In Conversation: Naoki Sakai

We have to learn to address ourselves to multiple audiences, to speak as foreigners to other foreigners.

Naoki Sakai, professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Cornell University, does the brilliant work of bringing translation theory into dialogue with other disciplines. In his writings on Japanese studies, cultural studies, comparative literature and philosophy, the gritty questions of translation, national language, nationhood, and subjectivity emerge at the heart. His book Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism undermines the mainstream understanding that writers and readers are defined—or confined—by national language and culture.

In this interview, there is much talk of a specific “representation of translation.” Translation is most commonly represented in today’s world as a practice that happens between two wholly different national languages. Tell anyone you’re a translator and they will ask: “between what languages?” However, this is actually only one version of events. While translation can be explored in much broader terms, Sakai suggests that this particular story about translation serves to reinforce the often-menacing architecture of the nation state.

In TRACES, a one-of-a-kind multilingual, cross-disciplinary journal led by Sakai, a new sort of community is created beyond the nation’s walls in which contributors speak with a “forked tongue.” As Sakai’s words suggest and as we know full well at Asymptote, this is the exciting potential of translation; it opens up new shared spaces and spaces for sharing.

Mattea Cussel, Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor, spoke with Sakai about some of the questions raised in his work to invite our readers to ponder the constructedness of national language and culture, as well as to add new working definitions to our entry on that slippery word “translation.”

Mattea Cussel (MC): Languages are not homogenous units, within them there are many ways of communicating, feeling, and representing the self. However, when we talk about translation, it is very difficult to name what is taking place without referring to languages as exclusive and uniform entities. For example, a short story is translated from the Korean into English. How do you take issue with this particular way of representing translation?

Naoki Sakai (NS): That’s a very important place to begin. One of the most interesting questions concerning translation is what constitutes the unity of a language. In our conventional understanding, the act of translation is necessary only when different languages are involved in our conversation or correspondence. Accordingly, we tend to understand translation as an act of bridging or overcoming difference between languages.

The question is: what kind of difference is bridged or overcome? If we refer to Aristotelian logic, the most common type of difference is specific or species difference, which means difference between two species belonging to the same genus, two particularities under the same generality. However, unless we assume the unity of each language, it is impossible to apprehend specific differences between them. Yet, there is also a sort of difference that cannot be conceptualized or systematically classified in the logical economy of Classical Logic: the difference we encounter that is nonsensical to us, that we cannot make sense of. How do we deal with this nonsense? I like to say that translation is our effort to make sense out of nonsense.

Another issue is the homogeneity of a nation. You talk about languages such as Korean and English. How can you be sure that each of the languages you are referring to is one language?

MC: But even if we cannot be sure that they are each one language, we still say that the text has been translated from one language to another. What are we failing to assimilate?

NS: Yes, that’s exactly the point. I’m not saying that Korean and English don’t exist. Of course, they exist, but they are institutional realities. Nevertheless, we can’t say that we empirically experience Korean or English as independent entities or things. The only way to recognize these languages as unities is through translation. That’s why I think the issue of how we represent translation is very important.

When you look at European history between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new form of polity called the nation state gradually emerged together with the establishment of national language unities. From the seventeenth century onwards, there was an academic discipline called historical linguistics, whose initial concern was how Spanish, French, English, German, etc. evolved from Latin. Historians asked how these modern European languages emerged and where borders could be drawn among them. It is precisely because translation was institutionalized in a certain way that such distinctions occurred. Translation was one of the most important instances in the modern experience of language and the establishment of modern national languages. It can be argued that all these languages were born out of a particular discourse of translation. That’s why I use the word ‘representation,’ not in the sense of representing something that has already been constituted but of representing something and thereby anticipating the object of representation. National languages were created by being represented.

MC: You’re describing a way of representing what translation does that starts to appear with nation-state building projects and national languages. Such a representation is somewhat necessary in the context of international encounters between people from different countries who speak different languages. Asymptote is an example: writers, translators, and readers from across the globe come together yet must somehow be distinguished from one another. Just for fun, can you imagine an alternative representation of translation that is not based on national language and culture?

NS: As you point out, we tend to understand linguistic differences within the context of the international world, which is divided into nations or ethnic communities. The basis for the international world as we understand it today probably started during the Reformation, when international law was first established. In this international world, particularly after the late eighteenth century when the new polity called ‘nation-state’ was introduced, every individual is classified according to native national language. People need this kind of institution, and intellectuals have endeavored to create it. One reason is that if you don’t adhere to the premise of a national language, you will immediately confront the fact of amazing diversity (class differences, regional differences, differences in rank, etc.) and an entirely segregated society in which people could not live together as a nation under one state sovereignty.

As Benedict Anderson said more than four decades ago, ‘peoplehood’ is an imaginary or fantastic reality. But imaginary does not mean illusionary at all. The nation is absolutely real because it is imaginary. And it has to be sustained by a fantastic narrative of excluding foreigners who do not belong to the nation. Countries like the United States are returning to a process of national exclusionism today. Those who have been left behind by globalization are demanding that foreigners be excluded from the community as if the exclusion of foreigners could solve their problems. They are rejecting immigrants on the assumption that they don’t speak English properly. On the other hand, we are facing another reality of an increase in global elites who can speak English. I think the international world that was established in the seventeenth century is in crisis. I don’t know how we can continue to adhere to the premise of the internationality of languages.

MC: Does this mean that there is no alternative representation of translation because if there was it would become very difficult for us to live together?

NS: No, not at all. What is at issue is not internationality but transnationality. That’s why for me the heterogeneity of translation is so important. Instead of allocating national languages as a cause for translation, we should consider translation as a site where we constantly deal with difference, and not in the sense of specific difference, but more in the sense of heterogeneity. Translation is an instance in which we constantly confront our own foreigner or foreignness. In translation, a foreigner speaks or writes to another foreigner. if you explore, for example, the Spanish language and literature, what you find is not a Spanish identity, but rather that Spanish itself is always heterogeneous. It’s a foreigner’s site. National languages always maintain that kind of possibility for heterogeneity. I think that translation deals with fundamental human sociality, which comes out of heterogeneity.

MC: Where does this leave the role of the translator? Historically, it has been the person who helps us overcome difference, bridges two cultures, or mediates. Is there another way to think about the translator in a post-international world?

NS: I would like to take a theoretical risk here, and I’m not alone in this. We are facing a danger since we might gradually lose our grip on the word translation. People like Derrida have already seen that translation is a word for what has been called philosophy. That is to say, if we engage in theoretical thinking, that thinking necessarily takes the form of translation. Then it becomes very difficult to define translation because any serious thinking or systematic inquiry about our own speech or writing would become translation. Granted that we accept this kind of danger, translation essentially becomes a general act of making sense out of nonsense. When we encounter a social occasion where the commensurability is not laid out, where we have to create our own relation with others, translation is required. In this sense, the meaning of translation must be broadened. That’s one of the reasons why in recent years it has become a very important topic in the humanities. When we think about translation as our response to nonsense, or discontinuity in our social world, then translation becomes a much more fundamental activity where human beings create social relationships with other human beings.

MC: The translator becomes a relevant social figure rather than a forgotten actor…

NS: That’s right. In this view, a philosopher is first of all a translator. Or what we understand as a theory in the realm of humanities is a translation.

MC: Is there a practical application of this sort of translation philosophy for a translator at work? Her decisions are driven by assumptions about readers and these assumptions are founded on a collective linguistic and cultural identity. Can the instability of the collective identity of target readers have any bearing on how the translator proceeds?

NS: A translator is someone who differentiates human relationships, creating one group of addressors and one group of addressees. This difference need not be difference in nationality at all. Unfortunately, divisions are being used by post-conservative political forces in Europe, North America, and many parts of Japan. They are translating or marking foreigners in a certain way. They continue to produce fantastic scenarios according to which the outsiders are permanent outsiders, so that a pre-ordained harmony prevails among those who are destined to be insiders. Regardless of how futile it has been found to be, they insist on the apparatus of separation between insiders and outsiders, such as a border wall, which supposedly guarantees the comfort and security of insiders. We really have to counteract this form of manipulation. In our counteroffensive, what is crucial is translation. Instead of creating exclusion on the basis of nationality, race, and ethnicity, we have to create different channels of sociality so that we can establish common ground beyond national and ethnic levels. This is one of the reasons why I imagine you started your journal and we started TRACES. Of course, we cannot increase the number of languages in which we publish indefinitely, but we try at least to move among six languages. While never neglecting the historical verity that the nation state will probably not disappear in the near future, and that we will have to continue to live in the international world, we attempt to build social relations beyond the terms of nationality and internationality. We have to learn to address ourselves to multiple audiences, to speak as foreigners to other foreigners.

Naoki Sakai is a professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Cornell University. He is the senior editor of TRACES, a cross-disciplinary and multilingual series of cultural theory and translation. Some of his most important works are Voices of the Past (1992), Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism (1997) and The Trans-Pacific Imagination; Rethinking Boundary, Culture and Society (ed.) (2012). The book The Politics of Culture: Around the Work of Naoki Sakai (2010) is an example of the exciting directions opened up by his efforts to destabilize area studies, the Asian/Western divide, and the innate connection between nation and culture.

Mattea Cussel is an Australian translator based in Barcelona. She is doing a PhD on linguistic and cultural identity in the translation of Latino migrant literature from English to Spanish. She is the assistant managing editor (issue production and diversity) at Asymptote. Her translation of an extract from Menchu Gutiérrez’s poetic essay Decir la nieve appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Asymptote.


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