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The Figure of Translation Translation as a Filter?1
Naoki Sakai
Cornell University
In discussing translation, I have always maintained or attempted to
maintain a distinction between the act of translation and the
representation of translation. Of course, this distinction itself is not
without theoretical problems.
In this chapter, I want to take the task of elucidating theoretical
problems that arise out of this distinction between the act or event of
translation and its representation, with a view to the possibility of
liberating translation from the curse bestowed on it by the view of it
organized around the image of communication, the communication of a
statement from one language to another. Translation is not a task limited
to the domain of linguistic knowledge, but it is, first of all, a concept
articulating an event of utterance to social relation, a concept of social
event that, if handled wisely, could grant us the possibility to examine
social action anew in general; it is something which offers us an invaluable
gateway through which to launch an inquiry into sociality itself.
Nevertheless, the traditional view of translation has elided the potent
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sociality that suffuses it, through its collaboration with the
substantialization of “national” and “ethnic” languages. It goes without
saying that my argument regarding translation here tries carefully to
avoid a lapse into another systematic dichotomy of the differentiability,
known as phonocentrism, between the written text and the spoken text.
But this is not all. By “text” I certainly do not imply the traditional view of
it, which limits it to documents or books; nor do I here adopt the widely
disseminated dichotomy between the practical task of oral interpretation
and the translation of scriptures, philosophy, and literature in the written
script. In this respect the early writings of Jacques Derrida have made an
irreversible mark, and we simply cannot return to the phonocentric
naïveté of the pre-Derridian era. I simply do not accept the distinction
between interpretation and translation, precisely because I want to
examine the operation of trope, which suffuses the situation of translation,
while simultaneously attempting to historicize the traditional view of
In studying translation, we must pay close attention not only to
how trope operates, but also to how it malfunctions. That is, in order to
devise shifts in the theory of translation, we not only need a
transformation of the basic concepts, but also a recomposition of the
tropes and figurations that we employ. The very presumption that a
language has its inside and outside must be scrutinized, and we must call
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into question the assumed regime of translation according to which one
language is represented spatially as external and exclusive to another.
Preliminarily it must be noted that this presumption is deployed in two
tropic registers: one between the extra-linguistic and the linguistic, and
the other between the domestic interiority of one language unity and its
foreign exteriority. Keeping this presumption in view I have analyzed the
regime of translation, in which translation is represented through a strict
distinction between the interior and exterior of a language, as the
“homolingual address.” In my view, we must historicize the curse of this
regime of translation, while at the same time turning ourselves towards
the thinking of translation as a “heterolingual address.”2
“Homolingual address” derives its legitimacy from the vision of
the modern international world; this vision projects the world as a forum
for a juxtaposition of state sovereignties as well as the reciprocal
recognition of nation-states. Of course, the system of the international
world and the sovereignty of the nation-state mutually reinforce each
other and form a rigid structure of complicity. In order to unravel this
traditional view of translation, and to recombine the tropes of translation
towards an elucidation of sociality beyond the imaginary of a nation-state
and ethnicity, the trope of “translation as a filter” provides us with an
appropriate thematic in which the presumption of the inside and the
outside of a language works powerfully to reinforce the system of the
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international world in the representation of translation. Let us begin an
analytic of translation by questioning the very title given to this paper.
On the Title
Characteristically the title “translation as a filter” seems to set up
the problem of translation as one of a trope. One is solicited to proceed in
an analytic of translation, whose subject-matter is anticipated in the form
of metaphor. What is implied in this way of treating it is not a
confirmation that translation is a filter, but rather it suggests - but does not
state definitively - “translation may be like a filter,” just as many, actually
the vast majority of titles of treatises, stories, paintings, films, books,
reports, and so forth do not declare themselves as propositions. A title is
rarely a declaration; most often it is no more than an intimation or a
solicitation for thought. Consequently, do I really want to suggest that
translation can be considered as a sort of filter?
In the first place I did not choose this title, it was something given
to me.3 Nevertheless, since it was this title that prompted me to write the
present paper, I ought to briefly discuss the relationship between it and
the argument I construct here. I accepted the title, not because it accurately
named a guiding thread for the theory of translation that I intend to
develop here, nor because I particularly want to take this title as my
thematic subject and bolster it with a discussion. I do not dare to say that
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it summarizes my argument well, either. Rather, what sparked my interest
was precisely that this title encompassed a certain complexity that cannot
be resolved in a typical manner. It contains numerous pitfalls that
discussions of translation have often fallen into. Thus what I intend to do
is to utilize this given title as a springboard for an elucidation of why I
want to distinguish the act or event of translation from its representation,
to disentangle its intricacies in order to attempt to find a means of escape
from the traditional view of translation.
The title of this essay might appear provocative, but it may ring
hollow with certain readers since it contains few unexpected insights. The
reason that I presume to call it “provocative” is that this title invites a
variety of interpretations and is open to multiple definitions. At first
glance, proposing a metaphorical relation between translation and a filter
seems reasonable, but in fact, one quickly becomes beset by a nagging
feeling of incomprehension. In conjoining “translation” and “filter,” there
are too many indefinite elements that intervene between the two terms,
and thus even the provisional judgment “translation is something like a
filter” immediately renders this title unacceptable. In what ways, or as a
result of which aspects, can the term “filter” serve as a trope for
translation? Is it not the case that precisely because we utilize this term
“filter” we become incapable of moving beyond the restrictions it places
on translation? It is my contention that, to gain an understanding of this
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type of metaphorical judgment, we cannot avoid the fact that we lack
something urgent, that we need a more persuasive explanation.
Nevertheless, this title anticipates a certain view of translation; the
mode of being that the term “filter” describes, in fact expresses this view
perfectly. In the traditional view, translation is often grasped as if some
already determined “meaning” passes through a barrier, and thus the
figure of the filter effectively corroborates this representation of
translation. From such a viewpoint, the filter is a curtain or barrier
permeated by a fluid mediator. Of course, the term “filter” describes
something that allows only certain things to pass through it, and thus it is
only at the point where permeability and impermeability coexist that a
certain blocking entity comes to acquire the characteristics of a filter. A
filter is precisely a semi-permeable membrane. Permeability presumes the
existence of a mediator that passes through it, and within it therefore are
flows and movements; a filter, by blocking a flow which has a certain
directionality, is put under pressure by this mediator. Thus, inspired by
this figure of “translation as a filter,” unfortunately we might imagine,
that translation is a situation that arises only when there are two types of
things: something that passes through and something that does not. In
this view of translation, the coexistence of permeability and
impermeability is presumed, and hence there must be a flow with
directionality. Further, the filter indicates a site where there is a curtain or
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barrier as obstacle. This is often imaged as a line bisecting a surface, or as
a surface bisecting a space. The basic material property of a filter is to be
something that obstructs, something that hinders movement, even if it is
full of holes or permeable, and so those things that cannot pass through it
are gathered in the filter and held in stasis. As a result, the impermeable
objects that previously circulated freely are trapped at the site of the filter,
and prevented from slipping through to the opposite side. This is the
trope that first emerges when we intertwine the terms “translation” and
A crucial function of translation is frequently alluded to at the
starting-point of this trope. From out of something mixed, a filter selects
and classifies that which is permeable and that which is impermeable.
Differentiating what can and cannot pass through is precisely the act of
filtration; the term “filter” always indicates this act of filtration. However,
should we therefore consider translation as something that, like a filter,
identifies and distinguishes the translatable from the untranslatable? In a
practical sense, the function of filtration, as a metaphorical connotation,
has often insinuated its way into the theory of translation. In other words,
it is precisely here that we encounter the pitfalls of the tropic statement:
“translation is something like a filter.”
Communication and Translation
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The discriminatory function of the filter is not limited solely to the
classification of the permeable and the impermeable. We cannot bypass
the fact that it also differentiates into two distinct areas a space that is
presumably connected between this side and that. It splits one contiguous
space into two. This function of filtration is possible only at the point
when it is unidirectional, when the filter operates as a threshold, and only
on condition that the upstream flow and the downstream flow are not
blended together. Through the exclusive partitioning of space, the filter
acquires another trope of discrimination: border. The filter thus takes on
the sense of the national boundary or enclosure, that is, not only the
partitioning of space, but also the partitioning of the surface.
Just as a surface is a specific type of plane segment of space, the
filter is a spatial threshold, but, the national border is an exceptional
example of a threshold in space. On the one hand, the national border
discriminates between those who can pass through and those who cannot.
If every person can do so, a national border would not and could not exist.
Further, the national border is the site of the customs boundary,
distinguishing between certain things that can pass through it and others
that cannot. Nevertheless, on the other hand, the national border
constitutes the outer edge of the territoriality inscribed with the limits of
the sovereignty of the nation-state. If you cross the border, the sovereignty
of the nation-state which operates on one side becomes invalid on the
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other side. In other words, the enclosure is an apparatus that discriminates
between those who can be allowed to enter and those who cannot, but at
the same time marks the outer edge of the land as property.
Thus, the figure of the filter can be expanded to encompass the
distinguishing of heterogeneous areas of a surface, the establishment of
demarcations between an interior and exterior on the land, and the
mapping of sovereignty and ownership; it thereby governs the
communication between areas. It is a question of the law or the right
related to this governing of communication between different areas of
sovereignty and ownership. In our examination of translation,
accordingly, the filter acquires yet another tropic function. Translation
serves as a boundary that distinguishes the space. Its role is to introduce
the threshold into space, in bordering, or the inscription of border.
It is not particularly difficult to discern how various characteristics
of language are being appropriated within this tropic economy. A bundle
of articulatory paradigms and generative rules, such as the regularities of
phonetics, morphology, and syntax, are seen as the special characteristics
of a given language; they are often thought of as the archetypal examples
of those things that do not typically pass through the filter. Can we not
say that the paradigms by which an enunciated voice is articulated into
phonemes, the generative rules of comprehension and composition, the
criteria which combine words, and indeed the systems of classification,
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that distinguish words as morphologically significant units, express the
particularities of a given language, and constitute precisely the typical
example of what is erased by translation? Or maybe we should put it
another way: to transmit a text into another language is to erase the
particular characteristics of the original language, and the filter as
translation manifests itself through the erasure of the grammatical traits of
a particular language.
The conception of translation according to the model of
communication finds its raison d’être precisely in the economy of the trope
that I have roughly outlined here. This is to say, the model of
communication cannot be maintained unless the transmitted content and
the rules of communication can be clearly separated. Transmitted content
is generally seen as information. Throughout the latter half of the
twentieth century, the term “information” has swept through the fields of
economics, cognitive science, manufacture, biology and so forth, but it is
overshadowed by the question of communication. “Information” indicates
knowledge transferred by means of an act of informing. In other words, it
is that which one is informed of. To inform is to advise, to teach, by giving
form and shape to the spirit of the other, and the information that is thus
communicated has the characteristics of a message handed over by a
messenger. Whether or not the institutions and technologies develop,
from a paper letter carried by the courier to the postal service managed by
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the national state, or from the cabled telegram to the international wireless
internet, the theory of communication is incapable of shedding its reliance
on the schema of the message handed over by a messenger.4 In its original
Latin etymology, communication is a word which links the senses of
“common,” to indicate the commonly-held land (“the commons”);
“communion,” indicating spiritual interchange and the fusion of souls;
and “community,” as well as “communism” or “communalism.” Thus,
communication as a way of thinking implies the specific mode of being of
a community, but, as has already been extensively pointed out, this notion
of community, conceived of by the model of communication, contains
within it numerous political dangers.5
In the model of communication, the transfer of information is
apprehended parallel to the metaphor of the messenger who
communicates a message, from addresser to addressee. Generally
speaking, however, this point is not understood even in arguments that
attempt a scholarly classification of translation, such as Roman
Jakobson’s.6 The apprehension of translation according to the model of
communication conceives of translation as a specific example of this type
of general communication. The textual reading strategy known as
“deconstruction” has already demonstrated in detail the impossibility of
maintaining a strict separation between the communicated content
(message) and the rules of communication (code). Nevertheless, let us
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proceed for a short while as if this separation were unproblematically
Let us attempt to graft the trope of “translation as a filter” onto the
trope of the message communicated by a messenger from addresser to
addressee. Then, we will realize that what is filtered by this “filter” are,
first and foremost, the rules of communication. In the apprehension of
translation through communication, what cannot pass through the filter is
first identified as the particular grammatical qualities of a language
(phonetics, syntax, morphology, and so forth). Here we must touch briefly
on one result brought about by the distinction between content and rule in
this understanding of translation. Translation studies, which has become
established as a scholarly discipline in an increasing number of
universities around the world today, for the most part conceives of
translation premised on the model of communication; thus it trusts in the
possibility of a principled distinction between message (content) and code
(rule). When content is translated from one “source language” to another
“target language,” this content contains elements that do not necessarily
follow the rules of a particular language, e.g. proper nouns. It is generally
accepted that a proper noun is not translated, nor is there any need to do
so when strictly following the code of the target language. Aside from
such an exception, translation is expected to be an all-encompassing
transformation of rules (code).
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When content (message) in the source language is translated into
content in the target language, the rules of the source language should
presumably be completely erased from the content expressed in the target
language. Translation conveys content to us, but does not teach us the
grammar of a different language.7 Thus, by seeking the distinction
between the translatable and the untranslatable solely within the
communicated content (message), the communication of rules (code) is
foreclosed from the outset, it is separated by the mutual exclusion
between content and rule in this tropic economy. The very distinction
between the translatable and the untranslatable too is anticipated, either
as a translatable message or as an untranslatable one. Because the
grammatical rules or the particular qualities related to the organization of
language are excluded from things that can pass through the filter, the
materiality of the text can not be examined as something translatable, and
is thus neglected. Consequently, the distinction between the translatable
and the untranslatable is anticipated only on the level of the
communicated content (message). That is, according to the model of
communication, the untranslatable is determined from the start as
something in the content of the communication: the untranslatable is only
anticipated as “the message that does not arrive.”
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The Symbiosis of Culturalism and Subjectivity: Topological
Furthermore, we can also associate this tropic economy with the
typical arguments on subjectivity. A person cognizes things in the world
through a certain system of categories. It is not easy to objectify this
system of cognitive categories as a whole, but it may appear
comparatively simple to identify it in terms of differences between one
language and another. The confinement to one’s (native) language may
well explain the confinement of one’s subjectivity to one’s (native) culture.
The contradictions inherent in this argumentation are only too apparent.
We can see most starkly the conspiratorial linkages between the model of
communication and culturalism, precisely in the discussions of
subjectivity bound up with translation in the representation of language.
Here too, the trope of the filter exhibits a new force.
Culturalism dictates that we are born within a given language, and
acquire the ability to cognize the world with the grammatical rules of that
language. Many might accept this as a valid claim, and let me refrain from
disputing this claim for the meantime. It should then follow that, well
before we produce words, before we gain a knowledge of other languages,
our cognitive capacity should be determined through an already given set
of cognitive categories; we should be able to cognize the world only
through a given filter. In this way, discussions of subjectivity jump too
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quickly to conclusions by way of the spatialized trope of a language, a
spatialized figure with a clear contour. Here I have no intention to reduce
the discussions of transcendental subjectivity that emerged in the 18th
century to the problem of culturalism, but the trope of “translation as a
filter” clearly exposes the symbiotic relation between discussions of
subjectivity and anthropological culturalism, such as that inspired by
American Structural Linguistics that was put forward by Edward Sapir
and Benjamin Whorf.8
The filter, which distinguishes the permeable from the
impermeable, enables the representation of two different spaces, but that
is not all; it also forms these into spaces saturated by differing systems of
grammatical rules (rules organized by means of phonetics, morphology,
syntax, and so forth). Here, “different space” carries the connotation of
“different language.” Language, which is assumed to be a potential
system of rules is given a spatialized figure as if it were an enclosed area.
This explains why, so frequently and in so many cases, one apprehends an
ethnic or national culture after the spatialized figure of one’s own
If individuals entered the world burdened by their language of
birth (their “native language”), they would have been born already
located in one of these specific spatial areas, to the extent that they depend
on the trope of “translation as a filter.”9 In other words, the area
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distinguished by translation becomes a space that expresses a primordial
belonging that symbolizes the destiny of the individual. The space is
imagined as the destiny of one’s cognitive capacity which cannot be
changed by an individual’s own initiative; it is an innate trait of ability or
inability from birth, like colorblindness. I experience the things of the
world through a certain system of categories, so in principle I have no
access to a position from which to judge the relevance or irrelevance of my
experiences as a whole. There is no way for me to judge in advance
whether or not the world I am given is biased or distorted. I might see the
world through a colored lens, but this lens is only the lens that goes by the
name of “native language.” Regardless of whether the retina of my eye
receives light through a colored lens or not, I have no direct access to an
unbiased perspective that could correct my own prejudice towards the
world that I embrace in perception. Biased or not, prejudiced or not, the
world I perceive is nothing but my world, the world of my immediacy, the
only world that is available to me. One reason that this phrase “translation
as a filter” has a certain persuasive power is that it prepares us for the
deployment of a trope that makes it possible to mobilize translation
within this type of argument on subjectivity.
At the same time, let us not overlook the following point. By
shifting the tropics of the representation of translation from the figures of
the upstream and downstream flows of the filter, or two spaces separated
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by a barrier, to the trope of a filter as a colored lens, we move from one
topological register to another. The trope of “translation as a filter” is
deployed in an entirely different topological arrangement; it enables us to
figure language as a space encircled by boundaries. This is to say, the
trope begins to serve as a schema for the spatial figuration of language.
It has long been known that this type of argument that asserts these
limitations in terms of the nativism of cognitive capacity, cannot avoid
certain inner contradictions. In order to show that we are pre-determined
to perceive the world through a filter, we must postulate the experience of
seeing without this filter, as if we could see without the colored lens. If the
filter is an innate condition of our perception, how can we possibly
assume a situation in which it would be possible to cognize something
without this filter? We must pay close attention to this point wherein the
topic of the trope starts to slide away.
Translation, insofar as it is a filter of permeability, separates space
into two areas, but whether or not these separated spaces are necessarily
formed as enclosures has not yet been problematized. With a different
topological setting, however, the filter does not merely divide the
continuous space into two; it now implies an overarching condition that
restricts one’s capacity to conceive of the external world, like the camera
accessory that selectively transmits light coming into a camera obscura.
Here, it is as if this “translation as a filter” has come to possess the
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character of an optical filter that covers the main lens of a camera, rather
than the form of a filter as a semi-permeable membrane.
Yet, curiously, although the figure of the filter is called for to
postulate the innateness of cognitive capacity in terms of spatial
belonging, it also becomes a principle by which to explain the typical
situation of cognition prior to translation. Knowledge acquired by means of
translation is postulated to explain the apparent existence of the innate
capacity prior to translation. Here we see the contradictions in the
procedure of argumentation that I mentioned earlier. In order to gain an
awareness of the constraints immanent in the cognitive capacity in one’s
‘native’ language, one must have the experience of othering /being
othered in relation to a foreign language, and consequently, those who can
neither speak nor read a foreign language, in theory, should not even be
capable of being aware of the constraints imposed upon them by the
‘native’ language. Without “the incomprehensible,” or without an
encounter with a person whom one does not comprehend, one cannot
become aware of the limitations of one’s own cognitive capacity.
Translation folds over upon itself and gives rise to the moment of what
may well be called ‘reflection.’ In this context, above all else, reflection is a
matter of translation.
The reflection into native language has a fundamentally different
temporality from that of transcendental reflection, and we should not
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confuse these two. Nevertheless, it is still worth keeping in mind that
translation provides a negative moment in relation to the native language,
and that, without the presumption of foreign language or an encounter
with strangers or estrangement through the foreign, the awareness of
something as native language should be impossible from the very outset.
Therefore, one cannot help admitting that the nativism that posits native
language as an innate condition for one’s cognitive and practical capacity
becomes possible for the first time only in passing through a moment of
negativity in relation to native language itself. Is it not the case that, to the
extent that we can move the argument forward parallel with the tropic
economy of “translation as a filter,” it transpires that we require
translation as a “mediation” to establish the identity of a native
language?10 Of course, in this argument so far, I have refrained from
openly doubting that a native language could ever exist in and of itself.
Thus, the pitfalls of the tropics of the filter have been disclosed. But,
at the same time, one may notice that the topic - the thematic field or
context of argument – has gradually moved from the filter as a semipermeable membrane to the filter as a colored lens. Just as the topic slides
away in the shift from the filter as a membrane to the optic filter in the
trope of “translation as a filter,” so too is this shift accompanied by a new
topological arrangement. A shift occurs in the relation expressed by this
trope, from the binary segmentation between the spaces of the upstream
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and downstream flows, separated by a thin membrane, to the relation of
the one and the many between a native language and many foreign
languages in general. A new topological transformation adds a new
dimension to the tropics of translation. The filter of permeability divides
two spaces, but the properties of each are determined in relation to the
other space. Each space is determined relatively, dependent upon the
other space it is paired with. However, as soon as the trope of filter
acquires the sense of an optical filter, the determination of the space’s
property is altered: it is no longer relative. Each of the spaces separated off
from each other by the filter come to be represented as if they already
possessed these properties as inherently determined. Each space is
represented as if it had pre-determined properties, irrespective of the
other space from which it is differentiated.
Then, we will be unable to pay attention to the very unity of the
space that arises only when the threshold divides it from the other space.
It is usually forgotten that translation is first and foremost expressed in
the verb “to translate,” and that translation is an event, an action. This is
analogous to the way in which people forget that the national border is
not a natural condition, but rather it is an institution created through acts
of sovereignty by the state, the ruler, the national people, and so forth. In
precisely the same sense, we must not ignore the fact that the border itself
cannot exist in separation from the act of bordering.
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What Enables Translation to be Represented as the Filter
The trope of ‘translation as filter’ is not only sporadically utilized in
certain individual ways, but tends to function as a means of organizing
multiple examples in a broad sense. It serves as a schema in the
comprehension of translation. By representing translation as a filter it
becomes possible to ascribe to it certain images and figures, without
which it would be extremely difficult to think of translation. To attempt to
think precisely what is difficult to think – the representative example of a
difficulty for thought is time, and because it is difficult to represent time
directly to ourselves, we depend on the schema of time. For this reason,
the schema of time is well-known in modern philosophy – we rely on
tropes and images to provide us with some equivalents in the sensible.11
Without the aid of a graphic figure, a geometrical problem is
difficult to apprehend, but when one sketches out a rough graphical
image, one can try to solve it more easily. To systematically comprehend
the characteristics of a macromolecule, a chemist appeals to its molecular
formula; to comprehend the command hierarchy of a government, a
bureaucrat illustrates an organizational chart with departments, bureaus,
sections, and committees; to comprehend the procedures, measurements,
and configuration of a building to be constructed, an architect draws up a
set of plans with specifications. The image or figure drawn on a piece of
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paper or on a computer screen, a flow chart, and other various semiotic
figures, guide our thinking in place of the direct representation of complex
topics. Thus, when we encounter the representation of a complex topic,
we rely on an image, a shape, a trope, a figure. We attempt to approach a
complex topic difficult to represent to ourselves by relying on these
images. The schema is precisely this sort of equivalent in the sensible that
is given to something difficult to conceive of directly, and through the
utilization of the figure or the trope, we render representable a topic for
direct thought; we call this operation of schema “schematism.”
Of course, it is exactly the role of the schema to construct a relation
of equivalence between a theme which is difficult to represent and a
certain image. In this respect, it is important to keep the following point in
mind: how something is made equivalent depends not on the theme but
instead on the schema. As a schema, an image has the power to determine
something that cannot be represented. The figure deriving from the trope
of “translation as a filter” serves as a schema for the representation of
The way in which translation is represented is regulated and
maintained by certain rules. It is not changed at whim and has the
character of an institution accepted by the majority of people in modern
societies. Thus, this title “translation as a filter” is unlikely to surprise any
readers – it has a certain convincing power, such that one feels that one
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understands it on first sight, even without a detailed explanation.
Undoubtedly it is a conventional trope for many of us. It is able to give us
a phony sense of familiarity and self-evidence. But in what way is this
convention of representing translation through the trope of a filter itself
formed? How can we historicize this type of institution?
In this regard, we must keep in mind that the trope of the filter also
contains a reverse side – this is to say that there is also a negative of this
image, a negative in the sense of reversing the figure and the background.
Instead of something substantive like a filter, that which separates two
spaces apart can be a void, a cut, or a gap. The shift from one topological
setting to another requires a number of tropic maneuvres.
First, let us point out two contrary directions in which the image
can unfold. The first is oriented towards the presence of the filter itself,
and in focusing on the presence of the filter, it leaves the two spaces
divided by the filter unfocused and therefore indeterminate. The
qualitative difference between the two spaces is dependent both upon
how the filter sieves and what it allows to pass, explicitly showing us the
difference between the upstream space, a mixture of the permeable and
the impermeable in the process of permeation, and the downstream space,
purified by the sole presence of the permeable. Yet, precisely the opposite
conception is also possible; by an orientation towards each of the divided
spaces, focusing not on the filter but the spaces cut apart by the filter.
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Here, the filter becomes a void or absence. In an exemplary illustration of
the Gestalt, one recognizes a vase of one color against the background of
another color. But, in the same illustration, one can also recognize two
faces looking at one another. In a similar manner, the trope of the filter
switches from a presence, just like this vase, to an absence just like a void
between two faces.
It is possible to see translation as an act linking the gap or rupture
between the two spaces, rather than as a substantial barrier to filtration,
dividing a continuous space into two. Instead of considering it as a
positive blockage that divides space, we can understand it as a negative
interruption that produces the impossibility to pass through due to a
rupturing of the ground. Then, translation is seen as an act which bridges
two spaces that are detached by an abyssal gap, as an operation of
crossing over, as a leap to the opposite bank. The filter is transformed into
something negative, a symbol of absence. These two orientations suggest
two contrary views of the filter; that of a rupture haboring the abyss in
contrast to that of a barrier preventing permeation, as a void that
separates humans in contrast to the porous obstructing entity.
These orientations stand in opposite directions, but they are
complementary alternatives in the model of communication; in either
orientation we are led to the common presumption. Should we say that
“the cup is half full,” or that “the cup is half empty?” Do we see the body
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of a vase or simply two faces joined in profile? A shape is dependent on
viewpoint, and it can unfold itself as a metaphor of either substantiality or
absence. When we approach it as substance, translation is close to the
figure of a filter; if we approach it as void, we associate it with the image
of crossing a bridge. This is why the metaphor of filter invites another
metaphor of abyss, for these two metaphors are alternatives
complementary to one another.
The model of communication is sympathetic to this latter model of
the void. A speaker and a listener who do not share a common code of a
language are mutually cut off. Therefore, there is no possibility for
meaning to be transmitted from the speaker to the listener. Here, the
absence of a common code explains the existence of the strange mediating
figure known as the translator. The translator is the mediator who crosses
the rupture, simultaneously possessing both codes. Translation is thus not
the process of filtration, but the process of switching codes. The model of
communication, by which translation is nothing but a conversion from
one code to another one, is accompanied by the turning of the filter into an
absence and the substantialization of the spaces divided by it.
But when the filter’s existence is transformed from something
substantial like a barrier or semi-permeable membrane to something nonsubstantial like an abyss or gap, an important alteration occurs that cannot
be overlooked: the determination of the space divided by the filter is
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surreptitiously transformed, and this transformation is brought about by
the shift in topological arrangement. When the space split into flows both
upstream and downstream by the substantial filter is divided into two
spaces, neither space possesses a principle of internal unity. In other
words, these spaces can only manage to maintain their own positions
precisely by being divided by a barrier. However, if the filter is taken to be
something non-substantial, then conversely, this space begins to take on
substantial characteristics; we begin to be able to conceive of each of these
divided spaces as if it possesses an autonomy and internal unity. We
become able, as it were, to treat these spaces for the first time like islands
arising in the ocean of the void, as if they were unities with contours given
form by their boundaries. If we go one step further, each of these spaces
acquires the capability to become self-sustaining unity with an organic
In the conception of translation that relies on the model of
communication, it is no longer the filter that we notice, but rather a vision,
an exemplary illustration, in which it is the void or rupture that separates
people from each other. The trope for translation becomes one of leaping
over the void to the other side, or building a bridge across the gap.
Although we are now coming from a contrary direction, this
contrastive grasp of translation is still predicated on common
assumptions: that translation inscribes and confirms two spaces as
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different; that translation is nonetheless treated as the establishment of a
connection between this and that sides, two sides that already existed
prior to translation; the two spaces between which translation is a bridge
are external to one another.
This is precisely the reason why the figures of filter and void are
jointly called forth. Obviously, in the model of communication, which sees
translation as a kind of switching from one code to another, the desubstantialization of the filter and the substantialization of space are two
corollary processes. Thus, the two spaces divided by the filter become
ones saturated by languages, each by one language. In this tropic economy a
saturated space is, in the register of the imaginary, equated to a spatial
enclosure of language; the unity of a language is thus imagined to be a
spatial enclosure, a volume whose interior and exterior are
unambiguously distinguished. As a result, translation is represented as an
operation of crossing the crevice between one language and another.
When language is represented by an enclosure, the filter is associated with
a lens that covers the optical entry into a camera, and the linguistic
nativism begins to exercise its power.
A new moment arises when we move towards the trope of the filter
as a lens covering the camera’s main eye: space becomes a specifically
enclosed. Let me state once again that this transition is a topological
alteration. In as much as a certain flow or contiguous piece of land is split
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by a barrier or by the abyss, in as much as there is a division between
upstream and downstream, this shore and the other shore (this world and
the other world), these distinct spaces do not yet form closed areas or
spaces. It is impossible to differentiate space into interior and exterior by a
division alone, merely by the existence of a barrier or abyss. On the
contrary, in the trope of the optical filter, eye sight is completely enclosed
within the native constraints of cognitive capacity, so all light passes
through the filter in order for it to be perceived. In the trope of the filter as
constraint to subjectivity, it is not only that space is demarcated, but it also
implies that “I,” or “we,” are enclosed in a certain interior. When this
trope is adapted to the question of language, we move towards a
perspective which sees native language as interiority. Usually this
interiority is called one’s “mother tongue” or native language.
What then enters the picture is the image of the “I” or “we,” as
confined to the space of the native language. Thus, culturalist standpoints,
such as the National Character Study or the discourse of Japanese
Uniqueness (Nihonjin-ron), are accompanied by the presupposition of a
“we” or a “they” as nation or ethnicity confined to this space of native
Let us not forget that this schematism presents translation as a
representation of the world. The space split into upstream and
downstream by the semi-permeable membrane soon slips towards the
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spaces of one language and another, so it is finally amplified into the split
between the spaces of one national language and another. Thongchai
Winichakul depicts the historical transition in which the Kingdom of Siam
was transformed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, from a
kingdom without clear territorial boundaries to a sovereign state with a
territory enclosed by national borders.12 He traces the process by which
inter-state relations linking different states through a tribute system were
transformed into inter-national relations between sovereign states identified
by their respective territories. In Siam Mapped, Winichakul employs the
term “geo-body,” and, by analyzing the discourse of cartography in Thai
diplomacy, traces a gradual transformation from a sovereign power
without national boundaries to a modern national state sovereignty with
clearly delineated territoriality. The geo-body does not simply refer to the
cartographic image of state territory, but also describes the nation as a
community represented as an interiority with its proper population,
newly-determined as an enclosed area. In other words, the geo-body is an
aesthetic apparatus of imagination that demarcates an interior “us” from
an exterior “them”; it facilitates the formation of state sovereignty through
its symbiosis with the figure of the homogeneous national community; as
a result of this the subjects of the Kingdom of Siam for the first time began
to feel as Thai nationals.
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Moreover, according to Winichakul, the inhabitants were gradually
unified into a single sovereign state, whereas previously it was neither
unusual nor abnormal to belong to multiple states simultaneously. In
other words, nobody at that time was seriously concerned with the
problem of “national identity.” The unification of the people or nation of
the Thai state was established through negotiations with England and
France, who were gradually colonizing areas on the periphery of
Thailand. England and France created the international conditions under
which any polity failing to become a territorial state sovereignty was
subdued under colonial domination, and in which the Thai State
transformed itself into a modern national state. This was the process
through which the Kingdom of Siam acquired legitimacy as a sovereign
state within inter-national relations.
Here lies one of the most dazzling and critical insights of Siam
Mapped, one which Thai nationalists may find hard to digest. The English
and French colonization of Indochina and the emergence of the modern
Thai state were not in contradiction; they were mutually-facilitating
processes in the modernity of the international world.
Let me put forth two points as to why Winichakul’s investigation is
important for the thinking on translation. I believe that he laid out a
strategic alliance between cartography and translation in his analysis in
this book. First, he clearly demonstrates that the area in which the nation
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or people are located was formed through the demarcation of the national
border. A close connection between cartography and translation has
already been noted in such works as Brian Friel’s theatrical piece
Translations.13 But Winichakul was free from such a nationalist investment
as one finds in Friel’s work. Prior to the introduction of modern map
making, no technological means were available – modern cartography, the
triangulation method and so forth – for the construction of a constant
national border, and there was simply no need for the unification of the
territory because there were plural ways to determine interior and exterior
in relation to the sovereignty of the state. With the spread of customs that
rigorously differentiated the human beings of the interior from those of
the exterior, and discriminated compatriots against foreigners, the
systematic legitimation of the sovereignty of the modern state was
There is one more point to note; this is not one directly addressed
by Winichakul, but one that we can logically deduce from his argument.
The establishment of the national border does not merely imply the
recognition between one sovereign state that monopolizes the territory
and another neighboring sovereign state. Rather it indicates a sanction by
the inter-national world in general. The determination of a national border
involves much more than the consensus of the two neighboring territorial
states: it is an international matter. The establishment of the national
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border goes hand in tandem with the recognition of the international
world that consists of the sovereign states, each of which is determined as
an enclosed area, as a territorial state.
To return to the trope of the filter, the recognition of the national
border is not the division of a space into two, but instead the creation of
these spaces, divided by the demarcation of space, as enclosed areas in
correspondence with the creation of independent interiorities formed by
their respective languages. In other words, for the first time, the national
community became possible in the inter-national world, and the
destruction of the ancien régime of diplomatic relations based on tributary
diplomacy was essential for the formation of the national community.
Of course, the international world does not refer to the system of
natural relations among peoples of the world. It is a global order of the Jus
Publicum Europeaum (Euro-centric International Law) for mutual
recognition among the modern state sovereignties that developed from
the 17th century into the 19th and 20th centuries, during which the
institution of the nation-state came into existence.14
What Thongchai Winichakul clearly shows us with the concept of
the geo-body is that these three processes are interrelated: 1)
internationality: the representation of the world as the topos of mutual
relations among “national bodies”; 2) the cartographic world: the
determination of every site on the earth’s surface in terms of coordinates
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within the cartographically homogeneous space of the world, and 3) the
classification of humanity: the clear division of the population into the
interior and exterior of each of the nations/ethnicities.
Continuity and Discontinuity in the World
Our relations to such indicators as “here,” “there,” or to
“neighbors” are pragmatically exact but conceptually arbitrary. They
cannot be determined uniformly in a single geometric space. “Here” may
refer to some place within the same country, but it may well be a few
hundred kilometers away. By “there”, one might indicate a chair in the
same room, only a few meters away. But, it could easily indicate an other
world or universe. Or, by “neighbors,” one might refer to the family living
in an apartment next door on the same corridor of the building, or
“Germans“ for “French, “ or “Russians” for “Americans.” We live in a
variety of ways, and each of these relations is dependent upon a particular
pragmatic order in our life. In each of these varying orders we encounter
things, events, and people, and apprehend them in accordance with our
practical agendas in our life.
In this life experience, a multiplicity of registers exists: from the
quite familiar register of space-time in which “here” and “now” are
assigned, to the contextual relations of before and after in actions and
happenings, to the registers that express the arrangement of rooms in a
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dwelling or the placement of daily objects, to the registers of the passage
of everyday time, to the registers of the knowledge of places in which to
buy and consume the daily necessities of life, the dates of the calendar,
and to the register in which the territory of the nation-state is
cartographically represented on a world map. These are intricately linked
to each other and continually shifting. The totality of such registers for the
representations and of practical apprehensions is something that we can
call “the schema of the world.” We encounter various phenomena and
apprehend them within relevant registers, by representing them: the
world is the totality of assumptions upon which we apprehend the things,
people, and events in our everyday life by representing them to ourselves.
When we encounter a thing or an event, therefore, we do so in the world.
The things and events we encounter are, therefore, the things-in-the-world
or the events-in-the-world.
The filter as a semi-permeable membrane and the filter as an optical
lens are two tropes that operate in differing registers. In the phrase
“translation as a filter,” neither the national border nor state sovereignty is
explicitly mentioned. Nevertheless, the instances of these tropes are
integrated into the schematism of the world, and operate in it. Translation
is seen as a transfer of information from one national language to another,
precisely because, today, we only attempt to conceive of translation within
this modern schema of the world. As I mentioned earlier, in Roman
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Jakobson’s theory of translation, translation is preordained from the very
outset as communication from one language to another. He classifies
translation into three kinds: intralingual translation, intersemiotic
translation and interlingual translation. Intralingusitic translation - rewording between the different fields of speciality or genre - and
intersemiotic translation – transcoding between different media – are
treated as secondary to or derivative of the most authentic genre of
“interlingual” translation, and the unity of a language is taken as
something naturally given.15 Hence language is conflated with national or
ethnic language. Thus, for Jakobson, “translation proper” is from the very
outset ordained as interlingual. Consequently, the trope of the filter
wields a formidable power in Jakobson’s discussion of translation.
As long as translation is understood in terms of the model of
communication, we need the concept of schematism as our analytical
When translation is represented as the transfer of information from
one language to another, it may seem that the trope of “translation as a
filter” functions smoothly. This trope puts forward that, in translation,
information is communicated while its signs are replaced from one system
of code into another. In the trope of “translation as a filter,” both the
original utterance prior to translation and the subsequent utterance after
translation are assumed to have determinate meanings. Certainly, the
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instant of translation indicates a rupture between one language and
another, and this gap is given by means of the figure of the filter. Here, the
trope of the abyss that divides one shore from another seems to capture
the essential moment of translation – the abyss is an image that seems to
effectively give form to this gap or rupture - but the fact remains that this
shore and the other shore are within a continuous world. Something
fundamental is omitted from the working of this trope.
What is this indispensable moment? For translation to occur, one
must encounter some form of incomprehensibility or unintelligibility. One
needs to translate because one does not comprehend. Translation is called for
because someone who cannot comprehend an utterance, a conduct or an
expression is involved in the situation. However, the indispensable
moment of incomprehensibility cannot be reduced to the absence of
correct interpretation or the lack of a proper meaning.16
When we comprehend or apprehend something in the world, the
following presupposition seems to ensue. Let us take up a cut between
“here” and “there” or between “now” and “a moment to come soon” in
order to clarify what I mean by the presupposition. What is at issue here is
a situation such as this: “here” signifies my house grounds, and “there” is
the premises of my neighbor’s house, or “now” is today, while “soon” is
tomorrow. The calendar’s daily demarcation is drawn between “today”
and “tomorrow.” Or for example, a boundary line between my house and
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my neighbor’s premises is drawn in the land registry. What allows us to
insert a cut is that mine and my neighbor’s house are on continuous land,
that tomorrow flows on from today. Only when there is continuity can we
insert a cut. When the surface of the earth consists solely of propertied
lands and waters within a continuous space with coordinates, when time
is arranged in the chronological order of years, days, hours, and seconds,
then we are entirely within the world as a schema. We will not come across
any incident that we cannot comprehend. Consequently a cut occurs only
within a given, continuous world, and a cut only confirms the continuity of
that world.
In other words, the continuity of the world guarantees that we can
move smoothly and create divisions within this given order of
comprehension. From this world of continuity, incomprehensibility is
excluded. In as much as a cut is possible in this continuous world, we are
not supposed to encounter any situation that cannot be comprehended. If
translation is a response to the situation which is beyond my
comprehensibility, then how should we rethink the relation of translation
and the world that we have held onto up until this point?
Obviously, the filter is a trope for this sort of cut. It is a marker of
both “comprehensibility” (wakaru koto) and “divisibility” (wakerareru
koto)17. Yet, it is expected to indicate the locale of incomprehension;
supposedly the filter is a trope for “incomprehensibility” and
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“indivisibility”! It is a device whose basic trick is to represent “not
comprehending ” as if it had been “comprehended.”
This is to say, when we think of translation we must guard against
the trope of the cut, a trope which allows one to comprehend why one
cannot comprehend.
Thus far, I have insisted upon a rigorous distinction between the
representation of translation and the act or event of translation, because
we have to be cautious about the tropics of the cut. It is necessary to
repeatedly remind ourselves that the cut does not express discontinuity; on
the contrary, it serves as an affirmation of continuity. Correspondingly I
have tried to be exact about the idiom “translation as a filter.” It is
precisely because the workings of the cut are preserved within this trope:
it seals translation within “comprehensibility,” thereby eliminating its
most crucial moment, which is expressed by the idiom “I do not
comprehend.” So as not to confuse the act of translation with its
representation, we must confront this situation of “incomprehensibility.”
My insistence on the distinction of the representation of translation and
the act or event of translation is closely concerned with discontinuity, for
translation is not an event occurring in the realm of continuity whereas its
representation is entirely in the world of continuity.
Accordingly, translation obliges us to introduce the concept of
discontinuity into the world of continuity.
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I have already expended a significant amount of my allotted space,
so let me simply indicate the current state of the issues in question for
The Heterolingual Address
First, we cannot overlook the fact that “incomprehensibility” is
essentially a matter of sociality. Incomprehensibility does not mean the
absence of sociality at all. “Incomprehensibility” can only occur when one
is with an interlocuter - someone one can nominate “you” - and in this coexistence the basics of sociality manifest themselves. Of course, I might
immediately be rebutted by someone asking whether or not any act can
occur at all outside of the scene of sociality. For the time being, however,
allow me to simply state that translation occurs in the scene of sociality.
As I have discussed elsewhere, translation is something about quotation,
that is, it cannot occur in the modality of immediacy or direct expression
although it is not easy at all to determine what “being without
mediation”(immediacy) or “expressing directly” can ever mean in an
utterance in language. What is at issue here is whether or not translation is
an event that takes place only in the domain of language. Is translation
purely and exclusively a linguistic occurrence?
Translation is an enunciation, but insofar as it is a citation, it is
imitative and retrospective, and it is because of this retrospective
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referentiality to another past text that the enunciation of translation
necessarily betrays the spontaneity of one who enunciates it.18 In other
words, in the case of translation, by the literary convention of modern
societies one who enunciates it is not called an author but a translator.
Furthermore, translation anticipates a differential between one who
comprehends and one who does not. And it is the strange subject called
the “translator” who articulates the one who comprehends to the one who
does not. This articulation is also a social relation called “address,” and
incomprehensibility takes place only in the context of an address.
Therefore, it is rather one-sided to claim that “comprehensibility”
demonstrates social connectedness between people, while
“incomprehensibility” expresses the lack of social connection. For, there
must be a relation between people in order for a situation of
incomprehensibility to take place. An exemplary of such a relation may
well be that of address, a relation of one who addresses and one who is
addressed. If “comprehensibility” simply indicates a situation in which
communication is accomplished, “incomprehensibility” must also be a
situation in which communication occurs.19 It goes without saying that the
concept of communication has to be radically criticized, as it was
scrutinized by Jean-Luc Nancy in his Inoperative Community.20 “I do not
comprehend” clearly expresses the situation in which the limitations of
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the model of communication are most explicitly revealed. Translation
occurs in aleatory sociality, as an act of wager, which is called “address.”
Seen from the viewpoint that the distinction of the act of translation
from its representation is sustainable, it is misleading to claim that
translation occurs in between one language and another. For, it is through
the representation of translation that the image of a language as an
enclosed and unitary totality is postulated. Put another way, the figure of
“translation as a filter” is significant in our investigation of the figurative
economy of translation, since it regulates the representation of translation.
Following Immanuel Kant’s classical definition, schematism means
an operation of schemata that renders representable what cannot be
“given to my reason as an object absolutely” (Italics by Kant).21 Just as, in
the schematism of multiplicity, “the representation of a method whereby a
multiplicity, for instance a thousand, may be represented in an image in
conformity with a certain concept, than the image itself,”22 just as an
image of five points, ….., is the representation of a counting as a method,
so the schematism of translation makes representable a procedure or
method whereby to render an event of incomprehensibility
comprehensible. Translation is not an image of a filter, but it is rendered
representable in an image of a filter in conformity with the procedure in
which translation is made comprehensible. It is in the sense of
representing something unrepresentable that the figure of translation
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should serve as a schema, renders “incomprehensibility” into
“comprehensibility” by projecting - in a double sense of projecting,
projection in the sense of applying an image onto something else on the
one hand, and of aleatory scheme for the future on the other – a filter or a
gap between two languages, each of which is nothing but a schema for a
regulative idea – a representation of method - into the world.
Therefore, we can say this much: by representing translation as a
communication between one language and another, these two languages
come to be represented as two methods, but, there are no objects to which
these images apply absolutely. A schema of language does not correspond
to a language as an empirically verifiable object. On the contrary, the
schema projects an object in idea. In other words, the schematism at issue
here is a poietic practice. A pair of languages between which the act of
translation is supposed to take place is no more than a pair of schemata to
which only objects in idea correspond.
This is why I call the schema that operates when we represent
translation “the schema of co-figuration.”23
Thereupon, the schema of co-figuration gives rise to the
institutionalized expectation that the difference of languages ought to be
the cause of “incomprehensibility.” However, at the locale of
incomprehensibility, translation is attempted by various people in various
ways, and we cannot always mould this locale of “incomprehensibility” to
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the image of the semi-permeable membrane or the abyss located between
spatially-represented languages. “Incomprehensibility” takes place
everywhere – or in an “exteriority” that is not simply the obverse of the
interior – yet, thanks to the configuration of the international world, it is
assumed that we should be able to comprehend one another within an
identical language. Thus, we come to imagine a world in which
incomprehensibility and comprehensibility are allocated to the
cartographically-demarcated territories of state sovereignties and the
locations of national languages and cultures. In other words, the act of
translation is located in the schema of the world as the continuous totality
of those who say either “we comprehend,” or “we ought to be able to
comprehend ourselves.”
Here, translation has an ambiguity. The representation of
translation is a work of presenting “incomprehensibility” as “being
already comprehended,” the act of translation also aims at turning what I
do not comprehend into “something that I comprehend.” But, the
dimension of turning “what I do not comprehend” into “something that is
already comprehended” is entirely different from the dimension of
turning “incomprehensibility” into “comprehensibility.” Here, I do not
have the space to undertake a lengthy explication, so I hope you will
excuse my employment of the problematic method of arguing through
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So, by chance, I happen to meet a visitor from overseas, but I do not
understand anything she tries to say. Perhaps I explain to myself by
claiming that my incomprehension of her speech is caused by the
difference between my language and hers. In other words, the reason for
my incomprehensibility stems from the gap between my Japanese and the
Hattari that I suspect she speaks, and by alluding to this gap between the
two languages, I can turn my incomprehensibility into a comprehension of
my incomprehensibility. Let me reiterate the point: since I do not
understand Hattari, I am not even sure that she is speaking it. However,
by representing a different language as an enclosed area from which no
doubt I am excluded, I comprehend my inability to understand what she
is saying as being caused by a gap between two languages. I must hasten
to add that this is an idealistic solution to the problem of
“incomprehensibility.” Let me remind us, however, that there is another
manner of interaction. I do not understand what she is saying, so I look for
common terms that we share by using a mixture of broken French or
English, fragments of some colonial heritages she and I might share, and
also pursue the possibility of communal work through non-linguistic texts
like gestures or pictures. Evidently this is what children do when they
meet someone they do not understand. What one attempts to gain by this
method is neither the original meaning nor the correct interpretation. It is
simply a way of turning incomprehensibility into some degree of
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comprehensibility. This attempt to indicate “let me try to understand you”
is from the very beginning something collective, something co-eval. I do
not hesitate to call this approach a materialist solution to
Incomprehensibility is a matter of sociality as I have repeatedly
asserted. I meet a visitor who speaks what I cannot comprehend, and a
situation of incomprehensibility arises. Of course, if someone who
understands her speech in Hattari is there, she can request his assistance,
and he can play the role of translator. However, we do not know whether
or not he actually comprehends Hattari unless he translates for our
comprehension. Even if he tells us she speaks Hattari, the identity of
Hattari as a language is no more than hearsay for us. The entire
transaction can be a fabrication. I cannot verify its authenticity because “I
do not comprehend what she says.”
At the same time, the act of translation cannot completely exceed
the dimension of its representation. When one encounters a situation of
incomprehensibility, one would get a glimpse of the exteriority of the
world, outside of the continuous world, however momentarily this
instance of discontinuity may last. To comprehend through translation is
to return to the world, to re-inscribe continuity in discontinuity. But it is
also to discover that the world to which we return has been changed. As I
discussed at the beginning of this paper, the “heterolingual address” is a
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refusal of the idealistic solution to the situation of incomprehensibility. In
rejecting the schema of the international world in which individual
national languages co-exist through their classification as mutuallyexternal to each other, one accepts that one’s everydayness is
characterized by its scattered pockets of incomprehensibility – this is to
say, heterolingual address attempts to approach incomprehensibility from
the standpoint that I myself am a foreigner.
In Place of a Conclusion
Since the advent of German Romanticism in the 18th century or the
arguments on interpretation put forth by the Sorai school in Japan24,
translation has been the regime of overarching importance in the
production of knowledge in the Humanities; one would not be able to
understand the formation not only of modern European languages but
also the modern Japanese language without taking the institutionalization
of translation squarely into account. Moreover, the regime of translation
has always accompanied the project of nation building. It was common,
for example, to argue that the ideal of democracy could be realized only in
the medium of a homogeneous national language. However, this logic of
imagining a society based on the presupposition of national or ethnic
language, and then developing democracy within that society, no longer
holds the relevance it once enjoyed. Now the democratic subject resides
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not in the nation or ethnicity, but instead in the immigrant and the
refugee, those who are heterogeneous to the assumed homogeneity of the
nation. It is necessary to think of democracy according not to the figure of
the native speaker, but rather the figure of the foreigner in us – that is, to
envision a democratic society founded not on national language but on
Traditional discussions of translation have been constrained by the
discourse of Bildung – it is well-known that the concept of culture played
the central role within the logic of the formation of the national subject.
‘Culture’ never refers to the empirical fact of what has already been, but it
always connotes some idea of what ought to be. This is why culture
cannot be discussed independently of subjectivity. However, since the
twentieth century when the schema of the international world was
accepted globally, culturalism is prone to overlooking the aspect of poiesis
(production) inherent in the concept of culture, because it conceptualizes
national culture as a pre-existing given and not as something to
Historically – even beyond the European contexts – culture means
little outside the problematic of subject formation and nation-building. For
Romantics, who distinguished between what was foreign and what was
authentically national, translation carried an important significance as the
process of assimilating the ideal forms to emulate within the imported,
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and of eliminating what was irrelevant to these ideals.27 What was thus
translated was the genre of texts that later came to be known collectively
as “literature”: tragedies, poems, philosophy, religious scriptures, and so
forth, whereas translations of fields closely linked to everyday utilities
such as commerce, litigation, military affairs, immigration, and so on,
were treated as “interpretation” (tsūyaku), thereby isolating them from
translation in the Humanities.
At the present moment, however, what must be studied about
translation is really not this sort of translation as a technique (technê) for
the formation of elite subjects. Rather we must focus precisely on the ways
in which people participate in incomprehensibility at places of work, at
home, at school, at markets, at battle grounds and so forth – today, it is
imperative that the concept of culture as well as that of translation be
submitted to a comprehensive critique.
In pursuing the tropics of “translation as a filter,” I have tried to
show how the representation of translation is subject to its historical
limitations. There are other issues I could have treated here by analyzing
the multiple forms that translation can take – and by extension, the
impoverishment of the form as a result of the formation of the nationstate. By pursuing this metaphor of translation as a filter and its relation to
the figure of the international world, I have tried to emphasize that the
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representation of translation serves to reproduce the schema of the
international world.
Arguably the modern international world developed around two
fundamental axes. One is the continually expanding movement of
commodification, while the other is the movement that entraps the
multiple “incomprehensible” differences by attempting to resolve them in
the direction of the “already comprehended” differences of the system of
co-existing nation-states. The former is well-known as the movement of
the accumulation of capital, but as for the latter, we do not yet have an
adequate understanding. It is not only that the nation-state nurtures and
cares for the “life” of the population that resides within the territory of the
state in order to manage it, but also that it must demonstrate its violence
to expel heterogenous humans passing through its national borders. On
the other side of the production of national subjects are mechanisms for
the expulsion and integration of those who are not of the national people.
Further, the institution of “area” in classification and its self-legitimation
of state sovereignty are moving further and further towards the question
of security. This is precisely why Zygmunt Bauman and Giorgio Agamben
both compare the nation-state to a “camp.”28
In combination, the movement of the accumulation of capital and
the movement of the classification of the world based on the nation-state
form a relationship of complicity. Consequently, to confront globalization,
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we must first confront the structure of the nation-state’s production of
subjectivity. The reason that the question of translation must enter the
scene is precisely because we cannot accomplish a critical analysis of
capitalism unless we call into question the presumption of the national
subject.29 In fact it is the representation of translation that creates the unity
of national language; it has formed the inner kernel of techniques for the
production of national subjectivity – and since it is through the
reconstitution of the very ways to represent translation, that we can
continue to seek a mode of collective being, one that is neither nation nor
The original version was delivered at the European-East Asian Critical
Border Studies: An International Symposium, at Scarman House,
University of Warwick on 5-6 September, 2011
See Naoki Sakai, “Introduction. Writing for Multiple Audiences and the
Heterolingual Address” in Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and
Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 117.
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A part of this paper was initially written in Japanese for Iwanami Kôza
Tetsugaku (Iwanami Philosophy Lecture Series) vol. 15, Tokyo, Iwanami
Shoten, 2009: 181-212. The Japanese essay was translated into English and
French for the on-line publication Transeuropéennes in the same year. I
thank Gavin Walker who translated the Japanese original into English for
allowing me to work on this essay based upon his translation.
The theory of communication has a diminished sense of the common or
the collective. In general, communication makes a major distinction
between two specificities: the transfer of information between one
individual’s consciousness and another’s, and, as it relates to our present
question, the transfer of information between one national language and
another. Although at first glance these two problems seem quite different,
both the individual and the national language form an interiority. In
translation, the interior and exterior of language are contrasted. For the
individual, what is problematized is the interior and the external world in
relation to the individual’s consciousness. The theory of communication
thus produces the figuration of the limits that give form to interiority.
Obviously, “translation as a filter” is precisely the most typical example of
the figure of this interiority.
On the problems of communication, see the works of Gilles Deleuze. For
a detailed theorization of the complex linkages between
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“communication,” “commune,” and “communism,” as well as
“community” and “communion,” see Jean-Luc Nancy’s “La communauté
désouevrée” in Aléa (1983): 11-49 [reprint: in La communauté désouevrée,
Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986] [English translation: The Inoperative
Community, Peter Connor ed., Peter Coonor, Lisa Garbus, Michael
Holland, and Simona Sawhney trans., Minneapolis and Oxford,
University of Minnesota Press, 1991]
Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” in Selected
Writings, vol. 2 (The Hague & Paris, Mouton, 1971), 261.
Even without taking into account the project of deconstruction, we can
point out the intertwined elements of content and rules by considering the
reading of Chinese texts in Japanese style (Kanbun kundoku) as a different
regime of translation. In this case, the existence of kunten, the punctuation
marks showing how to read the Chinese text according to Japanese
syntax, preserves the modality of the rules of the source language within
the translated text. It is well-known that Ogyū Sorai, who embraced a
theory of translation close to the modern view of translation, violently
attacked this practice of Kanbun kundoku in the 18th century. See Ogyū’s
Yakubun sentei and Kunyaku jimō in Ogyū Sorai zenshū, vol. 5 (Tokyo:
Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 1977).
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This type of argument, stemming from the National Character Studies
and repeated in the discourse on Japanese uniqueness (Nihonjinron), is one
that I have criticized extensively. At present, the substantialization of
national or ethnic culture is widespread: it is not too difficult to detect a
culturalism at the heart of most of the discussions that throw around
terms like cultural conflict and the “transcultural.”
It is a widely-accepted argument that, as a biological species, humans are
endowed with universal linguistic ability, that is actualized through their
ability in a specific language. Infants have the capacity to learn any
language in the world as their language of birth. A typical example of this
argument is expressed in Chomsky’s linguistics. See Cartesian Linguistics:
A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (New York: Harper & Row,
1966). However, in the case of adults who have lost their general capacity
for language acquisition, culturalist arguments on subjectivity tend to
Mediation at issue is Vermittlung in the Hegelian dialectic. The classical
theorization of mediation is given in the following well-known
explanation: “It is possible to define being as I = I, as Absolute
Indifference or Identity, and so on. Where it is felt necessary to begin
either with what is absolutely certain, i.e. certainty of oneself, or with a
definition or intuition of the absolute truth, these and other forms of the
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kind may be looked on as if they must be the first. But each of these forms
contains a mediation, and hence cannot be the real first: for all mediation
implies advance made from a first on to a second, and proceeding from
something different.” See §86 in the Encyclopaedia Logic, trans. T.F. Geraets
et al (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991).
See: Immanuel Kant, Chapter One, The schematism of the pure concepts
of understanding, in Book II, Transcendental Doctrine of Judgment, in
First Division, Transcendental Analytic in Critique of Pure Reason, Norman
Kemp Smith trans. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1929: 180-189 [A 137-150
/ B176-189]
Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation
(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).
Translations is a three-act play by Brian Friel written in 1980 [Faber &
Faber, 1995]. It is the story of the English colonization of Ireland in the
nineteenth century. It is set in a fictional village called Baile Beag
(Ballybeg) in the heart of Ireland, where cartographic measurement and
the naming of local places were carried out by the English authority.
I rely upon the historical assessment offered by Carl Schmitt, The Nomos
of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, G. L.
Ulmen trans. New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2006
Jakobson, op. cit., 261.
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Watsuji Tetsurō constructed Ethics as the Study of the Human Being
(Ningen no gaku toshiteno rinrigaku), based on a certain etymological trick of
two Japanese verbs, ‘wakaru’ (to comprehend, to be comprehensible, to
articulate, and so forth) and ‘wakeru’ (to classify, to differentiate, to
articulate, and so forth). What is characteristic of Watsuji’s ethics is that he
completely refused to examine the paradigmatic status of ‘wakaranai’ (not
to comprehend, incomprehensibility, inarticulate, and so on). The topic of
the incomprehensible does not exist in his ethics. For Watsuji,
“incomprehensibility (wakaranai)” simply means that sociality is absent – it
is obvious that his anthropology wholeheartedly endorsed national
humanism. On Watsuji’s ethics, see Watsuji Tetsurô zenshû, vols. 10 & 11
(Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1962). Watasuji Tetsuro’s Rinrigaku, Yamamoto
Seisaku & Robert Carter trans. Albany, State University of New York
Press, 1996; A Climate, a philosophical study, Geoffrey Bownas trans.
Hokuseidô Press, 1971
In Watsuji’s ethics, ‘wakaru (to comprehend)’ is linked to ‘wakeru (to
divide)’ and ‘wakerareru (to be able to classify)’, in a sort of etymology
which he fashioned after Heidegger’s in Being and Time. I adopt his type of
etymology because, with it, one can show the absence of discontinuity
most effectively in his anthropological humanism. The topics of
comprehension and articulation are synthesized in his anthropology, at
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the expense of incomprehensibility, foreigners, social conflict, and
What Watsuji Tetsurô wanted to pursue is an anthropology (ningen
gaku) for this continuous world, where “incomprehensibility” is totally
excluded. In that context, the ability to cut is guaranteed in advance, so
that every relation is always and already “comprehensible” within the
given set of categories. Therefore, the sort of ethics he constructed is an
anthropology without translation.
Please note that, in translating ‘wakaru’ into ‘comprehensibility’,
one takes a certain leap of faith. ‘Wakaru’ is the conclusive form in the
conjugation of a Japanese verb, but it is also a sentence, which could be
rendered “I comprehend,” “you understand,” “we sympathize with you,”
and so on. To mark this morphological and semantic ambiguity, I put a
bracket around the term “comprehensibility,” and “incomprehensibility
However, can the relationship that I have to the “I” of the statement “I
speak” or “I write” evade the structure of quotation? What is at issue here
is a transitional immediacy. As has often been mentioned in
psychoanalysis, is it not precisely because all enunciations could have the
structure of quotation that the split between the subject of the enunciation
and the subject of the enunciated is of a decisive importance? Of course,
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this problem of quotation turns us back to the question of subjectivity,
first outlined by Kant, of the relationship of the “I” to myself. Of course,
citation is also a question of the framework.
argument here relies on the etymological network of ‘wakaru,’
‘wakaranai’, ‘wakatteiru’ ‘wake’ and so forth, to which Watsuji Tetsurô
appealed in order to illustrate the overlapping of the epistemological and
the ethical. My reliance upon philosophical etymology is parodist from
the outset. I try to recontruct this pseudo etymology in terms of the
‘comprehension,’ ‘comprehensibility,’ ‘incomprehensibility,’ ‘articulation,’
and so forth.
A most rigorous examination of the concept of communication was
conducted by Jean-Luc Nancy. See: The Inoperative Community, op cit.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, op cit., p. 550 [A 672 / B 698]
Ibid., p. 182 [A 140 / B 179]. Let me cite a paragraph in which Kant’s
definition of schema is found, and from which I cited. In explaining the
schematism of the pure concepts of understanding, Kant says: “The
schema is in itself always a product of imagination. Since, however, the
synthesis of imagination aims at no special intuition, but only at unity in
the determination of sensibility, the schema has to be distinguished from
the image. If five points be set aside alongside another one, thus, ….., I
have an image of the number five. But if, on the other hand, I think only a
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number in general, whether it be five or a hundred, this thought is rather
the representation of a method whereby a multiplicity, for instance a
thousand, may be represented in an image in conformity with a certain
concept, rather than the image itself. For with such a number as a
thousand the image can hardly be surveyed and compared with the
concept. This representation of a universal procedure of imagination in
providing an image for a concept, I entitle the schema of this concept.”
“The figure of a filter” is such a representation of method and an image.
See the “Introduction” to Translation and Subjectivity, op. cit.
Ogyû Sorai (1666-1728) is a Confucian philosopher who offered a new
reading of Confucian classics. His hermeneutic approach to the
Chinese classics was very much based upon a new method of language
instruction called Kiyô no Gaku (Learning of the Nagasaki Translators); it
shows great similarity to the modern regime of translation. See: my Voices
of the Past – the status of language in eighteenth-century Japanese discourse,
Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 1991.
It is impossible to deny that Étienne Balibar’s “Europe: Vanishing
Mediator?” in We, the People of Europe?: Reflections on Transnational
Citizenship, trans. James Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2003), 203-235, is an extremely important work.
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It is no accident that the proto-typical culturalism can be found in the
American anthropology of the early 20th century. In many respects,
American anthropologists and linguists talked about ‘culture’ in order to
rescue the ethnic and tribal authenticity of the native American
communities, that had perished or barely survived under the onslaught of
the United States’ genocidal project. It goes without saying that the
dichotomy of the traditional and the modern worked effectively in their
usages of culture. Understandably they depicted those ‘cultures’ of the
native Americans as ‘traditional’ formations without any prospect of
future. The poietic aspect of culture was deliberately removed from the
outset. The work of Ruth Benedict is illuminating in this respect. The
underlying connection between Benedict’s work on Japanese national
character and her anthropological works on the native American
communities is brilliantly explored by C. Douglas Lummis’s A New Look at
the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, (Tokyo: Shôhakusha, 1982).
The formation of the modern Japanese language following the 1868
Meiji Restoration is imbricated with the formation of Japan as a modern
state, but we must caution that the search for the origin of the Japanese
language directly undertaken by the Sorai school and by National
Learning (kokugaku) was not continuous with the formation of nationality
under the Meiji state. On the formation of Japanese language, however, a
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consideration of the new humanism of 18th century Germany is crucial. As
the most famous example of this new humanism, see Wilhelm von
Humboldt, Bildung und Sprache, ed. Clemens Menze (Paderborn:
Schöningh Verlag, 1997).
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1989); Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power
and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1998).
For a more detailed argument on this point, see Naoki Sakai and Jon
Solomon, “Introduction: Addressing the Multitude of Foreigners, Echoing
Foucault” in Traces (4): Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference, eds.
Naoki Sakai & Jon Solomon (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press,
2006), 1-35.

Figure of Translation - Comparative Literature, HKU