," said Derrida. His words were part of an interview given in 2000, which I was translating into English a few weeks before he died.

Often enough, translating Derrida, or trying to, you come across something for which you have to resort to a laboured expansion or parenthesis that takes away all the force and panache of the French. But here - for once - it seemed to me that English and French were in perfect harmony: that une fois pour toutes - literally, "one time for all (times)" - was pretty much identical to "once and for all". How confusing, then, to read what Derrida said next: "I think it is untranslatable, but never mind." Now, it is too late to ask him about this. And now "once and for all", most final of phrases, resonates with a changed sense of ending.

A once that is not one - not a fixed finality, not one final meaning only: this is just what Derrida loved about the phrase, as an everyday encapsulation of a deconstructive idea. He goes on to explain - in much less translatable sentences - what he saw in " une fois pour toutes ":

"In a very economical way it states the singular and irreversible event of what or who only comes about or comes along once, and so is a one-off [literally, 'is never repeated']. But at the same time it opens up onto all the metonymical substitutions that will take it somewhere else. The new arises, whether we like it or not, in the multiplicity of repetitions."

"What or who only comes about or comes along once": the phrase is much smoother in French. It involves the verb arriver ; in French both events and people commonly do this, whereas English separates things that "happen" or "occur" from people who "arrive". Derrida's sentence is thus able to merge the unique event and the unique person, or rather to leave open the question of how or if they can be told apart. But English distinguishes them from the outset - and Derrida's point is lost.

It is this kind of difficulty, or impossibility, of translation that frequently makes Derrida's writing seem obscure. Translators do their best, but it is very hard to retain both the complexity and the readability of sentences that depend on or write about French words or idioms that cannot be naturalised into the "destination" language. Translations of Derrida are often laden with glosses and neologisms so that his work comes over in English as a semi-foreign language, an alien arrival. As such, his thinking has repeatedly been dismissed.

In this way, unquestionably, Derrida was a "French" philosopher, in practice and in principle. He rejected the view that an idea could be separated from the language of its formulation. In another interview, Derrida spoke of the "singular idiomaticity" - the translation is cumbersomely unidiomatic, but never mind - "of what I write. That is why some people (starting with those who have a somewhat simplistic idea of the universal and think that philosophy has to be written in a sort of all-purpose Esperanto) consider my writings too 'literary', and philosophically impure. It is true that idiom is resistant to translation.

But it doesn't necessarily discourage it; on the contrary it often provokes it."

Other French thinkers of the past few decades have met and still meet with comparably divided linguistic and intellectual destinies, as Derrida points out himself in the same interview. "The 'success' abroad of some philosophers of my generation has to do, among other things, with the fact that each in their own way remains extremely 'French'. In the Sixties there was a 'French' configuration of philosophy (and of lots of other disciplines - psychoanalysis, the social sciences, literary studies) that was absolutely unique; we are its actors or now its heirs. We have not yet weighed up what happened there, which has yet to be analysed, beyond the phenomena of rejection and fashion that it continues to provoke." But he comes back to his initial point at the end of the interview: "Without being chauvinistic, anyone can see that the philosophers who are the most present, certainly the most influential, at any rate the most taught and the most translated in the world today, are French thinkers of the generation of Levinas or Lacan, and afterwards that of Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, and so on." (And Derrida.) "In philosophy," he goes on, "something singular and new occurred in France, only in France, in the course of the past 40 years. Why only in France? That would be worth a lengthy analysis which I won't try to improvise here."

These reflections on the movements of cultural history may seem to take place on a quite different plane of analysis from the thinking that moves out from the meanings enfolded in an everyday idiom of the French language.

This apparently effortless versatility of approach and emphasis is, I think, part of what made Derrida so extraordinary a thinker. In 1979, as a graduate student, I started attending Derrida's seminars at Yale University. It was the first time I had experienced the patient, step-by-step exposition of his utterly engaging speaking style. And I was taken aback by the material. He spent the first sessions giving a detailed exposition of the context in which an author in 17th-century France would have made a choice as to whether to write in Latin or the vernacular. It was a prelude to, and an integral part of, a reading of Descartes' Discourse on Method . Up till then I had come across only the "high theoretical" Derrida, as he had so far mostly appeared in English translations. To British fans of "French theory" at the time, proud in the repudiation of English common sense, the prospect of an account of legal and linguistic history would have elicited only the withering label of "empiricism". What I realised in those first weeks of listening to Derrida was that for him there was no division or contradiction between thinking historically and analysing texts.

This was long before Derrida came to be congratulated on a belated "turn to history" or "turn to ethics", as if he had eventually got the message that there ought to be something outside the wordplay. In fact, as he steadfastly maintained each time the predictable question came up, there was no change of heart or direction. His thinking had been political and historical all along, though not always in the same ways or in all his writing all the time (if it had been, he would have been a duller writer).

But in his last years, the politics became more explicit or more recognisable as such. Paper Machine , for instance, the book I have been translating, is a mixture of articles, interviews and short journalistic pieces. Some of it is easy to read and some of it very demanding. Its subjects include immigration policy, the politics of language, the history of the book. He analyses what is new and not new in electronic, as opposed to manual technologies of writing and signature. It is vintage Derrida. He responds at length, and late, to articles written for and about him, with a discussion of excuses. And, in the way that only he could do and declare, he falls in love with a phrase, once and for all - for the last time.

Rachel Bowlby is professor of English literature, University College London.

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