Lost in Translation?: A Reading of Giacomo Marramao’s The Passage West

Andy Lantz
Texas A&M University

Volume 8, 2015

In the final chapter of The Passage West, Giacomo Marramao invokes an analysis of the 2006 Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu film Babel in order to provide a final backdrop to a description of our modern world. The film presents the contemporary globalized world as a “mosaic, at once materially heterogeneous and culturally differentiated,” one of “enigmatic interdependence, a glocalized world in which differentiation unfolds hand in hand with unification, where centrifugal, independent and idiosyncratic tendencies are inextricably entwined with the technological-economic homogenization of styles of life and patterns of consumption” (Marramao 222). Marramao describes the passage to the Occident inherent in such a world as one that draws together the continuous and the discontinuous, the process and the turning point. This passage must be understood as a specific type of transit, which implies both travel and change, and as one that inhabits a double movement of contamination and difference, a multi-vocal and multi-directional transference (232).

It is in this context that I would like to echo Marramao in bringing to bear another film situated in the context of globalized relationships: Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Amongst the flashing lights of modern Tokyo, the film follows the unlikely bond formed by Bob, a former movie star facing the existentialism of mid-life, and Charlotte, a neglected young wife searching for her own sense of purpose. Both find themselves lost, as it were, in more than one sense of the word: in life, in language, and in love, and they take solace in this shared confusion as they transition through their respective stages of existence.

While the themes of identity conflict and the relationship between Western subjects confronting a modern but differentiated East fit nicely into the topic at hand, I prefer instead to look more closely at the title, Lost in Translation. Let us keep in mind that just as the passaggio of Marramao’s original title can be translated into English as, among others: passagepassing, and transit, the word “translation” itself can be understood in multiple forms as well; in its most common sense, it is the rendering of a phrase or set of phrases from one language to another. But it can also be described as a movement, a physical shift in which all parts progress together in one unified motion; in other words, translation as passage. In light of this interpretation, I would like to plant the following questions for further discussion: how can contemporary reflections on the nature of translation mirror the characteristics of the globalized world described in The Passage West? What, if anything, is “lost” in this transference and traversal of meaning and cultures, and, perhaps more importantly, what is “gained”?

Much about the globalization that Marramao analyzes finds a parallel interpretation in the metaphor of translation. To begin with, the process of so-called modernization that affects all cultures is one of mutual dependence and change. This globalization contains an inherent economic-financial and socio-cultural interdependence and should not be understood as Huntington’s clash between two diametrically opposed civilizations but rather as a “fabric of conflicting tensions that traverses all civilizations, cutting transversally across the global as well as the local” (15). The nature of such interdependence has been a recurring point of departure in seminal works of translation studies, including Walter Benjamin’s The Translator’s Task, Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other, and most recently, Emily Apter’s The Translation Zone.

For Benjamin, a translation does not only carry messages but recreates the value of the original. In the interplay between translation and original, the translator searches for the intended effect that echoes the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language (Rendall 10), this greater language being the pure language that Benjamin theorized. The interaction between languages is equally influential in the modern paradigms of unification/differentiation, expansion/ contamination, and order/conflict in a globalized world-society. Like two languages with differing codes, global and local entail a co-presence and co-belonging that produces a mutually dependent relationship. While in translation, the result is a new creation, at once independent of and dependent upon the codes of the original, the interaction between global and local manifests itself in the global production of locality in a glocalized world system. Citing Roland Robertson’s Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (1992), Marramao explains how this is a dual process of mutual influence, involving “the interpenetration of the universalization of particularism and the particularization of universalism” (29).

The sites of exchange here produce zones of constant negotiation, reappropriation, and redefinition of cultural values and practices. These are the zones described by Emily Apter in her examination of post-9/11 politics of translation. According to Apter, we live in a world in which war is increasingly defined as a translation war, where formal strategy is determined by the ability to translate intelligence, and the mistranslation of objectives is subject to dire consequences. In this state of translational transnationalism, war itself is a codified, translatable language found in sites of mistranslated cultural exchange.

These are the sites of violence and force, those that blur and cross translational boundaries, that also interested Derrida. Inherent in his famous phrase, “I have but one language – yet that language is not mine”, is a recognition of the construction of subjectivity, language, and body that occurs in these zones of linguistic and cultural interaction. Construction of any sort necessarily requires the existence of the pieces with which to construct, meaning that in these zones of confrontation and interaction, a sort of mutual fragmentation occurs that enables both sides to be recreated. Perhaps it is in this fragmentation that Abdelkebir Khatibi describes what is transplanted and “lost” during the translation from mother tongue and the one called foreign, that which belongs neither to the one nor the other: the incommunicable (Derrida, 7-8).

Surely this incommunicability contributes to Apter’s notion of a conflictual zone of translation in which something is always lost. “Unless one knows the language of the original,” she says, “the exact nature and substance of what is lost will be always impossible to ascertain; even if one has access to the language of the original, there remains an x-factor of untranslatability that renders every translation an impossible world or faux regime of semantic and phonic equivalence” (210). What is this x-factor, and, if it exists, how does it relate to our discussion of the translatability of Eastern and Western paradigms and the continuing shift from nation-modernity to world-modernity?

It seems that Marramao would dismiss this sort of loss altogether. In a discussion of the construction of the glocal, he describes how one particular reaction to modernization has been a sense of nostalgia. But this longing for that which is lost is a nostalgic claim to a form of life that, insofar as it was never given but always recreated and acted out, like a language, it had never been “lost.” As Marramao describes it, this is an impolitical nostalgia for the present, in which communities look back nostalgically upon a world that, through its transformation, has never ceased to exist. Today that which has supposedly been lost may acquire a newly symbolic meaning, a properly identifying significance within the dynamic of the glocal, but this recreation serves to mutually benefit, thus problematizing claims of loss (64). The cosmopolitanism of difference to which one of Marramao’s main theses aspires is reminiscent of this interplay between languages found in any act of translation.

Instead of adopting a negative interpretation of the supposed loss involved in a globalized world, one may instead reflect on the mutual betterment involved in these types of translational passages. The negotiation of differences is as ever-present and inescapable as language, as it coincides in every way with the extension of our world, so these zones of conciliation play an increasingly influential role in these global shifts. In the sense of cultural exchange, they build up while they break down, they unify through dividing, and they construct the borders that establish a situation of both separation and sharing.

This is perhaps the nature of the relationship Benjamin had in mind when he discussed the pure language, one that allows for the mutually exclusive differences between two languages to coexist in the sort of unifying differentiation implicit in a glocalized world. In translation, then, whether from one language to another or from one model of globalization to the next, the complementary intentions of each side can be communicated and accounted for. Languages are not strangers to each other. Benjamin sees this in the interrelation of what they purport to express, and Derrida acknowledges this when he claims that all languages are, at once, a translation of another. The task, then, is to take this already established relationship between languages or cultures, recognize the lack involved in the act of translating, and give function to this discrepancy.

Benjamin sees this opportunity inherent in every instance of translation. The task of the translator is a mutual exchange. It is not merely to make the original language sound like the language of translation, but also to make the language of translation sound more like the original. In this sense, the translator must broaden and deepen his or her own language with the foreign one by incorporating the original’s mode of signification. Translation, then, is not a question of “losing” something but one of gaining through the creation of a text that is not a mere pale copy of the original but one that will have the potential to renegotiate conflicting intentions by transforming the translating language into a more enriched one.

This sort of mutual transformation of parallel passages is reflective of my reading of Marramao’s description of the give and take of modern globality. “Globalization”, he writes, “is a passage to the Occident of all cultures, a passage to modernity destined to produce profound transformations in the economy, society, lifestyles and codes of behavior not only of ‘other’ civilizations but of Western civilization itself” (15). This is not a univocal nor unilateral translation, nor is it a situation of linguistic colonization that Derrida describes; it is instead a mutual transformation inherent in the infinite paths to modernity that Marramao recognizes.

Thus, in many ways, the perplexities and internal workings of this passage to the Occident reflect the characteristics inherent in language translation. The mutual dependency and growth in an increasingly glocalized cultural system exhibit the same ambiguity but also the same gains associated with the rendering of one language into another. The parallel nature of these phenomena evokes some interesting questions. For example, how does the idea of the “incommunicable” zone of translation relate to the always-ambiguous nature of gift and exchange inherent in a global market? Are the rules associated with these exchanges new economic languages, and in an increasingly multi-lingual and multi-cultural market, how does the translation of this give-and-take occur? Also, as nature has gone from being considered as a temple, as a laboratory, or, for Marramao, as a ciphering code, and as socio-cultural and economic interdependence relies more and more heavily on digital technologies, can we speak of a new mode of communication associated with nature or natural space? Gayatri Spivak has pondered a similar thought, reflecting upon the patenting of indigenous thought: “The rural is not trees and fields anymore. It is on the way to data” (164). Can the use of this data represent yet another language of modern gift and exchange? Along similar lines, what are the zones in which these modes of translation operate the most, and how can these notions of translation contribute to contemporary political discussion? In any case, it is clear that the paradigm of translation, understood as a multilateral passage, will continue to play an increasingly influential role in the new politics of a culturally differentiated and interdependent globalized world.

Works Referenced

  • Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other, Or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Translated by Patrick Mensah. Stanford, Stanford UP, 1998.
  • Marramao, Giacomo. The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State. Translated by Mateo Mandarini. Afterword by Antonio Negri. New York, Verso, 2012. Print.
  • Rendall, Steven. “The Translator’s Task, Walter Benjamin (Translation)”. TTR: Traduction, terminologie, rédaction. (10:2) (1997): 151-165. Print.
  • Spivak, Gayatri. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1999. Print.