‘Transgressive Circulation’: Translation and the Threat of Foreign Influence

By | 1 November 2016


This anxiety about foreign influence – and the attempt to abject both the translation and the receiver of the translation – is an anxiety about the ‘transgressive circulation’ of translation and poetry itself. I take the phrase ‘transgressive circulation’ from John Durham Peters’s book of media history, Speaking Into The Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. In the book, Peters argues that ‘communication’ is inextricably interwoven with the threat of ‘communication failure’ or even ‘communication breakdown.’ Like translation, which in modern times appears inextricably bound up with translation failure (or even breakdown), communication and communication failure are inseparable:

Communication is a homeopathic remedy: the disease and the cure are in cahoots. It is a compensatory ideal whose force depends on its contrast with failure and breakdown. Miscommunication is the scandal that motivates the very concept of communication in the first place.1

For Peters, this inextricable relationship between the idealisation of communication as the ‘contact between interiorities’ and the ensuing fear of the corruption – or ‘loss’ – of this interiority in the act of communication is a key to understanding the way Western culture has discussed media, writing and communication over the past two hundred years, and even beyond. For the purposes of this essay, we can see how the supposed ‘impossibility’ of translation is repeatedly invoked to hold up the impossible ideal of poetry as an idealised act of true communication, as something that is not ‘lost in translation’ to begin with, as the unmediated ‘contact between interiorities.’ In order to have poetry, you must have translation, poetry’s corrupt double.


Peters traces the history of this ideal of communication back through Western history. Plato’s Phaedra provides a particularly illuminating moment in this history. In this book, Socrates condemns writing for being sensationalistic because it spreads ideas outside the immediacy of personal exchanges, outside the context of a community in which people know each other, into foreign areas where the readers may misunderstand the text. Peters writes:

The mis-en-scén of the dialogue thus sketches the theme of the transgressive circulation of the written word, its ability to wander beyond the original context of its oral, interactive presence, just as Phaedrus and Socrates circulate outside the bounds of the city.’2

Language becomes a source of confusion precisely because of its transmission: the circulation of texts opens the ideas up to the threat of noise and excess.

The circulation of texts leads to problems not only of interpretation, but of power and erotics. According to Peters, Socrates argues that writing will lead to a power imbalance because, to read a text – to put a foreign text in one’s mouth, and thus one’s body – is akin to being controlled by a foreign writer. Peters paraphrases Socrates’s views: ‘To read – which meant to read aloud – was to relinquish control of one’s body to the (masculine) writer, to yield to a distant dominating body.’ Speaking to a person you know (someone from inside Athens) ‘face-to-face’ for Socrates was a democratic – ‘platonic’ – ideal. Reading a foreign writer, taking that foreign writer’s words inside your body was akin to being sodomised, to losing one’s sovereignty, one’s autonomy.

Plato’s emphasis on community and the one-on-one model of communication makes ‘dissemination’ of texts outside the community of Athens inherently unethical, even counterfeit. Moving outside of the community, the original context, the familiar, becomes suspect because it ‘destroys authentic dialogue.’ But dialogue, as Peters points out, may not always be the best model of exchange. Considered in the context of translation, it can seem defensive or even xenophobic. If you insist that you be able to have a ‘dialogue’ with every writer you read, you will not read many authors, especially authors far away from you (depending on whether the internet is considered an authentic dialogue). More importantly, this ideal of dialogue suggests that one should always have a word in, that one should never have to be overtaken by the foreign, never be immersed in the foreign influence.

  1. Peters, John Durham. Speaking Into the Air: A History of the idea of Communication, pg. 6.
  2. Ibid, pg. 38
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