End of Translation

Jacques Lezra New York University
Abstract: Translation lies at the core of contemporary humanistic study and serves also to define and guard its boundaries. The long association of the "human" with "translation" is the subject of this essay, which seeks to show ways in which that association has limited the conceptions of political association available today. The essay takes as its focus a determining conception of political organization: that natural rights may be transferred—translated—to another (an institution, a sovereign, another person) in the interest of reducing violence and promoting coexistence. Hobbes’s own texts are much less clear about this link between human nature and translatability, and it is to the violences they embed at this level, where "translation" comes into contact with antagonistic terms that serve to describe the same process, that we should turn for a closer description of ways to articulate the political dimensions of humanistic study (now understood quite differently). The essay proposes to call this antagonistic and fraught semantic field "machine translation" and characterizes it as both human and inhuman, both internal to humanistic study and alien from it.

“To fulfill its educational mission, achieve an orderly continuation of free society, and provide models of excellence to the American people, the Federal Government must transmit the achievement and values of civilization from the past via the present to the future, and make widely available the greatest achievements of art.”[1]

“The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities— including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.”[2]

In this brief essay, I’ll address the ways in which a conceptual master term currently in use for understanding the state of the Humanities—the term "translation"—suffers and wears the mediations of contemporary usage, and with what consequences.[3]

I say that "translation" is a master term for understanding the Humanities today, and you’ll hear the ring of broad worries regarding the funding and defunding of language teaching programs through the NCLB Act; you’ll hear, I’m sure, the ring of anxiety regarding industrial and cultural competitiveness, expressed as a matter of access to the languages of commerce and cultural legitimacy (perhaps less urgently today in the Anglophone world than some years ago, before China’s economy began its fast deflation, before Europe’s economic and political union foundered on the stones of Greece, before the engine of Brazil’s development lost its fuel; when the primacy of global English was in doubt, "translation" amongst the languages of commerce was of paramount concern). In the wake of terrible acts of violence in Beirut and in Paris, with the memory of Ferguson fresh in our minds, with the repression in Palestine clearly before us, perhaps we will hear in the word "Humanities" a compensatory, or maybe stubbornly posed, claim or question: are rights translatable across cultures, languages, races, religions—in the name, or under the aegis, of a purportedly universal standard which is also a universal translating machine: "Human" rights? But let’s first narrow our focus. "Translation," I say, is a master term for understanding the state of the Humanities, and I intend the state of the Humanities in the academy in the age of its neoliberalization. (I am grossly overstating. Whether guided or not by the goal of "help[ing] us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community," the academy in the United States has always had an intimate relation with the production and reproduction of class privilege. The emergence of the student-debt economy over the past generation, however, dramatically alters the University’s role in reducing social and economic inequities, to say nothing of "understanding what it means to be human and connecting us with our global community.") Focused just on the American academy, you hear in my coupling of "Humanities" and "translation" echoes of arcane debates regarding the differences between world literature, comparative literature, and literature taught in translation (Apter 2013; Casanova 2015; D’Haen, Damrosch, and Kadir, 2012; Damrosch 2009, 2014; Rosendahl Thomsen, D’ Haen, and Domínguez 2013). The question of how humanists make the case for the value of their disciplines to others—legislators, the great public, friends, administrators, all speaking the sadly familiar languages of productivity, outcome assessment, efficiency, and so on—is a matter, it is understood, of translation. Those things that the Humanities take to be their concerns, their objects of study, protocols, ends, all need translating into the technical-commercial language ascendant in the era of austerity, economic competitiveness, and systematic and ideologically driven defunding of non-STEM disciplines.

"Translation" is a term nested within the Humanities (within the practice of the Humanities, and also within its old, incoherent concept), but also serving as a gatekeeper for the Humanities.

"Translation" is a term nested within the Humanities (within the practice of the Humanities, and also within its old, incoherent concept), but also serving as a gatekeeper for the Humanities.

As to the first, the function of "translation" within the Humanistic disciplines, we’re divided. Yes, absent some universal standard (the "human" as universal bearer of sense and value, as bearer of "universalism"), the question is open whether a work, a Degas nude, say, or a concept like political autonomy, will be understood and valued, to what degree, how, and to what end, in different moments and societies. Recall the Terentian doctrine that what is "human" about the human animal is its universality: nil a me alienum puto, the human is human inasmuch as it contains multitudes, inasmuch as it is the summation or the end of all beings, even (Pico’s stronger claim, running in the contrary direction) inasmuch as it can be any being: I am not untranslatable into anything. Every form of life can be translated into the human and the human animal can, qua human, assume the characteristics of any other, and translate him- or herself into the quality of any other thing. Inasmuch as my end is not given, but lies in my potential translatability into any being, whether animal, angelic, or divine, or in the potential translatability of any being into me—in this sense it is that I am human.

But, on the other hand, we’ll want to say something like this: Yes, the quality of general translatability ("nothing is alien to me, I contain multitudes," the shibboleths of Humanist universalism) that makes me human cannot reciprocally, mutually, be translated back into every form of life. I share with other human animals, and with them alone, that undisseverable, primary quality: but what I attend to when I affect to study what we call a Humanistic discipline is just what resists translation about the object. It’s what makes that Degas sketch different from a universally understandable term, or a term in a formal language, or a mechanically reproduced or reproducible drawing, that I’ll be attending to: the auratic, the untranslatable. I’ll be inclined to say that I affect to call disciplines Humanistic when, and only when, their object of study is, to a degree that I am devoted to demonstrating, untranslatable into other disciplinary frames and into other systems of value. Nonreproducible, because nonmechanical, nonmachinic. (This assertion is, of course, too strongly stated in this form, since it isn’t automatically true that all machinic objects, all mechanically produced objects, are ipso facto valuable across disciplinary frames and markets. Only when the machine is universal is this true: a universal translating machine or a machine for producing general equivalencies against which the value and sense of every machinic object can be assessed: tendentially, the machine of immaterial labor. A global university, say.)

And now to the second side of my frame, the side that understands "translation" to serve as a gatekeeper for the Humanities. Here too we’re divided. The end of the Humanistic disciplines, the neoliberal economic model teaches us, is to convey cultural value across linguistic, historical, and geographic borders (to "transmit the achievement and values of civilization from the past via the present to the future, and make widely available the greatest achievements of art," as the NEH charter has it). At the same time, whatever it is that is thus conveyed or translated moves across borders in a way that other products, other commodities, do as well, and is to be understood and valued by analogy to such products. (A cultural commodity is the translation of an economic commodity.) The Humanities are thus both instruments of globalization, ancillary to the great value-producing machine of global capitalism, a set of devices and practices for producing and assessing the value of cultural commodities traded on global and local markets; and the product of (one part of) the global economic system. I set the borders and the value of the Humanities, and of the objects that the Humanistic disciplines produce and affect to study, according to these three, not quite coherent ways of understanding the Humanities as translating machines and translatable objects or commodities.

What results from the double status and the double value of "translation"? The term is at work within the Humanistic disciplines and also at work outside these disciplines, as the device (or one of them, but a principal one) for designating and defining them, for drawing the edges and ends of the concept, for determining its use, for providing the index by means of which the value of the objects designated as "Humanistic" are assessed; a peculiarly unstable, even dangerously unstable, term. Also, however, and in that same degree, the term is an intellectually productive one, since the way in which the two ends of "translation" defeat, limit, and weaken one another will allow us to understand with some clarity what we mean by "value," by the "Humanities," and by their relation.

Let’s call bare "translation," the gatekeeper internal and external to the Humanities and to the human animal, this riven, double-valued term, by a new name: "machine translation." It is both human and inhuman.

Let’s call bare "translation," the gatekeeper internal and external to the Humanities and to the human animal, this riven, double-valued term, by a new name: "machine translation." It is both human and inhuman.

Let’s approach the end of translation by wresting the term from its old Humanist home: just the domain of linguistic transformation, where we move, word-for-word or sense-for-sense, from one natural language to another. Translation, for zoon logon echon, will disclose whatever is not accidental (historical, contingent, ephemeral, glottal, merely regional, merely an aspect of this or that human’s articulated speech, accentual) about our relation to the word (Heidegger 1971; 2000).[4] We maintain, generally, that this linguistic sense of translation is the philosophically densest and most compelling one, and also that it is (perhaps for that reason) the historical ground on which later declensions of "translation" stand, the literal term to future metaphorical usages, translations of "translation" into other improper or metaphorical domains. There’s ample historical precedent for this translation of translation, of course—the term and the practices it designates move around promiscuously in different cultures and at different times, designating transformations of wildly varying sorts, material as well as symbolic. (A quick example, taken from Spain: Juan de Junta, an editor in Salamanca in the mid-16th century, publishes eight translations between 1544 and 1549—from Italian and Latin. What we call "translation" he calls not only traducir but also trasladar, sacar, volver, and romançar. The earlier word, trujamanear, from the Arabic, nestles in the vocabulary of the conquest of America; Covarrubias’s 1611 Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española refers to verter: to pour. Transportar is not uncommon. A small controversy haunts even traducere, the most common Humanist term for translation: is it first used by Bruni, as Italian scholars maintain, or by Alonso de Cartagena, as some Spanish scholars suggest? This question becomes a matter of claiming historical precedence for different schools and histories of translation; a matter of national pride (Pöckl 1996–1997).[5])

Focus for now on just one translation of translation for a quick sense of the stakes of the term’s iterations today: into the domain of politics. (A further translation into the domain of political economy is no doubt at work as well: cf. Lezra 2013.[6]) In the 1651 Philosophical rudiments concerning government and society, the unauthorized translation of Hobbes’ 1642 De Cive, Hobbes (or rather, his translator) devotes the opening articles of the chapter, "Of the Law of Nature Concerning Contracts," to the proposition that "certain [natural] rights ought to be transferr’d, or relinquished: for if every one should retain his right to all things," Hobbes continues,

it must necessarily follow, that some by right might invade; and others, by the same right, might defend themselves against them, (for every man, by naturall necessity, endeavours to defend his Body, and the things which he judgeth necessary towards the protection of his Body) therefore War would follow. He therefore acts against the reason of Peace, (i.e.) against the Law of Nature, whosoever he be, that doth not part with his Right to all things (Hobbes 1651).[7]

The argument’s steps are well enough known; their eventual outcome is Leviathan’s chapters, "Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind," and "Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts." There, Hobbes will multiply the terms he uses to describe the already unstable process of "transferr[ing], or relinquish[ing]" that he describes in the Philosophical Rudiments. Some rights are "transferable" or "assignable" (others not). With slight variations in sense, never quite arranged in parallel, the conveyance of a natural right to another is described as "Renouncing" or "transferring," "abandoning" or "granting away," "alienating," "lay[ing] down," "despoyl[ing] oneself of"; as "tradition," "delivery," and as "translation." Here is Leviathan: "There is difference, between transferring of Right to the Thing; and transferring, or tradition, that is, delivery of the Thing it selfe. For the Thing may be delivered together with the Translation of the Right; as in buying and selling with ready mony; or exchange of goods, or lands: and it may be delivered some time after" (Hobbes 1651, 66). The rather scattered semantic field that Hobbes intends to cover in the years from 1642 to 1651 is most tightly bordered in the Latin of De Cive, where the principal terms Hobbes uses for this "conveyance" are transfere and, especially, translatio, in the crucial phrase translatio iuris (Hobbes 1647). (It is notable that the translator of the Philosophicall Rudiments avoids using the English, "to translate," and that the Elemens Philosophiques du bon Citoyen, the influential 1651 French translation of De Cive by Samuel Sorbière, nowhere uses traduction. Sorbière’s terms are "transport" and, importantly, "transaction," this latter with the weak nominal sense we generally grant it in English, but also with a stronger, verbal, reciprocal sense that the Latin seems to invest in translatio—an action occurring on both sides of the donation, the side of the transferer and the side of the transferee, as it were [Hobbes 1651, 24–5].) For translatio smuggles in an important, indeed, a definitive conceptual specification. Transference, assignation, alienation, tradition, granting away—all these tend toward the rather blank "despoyl[ing] oneself of" the transferred right. Translatio, however, is strongly reciprocal: what passes from me to another passes inasmuch as the other understands and agrees to receive what I translate. We understand and agree in a shared tongue—a tongue disclosed to us and to others by this donation. We act, I who translate my right to you, you who recognize it and agree to accept it, in a language we share, despite the incidental differences our natural languages, our particular relation to this right or that, our relative power and scope, might have. We transfer rights to another by translation; the arrangement that eventually results in our transferring to the sovereign our rights to (our desire for) self-protection (what Hobbes calls "a Common-wealth by Institution") depends on the reciprocal recognition of, and the translatability of our conceptions of "right," of "donation," of "contract" into, a common language, however hieratic we may deem it. And this reciprocal recognition appears definitive, for Hobbes, of the human animal—in a state of nature, and as this animal enters into society.

For technical and strategic reasons, it makes sense, nothing but sense, the greatest sense, to turn the Humanities toward the figure of translation and to grant "translation" its patient and appealing sovereignty internally and externally, to give it pride of place in negotiating the economic and cultural future of the University, and to develop it as gatekeeper and definitive term for the humanistic University.

I say that it appears definitive. Everything is staked on this reciprocal recognition. The dispersed and contradictory semantic field that "translation" covers suggests—and the term’s various futures, in translations authorized and not, recognized by Hobbes and not, attest to—not just the instability of this recognition, but its fictitious, even compensatory quality. Here in Hobbes (and with even greater clarity in Machiavelli), reading the "translation" of "human" rights to sovereign instances and representatives from the vantage of these sometimes violently antagonistic terms and from the futures into which "translation’s" divided semantic field appears to be translated, we knock into something other than the reasonable, contractarian system of mutual recognitions that appear to define the human animal in translation. I have called this hard, antihumanist core—which makes not just the transference of rights to another, but even the recognition of another as a bearer of rights—by the name of "machine translation." I’d like to close entertaining the apparently paradoxical thought that it is on the basis of this machinic, antihumanist core—on the basis of nonrecognition of the violent instability of the principle of translation—that democratic regimes should be imagined today. For technical and strategic reasons, it makes sense, nothing but sense, the greatest sense, to turn the Humanities toward the figure of translation and to grant "translation" its patient and appealing sovereignty internally and externally, to give it pride of place in negotiating the economic and cultural future of the University, and to develop it as gatekeeper and definitive term for the humanistic University. But this technical and strategic appeal to the human in translation should not keep us from what must be the University’s task: to think, and to help set in place regimes of democratic association which are, at heart, incompatible with that figure.


  1. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation.” June 19, 2013, https://www.natcom.org/heartofthematter/.
  2. National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209) http://www.neh.gov/about/history/national-foundation-arts-and-humanities-act-1965-pl-89-209.
  3. Certain arguments in this essay take up and revise my previously published work: "Translation," (2016) and "This Untranslatability Which is Not One" (2015).
  4. Heidegger distinguishes glossa from logos, the first, language becomes "mere hearsay," the work of glossa, language becomes the mechanical organ of the tongue, language inasmuch as it represents the "loosening" of "truth," that is, language becomes, both gradually and catastrophically, the expression of a machine, "the act of speaking, the activation of the organs of speech, mouth, lips, tongue." See Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, 198, and On the Way to Language, translated by Peter D. Hertz,: "If we take language directly in the sense of something that is present, we encounter it as the act of speaking, the activation of the organs of speech, mouth, lips, tongue.  Language manifests itself in speaking, as a phenomenon that occurs in man. . . . Language is the tongue" (96).
  5. See Wolfgang Pöckl (1996–1997). I take some of my examples here from Pöckl. I’ve had a bit more to say about Humanist thought on translation, and on Covarrubias’s notion of translation, in "Nationum Origo" (2005).
  6. I turn to this aspect of the term in my "Translation" (2013).
  7. Thomas Hobbes, Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1841), v. II, 17. Compare this recent translation: "certain rights must be transferred or abandoned. For if each man held on to his right to all things, it necessarily follows that some men would be attacking and others defending themselves, and both by right (for each man strives by necessity of nature to defend his Body and whatever is necessary for its protection). War would ensue. Anyone, therefore, who does not give up his right to all things is acting contrary to the ways of peace, that is, contrary to the law of nature." In Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, edited and translated by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 34.


Apter, Emily. 2013. Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. New York: Verso.

Casanova, Pascale. 2015. La Langue Mondiale: Traduction Et Domination. Paris: Seuil.

D’Haen, Theo, David Damrosch, and Djelal Kadir, eds. 2012. The Routledge Companion to World Literature. Oxford: Routledge.

Damrosch, David. 2009. How to Read World Literature. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

———. 2014. World Literature in Theory. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Heidegger, Martin. 1971; 1982. On the Way to Language. Translated by Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper and Row.

———. 2000. Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1642. Elementorum philosophiæ sectio tertia de cive. [Latin edition of De Cive]. Paris.

———. 1642; 1841. Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society [English translation of De Cive]. In The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by William Molesworth. London: John Bohn.

———. 1642; 1998. On the Citizen [English translation of De Cive]. Edited and translated by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1647. Elementa philosophica de cive [Latin edition of De Cive]. Amsterdam.

———. 1642; 1651. Élémens philosophiques du bon citoyen [French translation of De Cive]. Translated by Samuel Sorbière. Paris.

———. 1651. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. London.

Lezra, Jacques. 2005. "Nationum Origo." In Nation, Language and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, 203–29. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 2013. "Translation,"Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, New School for Social Research, v.2. http://www.politicalconcepts.org/.

———. 2015. "This Untranslatability Which is Not One." Paragraph 38(2): 174-88.

Pöckl, Wolfgang. 1996–1997. “Apuntes para la historia de traducere, I: ‘Traducir.’" Hieronymus Complutensis 4/5. http://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/hieronymus/pdf/04_05/04_05_009.pdf.

Rosendahl Thomsen, Mads, Theo D’Haen, and César Domínguez, eds. 2013. World Literature: A Reader. Oxford: Routledge.


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