The Affront of Untranslatability

A chapter in Duncan Large, Motoko Akashi, Wanda Józwikowska, Emily Rose (Eds.), Untranslatability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge, 2018Untranslatability

Untranslatability is, already on the face of it, a less-than-amicable discourse, prone to offence and to disturbing interdisciplinary peace. Now a century and a half since Whitman’s penning of “Song of Myself,” socalled Untranslatables continue to “sound [their] barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” whether or not they are appreciated when and where they do so (Whitman [1855] 2016: 183). This chapter is devoted not to repairing the word untranslatability’s accumulated impertinences, but to canvassing a range of typical scenarios that, when viewed collectively, might account for the social effrontery inherent in untranslatability as a concept, a charge or a gesture. This is thus not an apologetic exploration, nor one that sets out to delimit the phenomenon of untranslatability as such-as so many other thoughtful investigations in this book do-but is rather an attempt to understand the complex, even chaotic illocutionary force that calling something “untranslatable” routinely unleashes in various scholarly and everyday conversations. To the extent that the reader agrees with the notion that effrontery is somehow immanent in the word untranslatable, and that a variety of typical scenarios of affront collude with one another to intensify for the word an arch and casuistic aura, we may then consider whether the concept of untranslatability is-despite itself-still capable of holding water in scholarly work, cultural politics and indeed activism, and whether any modest adjustments might mitigate its performative excesses thus far.

About livelongday

Associate Professor of German Studies, Director of Graduate Studies Co-Editor of Critical Multilingualism Studies | Co-Investigator, Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law, and the State (2014–2017)
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