"Mind the Gap!" Opening Remarks

"Mind the Gap!" Opening Remarks

by Ray Lahiri, Chair, Undergraduate Humanities Forum

Good morning everybody. My name is Ray Lahiri, and I am addressing you for the first, and, should all go according to plan, last time as the chair of the Undergraduate Humanities Forum. I would like to thank you for coming today, when we are so short on time. Before we begin, I’d like to talk about what this experience has mean for me.  If the urgency of the past few months has slackened somewhat—if what seems to be a burning imperative has dimmed to maybe just a sense of an ongoing crisis, I nonetheless want to gesture to some of the broader implications of today’s set of talks, and to the importance of the conversation that the Penn Humanities Forum has enabled for us.  In my view, this is a question (once again) of time, of our failed encounters with each other, and of the uncanny utopia of translation.

Translation is a labor of and in time. And yet, in a certain sense, when we produce a translation, we often are forced to pretend as though time had never imposed itself on our work. If we are not the same translator that we were at the beginning of a project—if our relationship to the text is different, if our choices of words is different than it would be at the beginning—this seems to pose a threat to the imagined internal consistency of the text as translation of the original. It would threaten to make the translator an author.

I would like to say that this year has been a year of translation for me; in doing so, I would like to bring time back into translation—in a small way. At the beginning of the year, we began, in our undergraduate forum, to place our works in conversation with each other. That was the beginning; this is the end. There is no way to assimilate our projects into each other. Our conversations have entailed a continuous translation and navigation of our intellectual formations and the different disciplinary discourses in which and against which our work take aim.

Together, I think we have come to an understanding of translation that is not limited to a more conventional account of linguistic translation. I think that after seven months of conversation, collectively, our research speaks most to the eternal inadequacy of translation. We have seen translation in the process of transformation by which an entity, a text, a person, a discourse, crosses a seemingly indissoluble boundary. Translation minds the gap, but the gap always remains. I do not mean this in a pessimistic way. If we could ever be finished with each other—if we could say, simply, that we understand why we each do what we do—why would we keep talking? If Alexander Pope had summed up the Odyssey in English once and for all time, why would we have Robert Fagles? Why would we have Emily Wilson?

It is not a radical claim to say that any translation arises out of its context. Our engagement with translation (and with each other’s work) has taken place in the shadow of two extraordinary acts of myopic nationalism within the Anglophone world. These have envisioned the nation not only as a community of one people with one language, but also as a community within which everybody must speak in the same way. Translation embraces a view of the world that acknowledges the necessity of speaking across barriers, even when to do so means to speak imperfectly.

Perhaps it would have been better not to conduct our studies when translation feels so critical and so threatened. Perhaps it would have been better to engage in humanities research at a time when funding for the humanities was not at risk, and when we could feel no compunction to justify our continued existence as humanities students. I have always felt some qualms arguing for the value of studies in the humanities when I think that the humanities are particularly valuable insofar as they resist valuation. Similarly, translation is difficult to price in such away, even as the labor of translation is often under-valued. But perhaps that is besides my point, which is that we have no choice but to make our arguments in this context of depreciating values. Whether I like it or not, I am obliged to speak to this concern.

Gayatri Spivak has gestured to (and I quote) “the fact that translation is the most intimate act of reading. Unless the translator has earned the right to become the intimate reader, she cannot surrender to the text, cannot respond to the special call of the text”.[1] Spivak here is speaking of the politics involved in translating literature, particularly women’s literature and particularly literature in languages of the third world; that is, this is translation in the particular, and translation that must mind this particularity. This is to say, it is a translation that, while perhaps necessary for one’s political commitments, is deferred until the translator has a feel for the text, an intimate command of the language. All the same, I would like to pause for a moment upon this idea of the intimacies of translation (even as a more general act). By this I mean that I want to highlight the sorts of situations that come about when we must translate without full understanding and intimacy. If, in Spivak’s formulation, translation involves an intimate understanding of the language of the other, I would also argue (and I don’t think this runs counter to her point at all) that translation requires that we be intimately familiar with our own language. To find a correspondence between two different modes of speaking requires a grasp of the ways in which we might construct a proposition in our language.

Moreover, and more crucially, this is to say that when we translate, we often find the limits of our own language, the points at which we suddenly come to realize that we cannot navigate our own language with perfect ease. This is particularly the case when we do not have time to hesitate, when we are engaging in a conversation, or translating for someone else, or striving to explicate a project that we have been working on for several years to an audience of people who come from different backgrounds and speak along different disciplinary lines and with different political and academic commitments.

All this is to say, as Lawrence Venuti would note, that translation reflects a quasi-utopian desire that we might realize a community.[2] Sometimes this is a community of readers that links, however tenuously, a readership in one language with any number of other languages. At other times, such as now, this entails a community of people taking the time out of their ordinary lives to try and engage in an interdisciplinary conversation such as this, when it seems that it is so urgent. This is a community founded upon the inadequacies of communication across linguistic barriers. Yet it is a community that exists, if only for the better part of a morning and an afternoon, as a realization of our hope that we might communicate even when communication seems impossible. No pressure!

I think, before I hand you off to Dr. Peiss and our first panel, that I have to specifically acknowledge just a few of the people to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude. The Penn Humanities Forum is an inspirational and crucial institution, and one, I think, without true parallel. Consequently, I want to thank Dr. Jim English, Jennifer Conway, Sara Varney, and Margie Guy for their work in guiding and sustaining these spaces and these conversations. I would also like to thank Dr. Bethany Wiggin for directing this year’s topic, which has proven so critical and timely, and Andrea Goulet for her continual encouragement, insight, and generosity as our undergraduate faculty director. I want to thank our session moderators, Dr. Kathy Peiss, Dr. Jean-Michel Rabaté, and (once more) Dr. Bethany Wiggin. I would also like to thank Dr. Cynthia Damon, who encouraged me to think about translation throughout my time at Penn, and my fellow members of the steering committee, Michael and Chloe, for their creativity, sense of humor, continual effort, and camaraderie over the last year.

Thank you very much, and I’ll talk to you further in Panel 3.

[1] Gayatri Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 2009), 205.

[2] Lawrence Venuti, “Translation, Community, Utopia,” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (New York: Routledge, 2000), 495.


Mind the Gap! Welcome by Ray Lahiri