It seems that over the past few decades, the hypothesis that postmodern thought has led us to an essential dead end has caught on in certain political, intellectual, and artistic circles. Be it the incessant grumbling about deconstruction (“maybe you should construct something as well?”), or the assumption that the break in the chain of signifiers—essentially, the detachment of signifiers (i.e. words) from signified (i.e. things)—has necessarily led to the degradation of all communication into meaningless babble; these are sentiments, or more accurately put, anxieties, that I too sometimes share. And yet, postmodern and post-structuralist thought has been written, read, and shelfed in countless libraries, and the earth spins on. Even in the postmodern era (post-postmodern era?) we continue to wake up, read, even write—God forbid!—every day. But the specter of a crisis of signification perseveres, threatening intellectual paralysis.
Taking this into account, Yehouda Shenhav’s two new books should, first and foremost, be understood through the lens of their doubly emancipatory potential. Together, these books should be read as the summation of an intellectual, literary, and political project firmly rooted in postmodern and postcolonial theory while also attempting to “take action in the world.” The two books, Laborers and Actors in Translation: From the Individual Turn to a Bi-National Translation and A Story that Begins with an Arab’s Eyebrows: Translation in Dialogue with Elias Khoury, published months apart, are distinctly tied together, thematically as well as intellectually. Not only do these books offer a model for bi-national and anti-colonial action in translation, they also offer a model for the extraction of practical practices from postmodern theory. In an event celebrating the publication of Laborers and Actors in Translation, Shenhav called this intellectual paradigm “Radical Positivism”: a mode of critical-pragmatic thinking that points out problems while offering alternatives, and then goes even further by attempting to actualize them. In this sense, the two books complete each other and converge into a single project: the first offers criticism of an existing phenomenon and proposes an alternative model, while the second recounts a specific realization of this model.
The more programmatic of the two, Laborers and Actors in Translation, is divided into two distinct parts. The first is dedicated to problematizing the individual mode of translation, the prevalent approach in the contemporary literary field. Shenhav calls this the “Neo-Classical Model” (p. 70 – all translations are my own). By way of a genealogical inquiry into the social construction of the individual translation model—in which individual translators, proficient in the source and target languages, translate texts by themselves—Shenhav subverts the hegemonic obviousness of this mode of translation, while highlighting its political implications in the postcolonial contexts within which the languages in question are engaged in unequal power relations.
Shenhav argues that the mid-fifteenth century saw an “individual turn” in translation, a shift “from collective to individual translation.” He analogizes the rise of the figure of the renaissance artistic genius, the institution of authorial authority, and the construct of the “name of the author” to the rise of individual translation strategies and the construct of the “name of the translator” (p. 32). In support of this view, Shenhav reviews a short history of collective translation: from collective diplomatic translation endeavors in Ottoman Istanbul, through cooperative translations of scripture by European monks, to the collaborative scientific translation endeavors that spread across Andalusia. Individual translation, he argues, was the first step in a process that culminated in the standardization and professionalization of translation: “Collective translation, oral dialogue, multilingualism—all of these were expelled from the history and theory of translation” (p. 49). Thus, an approach to translation bound to a linguistic paradigm of equivalence and adequacy emerged; one which evaluates translations based on their loyalty to the source text on one hand, and to the (target) language of the nation state on the other. A translation embodied by an individual translator, toiling at the precise and loyal transference of meaning from one system of signs to another.
Moreover, Shenhav argues that the neo-classical mode of translation, which “tends to unify the source text and diminish diversity and multiplicity into a homogenous voice,” becomes ever more concretely and politically problematic in the Israeli/Palestinian context: “in colonial conditions it implies pretense, and the denial of the political, cultural and literary meaning of the act of translation” (p. 131). In other words, when Jewish-Israeli translators sit in their studies, by themselves, and translate an Arab or Palestinian author into Hebrew—Shenhav shows that this is the case in the absolute majority of translations from Arabic to Hebrew in Israel (pp. 149-166)—they reproduce the power relations between languages and peoples: “It is unacceptable that in the context of colonial relations between languages, translation from Arabic to Hebrew is performed in an individual mode, in private spaces, and under a monopoly of Jewish translators and editors, absent of a dialogue with Arabs” (pp. 98-99). As an alternative, Shenhav asserts that the mode of translation practiced in the translator’s forum at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which Shenhav co-founded and co-leads, turns the tables; it restores that which was lost to the field of translation by establishing a collective and bi-national mode of translation. This model is based on translation in triads: “a main translator, who is the sovereign, and with him a translation editor, a linguistic editor, and a literary editor—with diverse identities. If the translator is a Jew, the translation editor will be an Arab” (p. 176).
This model is at the center of the book’s second part, in which Shenhav expounds on this alternative model of translation, providing concrete examples of collective translation processes, and formulating an “ideal type” of this translation strategy as carried out in the translator’s forum. It seems that by way of a reference that Shenhav hid in the book’s title—perhaps aimed at his more theoretically informed readers?—he intended to hint at the essence of this collective translation model, and at the theoretical approach in which his writing about translation is rooted. All without scaring away the reader who flees at the first sign of Continental philosophy. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the phrase “Laborers and Actors in Translation” refers to a passage in Jacques Derrida’s 1985 essay, Des Tours de Babel:
Let us accompany this movement of love […] that is at work in the translation [emphasis added]. It does not reproduce, does not restitute, does not represent; as to the essential, it does not render the meaning of the original except at that point of contact or caress, the infinitely small of meaning. It extends the body of languages, it puts languages into symbolic expansion, and symbolic here means that, however little restitution there will be to accomplish, the larger, the new vaster aggregate, has still to reconstitute something (p. 190)
I propose that the “movement of love” that Shenhav hints at here is the bi-national translation model itself. The laborers in translation in the title of his book are those who are at work in bi-national translation, actualizing this gesture of love. This collective model extends the body of languages; it doesn’t attempt to reproduce or represent, but rather to reconstitute the practice of literary translation from Arabic to Hebrew in Israel/Palestine. Accordingly, it adopts dissemination and deconstruction, two intellectual practices associated with Derrida, as concrete modus operandi in the field of literary translation. By doing so, the model attempts to recognize and perform differance, while striving for political change. But the bi-national translation model isn’t merely rooted in Derridean theory. The movement of love that it constitutes also develops, theoretically and pragmatically, the foundation which Derrida put in place regarding translation and the philosophy of language.
In the chapter “How is Nakba Translated into Hebrew?” (pp. 131-148), by way of a critical examination of the ways in which various Jewish-Israeli translators (all operating in the individual mode) translated the term “Nakba” into Hebrew, Shenhav delves into the political significance of a bi-national translation model in Israel/Palestine. While he offers specific critiques of specific translations, Shenhav also goes beyond them to argue a meta-critical position: “The semantic fields in which the different terms originate don’t fully correspond across languages, but it turns out that they don’t correspond inside each language either, a finding which complicates the work of translation even further” (p. 134).
In Derridean terms, this is an exemplary instance of differance. This is how Derrida himself defined the elusive term, in a 1968 interview with the philosopher Julia Kristeva: “Differance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other.” That is to say, the bi-national translation model compels us to recognize the fact that language, the systems of signs which we routinely employ, are not “clean.” They do not maintain relations of adequacy or equivalence, either with other systems or internally with themselves. And turning a blind eye to this state of affairs in the context of colonial relations between languages entails the reproduction of these power relations in the act of translation itself.
Not only is the problem Derridean, but the solution as well. Here, a second sense of differance enters the picture, in its meaning as a postponement, a spacing of temporal gaps, an active game of differences in translation. The bi-national translation model attempts to split open the practice of translation, multiplying it and creating a space for the negotiation of difference, as opposed to concealing it. In this expansion of translation technology so that it can include Palestinians and Israelis together, the members of the translator’s forum virtually admit that in the absence of a correct and stable way to translate “Nakba” into Hebrew—as an example—there is at least an obligation to debate it. Derrida echoes in the background here as well, as he himself argues that at the root of many political disputes and oppressive relations is an inability to recognize differance. In other words, political, colonial, and gendered subordination are attempts to police the subordinated other, and to erase the differences between subordinator and subordinated. Appropriately, recognition of differance could be seen as a step towards an abolishment of these oppressive power relations.
I suggest we think about this multiplication, this splitting open of translatory space, as an act of deconstruction and dissemination. In analogy with Des Tours de Babel, I offer a comparison between the individual translation model and Derrida’s allegory of the Tower of Babel, and correspondingly between the bi-national translation model and the godly deconstruction and dissemination of the tower. The neo-classical translation model, like the Tower of Babel, wishes to misappropriate the expertise of two sign systems, the two languages (at a minimum) involved in the process of translation, and to produce a translation which gives off the impression of stability, uniformity, cohesion, and finality. Moreover, it too, like Babel, is crowned by a “proper name” (Derrida, p. 165)—the “name of the translator” (Shenhav, p. 49). A name which lends another performative layer of uniformity and originality to the translation. That is to say, the individual translator is an embodiment of the Tower of Babel; a narcissistic authority attempting to appropriate and unify the ability to control the movement between sign systems, and by doing so, make itself into a god.
But just as god deconstructs and disseminates (not destroys) the Tower of Babel (p. 166; 170), the translator’s forum deconstructs and disseminates the practice of translation. In line with the Derridean directive, the members of the forum attempt to subvert the possibility of a stable source and a stable translation, not only textually but also technologically. Just as there is no stable source (text) and translation (text), there is no stable source (translator) and translation (practice). By disseminating the practice of translation, and attempting to concretely practice differance, at one stroke the forum both commands and forbids translation (p. 204). Just as the deconstruction of the Tower of Babel disseminated and multiplied language by eliminating the one language, the collective model of translation deconstructs the individual mode of translation, and with it the ability to create a stable, clear, unified translation, while also commanding translation, as the act of collective translation is in itself politically potent.
But Shenhav’s bi-national translation model goes beyond Derrida as well, as the latter’s theory of translation still assumed a translator, a subject (p. 179). Throughout the essay, Derrida himself adopts Walter Benjamin’s translator (singular, masculine) as a theoretical construct. Given a provisional definition of deconstruction as an exercise in exposing implicit assumptions in a text, and particularly those that presuppose any kind of originality, it seems that Derrida falls into his own trap, and assumes a form of unity, origin, authority—all embodied in the individual translator. In other words, even in Derrida’s wildest theoretical imagination, he is still bound to a subject sitting at a table and translating a text from one language to another, an assumption which the bi-national model subverts. If so, Shenhav’s book doesn’t merely offer an illuminating concrete realization of the theoretical foundation that Derrida set out; it also demonstrates the ways in which concrete practices can advance and develop the theoretical, and not only stem from it. On the other hand—and here the bi-national model resists Derrida—its stated objective is not textual but extra-textual. Throughout the book, Shenhav repeatedly emphasizes that one of three constituting principles of the bi-national translation model is to “reconstitute translation as an action in the world [emphasize added]”, as opposed to a merely textual or linguistic activity or object (p. 15). Therefore, while Derrida is famous for his provocative assertion that “there is nothing outside-text”, Shenhav and the translator’s forum consistently aspire to break-through the text, in a sense, into activities and phenomena that reside outside it.
But what if we were to take another radical step beyond Derrida, maybe beyond the edge of a theoretical cliff: instead of assuming differance in and between sign systems—which still allows us, even demands of us, to play, space, signify the impossibility of signification— we would assume a complete and finite break in the chain of signifiers? A break after which there is no longer any sense in signifying, even as a semi-empty gesture, no longer any sense in aspiring to reach any kind of real beyond signs.
In other words, if we were to accept Jean Baudrillard’s historical-semiotic vision, that there is no longer a signifying link between image and reality, and that all signs are simulacra, signifiers without origins, images of images: then what would become of translation? If words are empty signifiers, not denoting or signifying anything but themselves and other signs, how then is it possible to translate a sign from one system to another? Reality is no longer a third party through which signs can be translated: table(sign)-table(real)-שולחן(sign). It seems that Derrida himself accepts all of this, but still leaves us room for action in deconstruction and differance. The act of translation itself, which aspires to tie between signs, even if inevitably unsuccessful is legitimate, even imperative. But it seems that Baudrillard leaves us nothing of this nature, not even the legitimacy to aspire to signify.
I will offer two diverging interpretive paths, both stemming from this theoretical rabbit-hole: a pessimistic one, which digs deeper down into the depths of our essential inability to do anything meaningful with language; and an optimistic one, which might offer a way out of this crisis of signification. The first offers a reading of the bi-national translation model as a practice of concealment, attempting to hide, by way of empty gestures, the postmodern dead end which Baudrillard illustrates. On the other hand, in the spirit of Baudrillard’s work on symbolic exchange, I will also offer a reading of this model as a practice of revealment, a strategy that soberly acknowledges the semiotic order, exposes it, and then attempts to take political action while reckoning with it.
First, concealment. Under the organizational umbrella of the translator’s forum, a group of Jewish and Palestinian translators, editors, writers, and researchers meet to carry out collective action directed at decolonizing the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic. Hence, the bi-national translation model is rooted in two premises. First, that the construction of a model for bi-national and anti-colonial action is a step towards bi-national and anti-colonial existence on a larger scale. Second, that de-colonizing language is a step in the process of de-colonizing reality. That is to say, the bi-national translation model rests entirely on an internal logic of signification and representation, and on two levels. Concretely, the model hinges on the assumption that an action performed in language can affect reality—e.g., that the usage of “inclusive language,” such as replacing “guys” with “folks,” mitigates systemic sexism and racism. Meaning that there is not only a relationship between signifier and signified, but that the signifier can impact the signified. On a meta-theoretical level, the model itself is, in effect, a sign; the members of the translator’s forum assume a causal relationship between this sign and reality. Here as well, in the direction of signifier>signified, or model>reality. But as far as Baudrillard is concerned, language doesn’t have any relation to reality. So given his vision, these assumptions are unjustified, and the model becomes nothing more than an empty exercise.
On the other hand, the more affirmative, and what I believe to be more accurate Baudrillardian interpretation of the bi-national model, maintains the possibility of positive action. In his work on symbolic exchange, Baudrillard argues that the exchange of symbolic objects constructs relationships between people by way of absence. The mutual acknowledgment of the exchanged object’s absence of essential meaning imbues the acts of giving and receiving with meaning related to the relationship between the giver and the receiver. An example Baudrillard himself offers is that of the wedding ring; an essentially meaningless metal band which is imbued, in the act of offering it to another, with symbolic value regarding the relationship between the giver and receiver. This is the symbolic. But in the contemporary semiotic order today, Baudrillard argues, objects are no longer symbols but signs. From objects of exchange that construct relations, they have become objects of consumption, which disrupt relations. Furthermore, while symbolic objects are imbued with relational meaning by way of exchange, by symbolizing the act of giving/receiving, objects of consumption relate only to other objects of consumption.
If that is the case, then maybe the bi-national translation model isn’t attempting to conceal the hyper-real, but rather to reveal it. Maybe it is anchored precisely in acknowledgement of the fact that loyal translation is impossible; that signs cannot be adequately or equivalently translated within and between systems, that they don’t maintain any relation with reality. If so, the members of the translator’s forum replicate, in a sense, the possibility for positive action by way of absence. Just as the parties involved in symbolic exchange acknowledge the emptiness of the object, Shenhav acknowledges the impossibility of literary translation, all the more so between Arabic and Hebrew, in the thick of colonial relations. But stemming from this acknowledgement of absence, of lack, he offers an opportunity to construct relations between people, Palestinians and Israelis. He proposes the creation of a space in which the exchange of empty signs, simulacra, is just a catalyst for the creation of interpersonal ties and relationships.
It is precisely this type of relationship at the center of Shenhav’s more recent book, A Story that Begins with an Arab’s Eyebrows: Translation in Dialogue with Elias Khoury. Shenhav opens the book with an anecdote from his work on the translation of the 1994 novel Majma’ al-Asrar (‘Complex of Secrets’), authored by his partner in dialogue and friend, the Lebanese author Elias Khoury. Shenhav recounts that mid-novel, it transpires that the protagonist’s uncle “is actually the tragic hero of the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez […] and so we slide into Márquez’s novella while blurring the boundaries between it and Khoury’s novel” (p. 9). Similarly, a comparative reading of the two books in discussion often induces a sensation of diffusion. The transparent and authoritative author of the theoretical treatise suddenly becomes the protagonist and first-person narrator of the personal essay, and the boundaries between them blur. Likewise, the bi-national, collective, dialogic translation, which is mostly presented as an abstract theoretical mode in the first, takes very concrete shape in the second.
In A Story that Begins with an Arab’s Eyebrows, Shenhav ponders a specific implementation of alternative modes of translation, and in doing so also touches upon Khoury’s writing and the friendship between the two, which came about following Shenhav’s translations of Khoury’s works. The main intersection of diffusion between the two books is the concept of dialogue, as conceived by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin is known for introducing myriad innovative concepts to literary theory—e.g., carnivalization, heteroglossia, and chronotope—which, despite their heterogeneity, can be understood as stemming from Bakhtin’s proclivity for multiplicity and diversity in interpretation. Shenhav writes in Laborers and Actors in Translation:
When I refer to dialogue I don’t necessarily mean a conversation between two people or more, but an epistemological framework based on circular movement between categories, as opposed to one-way, rectilinear movement. In terms of translation, circular movement necessitates circling back to the author, or to the source in the absence of an available author. Dialogic translation doesn’t affirm the source like a notarized translation, nor does it replace it, but rather stands beside it, in order to look back at it. Dialogic translation is necessarily aimed at the other, even if the other is unapparent and cannot respond (p. 167-168)
But how is this concept of dialogue realized in the translational-personal-political relationship between Shenhav and Khoury? The most illuminating anecdotes stem from Shenhav’s work on the translation of Khoury’s Palestinian Novels—Bab Al-Shams (1998), Awlad Al-Ghetto: Esme Adam (2016), Awlad Al-Ghetto 2: Najmat Elbaher (2018), and the third installment of the Children of the Ghetto trilogy, set to be published later this year—set in Israel/Palestine and much of them played out in Hebrew. In other words, in these novels Khoury narrates, in Arabic, plots that unfold in an imagined Hebrew; and Shenhav, in his translation, must restore them into Khoury’s absent Hebrew, to the origin’s origin. As he himself puts it, he must translate “a text which is itself already a kind of translation” (p. 71). But in the spirit of dialogue, “the translation of a translation does not return to the point of origin” but rather “creates a collision between languages and requires a bi-lingual arena in order to represent their encounter” (p. 79). Shenhav implicitly returns to Des Tours de Babel here, and to one of Derrida’s most urgent questions: “How is a text written in several languages at a time to be translated? How is the effect of plurality to be ‘rendered’? And what of translating with several languages at a time, will that be called translating?” (Derrida, p. 171). Again, Shenhav is dissatisfied with mere citation, and quickly turns to application: “Bi-lingual translation must be liberated from the grasp of the monoglot reader if it is to realize its true potentials, as it must deal with the relation between the two languages, not with each one separately” (Shenhav, p. 80).
Shenhav offers numerous examples of translational choices that realize this program. The most enlightening of all is from his translation of Stella Maris (the title given to the Hebrew translation of the second installation of the Children of the Ghetto trilogy). In this example, the Palestinian protagonist Adam enumerates for his Jewish beloved Dahlia the twenty synonyms for love in Arabic. Shenhav writes that “It would be impossible to give each of these words a single meaning in Hebrew. Any such attempt would culminate in a ‘dictionaric loop’, as the semantic fields in which they exist do not overlap between languages” (p. 82). Alternatively, he decided to “transliterate the Arabic words in Hebrew and arbitrarily determine their Hebrew signifiers” (p. 83). But this decision becomes doubly meaningful in relation to the observation Khoury offers in the paragraph following the conversation between Adam and Dahlia: “He translated for Dahlia the twenty conditions through which love passes, as the Arabs described it, but wasn’t sure of the precise meaning of the words, because translating words of love into other languages is impossible, as love is untranslatable” (p. 245). In other words, Shenhav’s decision to maintain the original Arabic in the translated text, albeit transliterated, plays an interpretative role in the text. In this case, it endorses Khoury’s thesis on the translatability of love.
When scrutinized, the text reveals no less than five layers of translation. There is the dialogue between Adam and Dahlia, occurring in de facto translation between his Arabic and her Hebrew; the question of translation hovering above the conversation as a meta-translational issue (is love translatable?); Khoury’s translation of the imagined Hebrew of the dialogue into the Arabic of the novel; Shenhav’s translation of Khoury’s Arabic into concrete Hebrew; and the transliterated Arabic that Shenhav retains in order to leave traces of the translation behind, and show support for Khoury’s position on the meta-translational issue. This can be seen as an instance of Shenhav conducting a dialogue with Khoury in the translation itself. In this case, he responds to Khoury by way of agreement and affirmation. But this isn’t the only option. Elsewhere in the book, Shenhav recounts an instance in which Khoury disagreed with an interpretation of his work offered by Shenhav in a lecture. In this case, the translator responded by way of interpretation, and the writer retorted: “Khoury didn’t seem enthusiastic about the lecture, and even gently told me that ‘it needs work'” (p. 68).
Not only is Shenhav charged with the impossible task of invoking the imagined Hebrew dwelling in the depths of Khoury’s Palestinian Novels, he is also based in the land which serves as the setting for the novels, a land that the author himself has never visited. He writes about an event in which the consequences of these inverted conditions became clear. In 2018, local activists organized a “special evening, celebrating the publication of the translation of The Children of the Ghetto and commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the fall of the city of Lod. The evening began with a Skype call with Khoury, in Beirut, in which he expressed how emotional it was for him to speak before the people of Lod in the heart of the area where the Arab Ghetto once stood” (p. 69). In hindsight, Shenhav illuminates: “The author addresses the community described in the novel, embraces and describes locales that he isn’t in, while the translator, who resides in them, must re-describe them in Hebrew.” This is the circular movement of the dialogue, more than anything else a reflexive process, “a reflection of the translation on the source and a reflection of the source on the translation” (p. 70). And as Shenhav demonstrates, this circular reflection is immensely powerful. So powerful, it can blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, and between translation and source.
In the meta-theoretical and reflexive spirit of the books under review, what better way is there to conclude than to look back on my own arguments? First among them, the arguments that attempt to determine the nature of the relationship between Shenhav’s books. General vs particular, abstract vs concrete, argument vs example, programmatic vs personal; the sum of all these, or more precisely, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is dialogue. A comparative reading of these books clarifies, maybe more than any anecdotal example, the profound meta-theoretical meaning of a circular dialogue, and the intellectually fruitful blurring of boundaries that it produces. These books stand next to each other and cross-fertilize one another, continually referring the reader back and forth. Each book can be read individually, but together they create a circular movement that invites the reader to join in; to shake off the anxiety of paralysis, take action, and participate.
*Yehouda Shenhav-Shahrabi, A Story that Beings with an Arab’s Eyebrow: Translation in Dialogue with Elias Khoury [Hebrew], Bar-Ilan University Press, 2020, pp. 144
*Yehouda Shenhav-Shahrabi, Laborers and Actors in Translation: From the Individual Turn to the Bi-National Translation [Hebrew], Van Leer Institute Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2020