Sunday, June 8, 2008

The dynamics of translation

by Dr. Tyrone Williams

Long before Barack Obama secured the Democratic Party presidential nomination, long before Hillary Clinton began using him as a barometer of racial parochialism, pundits of all persuasions were overtly or covertly asking and wondering one thing: Can Obama translate a party nomination into a viable national campaign? The words translate and translation are rarely used in local campaigns but they show up frequently during statewide and national election years. Their usage presumes, from the start (actually, even before the start), that a particular candidate has “limited” appeal, which in turn presupposes a “general” consensus. And as the term translation suggests, limitation and generality are both linked to language. Despite the ritualistic appeals to “personality” and “likeability,” everyone recognizes the centrality of language during campaigns, which is why the media and voters tend to focus on what words are spoken by candidates. Of course, words do not alone constitute a language. If that were true, translations would be relatively easy. But translations are hard because of the different kinds of contexts that make words “mean.” And it is precisely certain contexts that the media excises, and certain contexts that it exaggerates (or invents), in much the way that media photographs are cropped to narrow “readings” down to incontrovertible and particular meanings. Recontextualizing words from one frame of reference to another, like cropping a photograph, is a form of translation, one which always has specific political, cultural and social—in sum, historical—effects.

The very act of translation opens up an aperture through which we glimpse the dynamics of history as an endless replaying of the slave-master dialectic—that is, the slavemaster and Master—or Mister—Slave. That is, one language, however defined, is always “master” and one language is always “slave.” One translates from one language into another for those who cannot—do not—will not—speak the language of origin. Capability, status and volition straddle the nurture/nature divide aslant—as though one “leg” were shorter than the other, as one though one language were “taller” (perhaps closer to divinity), as though one linguistic system were “normal,” another, “disabled.” One does not have to be conscious of this intrinsically unequal relationship between any two languages; inequality is the presupposition of translation.

Consider the examples of two men: Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama. Among all the accusations and finger-pointing, I want to cite three commentaries that illustrate the ends of translation—and the beginning of the slave-master dialectic. In his New Republic essay “Cool We Can Believe In” novelist/poet Paul Beatty attempts to pin down Obama’s apparent invulnerability to closet skeletons, his anti-Tar Baby immunity, to that most ineffable of blues and jazz attitudes-sans-attitude—cool. This updated stoicism, for Beatty, is the very antithesis of translation—it does not convert, change or represent. It is before all morality, outside any ethos. It is the analogue to reading a poem in a language you do not understand. Or as Adam Clark, a theologian at Xavier University, put it: “The language of the black church that conveys this oppositionality [to empire] does not translate well into the arena of presidential politics. It was never intended to.” Cool cannot be translated—you either get it or you don’t. And so, writes Kofi Natambu, both men should have simply agreed to disagree. I concur but such a possibility depends on black men recognizing—no, remembering—that they are individual black men. But a preacher and a politician have a hard time remembering this since, in their chosen professions, they presume to speak for others, to surrender their individual selves for a larger cause. Of course, as everyone from the editors of the New York Times to FOX News has recognized, it would not have mattered much anyway since, truth to tell, in America there are no individual black men or women allowed in public. There are only translators who speak at least two languages, and those dead, as dead as Latin, as labor, so goes the story. The facts of his particular case aside, Mike Tyson’s arrest and conviction on rape charges several years ago was read by the media itself (and no doubt certain segments of the American public) as a referendum on the O.J. Simpson case, on that black man having “gotten away” with murder. I repeat: there are no individual black men or women allowed in public.

Ethnic minorities and women have known this for sometime, which is one reason why this particular presidential nomination race was so bitter. The fact is, rightly or wrongly, gender politics does figure into American public life—including elections—which does not obviate its racial politics (cf. Tyson and Simpson above). This dynamic is never easily “translated” from one sphere into the other, for as my comments above about translation in general suggest, translation between two “languages” (e.g. the black church and hegemonic “public” discourse, gender and race) is never performed on an even playing field. One language is always presumed “inferior” to the other (e.g., the American fascination with British English and royalty, the Diana cult, etc.). The Obama-Clinton campaigns thus resembled, all too cannily, the Susan B. Anthony-Frederick Douglass debates and ugly back-and-forth recriminations of the 19th century, a debate over “who” deserved the vote first—black men or white women, a debate which erased black women, as Sojourner Truth reminded both Anthony and Douglass. To argue over which was “worse”—the race-baiting or the subtle (and not so subtle) woman-baiting—is to fall into the translation trap, to assume that one has to choose one “language”(race or gender) over another.

If translation always presumes an uneven playing field, then it will not be difficult to judge which “language” plays the role of the inferior in the upcoming presidential campaign. The fact that John McCain doesn’t even have to deal with the question of “translation” speaks volumes. Obama will have to put black people and other people of color, to say nothing of working class people and young people in general, on the back burner, so goes the conventional political wisdom. But what if there is no dominant language out there? What if there are only particular ethnic, gender and economic groups all vying for their share of that ever-dwindling American pie. What if one refused to pick? What is translation in that scenario?

Dr. Williams is a poet, literary theorist, cultural critic, and Professor of English at Xavier University in Ohio.