“Perpetual Translation made Language” and Beyond: from Signification to Sens by Jack Stone

Andrew Marcus. Black On White, No. 4, Sumi Ink on Paper, 15" x 22", 2017.

by Jack Stone

When I finally responded to David’s invitation to this Festschrift, I excused my hesitancy by saying: “the prospect of [participating], you must understand, is intimidating to me. I don’t write much anymore. Mostly, these days, I just translate. I’m not sure I did anything else before (my relationship with Lacan has always been of the Pierre Menard variety—I have worked hard to learn how to say what he says in his own words).  I also have a day job.” Borges’ fictional Don Quixote scholar, Pierre Menard, re-authors certain passages of Don Quixote verbatim. But in Borges’ eulogizing narrator’s estimation, as indicated by the story’s title itself, Menard successfully assumes the identity of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” –– “Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which would surely be easy enough –– he wanted to compose the Quixote” (91). “The Cervantes and the Menard text are verbally identical,” the narrator admits, “but the second is almost infinitely richer” (94). And, as Menard himself writes, while “composing the Quixote in the early seventeenth century was a reasonable, necessary, perhaps even inevitable undertaking; in the early twentieth it is virtually impossible.” This “virtually impossible” aspect of Menard’s achievement would seem to place it at least virtually on the side of the real, at least as Lacan defines the real through virtually all of his teaching.

But Lacan’s real is not just impossible, virtually or otherwise. Attaining to it would not be a matter of undertaking a “task of infinite complexity,” of producing endless drafts to be relegated to whatever “cheery bonfire” in a world where “every man” would “be capable of all ideas” (95), such that any man, were he to live long enough, would by the law of eternal returns necessarily repeat any idea in whatever form it had once found expression ­­(“The task I have undertaken is not in essence difficult,” Menard writes, “If I could just be immortal, I could do it”[(91-92]). Attaining to the real would not be a question of the bad or, more often, utopian infinities with which Borges’ fictions are characteristically fraught, let alone of essences. “If space is infinite, we are anywhere, at any point in space,” declares the anonymous Orkney-island trader of “The Book of Sand.” “If time is infinite, we are at any point in time” (482). “I too am not I,” proclaims God from the whirlwind to the chronically dis-individuated Shakespeare of “Everything and Nothing;” “I dreamed the world as you, Shakespeare, dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one” (320). The Lacanian real, on the other hand, returns in a specific time and is situated in a particular space ­­–– by definition, it is what always returns to the same place. And the rhythm of that spacial-temporal, jouisssance-substantiated return constitutes what Lacan calls, in his final teaching, the Sinthome:  “what there is of the singular for each individual,” what we can in fact identify with as individuals. There is in this something of the One (Y’a de l’Un) that definitively resists inclusion in the “every” if not the “any.”

Pierre Menard and the narrator seem to waffle on their distinctions between the contingent, the necessary, and the impossible. Evidently, neither, at it seems to me, has as precise an understanding of these terms as did the late Lacan –– and Menard, after all, is characterized by “his resigned or ironic habit of putting forth ideas that were the exact opposite of those he actually held” (93). Early in the same paragraph where he writes of the seventeenth century composition of the Quixote as a “necessary, perhaps even inevitable undertaking” Menard declares that “The Quixote is a contingent work; the Quixote is not necessary.” Cervantes “did not spurn the collaboration of chance; his method of composition for the immortal book was a bit à la diable, and he was often swept along by the inertiae of the language and the imagination” (92), whereas Menard’s reconstruction would entail an eradication “by irrefutable arguments” of any “formal or psychological variants” he might “try out” in coming to the “’original’” text (93). Could the greater richness of Menard’s version be owed to a logical necessity purified of such contingencies, historical, biographical, linguistic, or otherwise, that contaminated and limited Cervantes’ version? In that sense, Menard’s undertaking would be impossible.

Menard, of course, may have been something of a mythomaniac--and the narrator, a little too eager to believe in the Menardian myth, in Menard’s achievement of the impossible. Lacan’s formulation of the necessary situates it in part in the realm of the mythic, in the upper left-hand tier of his sexuation tables, where there exists one that would not be subject the law of castration, a One who would correspond to Freud’s mythic father of the primal horde. He is the One who enjoys all the women; in this context he could be Menard as enjoyer, as possessor, of all ideas and all the forms of their expression. And while the “resigned” and “ironic” Menard may have not actually believed in his project, the narrator clearly does, thereby situating himself on the bottom left-hand tier of table among the sons whose belief in, whose love for, the dead father-jouisseur render them en puissance de castration, and in the register of the possible. In this instance, the narrator may be the only member of the horde in question, but in his missionary zeal to save the father, to defend the legacy of this recently deceased father-figure,  he confesses that he often imagines, based on only a few extant fragments, that Menard completed the “entire Quixote” (92). Experiencing his own castration in the form of not being able to reconstruct the “thousands of handwritten pages” that Menard, “lit by midnight oil,” “stubbornly corrected” and “ripped up,” the narrator attributes to Menard a singular status:  “only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the labors of the first, would be able to exhume and revive those Troys . . .” (95), would be able to recover those “endless” lucubrations. (language as a lucubration of knowledge on lalangue).

Of course I was joking when I compared myself to Menard, but translating for me has often taken on for me a certain quality of the necessary. Going beyond myth to logical categories he adapted from Aristotle, from myth to structure, Lacan defined the necessary as “that which does not cease to write itself.” My translating work certainly has been ceaseless­­­­­­­­­­­--in going through my back-files the other day, I noticed I had translated a lot of things I didn’t even remember translating. But more to the point, I have continued to work on certain of them, on and off, for nearly thirty years. My translating process itself has, in a sense, been burdened by the necessary, particularly when it comes Lacan’s later écrits. When my translations were unofficial and, strictly-speaking, illegal, I distributed them to whoever wanted them always with the caveat that they were works in progress. Recently, people have begun to ask me to translate for publication. My work since then has been burdened in a different way, by the fact I need to present my translations as finished products by a specified date. There has to be a cessation, they have to enter into the register of that which ceases to write itself, which is how Lacan defines the possible. And as a corollary to this, when they do so, they become legal, subject to the communitarian law of the peer-reviewed academic journal horde and the Other of copyright law. My translating seems harder now, more like real work; what began as hobby, a way to put off working on my dissertation, has become a second job--on top of my day job, the one that puts food on the table. And the whole business has come en puissance de castration, which might be translatable as “in the thrall of castration,” “under the authority of castration,” or “with the potential of being castrated” among other possibilities (I still haven’t decided what it means in the Lacanian context or in my own). Strictly speaking, translating may be undecidable--situated between the impossible and the contingent.

I borrowed my title from the translation I have worked on the longest of all, Lituraterre. “Perpetual translation made language” is how Lacan describes the culture of the Japanese in a discussion that could well be deemed racist and de-humanizing—though Lacan doesn’t seem to put much stock in the human--and at the very least seems to represent the Japanese as unanalyzable. This idea has certainly been criticized, including by Japanese, practicing Lacanian psychoanalysts like Shin’ya Ogasawara. As Ogasawara glosses this text and also my own (this one!) on translation,

If Lacan says that the Japanese have no need of psychoanalysis, it is because he thinks

that, given that in the Japanese language there is an already established correspondence between the register of the "on-yomi" and that of the "kun-yomi," there is an automatic translation from the register of the letter of the "on-yomi" to that of the speech of the "kun-yomi"--which is to say there is a deciphering that dispenses with the artifice of analytic discourse. This is what Lacan thinks in his “Avis au lecteur japonais,” where he says that "in the Japanese language, the distance of the unconscious from speech--this gap is so risky to open up in other languages—is tangible." In this sentence, the unconscious is to taken as the register of the One, of the letter, of the ciphering. And when Lacan in the "Postface" to Séminaire XI evokes an image "of rays that trickle as if from so many sluices," these sluices would designate the "on-yomi" [Chinese characters] that encrust Japanese sentences, and where, thanks to the automatic deciphering, one could pass without any help from the register of the letter to that of speech. Only, this idea of Lacan’s about the Japanese language is a theoretical model constructed by him as a limit-case of "psychoanalyzability." If the Japanese language attracts his attention, it is because he thinks, as he says in “Avis au lecteur japonais,” that "not everyone has the good fortune of speaking Chinese in his language," which is to say that whoever speaks Japanese speaks another language at the same time without knowing it: that there, clear for all to see (à ciel ouvert) is a "that speaks (ça parle) another language." In the Japanese language the duplicity of the register of language is manifest as such, in the form of the duplicity of the "on-yomi" and the "kun-yomi": a duplicity "so risky to open up" in other languages and that was only brought to light by the Freudian discovery of the unconscious, and a duplicity on which Lacan never stopped insisting--as is indicated by the two chains of the graph of desire, his opposition of letter to speech, and his notions of ciphering and deciphering. Lacan's theoretical construction consists of superimposing the duplicity of the register of the "on-yomi" and the "kun-yomi" on the more general duplicity of the register of language. (Ogasawara, trans. by author)


Works Cited

Borges, Luis Jorge.  “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley.  New York & London: Penguin, 1999, 88-95.

Ogasawara, Shin’ya.  “L’instance de la letter dans l’inconscient japonais. Ornicar?digital. http://wapol.org/ornicar/articles/ogw0068.htm






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