Beyond Culture: The Politics of Translation

Hito Steyerl

If there is any single buzz word of contemporary cultural discourse, it is the notion of translation. Hardly any other notion has made such a rapid career in the intellectual world. A concept of quite humble origins was suddenly elevated into the position of one of the key metaphors of modern political and cultural discourse. Like a magic spell in a fairy tale, translation is supposed to provide a key which opens every door and solves every problem of a globalising world. But how is it that a notion derived from concrete literary and linguistic practice has taken on such an important political, cultural and even emancipatory role?

Keeping pace with its new importance, the meanings of translation have multiplied. Translation is no longer exclusively used to describe the processes of communication between different languages, but also becomes a model of time-space, of geopolitical relations, of postnational identities, and ultimately even a metaphor of culture itself. According to Etienne Balibar, the language of Europe is not any of the existing national languages, but translation itself. Thus translation is being proposed as a base for a new European identity founded on cosmopolitan and migrant constituencies. But translation is not only deemed capable of replacing the old model of a community based on a common language, it is also used to explain the basic functions of consciousness, the creation of transnational subjectivities, the reconstruction of adamic language, the creation of the multitude, as well as the transfer from the political to the aesthetic sphere. We can describe the politics of display in a museum as a process of translation just as we can use translation to describe the so-called third space of postnational cosmopolitanism. It is supposed to form the base of the public sphere, just as it is used to suggest a new vision of emancipation. Ultimately, it even replaces the old notion of universality. In a postdialectical era, which is regarded as having overcome binary divisions and metaphysical thinking, translation provides a model for a process of unceasing mediation, which does not allow for fixed identities and stable border lines. Briefly speaking: there does not seem to be any problem in the world to which translation does not provide a solution.

But has the redemptive role that especially cultural translation was supposed to assume been realised? In an age, in which binary antagonisms are violently reestablished at all political, cultural and social levels all over the world, not least of all within the framework of the so-called war against terror, the model of translation seems to have had little effect. And its practical shortcomings cast doubt on many of the optimistic predictions about a new globalised cosmopolitism based on cultural translation. But we need not go so far to see that translation does not provide any solutions in situations, where the most energetic efforts are made to install new national languages or to conserve texts which are considered sacred. Let's remember the institutionalisation of various new national languages in the Europe of the nineties. In a classical example of a deeply politicised narcicissm of small differences, a huge bureaucracy of translation was installed, where actually no translation was needed at all. In many of these situations, translation actually created new divisions by installing artificial linguistic and cultural borders. Thus, translation not only abolishes borders but also helps to create them. Has the notion of translation been overextended?

To understand the situation that the notion of translation has got itself into, let's remember the old joke of the command which was passed down a line of soldiers. An order which originally stated: "Turn left at the next corner" came out translated as: "Shoot yourself in the foot immediately". Has translation in this metaphorical sense shot itself in the foot? Or is translation still a valuable conceptual tool for understanding an impasse of social sciences and cultural studies, which was produced by obsessively translating political and social processes into cultural ones?

The project translate is intended to establish a platform to develop a thorough critique of the concept of cultural translation: by establishing its limitations, thus sharpening its profile and unfolding its concrete potential. Its inflationary use has concealed the radical consequences that a practical implementation of cultural translation would have for the realm of national culture, which is based on constructing exclusive national canons, national systems of education, and thus national cultural elites, which are firmly entrenched in the stable material conditions supporting them. Any real attempt to promote cultural translation would invariably change a system in which global culture is the result of the addition of national ones. But is there any concrete sphere of cultural or political articulation today for the constituencies of cultural translation identified by Balibar, namely cosmopolitans and migrants or other groups that are not supported by the traditional infrastructure of national culture and the political structure of the nation state? And where would that sphere be located? Is cultural translation a way of unfolding difference or managing it? What practical consequences does it have for working in a transnational framework? How is it actualised in artistic practice and within political and social movements? Translate will discuss those questions on a theoretical level and within the framework of ten artistic projects realised by our partner institutions.




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translate: Beyond Culture: The Politics of Translation

traducir. Más allá de la cultura: las políticas de traducción