Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lost in Translation

One of the books I found at Magus (for $1!) is Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. I bought it for Spivak's article, "The Politics of Translation," about which I knew nothing; but for a buck, it was worth a shot (also excited about art critic Griselda Pollock's "Painting, Feminism, History.")

So I read it. I think it's important.

"How does the translator attend to the specificity of the language she translates? There is a way in which the rhetorical nature of every language disrupts its logical systematicity. If we emphasize the logical at the expense of these rhetorical interferences, we remain safe. 'Safety' is the appropriate term here, because we are talking of risks, of violence to the translating medium." (178)

Spivak is talking about a number of things here. Spivak clarifies what she means when contrasting logic and rhetoric: "Post-structuralism has shown some of us a staging of the agent within a three-tiered notion of language (as rhetoric, logic, silence)." (179) Though Spivak doesn't engage directly in discussion silence, she has a clear interest in retaining (or emulating?) rhetoric. Being faithful to precise meaning (logic) may (does) destroy the rhetoric that gives a piece its intimacy (by breaking it's systematicity). However, adhering to rhetoric is dangerous, as one might do violence to the logic of the text (and one's reputation).

The danger brings us to Spivak's second theme: the crisis. Though she doesn't dwell on the possibility, I think the central motivation behind Spivak's conception of a good translation is one of not managing crises. Being safe is always being complicit. The translator (of Third-World texts) has to behave dangerously, both for the sake of the text and for those who are invariably represented by the translation (because all texts represent, even when they are not intending to), because a lot is at steak.

The generality of the first quotation above led me to believe Spivak covertly meant this article to be not only about literal (and literary) translation. Spivak makes this clear when she talks about "Translation in General," and Toni Morrison's Beloved. The details will be forgone here; it is principally important that Spivak is talking about, in some instances, translating form English to English, or translations in which no language is involved, or translation itself is resisted.

Which is where I come in. As usual, I'm going to take writing on a very serious subject (the lingering effects of colonialism and the current effects of multi-national capitalism), and apply it to music. After all, in a very real sense, music fits the post-structural conception of language. Indeed, a great deal of the music-theoretical literature is on justifying the rhetorical in terms of the logical, and the most often cited example of John Cage's avant-gardism is 4'33", in which not a note is played (though this piece is never, to my knowledge, analyzed). Much of music theory, one might say, is about being safe: about effacing the rhetorical in favor of logic.

So this article finds its way into two of mine. The most apt is my paper on aesthetics. Spivak serves to understand the margin, and to understand all music as in some ways marginalized. I must be careful not to degenerate into discipline hating.

Secondly, I can work this into the end of my paper on minimalism, as an alternative to the distrust of metaphoric depth and penetration.


erik said...

As usual I only understand a small percentage of what you're saying, and I may be misunderstanding that part, but it sounds interesting. If you see music as similar to language then how would one translate music? Is the logic in the notes while the rhetoric is in the style (like different interpretations of a song - a jazz version of a christmas carol)?

Oh, and I have to harass you about the very non-vegan misspelling: "a lot is at steak". Yum. :-)

erik said...

This has nothing to do with your post but you might like this blog:

ThePeat said...

that's funny. I remember typing "steak" and thinking "hmm, that looks odd..." There's also a billboard up in Seattle for an insurance company that says something like "Misteaks happen." Blush.

But yes, in a nut shell, that's what I'm getting at is the problem of translation w/ music. I think theory as it stands is about translating music into prose (English?), and that it erases "merely" stylistic elements (often), as well as other so-called illogical elements that are analogous to rhetoric in speech (break-downs in syntax, for example). I'm not sure where I stand yet on the whole music-as-a-language debate--there are some clear differences, such as the transmission of information--but it does clearly have some logical (syntactical) elements (chordal and key relations, for example) that are often broken or bent at important rhetorical moments. The why of this is often explained away in terms of the very rules that are broken, and I'm wondering if that's the proper procedure, or if it is unnecessarily "safe."

Rachael said...

Thanks very much for this, I am digging around for stuff from Spivak, and the article was proving hard to find!