For English literature students, it has almost become cliché to mention Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay, The Death of the Author, which argued for prioritizing the reader’s response in the meaning of a text rather than the supposed intentions of the author. As students, we were encouraged to focus more on texts themselves, their connection to other texts, discourses, and historical contexts. Whatever decisions the author may have consciously made were to be treated with heavy skepticism—authors no longer had a say in the interpretation of their own work as much as readers and critics. Like many other literary theorists, Barthes’s text arrived to me through translation, and whole branches of the degree I finished one year ago gave me the chance to study a variety of literature in translation.
I never seriously questioned how a translation can affect the meaning of a text until we were assigned to read the French theorist Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967), translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I found it incomprehensible, along with many of my classmates. The one-hour lecture we had as a kind of introduction essentially came to, “Just keep reading the original text and you’ll understand it,” and I remember telling a friend at the time that the actual, original text was in French; perhaps the translation had something to do with it. Granted, even in French Derrida’s text is notoriously difficult to understand, but there could very well have been issues with Spivak’s translation, as one reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books suggested.