Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. Februar 2003

Translation and Potentiality

Paolo Bartoloni (Sydney)


Interpreting Aristotle's Book Theta of the Metaphysics, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben remarks that "in its originary structure, dynamis, potentiality, maintains itself in relation to its own privation, its own steresis, its own non-Being. This relation constitutes the essence of potentiality. To be potential means: to be one's own lack, to be in relation to one's own incapacity. Beings that exist in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality; and only in this way do they become potential. They can be because they are in relation to their own non-Being. In potentiality, sensation is in relation to anesthesia, knowledge to ignorance, vision to darkness." (1999a: 182. Italics in the text.) Truth to untruth, we could add, originality and uniqueness to non-originality and copy. This understanding and articulation of "potentiality" has enabled Agamben to enter a sustained reappraisal of knowledge, selfhood, language and narrative in books such as Potentialities (1999a), The End of the Poem (1999b) and The Coming Community (1993). Agamben has not written directly or specifically about translation, yet his philosophical discourse and his implicit and explicit dialogue with Aristotle, Benjamin, Blanchot, Deleuze, Heidegger and Levinas, amongst others, is, as I see it, of particular importance for a review of translation theory at a time when the traditional juxtaposition of original and translation and its attendant comparative theoretical framework appear increasingly limiting and inadequate to explain current phenomena of cross-cultural encounters and exchange. Besides, I do not see the reason to cling to such clear and unproblematic opposition in the field of translation studies when just about everywhere else in the field of the Humanities and Social Sciences the notions of original and originality have undergone such a drastic and dramatic reappraisal. Clearly, as Umberto Eco (2001) and Tim Parks (1998) have demonstrated, the comparative analysis still holds currency, especially in the domain of commercial publishing and practical translation. It would be pure naivety to argue that interlingual translation ought to move away from grammatical, syntactic and stylistic considerations and embrace a free-for-all approach. The point is that these considerations might well be founded on other and different sets of methodological and theoretical frameworks to those revolving around the static, and for the original unchangeable, idea of finite and final products. This in turn means that a reconsideration, and perhaps a reformulation of translation theory along the axis of contemporary philosophical and cultural discourse should not limit itself to the domain of theory and academia, but ought to influence the thinking and culture of commercial publishing too.

Selfhood, subjectivity, language and cultural values are indissolubly linked to the extent that, at least in Western culture, the notion of identity and belonging, of being at home, are strictly correlated with a homogeneity of linguistic and cultural values, whose safety appears to be guaranteed by enclosing them, by sealing and protecting them from the influence of what lies outside. It is by constructing linguistic and cultural enclosures that the ideas of authenticity and inauthenticity, original and copy become possible, indeed accepted as natural and necessary. This framework has had a historical, political and social value, a necessity whose traits continue to persist and hold sway even at a time when they appear to be undermined, if not altogether outmoded, by the process of globalization and international mobility. And yet, regardless of the paradigm shift and the attendant discourse of cross-fertilization and hybridization, we still cling to the imperative of authenticity and originality, of purity based on a set of implicitly or explicitly protected linguistic and cultural values. My argument here, mind you, is not in favor of global as opposed to national identity, each of which in its own particular way could be defined as authentic. Rather, I am interested in opening up a series of challenges in order to allow an additional zone to emerge in-between authenticity and inauthenticity. What I am referring to is the process, which, perhaps, but not necessarily, gives rise to so-called authentic spaces. In other words, a process, a linguistic and cultural habitat, in which authenticity and inauthenticity are themselves negative and absent, only potential amidst an unqualified and unqualifiedly, apparently incomplete, landscape.

In The Coming Community Agamben proposes a new perspective on subjectivity which, although not having direct bearing on translation, can be helpful in the context of my discourse. He writes:

The Whatever in question here relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim), but only in its being such as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal. The intelligible, according to a beautiful expression of Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides), is neither a universal nor an individual included in a series, but rather 'singularity insofar as it is whatever singularity'. In this conception, such-and-such being is reclaimed from its having this or that property, which identifies it as belonging to this or that set, to this or that class (the reds, the French, the Muslims) - and it is reclaimed not for another class nor for the simple generic absence of any belonging, but for its being-such, for belonging itself. Thus being-such, which remains constantly hidden in the condition of belonging [...] and which is in no way a real predicate, comes to light itself. (1993: 1-2.)

Agamben's intention is clearly that of rearticulating singularity and subjectivity away from the traditional hermeneutic perspective and into a domain in which "suchness" acquires its own possible actuality; an actuality which is obviously incommensurable with the universalizing concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity. In another passage of The Coming Community Agamben speaks of ethics and the attendant discourse of good and false, authentic and inauthentic. He writes:

The meaning of ethics becomes clear only when one understands that the good is not, and cannot be, a good thing or possibility beside or above every bad thing or possibility, that the authentic and the true are not real predicates of an object perfectly analogous (even if opposed) to the false and the inauthentic. Ethics begins only when the good is revealed to consist in nothing other than a grasping of evil and when the authentic and the proper have no other content than the inauthentic and the improper. (1993: 12.)

What Agamben alludes to here is an experience of confusion, encounter and mingling whose outcome is not chaos and madness but rather a clarity and brightness made of openness, what I am tempted to call "incompleteness" in the sense of something unstructured by universalizing values. "Suchness," according to Agamben, is that which "presents itself as such, that shows its singularity" (1993: 9. Italics in the text). But exactly what is this singularity Agamben speaks of and how can it be reconnected with the experience of translation? The answer is to be found in language. As Agamben puts it: "The antinomy of the individual and the universal has its origin in language" (1993: 8). Agamben's work is intent on rewriting this antinomy and in the process he points to a further hermeneutic space and language which, to my view, casts startling insights into translation.

Any space is marked by a topography and the temporal and spatial dynamics correlating it with other spaces. For many years translation was not interpreted as a space or a zone and when it was, it was merely seen as a geography whose only importance and value lay in its resemblance and faithfulness to the geography of the original. If time and space were ever considered in relation to translation, they were interpreted as strange movements, whose paradoxical outcome is a declaration of sameness and the obfuscation of its occurrence. It is this oxymoronic reading of movement, which in effect pretends to negate the occurrence of any movement, which is so staunchly and intrinsically opposed to a sense of passage and transition, both temporal and spatial, that has for so many years impeded theoreticians and translators from focusing on what happens in-between the original and the translation. In order for this interstitial zone to emerge, one needs to reconceptualize the idea of movement by denucleating it from the tension towards something other than itself, from a movement interested in erasing and deleting itself as it proceeds towards a preconceived and authentic "home", from a subjectivity that denies itself from belonging to the community of language and culture. The very existence of the interstitial zone of translation, and its process of bringing together two cultures and languages away from the discourse of authenticity and inauthenticuty, is predicated upon a movement that does not go anywhere outside but that keeps on moving within the inherently dynamic borders of the interstices. It is from within the time of the "meanwhile" and the space of the "in-betweenness" that I believe a new theory of translation and cross-cultural encounters and exchange can commence. Paraphrasing Bartleby's experience, one could say that it is not that translation does not want to be the original or that it does not want to become it: it simply would prefer not to. This is also the shift from the must - the will - to the could - the potential - and from a literature of perfect tenses to a literature of the conditional.

"The movement Plato describes as erotic anamnesis," writes Agamben in The Coming Community, "is the movement that transports the object not toward another thing or another place, but toward its own taking-place" (1993: 2). It is in this "own taking-place" that, according to Agamben, "humankind's original home" can be found. In the article "The Carcass of Time," Brian Dillon reads this "original home" not as "a process [genesis] or a movement [kinesis]." He adds that this zone is not correlated with a measurable space of time. "The time of pleasurable plenitude," continues Dillon, "which Agamben discovers in Aristotle is decidedly not, however, that extra-temporal realm which enables Augustine, in the Confessions, to step outside of the abstract flow of time: it is not, in other words, the eternal" (1997: 142). This time is rather the pure "now," the interim, the atemporal cairos Aristotle speaks of. It is ultimately pleasure. Pleasure, as Aristotle defines it in Book X of the Ethics, is not a process, "that is, it does not acquire meaning or value in terms of its completeness, but is a certain experience of the present: it is not dependent upon a projected future point at which it will become whole" (Dillon, 1997: 142). Aristotle writes thus:

The act of seeing is regarded as complete at any moment of its duration, because it does not lack anything that, realized later, will perfect its specific quality. Now pleasure also seems to be of this nature, because it is a sort of whole, i.e., at no moment in time can one fasten upon a pleasure the prolongation of which will enable its specific quality to be perfected. For this reason pleasure is not a process because every process is in time, and has an end (e.g. the process of building), and is complete when it has accomplished its object. Thus it is complete either in the whole of the time that it takes or at the instant of reaching its end." (1976: 318.)

Is it possible for humankind to regain this unlinear and unchronological, uncalendrical time? In other words, is it possible to inhabit a space as if it were a place, a home, a habitus in which the notion of process is absent and where the movement is not towards something but simply in itself? More specifically, is it possible for translation to be the pure pleasure of in-betweeness, where its potentiality of not-being is celebrated, where "possibility and reality, potentiality and actuality," authenticity and inauthenticity, "become indistinguishable"? (Agamben, 1993: 55.) Literature, at least certain contemporary literature, has attempted to be precisely that. As Thomas Carl Wall argues: "the Neuter is the space of literature (an imaginary space en deça du temps), which is interminable, incessant, and perpetually non-contemporary" (1999: 115). Clearly this is the space of Blanchot's literature, but also of Pound's and many other twentieth-century authors, amongst whom I would like to place the Italian Giorgio Caproni. They all inhabit the interim, the interzone of the "meanwhile" where action and process are rejected in favor of what I like to call the "waiting"; that is the interstitial time in which, and this is essential, the notion of what-one-is-waiting-for is all of a sudden unimportant and irrelevant. This suspended has belonged hitherto to the space of literature, in which the suspension of the waiting, its inherent interstitiality, is celebrated and fully experienced. A dimension devoid of a tension towards something ahead of itself and of a linear understanding of time, in which the process towards the future is natural, if not altogether expected and demanded, must have a different grammar and language. In his last unfinished novel, Further Confessions of Zeno (1969), Italo Svevo thought of a "mixed tense" and a different grammar to narrate a story that takes place in-between authenticity and inauthenticity, or, more conveniently, fiction and reality.

Modern and contemporary literature enters the space of the interstices to evoke something, perhaps an absence or a presence, the conflagration of the self or maybe its gradual recomposition in the uncanny space of medianity and possibility. Or perhaps even to celebrate its inadequacy or simply its status as mere copy, as petrified simulacrum, which unsuccessfully searches for its own originality in the attempt to escape its nature as the shadow of reality. Here, I suppose, we have the great irony and paradox of art, that is, the coexistence of the notions of originality and copy, the fusion and the embedding of an apparently unsolvable dichotomy. This living together of opposite principles is the body and the flesh of art, its fascination but also its irredeemable sin. Never was the hybridity and hermaphroditism of art so clearly stated and exposed, its supposed originality problematized as in modern and contemporary art. And yet we still think of translation as that which has to be faithful to the original when, in fact, translation could be used to reclaim the profound meaning of art's incompleteness and vagrancy through emphasizing, indeed, organizing and clarifying its epiphanic errancy, ultimately restoring art to the originality of its multilinguism and polyculturalism. Clearly, this is translation as theory and not as practice, translation as the contemporary hermeneutic of language and culture. It is translation working its epistemological method and purpose through its inherent and tremendously relevant status as "halo," as the interim and "interstitial" per eccellenza in a world of believed originals which are there waiting and hoping to be deconstructed.

This is also translation as an ideological and existential home and habitus for those who, by choice or necessity, are physically living in-between and who for many years have thought and lived their interstitiality as a loss, of home, the self, their traditions. It is now perhaps time to see the "error" of being potential, of being "as such," as the locus of responsible criticism and the geography, where in losing oneself one can eventually find oneself.(1)

© Paolo Bartoloni (Sydney)

TRANSINST       Inhalt / Table of Contents / Contenu: No.14


Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, 1999a).

Agamben, Giorgio, The End of the Poem, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, 1999b).

Agamben, Giorgio, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, 1993).

Aristotle, Ethics, trans. J. A. K. Thomson (Harmondsworth, 1976).

Bartoloni, Paolo, "Translating from the Interstices," Lo stesso altro, ed. Susan Petrilli (Rome, 2001): pp. 165-171.

Bartoloni, Paolo, "The Virtuality of Translation," Globalising Australia at the End of the Second Millennium, eds. Christopher Palmer and Iain Topliss (Bundoora, 2000): 77-83.

Dillon, Brian, "The Carcass of Time," Oxford Literary Review (19/1-2, 1997): 133-147.

Eco, Umberto, Experiences in Translation, trans. Alastair McEwen (Toronto, 2001).

Parks, Tim, Translating Style (London, 1998).

Svevo, Italo, Further Confessions of Zeno, trans. Ben Johnson and P. N. Furbank (London, 1969).

Wall, Thomas Carl, Radical Passivity (New York, 1999).



(1) On this issue see also my "The Virtuality of Translation" (2000); and "Translating from the Interstices" (2001).

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Paolo Bartoloni (Sydney): Translation and Potentiality. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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