Fearful Asymmetries: A Manifesto of Cultural Translation Tomislav Z. Longinović


In alchemy, as in translation across cultures, the knowledge gained in the passage over the domestic/foreign divide is imagined as a secret for­mula which enables the movement from one state to another, with an increase in the value of the original. In cultural translation, the new enti­ty produced by this transformation opens up a space of the national in-between, the gold of hybrid and mobile identities amid the current catastrophes of war and terror. This type of cultural surplus value is gained in translation broadly conceived, in the desire of the translator for the literal transformation of the world as a word into a myriad of mean­ings and values that move beyond the nostalgic desire for return to the primary and the original. The colonial projects of modern and ancient empires, grounded in the spirit of mission and conquest, tried to appro­priate translation as a tool of administration of power that did not count on the byproduct of hybrid cultures whose paradoxical makeup cuts across the binaries of domination/submission.


Translation poses a primary problem to the diverse field of literary and cultural studies, since the unpredictable effects of global cultural flows can no longer be researched in closed disciplinary and linguistic contexts. The aim of cultural translation is to initiate a dialogue between the specif­ic cultural localities and a variety of transnational projects instrumental in furthering rival political agendas. Some of the questions opened up by the encounter between cultures in translation are the following: What happens when the disparate “national stories” are placed into interactions in cases of forced population transfers due to war and economic migra­tions? How do relationships between cultures of birth and exile affect core definitions of the “native”? How do these new, hybrid forms of cul­tural interaction “translate” and domesticate particular political practices?

The potential for cultural encounters that subvert any particular national or cultural sense of belonging requires articulations of identity beyond the strictures of the global/local binary. The hybrid performance of the cultural “in-between” is encountered by translators who engage in becoming across languages and cultures, as the mobile universe of semiosis emerges between the interacting economies in the fallout of current pressures of economic globalization. The activity of cultural translators is not confined to the emergent field of academic study devoted to the cul­tural “in-between,” but always involves a performative theory of everyday life for the different locations of particular linguistic communities. Academic experts interested in crossing between the traditional area studies boundaries are developing this new type of scholarship, making the expertise in lesser-taught foreign languages instrumental for the emer­gence of new forms of thought in the humanities and social sciences.


Semiosis is a linguistic performance by which meanings pass through a network of discursive practices ritualized by a certain community around a given notion of identity to create new meanings. The identity which has remained untouched by the increasing multilingualism of the global ethnoscape clings to the limits imposed by a particular semiotic code as the marker of the proper. Since proper names are least translatable, they are paramount in the creation of both individual and collective forms of identity. The defamiliarizing effect of the “foreign” in the use of a particu­lar language opens up the space of cultural alterity inhabited by the legal and illegal immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers as well as itinerant aca­demics.

The process of semiosis in translation is closest to the metaphor of the philosopher’s stone. The contact between two different semiotic registers is the broadest possible definition of translation. The register can be lin­guistic or cultural, visual or performative, but the outcomes of translation will significantly depend on the ways in which the bodies, literal or textu­al, articulate the process of mutual identification. Since both the perform­ers of the artistic and mundane provenance engage in an ongoing crossing from the normative codes of ìoneís ownî into the realm of what is experi­enced as an alien and foreign semiotic articulation of identity, translation is always plagued by this double bind of global inequality, or fearful asymmetry, in the rate and value of minor culture’s representation.


The strong need for expertise in “foreign” languages is not only essen­tial for purposes of mutual intelligibility between different “national” lan­guages and traditions, but also for the more comprehensive processes of cross-cultural hybridization that produce new and different types of iden­tity. Both “literary” and “technical” translation practices are a conduit for the crossing of global divides, yet the realm of cultural translation remains less researched in the field of both cultural and translation stud­ies. If class, race, and gender are to remain the indisputable trinity of cul­tural studies, they need to turn to the invaluable, yet underrated, semiotic experience of translation as a “practice of everyday life” for those identi­ties that find themselves in the ranks of exiles, immigrants, and refugees.

These identities-in-translation experience displacement as a result of ethnic conflict, economic devastation, and other forms of violence which contribute to the creation of a globalization of an unwanted kind. The demand for recognition coming from this growing segment of hybrid cul­tural populations displaced across the globe is the symptom of emergent identities that survive on the periphery of different national projects. These identities require a particular form of translation—one that does not reach for easy equivalents in order to quickly domesticate the alien, but seeks to live with the defamiliarizing effects of the alterity of identities beyond one’s own.


The problem of equivalence between certain linguistic terms carries within itself a form of identity that each particular act of translation assumes in order to promote understanding between the mutually “foreign” cultural contexts. This foreignness of the foreign proper to the local resists the search for equivalence by performing different rites of secrecy around its “identity cores.” The identity-indifference produced by the bridging act of translation is often experienced as a form of violence upon a particular linguistic, artistic, cultural, and ultimately national form of being and belonging. This pain and anxiety over the translation’s failure to achieve the plenitude of linguistic coupling is expressed by the various theories of untranslatability. The local simply resists translation by vari­ous secretive maneuvers symptomatic of a cultural posture that simulta­neously forecloses its meaning beyond its own internally erected bound­aries and performs a kind of desperate nationalism to resist globalization.

The particularity of linguistic idioms built into this exceptional form of identity often does not allow word-for-word translation, but employs a mechanism similar to the metaphoric displacement available within the semiotic range of a single language to account for the failure of equiva­lence. The impossible-yet-necessary search for equivalence in translation requires a flight and becoming across languages, a process whose difficul­ty depends on the level of proficiency achieved by the cultural translator. The process of semiotic flight is deceptive since it betrays the absolute demand for identity between the mutually “foreign” linguistic signs, a demand that originates from monolingual contexts of proper identity. The hybrid nature of bicultural or multicultural situations never even poses the question of equivalence, since what appears to be the translation’s imperfection is built into the very identity of bridging cultures from the start. The impossibility of absolute sameness in translation opens a hori­zon for a new performance of cultural identity as a process of dynamic exchange between semiotic registers motivated by nonhierarchical open­ness and movements of meaning and identity.


Beyond the postcolonial context, cultural translators perform the role of a global “philosopher’s stone,” embodying the paradoxes engendered between the poles of collaboration with the dominant cultural forces and a resistance articulated through intervention in the existent semiosis of hierarchies within the global ethnoscape. Cultural translation is desired as a voluntary encounter between two or more traditions framed by the utopian horizon of peaceful coexistence which seemed within reach after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The vision of clashing cultural forces of pseudoreligious origin (Christian/ Muslim, for example) naturalizes dif­ferences in order to establish the most powerful strategy of political dom­ination by the US. The untold narrative of identity that underlies the current ideology of globalization positions the Other as the desired object of either cultural assimilation or exclusion. The postcommunist universe featured a similar logic of the natural law, shrouded in the return to the culture of particular ethnicity or religion. Uncomplicated by the myriad identities which continue to emerge through postnational encounters to perform a less combative version of cultural memoryscapes, this shared political vision misses cultural complexities to favor a hunger for domina­tion.

The modern desire for leaving one’s own cocoon and morphing into other identities through foreign cultures is characterized by the assimila­tion that intimidates the Other with a loss of identity and annihilation. The narcissistic recognition of “my own” self in the Other denies similar pleasures to the Other, as it relegates it to the position of the mirror or the screen in which the subject of power contemplates its self-reflection. This masculinist theory of cultural translation has been appropriated for colonial projects in which the Other is loved with the embrace that trans­forms its Otherness into a function of the self while leaving the Other rejected and scorned as lower and inferior.

The resistance of the cultural translator is enacted as a hybrid cultural performance that provides the alternative to the agonistic “clash of civi­lizations’ view that blinds the current vision of our most global economic and military force, yet such performance simultaneously envisions a new horizon of cultural translation rooted in the preservation of alterity as a potential for a full specter of hybrid cultural practices—a vision of Other­ness that works through strategics that do not employ memory in its sacri­ficial modes. The commitment to the Other demands an articulation of collective identity beyond the nation and its corporate sponsors. The often invisible act of cultural translation is an exemplary practice where the play of differences continues to challenge the way boundaries of eth­nic, cultural, racial, and national identities are erected after the end of Cold War. The intellectual networks which have accepted the tattered legacy of humanism as their professional burden are turning to cultural translation as a tool for coming to terms with differences, both within and without a given culture.


The emergence of postnational identities may themselves be rooted in a long prehistory of cosmopolitan coexistence in the periods before modernity. The historicist model of collective identity posits the monu­mental memory of the nation as the very origin and essence of the lin­guistic, racial, or cultural foundation of the people, failing to narrate the complexities of intercommunal becoming. Cultural origins of different nations are often narrated through the agonistic vision of “one’s own” specific story of collective identity and its past, present, and future adver­saries. Those static methodologies feature memory as a monument erect­ed from the blood of the people, bypassing translation as a channel to grasp the complex process of national formation.

The responsibility of the translator is located wherever one reads and wherever one looks, both in the secure hostility of the last remaining superpower’s wounded pride and in the chaotic multiplicity of wars which rock the global political boat with increasing intensity. The task of bearing witness to alterity in semiotic articulations that resist easy trans­lation is motivated by the constant probing of the space “in-between,” recognizing the layers of possible meanings which could emerge to both obscure and elucidate “the original.” Those articulations that exist beyond the reach of originality are born as mobile entities which have the poten­tial to voice a different way of being and belonging, as they emerge from local and global traumas to modify the narratives about their own collec­tive identity within the new contexts of semiotic emergence.


The process of metaphoric displacement of the literal into the figura­tive is analogous to the semiosis inherent in the process of cultural trans­lation. The horizon of translatability promises an identity that has the possibility to displace the sacrificial understanding of its own origins. Such a performance would move away from difference as a disruptive entity engendered by the effects of mediation between the literal/original and the figurative/translation. The gain in translation, the previously invisible aspect of the original mirrored in the other, creates the space and time beyond the cultural divide, a continuum of transition between different registers of cultural exchange.

Touched off by territorial wars, colonial projects, economic enslave­ment, and other processes made possible by travel and translation, the refugee communities around the world imagine their respective identities as a series of movements along the arrival/settlement/return axis of tem­poral and spatial movements. This involuntary nomadism forces a radical interrogation of identity as a category tied to the chronotopes of homoge­nous territory and single national narratives.

The reshuffling between the original and translation creates move­ments of culture that disrupt the silence of the nation. By creating move­ments whose divergent cultural roots defy narratives of belonging to a particular form of identity, cultural translators carry a segment of some imaginary home that is always displaced beyond the reach of memory as loss and sacrifice. The semiotic crossing between languages, cultures, and identities is never quite reducible to what things, events, and concepts “mean” in simple dictionary definitions. This is particularly true since the process of translation involves the transposition of one set of “foreign” cultural codes into a new, “domestic” set of cultural meanings, while the referential universe remains peculiarly suspended in the process. This suspension of “reality” in the process of translation between languages manifests irreducible differences that are proper to each of the registers placed in an encounter of cultural bridging, which echoes the impossibili­ty of total translation between cultures.


Both the symbolic and the material aspects of “that-which-does-not-mean-yet” in translation are comparable to the conceptions of persistent untranslatability. Those figurations of the local, consumed by the need to hide themselves from the insatiable desire for knowledge present in every translation, are imagined as native, articulated to resist cultural domination by the invocation of the secret. The untranslatability of the secret is the secret of translation, its life and survival the most underval­ued of humanist practices. Never entirely reduced to a single framework of meaning, cultural translators invoke the metaphor of the secret to test the limit of “human/ist” imagination by perpetually crossing from one register to another, charting the cultural limit of translatability between particular language-based articulations of identity and alterity.

This process of endless translation between politically unequal cultural traditions creates communities which strive to hide and run from any form of knowledge based on absolute domination by the US. That which is own and proper to the people, like the wound of 9/11, shrouds the pain of imperial identity confronted with violent forms of untrans­latability. The silence and secrecy of every trauma shared by the “nation­al” subjects, who each imagine Ground Zero as a sacrificial territory for a community of mourners, are universal symptoms of traumatized identity. National silences are places of real danger, locations of anger against easi­ly translatable enemies, where narratives of righteous revenge occlude the vision of cultural complexities denied to the Other.


The survival of local narratives and rituals as untranslatable events does not insure their permanence and purity as life-affirming practices of a community. The ongoing engagement with the global warrants a partic­ular performance of cultural translation by placing an emphasis on searching for locations which certain cultures consider untranslatable. The oblique modes of identity dramatize the loss of national narratives while bypassing the dialectic of secrecy. However hard the continuing colonial projects try to usurp our current temporality in the guise of glob­alization, the painful understanding of particular “national” blind spots (like the Kosovo of my ancestors) as sacrificial locations beyond which only violence can be the proper response to the radical cultural alterity of “the terrorist” requires a radical interrogation of national identity as a homogenous cultural construct. Those who resist domination by clinging to the core, which is imagined as unalienable and proper to the “nation­al,” risk using silence as the refuge of the untranslatable, the most sacred space of “national” identity as a symptom of an ongoing trauma of victimization proper only to those who mourn and avenge without too many words.


The horizon of cultural exchange is envisioned as an activity of differ­ence which forces “silences” out of their identity chambers to witness the impermanence and insecurity of the Other. Opening the path to the Other, while being aware that the Other may not offer to display all its secrets, affects the articulation of identity as a motion between different faces of alterity. The veil which hides the secret of communities, whose identity emerges as a result of smallness, weakness, and submission, is shaded by “local color” as an effect of travel and translation. If a culture makes visible those facets of identity which are easily domesticated as favorite tourist destinations, the task of cultural translation is to seek out nomadic articulations and lines of flight which provide that identity with a possibility of shrouding itself from the gaze of the global.

The new modes of encountering allow each participant culture to remain shrouded in the untranslatable cloak of silence, if the embrace of the Other becomes burdensome and painful. Always interrogating any stable and ideologically enforced project used to mobilize “the people” to commit acts of violence, this practice invokes infinite responsibility as a horizon of ethics beyond the liberal concern based on “good conscience.” Its task is to reveal the global hypocrisy constructed around a clear vision between the Heimlich “here” and the Unheimlich “there.” The practice of cultural translation yields emergent structures of experience and imagina­tion beyond the easy binaries of the proper and the alien in the domain of a singular cultural idiom or linguistic practice.

The fragile cloak of silence does not guarantee the preservation of cul­tural singularity as a location not open to the epistemological appropria­tion by the Other. The migration of meaning takes place in the process of semiosis performed by the cultural translators who recognize the sporadic and unpredictable desire of the other to remain shrouded in secre­cy. The practice of cultural translation goes on both here and there, at the multiple locations where the limits of cultural translatability do not coin­cide with the ethical limits of ruthless corporate globalization.


The heterogeneous sphere of human cultures is a site where the secret of translation lurks behind the narratives about the originary loss of inno­cence and gain of identity through the sacrificial rituals of communal becoming. This spectral form of national identity imagines itself through a logic which expels generalized forms of alterity to conquer the semiotic space of the proper and claim its right to organize violence against those cultures whose meanings get blurred and violated by brutal forms of domestication. The Other becomes the limit beyond which identity can only defend itself and engage in a translation of cultural differences that produces meaningful but fearful asymmetries.

This is the practice of translation that recognizes the shroud which separates the participants in the seductive encounter between cultures, where giving oneself over to the Other is not prescriptive and normative but situational and elective. This mode of interaction is characteristic of diasporic and migrant cultures which pair survival with performances of the in-between of languages and identities. If alchemy hides the secret desire of the natural sciences to transform and dominate the material uni­verse, then translation hides the origin of the humanities in the process of a constant search for new forms of knowledge in the cultural domain.


Tomislav Z. Longinović, “Fearful Asymmetries: A Manifesto of Cultural Translation,” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 35, no. 2 (2002), p. 5–12.