Europe as a Translational Space. The Politics of Heterolinguality by Boris Buden, Birgit Mennel, Stefan Nowotny (eipcp)

In the following we would like to present some general ideas underlying a research context as well as a number of activities to be carried out as parts of a project called Europe as a Translational Space. The Politics of Heterolinguality. One important component of this project will be a workshop assembling various social actors operating in and around Aubervilliers to be undertaken in early September 2011 at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers.

Our starting point is a trivial fact: Europe, in whatever "final shape" (or even non-shape), cannot exist without translation. Although everybody would agree on that fact, very few are aware of how far-reaching its consequences are. Even fewer would be prepared to think of translation, an otherwise so modest concept of general linguistic and literary practice, as playing such a central role in the formation of Europe as a political project. Etienne Balibar is one of these few. He radicalized the question of building Europe as a democracy. Its major precondition is, clearly, a common European public space. But which language should be spoken in this space in order for a functioning public to be constituted? English? French, German, Spanish? (But why not for instance Slovakian, Latvian or Maltese, or again, Arabic, Chinese or Wolof? All of which are indeed languages spoken in Europe…)

The answer to this question, so crucial for the European future, cannot be given in terms of a single national language, since it very obviously points to a heterogeneous field of linguistic practices that cannot be understood as mere "exercises" of given linguistic codes. For Balibar the building of a transnational democracy openly contradicts the concept of monolinguality, on which even the allegedly most developed of the actually existing democracies have been based. He therefore suggests a different model: the future language of Europe can only be imagined in terms of what he calls "social practices of translation", a permanently changing system of differing linguistic customs which are involved in constant interaction. Thus, the concept of translation, or what today is often referred to as "cultural translation", offers a vision of a new trans- or post-national society, of its common public space and its democratic political life as well as of future forms of its cultural and educational system. Moreover, Balibar believes that the idea of translation could even revive and push forward on a global scale the cause of universal emancipation. But what are indeed the links between translation and the political, both in a historical and a contemporary perspective?

Theories of translation and the question of the political
From the very beginning of modern theoretical reflection on the practice of (mostly) literary translation, translation was given a clear social and political task. This becomes very clear if one considers the theories of German Romantics where translation was supposed to be a constitutive means for the formation of a national cultural community. In short, the concept was related to the idea of the nation as a unique language community – and, therefore, spiritual community (Humboldt). The classical binary theory of translation and its termini technici (the original and translation as its secondary production; the fidelity of translation; the foreign and foreignness; domestication, etc.) fully corresponds to an idea of the world as a cluster of irreducibly different linguistic and cultural communities. According to this binary model the task of translation is not simply to establish and facilitate communication between these communities, but rather to participate in their creation, i.e., to actively and decisively contribute to the so-called nation-building processes.

With the epochal abandoning of binary theories of translation and consequently of the very idea of the original (for instance in the work of Walter Benjamin), the social and political task of translation has also been reconceptualised: translation could henceforth be seen as playing an important role in the strategies of social criticism and social or generally human emancipation, inspired by Marxism or psychoanalysis. In the form of "cultural translation" it ultimately became the concept of a new trans-national culture and, as such, also a post-modern and especially post-colonial model of universal emancipation (different versions of this have been formulated by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, or Judith Butler, and vulgarized by numerous cultural scientists and social critics).

However, emancipatory strategies of this kind, although representing a normative counterpoint to nationalistic identification and to every claim to a pure, essential identity, very often lack a genuine political articulation; they specifically lack a political form that could turn a "cultural" mission into an actual historical reality. In other words, they fail to politically challenge the still dominant form of today’s political reality, the model of the nation-state. Even a supra-national project such as the European Union is, in many respects, constructed on the very basis of the principles of the historical nation-state (as demonstrated, for instance, by the EU’s enormous translation apparatus designed to guarantee the integrity of the existing European national languages – as opposed to merely regional languages or migrants’ languages). For this reason, no matter how loudly anti-nationalism is expressed culturally, politically it remains silent. The depoliticization that we speak about here can be understood as a kind of deadlock of various contemporary strategies of emancipation, including many of those based on the concept of (cultural) translation. In fact it is just another symptom of the ongoing culturalization of social and political issues, a symptom that is also typical of contemporary cultural theory. This is the reason why it seems necessary to critically examine the concept of culture in its very "politicality", instead of uncritically supporting its almost inevitable self-referentiality.

In fact the concept of cultural translation designed to forge processes of cultural hybridity, as suggested by Homi Bhabha, fails to address the social, political and existential conditions of migrants and post-migrants who, being subjected to different forms of repressive exclusion, appear today as the human embodiment of untranslatable foreignness. It furthermore dissimulates and embellishes the various forms of exploitation that (post-)migrants find themselves exposed to. For this reason, we find it hypocritical and politically wrong to romanticize migrant masses as the new transnational "elite" of cultural translators, faithful to the task of proliferating hybridity and therefore to the mission of emancipatory change. Instead, by focusing on the phenomenon of migration, it is precisely the unmeasured and mostly unexplored gap between the big promises that (cultural) translation makes in theory and the "broken dreams" relating to them in today’s political reality that has to be taken into consideration.

We are fully aware that no theory alone can bridge this gap, just as any practical initiative can only hope to strengthen existing social practices that deal with this gap. It is all the more important that the reflection on translation leave the “gated communities” of the scientific and artistic fields and reach out to a broader public space where practical processes of–linguistic, cultural, ideological, social, etc.–translation take place in the contingency of everyday life. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, we would like to introduce a concept that both explicitly challenges the politically dominant forms of monolinguality and multilinguality, and avoids the romanticizations and political shortcomings of the benevolent discourses on cultural hybridity.

We are speaking about the concept of heterolinguality, or more precisely, of heterolingual address, as developed by Naoki Sakai. It can provide, we believe, a strong tool for a reconsideration and reinvention of not only linguistic, but also cultural, educational and political practices that meet the current processes of social recomposition and new subjectifications.

Let us briefly summarize the theoretical reasons for choosing this perspective in order to end with some suggestions on how to tackle the above-discussed topics in a modified way. As introduced by Naoki Sakai, the concept of heterolingual address performs three important shifts:

1) It does not start from the assumption of two or more pre-existing language entities between which translation takes place as an activity posterior to them, but rather understands translation as a social relation, as an activity opening up a field of differential, if variously shaped and informed, social practices. It is only a certain configuration and representation of these practices (for instance in the context of "nation-building") that allows for the construction of given distinctive, in themselves allegedly homogenous language entities.

2) Thought of in terms of social relations and social practices, an investigation into translational processes cannot be reduced to the paradigm of communication (suggesting given communities that enable communication, on the one hand, and "failures of communication" between these communities that necessitate the work of translators, on the other). It rather has to start from an analysis of different modes of address. This, however, necessitates an understanding of the concrete regimes and practices of address. Thus, what Sakai calls "the regime of homolingual address" (as opposed to heterolingual address) has to be examined in view of its direct political and social implications in terms of the ways in which it configures and shapes the interrelations between different subjects and subject groups – just as the modes of heterolingual address have to be examined as to the concrete social relations in which they occur.

3) Given that the assumption of homogenous language entities no longer provides the basis for an examination of translational processes, analyses can consequently not be reduced to consistent “communities” defined by “common languages”. Therefore, an examination of the heterolingual condition has to take into account various kinds of hybrid languages, broken languages, processes of what in sociolinguistics is called "code mixing" and "code switching" etc., as well as various ways in which those language uses are politically, socially, economically informed, reaching far beyond the idea of different linguistic or cultural "backgrounds".

If these shifts are applied to the question of “Europe as a translational space” (i.e., not only as a given space in which translation occurs, but as a space-in-translation whose spatiality is precisely determined by translational social practices), then it is quite obvious that the theoretical challenge linked with the perspective of heterolinguality inevitably and immediately calls for an examination of a whole series of questions: what are the social relations which necessitate and trigger translational practices in present-day Europe? How, and on which premises, are these translational practices designed and represented? If translational practices are always linked with specific modes of address, then which are the dominant modes of address in present-day Europe (who is addressed, and who is addressed in which way, when it comes to tasks of translation)? How do regimes of homolingual address, in the confined "multilingual" framework of the EU, relate to emerging practices of heterolinguality, especially when related to migration processes reaching beyond the European confinements? What are the linguistic and cultural practices that evolve in a situation determined by both homolingual and heterolingual modes of address, and how concretely are they politically, economically and socially informed?

Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, May-August 2011