“The Invisible Hands that Control Translation”

Doug Robinson

This paper is part of an unfinished book-length project; I have provided hypertext links to some snippets from that project to give you some sense of the bigger picture. Basically, however, the project is an attempt to explore the nature of the “agencies” that control translation (the individual translator? the source author? the target culture, in the form of the marketplace? technology?) by looking closely at an analogy that has not been explored before: that between translation and spirit-channeling–communicating with and/or mediating for others the spirits of dead or “discarnate” people. When translators say that their job is to “step aside and let the original author speak through them,” I’m suggesting, that is close enough to what is traditionally thought of as spirit-channeling or psychic communication with the dead to make the analogy potentially worth exploring. The translator is a “medium” or mediator who channels the “spirit” or voice or meaning or intention of the source author across linguistic and cultural and temporal barriers to a new audience that could not have understood that source author without such mediation. The translator does not speak in his or her own voice; s/he speaks in the voice of the original author. The translator does not convey to the target audience his or her own ideas, meanings, arguments, images; s/he is a neutral and noncommittal conduit to the target audience of the ideas and meanings of the original author. (For a short history of spirit-channeling, click here.)

The analogy suggests both

(a) that the source author has the power to initiate communication with the target audience through the translator (the author is active, the translator is passive, or at the very most active only in the act of surrendering his/her activity to that of the author), and

(b) that the translator possesses some means of gaining access to the author’s voice and meaning, of reliably “opening up” to the intentional speaking of a person who is almost invariably other (sometimes translators translate source texts they wrote themselves, but usually the source author is another person), most often distant in time and place, and not infrequently dead.

(For more detailed philosophical ruminations on these two claims in terms of the unknowability of the Kantian Ding-an-Sich, click here. For a discussion of the problem in terms of universalism and relativism, click here.)

And indeed historically many translations have been presented as explicitly channeled from the spirit world. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that when they speak in tongues (what we might call spirit-channeled foreign-language skills) they should also pray for the ability to interpret what the glossolalists speak; this latter would be spirit-channeled conference interpreting. The belief that certain Bible translations are “divinely inspired” is fundamentally a belief that they were spirit-channeled. (For further discussion of spirit-channeled translations and interpretations in Christianity, click here.) Joseph Smith also claimed to translate The Book of Mormon from the ancient Egyptian through spirit-channeling.

What interests me here, however, is the range of ways in which this idea has been secularized in Western thought as an expression of our continuing sense–despite two-plus millennia of emerging rationalism and the now-dominant belief that we are the captains of our own souls–that there are forces both outside us and inside us that wield us as their tools. In the rationalist model that prevails in most translation theory (indeed in most theory period), the translator is a rational agent in control of his or her actions, including speech and thought; when the translator must make a decision, at whatever level–whether to translate a text, how to translate a text, what word or phrase to use, etc.–s/he acts as a single unified being under the command of a single unified ruler, reason. Reason gathers intelligence, charts a course of action, gives a series of commands, and carries them out. There are no competing forces inside the translator’s head. Nor is reason an external force, wielded by God or spirits or other people: it is the translator, the translator’s mind, the truest core of the translator’s professional being. Other people can exert coercive influence on the translator, but the translator only surrenders to such coercion if reason decides that this is the wisest course.

Clearly, the spirit-channeling model flies right in the face of this rationalist tradition. It posits an entire army of what Adam Smith famously called “invisible hands,” which shape, direct, regulate, control translation. Indeed, one of those “invisible hands” would be reason itself, which ideology theorists beginning with Friedrich Nietzsche would identify as an internalized form of ideological mastery, the voice of external social control that commands the individual from inside his or her own head. Just as the spirit seizes or possesses the channel and speaks or otherwise operates through the channel’s willing body, so too does ideology and its agents–including reason–seize or possess the ideological subject and wield that subject’s body as (virtually) its own.

In fact Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals offers an early, powerful, and extremely influential statement of the shaping of the individual by collective forces. Nietzsche’s work was complicated in influential ways by the French neomarxist theorist Louis Althusser, in what he calls “interpellation” or hailing: just as the spirit hails the channel through whom he or she wishes to speak–appearing before for the clairvoyant, welling up inside her head a verbal like pressure begging to be released for the clairaudient–so too does ideology hail the translator as translator, the critic as critic, any other subject as subject. How did we learn what to do when we first began to translate? Readers, editors, users, teachers gave us feedback; channeling that feedback, we were channeling ideology. Our “helpers” channeled it to us; we channel it to others. They hailed us as translators; we hail others. Translators know certain things: how to regulate the degree of “fidelity” with the source text, how to tell what degree and type of fidelity is appropriate in specific use contexts, how to receive and deliver translations, how to charge for them, how to find help with terminology, how to talk and generally act like a professional, and so on. Translators are those people who know these things, and who let their knowledge govern their behavior. And that knowledge is ideological. It is controlled by ideological norms. To know what those norms prescribe and act upon them is to submit to control by them. To become a translator is to be hailed or interpellated as a translator by what Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses, or what Adam Smith would call the “invisible hand” of the market. (For Jacques Derrida on Marx and capitalist spectrality, click here.) If you want to become a translator, you must submit to the translator’s submissive role, submit to being “possessed” by what ideological norms inform you is the spirit of the source author, and to channeling that spirit unchanged into the target language. What you are then channeling, in this ideological perspective, is no such thing, of course; Althusser at least would certainly want to insist that there are no spirits in the occult sense of discarnate persons, disembodied beings who once lived on this earth; this is all a myth propagated by societal authorities who want to fill that myth’s empty husk with their own author-functions (to invoke a Foucauldian term), their own generalized “intentions” for transmission from language to language.

Let’s now take a closer look at Adam Smith’s references to an “invisible hand” [links missing] –that mysterious force that leads merchants in a free market to promote collective interests while intending only to satisfy self-interest. As Emma Rothschild notes, Smith used the phrase twice in economic contexts. The first mention comes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), where it is used sardonically to describe rapacious entrepreneurs for whom the common good is the last thing on their mind, but who nevertheless in the pursuit of their own “vain and insatiable desires” (quoted in Rothschild 319) do provide work to thousands: “They are led by an invisible hand to … without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society” (quoted in Rothschild 319). The second and more famous mention comes in The Wealth of Nations (1776): “he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which is no part of his intention” (quoted in Rothschild 319).

But as long as economic historians and theorists have only read those two passages, the invisible hand has remained a puzzle. Did Smith, a religious skeptic, mean God, or some other deistic spirit? If not, what did he mean? What “invisible” force wielded economic agents to ends other than their own?

Rothschild works to answer these questions by tracing what amounts to a logology of the invisible hand, beginning with a naturalistic context in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where one hero stabs his opponent in the back: “twisted and plied his invisible hand, inflicting wound within wound.” Here the hand is invisible not because the body to which it is attached is spiritual, ghostly, supernatural, but because it is behind the victim’s back and so cannot be seen. The next context, rather more spiritualistic, is in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,

And with thy bloody and invisible hand

Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

Which keeps me pale! (3.2.46-50)

Here “seeling night” is personified as a violent spirit invoked by Macbeth to calm his conscience: his thoughts of the men he has murdered, which “should indeed have died / With them they think on” (3.2.10-11), live on to torment him.

The third context, then, is Smith’s first: in The History of Astronomy, probably written in the early to mid-1750s, a handful of years before The Theory of Moral Sentiment (and only published posthumously in 1795). “He is talking,” Rothschild writes, “about the credulity of people in polytheistic societies, who ascribe ‘the irregular events of nature,’ such as thunder and storms, to ‘intelligent though invisible beings–to gods, demons, witches, genii, fairies.’ They do not ascribe divine support to ‘the ordinary course of things’: ‘nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters’ …” (319). Here the invisible hand is clearly spiritualistic and divine, almost monotheistic: Jupiter as the greatest of the gods has often been made a figure (or logological precursor) for the “supreme being” of monotheistic Christianity. Later, also, between The Theory of Moral Sentiment and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in a lecture series delivered in 1762-1763–the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres–Smith referred to “fairies, Nymphs, Fawns, Satyrs, Dryads, and such divinities” as “invisible powers” (quoted in Rothschild 320). The logological movement is clearly from naturalistic human hands that are invisible because hidden from the eyes, through the unseen controlling influence of animistic or deistic spirits, to some sort of unspecified economic force.

Working out just what that economic force was, what Smith could have meant by the market’s invisible hand, has in the twentieth century become an entire cottage industry in political economics–as Rothschild notes, Smith’s commentators paid little attention to the invisible hand before the twentieth century (319), possibly because before Marx, Darwin, and Freud there was no secular model of disaggregate agency that would account for a locus of regulation outside that secular avatar of God, the rationalist self. Indeed as Rothschild shows, “the invisible hand is un-Smithian“ (320). Smith too sought to purify the rationalist model of the self of any supernatural or otherwise unexplainable or unmasterable influences. Rationalism must be just as monotheistic as the Platonic Christianity out of which it largely emerged: thou shalt have no other selves before me. Economic agents should be the sovereign masters of their own fates. The only forces acting on them should be other economic agents who are similarly masters of their own fates. Certainly there should be no incursion of “invisible hands” from supernatural or psychological realms whose very existence, if it could be proven, would shake the foundations of rationalism. As Carl Menger wrote in 1883, in Untersuchungen über die Methode der Soczialwissenschaften und der politischen Oekonomie insbesondere (“Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences and Political Economics In Particular”), Smith and his later followers viewed “the institutions of economy … [as] the intended product of the common will of society or of positive legislation. … The broad realm of unintentionally created social structures remains closed to their theoretical comprehension” (quoted in Williamson 323).

It was Menger’s view, in fact, foreshadowing a whole host of twentieth-century theories of the almost infinite diffusion of control in both society and the psyche, that “law, language, the state, money, markets, … [the] prices of goods, interest rates, ground rents, wages, and a thousand other phenomena [are] to no small extent the unintended result of social development” (quoted in Williamson 323). As Menger posed the key question for the social sciences: “How can it be that institutions which serve the common welfare and are extremely significant for its development come into being without a common will directed toward establishing them?” (quoted in Williamson 323). Or, as Robert Nozick has most influentially reframed that question for late-twentieth-century political economics, “what decentralized competing processes within an individual”–and, by sociological extension, within groups of individuals or an entire society or economy–”would give rise to a (relatively) coherent decision-maker?” (“Explanations” 314).

Drawing on the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, 1991), Nozick calls his model a “disaggregated theory of the self“: whether we imagine the relevant economic agent as an individual translator (say, a freelancer or an in-house person) or as a group of people who make a variety of contributions to the final translation product (say, an agency, including freelance translators, the translator’s expert helper(s), freelance editors, in-house editors and project managers, even in many cases the end-users, the assumption is that there is no single unified rational control of the translation process. The various agents and part-agents in this process all “channel” other significant forces–not spirits, necessarily, but for the most part those other forces are just as “invisible” as spirits, because we are typically connected to them through various virtual/prosthetic communication channels, including telephones, faxes, and e-mail, which do not bring us into the physical or even visual presence of the other.

Indeed the main unwritten part of this project will deal extensively with the figure of the cyborg in translation–the cybernetic organism or human-machine interface that relies heavily on the ghostly presences of virtuality and prosthetic sociality. This would be the field normally described as “machine translation” (MT), except that MT researchers despair of ever programming a machine to produce a translation of professionally usable quality without human assistance. All MT systems are, in fact, already cyborg translation systems: they all require a human-machine interface. The imagination of the cyborg translator comes, of course, from science fiction, where the linguistic complexity of space travel is often bypassed with various translator prosthetics that operate like technologically channeled spirits: just as Paul’s glossolalists open their mouths and interpretations of their colleagues’ foreign words come out, channeled from the Holy Spirit, so too do various sf space travelers open their mouths and utter words in languages they do not know, or open their ears and understand words in similarly unfamiliar languages. The prosthetic devices turn them into cyborg translators who become able to “channel” foreign speech into the target language of the (usually monolingual) sf writer and reader. In fact, the Urim and Thummim was a prosthetic device that made it possible for Joseph Smith to translate The Book of Mormon from the ancient Egyptian; during the 45 days during which he dictated the translation, without even looking at the ancient Egyptian golden tablets, Smith was himself a cyborg translator.

But then, in a broader sense, so are we all.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation).” Translated by Ben Brewster. In Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 121-73. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Boon, Susan D. “Dispelling Doubt and Uncertainty: Trust in Romantic Relationships.” In Steve Duck, ed., Dynamics of Relationships, 86-111. Vol. 4 of Understanding Relationship Processes series. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1994.

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.

Findlay, Arthur. The Psychic Stream, or The Source and Growth of the Christian Faith. 1939. Reprint. London: Psychic Press, 1947.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. 1975; New York: Random House/Vintage, 1979.

Giffin, Kim, and Bobby Patton. “Personal Trust in Human Interaction.” In Giffin and Patton, eds., Basic Readings in Interpersonal Communication, [pages]. New York: Harper&Row, 1971.

Halliday, W.R. Greek Divination: A Study of Its Methods and Principles. London: Macmillan, 1913.

Keefe, Thomas. “Empathy: The Critical Skill.” Social Work 21.1 (January 1976): 10-14. Reprinted in Ben W. Morse and Lynn A. Phelps, eds., Interpersonal Communication: A Relational Perspective, 384-89. Minneapolis: Burgess, 1980.

Maxwell, Neal A. “By the Gift and Power of God.” The Ensign (January 1997): 36-41.

Meyers, Walter E. Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Nibley, Preston. Joseph Smith the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1946.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Genealogy of Morals: An Attack. Translated by Francis Golffing. In The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, 147-299. New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1956.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

_________. “Invisible-Hand Explanations.” The American Economic Review 84.2 (May 1994): 314-38.

O’Neill, John. “On Schools as Learning Organizations: A Conversation with Peter Senge.” Educational Leadership 52.7 (April 1995):20-23.

Pearce, W. Barnett. “Trust in Interpersonal Communication.” Speech Monographs 41 (August 1974): 236-44. Reprinted in Ben W. Morse and Lynn A. Phelps, eds., Interpersonal Communication: A Relational Perspective, 356-63. Minneapolis: Burgess, 1980.

Persuitte, David. Joseph Smith and the Origins of “The Book of Mormon.” Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1985.

Reed, Henry, under the editorship of Charles Thomas Cayce. Edgar Cayce on Channeling Your Higher Self. New York: Warner, 1989.

Ridall, Kathryn. Channeling: How to Reach Out to Your Spirit Guides. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Robinson, Douglas. Becoming a Translator: An Accelerated Course. London: Routledge, 1997.

__________. The Translator’s Turn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

__________. Translation and Taboo. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

__________. What Is Translation? Centrifugal Theories, Critical Interventions. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1997.

Robinson, Douglas, ed. Western Translation Theory From Herodotus to Nietzsche. Manchester: St. Jerome, 1997.

Rothschild, Emma. “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand.” The American Economic Review 84.2 (May 1994): 319-22..

Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1813) “Ueber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersezens.” Lecture 3 of Abhandlungen gelesen in der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (207-45). In vol. 2 (1838) of Schleiermacher, Zur Philosophie, 149-495. 9 vols. (reprinted in 4 vols. [1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9]). Berlin: G. Reimer, 1835-1846. Part 3 of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s sämmtliche Werke. Trans. Douglas Robinson, “On the Different Methods of Translating.” In Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory From Herodotus to Nietzsche, 225-38.

Smith, Joseph (trans.?). The Book of Mormon. 1830. Reprint. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1986.

Williamson, Oliver E. “Visible and Invisible Governance.” The American Economic Review 84.2 (May 1994): 323-26.





A Short History Of Spirit-Channeling

We do not know of a “primitive” or preliterate culture that had no form of institutionalized communication between spirits and the living. This phenomenon seems to be universal in the ancient (especially “prehistoric”) world, and only begins to come under serious assault with the rise of monotheism around 1000 BCE–and even then only as the “fraudulent” or “dangerous” activity of other groups, not of one’s own. If you are a monotheist, when your own god talks to you it is divine inspiration; when out-groupers hear the voices of other gods or spirits it is necromancy (the ancient term for spirit-channeling or psychic mediumship) or demonic possession–or a hoax, because obviously (and it becomes increasingly “obvious” toward the beginning of the Common Era) those gods and spirits do not exist. Only your own god does. With the rise of rationalism out of monotheism as a competing “religion” in the last three or four centuries before our era, this opposition to other groups’ spirit-channeling as fraudulent was gradually extended to all spirit-channeling: there are no spirits, there are no gods, nothing survives the death of the physical body so there is nobody for “psychic mediums” or “spirit-channelers” or “necromancers” to talk to and the whole thing is a confidence trick. This is, of course, roughly where we are today.

Ancient Egypt is often thought of as the beginning of trance-channeling as a mode of communication with the spirits of the dead; but dream-channeling was common in Egypt as well, and in the mid-second millennium BCE the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later Akhnaton) seems to have channeled his famous vision of monotheism in a dream.The Egyptians were also the first to establish the later almost universal pattern according to which the dead person’s spirit (or ba) retains the attributes of the living embodied person (or du), so that a priest in life remains priestly in death, and a peasant remains a peasant.

The ancient Chinese gave the name wu to trance channels: Wang Ch’ung in the first century CE wrote that “among men the dead speak through living persons whom they throw into a trance; and the wu, thrumming their black chords, call down the souls of the dead, which then speak through the mouths of the wu” (quoted in Klimo 80-81). The Chinese also seem to have been the first to use a mystical planchette, very much like the one used on Ouija boards today (a device invented in Baltimore by Elijah J. Bond and William Fuld around 1892 and popularized by Parker Brothers since 1966 [Klimo 197]). The Chinese device was called a chi; it looked more like a modern divining or dowsing rod, and when the spirits came down into it, it began to move, spelling out the gods’ messages on paper or in sand.

In ancient Greece the spirits of the dead were called keres; they were thought to escape from the jars in which corpses were stored and then to haunt the dwellings of the living. By the sixth century BCE the Thracian Dionysiac cults were using shamans as trance channels to communicate with the spirits, or what by then were known as theoi or gods, discarnate immortal beings with superhuman powers. As I suggested above, it is likely that rationalist philosophy was born out of the Dionysiac, Orphic, and Eleusinian mystery cults devoted to the channeling of these gods; certainly much ancient Greek philosophy, especially that of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Plato, was thoroughly soaked in these mysteries (see also my Translation and Taboo, 54-61). In Plato’s Theagetes Socrates confesses, “By the favour of the Gods, I have since my childhood been attended by a semi-divine being whose voice from time to time dissuades me from some undertaking, but never directs me what I am to do” (Klimo 82). The Greek oracles at Dodona and Delphi and other sites were trance-channelers who would prophesy by sinking into a trance and being possessed by discarnate spirits–some of the famous ones by a single spirit, or what we would today call a “spirit-guide.” Oracles often lived in caves and thought of the spirits they channeled as coming up to them from the underworld through fissures in the rock. Pythagoras used something like a Ouija board as early as 540 BCE: a “mystic table” on wheels moved around and pointed toward signs that were then interpreted by the philosopher himself, or his pupil Philolaus. The muses were also channeled spirits: the muse-inspired poet or singer was thought to be the mere bodily vehicle for the singing of the muse (“Sing in me, muse,” begins Homer’s Odyssey).

By the time the Romans [lost link] had conquered Greece, the rationalist tide was turning against spirit-channelers. Cicero, the Roman rationalist whom the early Church Fathers so revered, railed against spirit-channeling or necromancy on the grounds that it involved ghastly pagan rituals:

It is not, therefore, surprising to find that the doctrine of human sacrifice is necessary to successful ghost-raising, and Cicero hurling against Vatinius the charge of sacrificing boys for necromantic purposes. It is a piling on of horrors, a motive which inspires many of the extravagances of magical ritual, when the most powerful spell for coercing the presence of the dead is held to demand the sacrifice of an unborn babe, ripped untimely from its mother’s body. And another theory, which we have already noticed, doubtless assisted to cement the connection of human sacrifice with necromancy, the belief that in articulo mortis the spirit of the dying man hovered between the worlds of the living and the dead, and was able to give tidings of the future because it stood on the threshold of the next world. …

The spells and sacrifices of witches and wizards give them power to raise the dead from the tomb, and to learn of the future from the summoned ghosts. In the magical practice of late and post-classical periods an instrument is sometimes provided through which the ghost speaks. The ghost is summoned into a corpse, either that of the victim of the horrid sacrifice or one selected, as in the scene in Lucan’s Pharsalia, from the graveyard in which the incantation takes place. The papyri give directions for calling the spirit into the corpse, and coercing it to reveal the future. (Halliday 242-44)

The movement from polytheism to monotheism among the ancient Hebrews is still marked in the Hebrew Bible in the retention of the plural Canaanite noun elohim “gods” as the singular name of the One God, also called YHWH or Yahweh; earlier the elohim were thought of as various “powers, ghosts, gods, the human dead, and angel-like beings” (Klimo 85). The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch, were long thought to have been written by Moses, the first Hebrew spirit-channeler to be named a “prophet”; he knew this history of his people not because he himself experienced it all but because he channeled it directly from Yahweh. Later Hebrew prophets, including Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, David, and Solomon (check these for chronological order), channeled Yahweh either clairvoyantly (saw him in visions) or clairaudiently (heard his voice speaking to them), or both. People who channeled spirits other than Yahweh were condemned to death as witches, wizards, and necromancers; in 1 Samuel 28, for example, Saul, who has outlawed witches, goes to the Witch of Endor to get information from the recently deceased Samuel that Yahweh won’t give him: “And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth. And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel … And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” (1 Sam 28:13-15).

Christianity was based on the teachings of a man who claimed both to be God and to channel God. The horrific “pagan” scenes described above, the spirits of the dead lured into corpses, point strongly to such New Testament scenes as Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:39-40) or Lazarus (John 11:39-44), or summoning up of the spirits of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36)–or, for that matter, God raising Jesus himself on the third day (Matt 28:9, Luke 24:13-16, John 20:11-18). Jesus seems to have charged his followers as well with the power to channel spirits: “For it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak,” he tells the apostles at one point. “For it is not ye that speak, but the spirit of your Father that speaketh in you” (Matt 10:20). Saul channels the dead Jesus on the road to Damascus, and is struck blind; when he regains his vision he converts to Christianity and becomes its most powerful prophet, Paul. I will be returning to Paul on spirit-interpreting later in the chapter. John of Patmos describes his vision in the Book of Revelation specifically as channeled: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying …” (Rev 1:10). As Arthur Findlay suggests in his massive (and from an orthodox Christian or rationalist viewpoint quite tendentious) study The Psychic Stream, or The Source and Growth of the Christian Faith:

This combination of circumstances, the urge Jesus had to return to earth after his death, and the clairvoyance of one or more of his disciples, changed the outlook of the dejected band he had left behind. Rejoicing took the place of sorrow, and, instead of the earth life of the Master ending in apparent failure, his disciples came to realise and believe that it had ended in a glorious triumph. The scattered band reunited to discuss the meaning of it all, and we can be sure that whoever had seen him glorified, as Paul puts it, would be the centre of attention.

After this, Jesus may have been seen on other occasions. This is quite a reasonable supposition, considering the fact that the indications are that there were some amongst his followers who had mediumistic qualities. It is quite possible that Jesus was not only seen but heard, and that he also communicated through any who were trance mediums or in whose presence the Direct Voice could be heard. From the accounts which have been given to us it seems as if several of his followers had this gift of trance.

Quite unconsciously, therefore, Jesus laid the seed of the mighty organisation which developed under the title his followers bestowed upon him [the Christ]. During his lifetime such an idea as being the founder of a world religion had never occurred to him, just as it never occurred to him that being seen by one or more who mourned him would be the spark needed to set the world on fire with a new idea.

Jesus, when the remembrance of what he had suffered faded from his mind, would cease being earth-bound and reach out for pastures new. Like most other people, he would have friends on the other side who would help him to adjust his outlook to the new order into which he had just arrived. This would help him to forget his earth sufferings, he would gradually realise that his troubles were over, and that all he had gone through would never happen again. Gradually he would become interested in the affairs of the etheric world, which he would find in many respects similar to the one he had left, but more beautiful. Life would become easier and happier, and soon all earth troubles would be forgotten, though this does not mean that he would lose his interest in this world, in fact, from what Paul tells us, he evidently retained it throughout Paul’s lifetime. (577-78)

Findlay to the contrary, of course, Christian doctrine does assume that the Jesus-spirit remains very interested in this world today, two thousand years later, and always will, until the world is destroyed in the apocalypse. And–a quick sidebar on translation here–if we follow Christian theology rather than Findlay’s quite interesting revisionism and postulate analogically that the spirits of dead source authors too remain very interested in the fate of their expressive remains on earth, it should be clear that spirit-channeling or ghost-raising or necromancy is much closer to (indeed in important ways it is the model for) the orthodox Christian doctrine on translation than to Cicero’s antispiritualist rationalism. For Cicero, rationalist opponent of mystics and spiritualists, the source text and its author are dead and have no claim on posterity; they have neither the right nor the power to control the reading, rewriting, or dissemination of their words. The translator does with them what s/he will; uses them as a mere springboard for his or her own expressive development. (For further discussions of Cicero along these lines see my “Classical” and conclusion to What is Translation?)

For Greek, Roman, and Christian spiritualists, on the other hand, and their heirs among conservative translators and translation theorists still today, the source author and text do have that right, and, to the extent that their translators submit to the necessary regimen of self-emptying and instrumentalization, they also have the power. The source author is the authoritative source of meaning; even in the afterlife s/he remains a supremely interested party who vigilantly monitors the dissemination of his or her work here on earth; the translator who would do justice to this discarnate but nevertheless watchful and concerned spirit must convey the author’s “true” “original” words and intentions exactly as he or she would want them to be conveyed.

As the Christian church extended its circle of influence across Europe during the first millennium of our era, it mobilized ever greater vigilance against “unauthorized” spirit-channelers thought to be channeling evil or “unclean” spirits; these people were described as “possessed” or “obsessed” (and exorcized) when the channeling was unintentional, as witches and wizards (and executed) when it was intentional. Other spirit-channelers were canonized as saints. From our perspective today the deciding factor in this saint/witch split would often seem to be more sociological than theological: mediums who achieved great popularity or won favor with the secular or ecclesiastical authorities were sainted; others were burned as witches and heretics. It was not always, in other words, a matter of what spirits you channeled, but how you channeled them. Famous Christian channelers include Saint Odile in the seventh century, Saint Hildegarde of Bingen in the twelth century, Richard Rolle of Hampole (who also translated the psalter into English) in the fourteenth century, Joan of Arc in the fifteenth century, Michel de Nostradamus, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint John of the Cross in the sixteenth century, George Fox (founder of the Quakers) in the seventeenth century, and Emanuel Swedenborg in the eighteenth century. In 1837 a group of discarnate American Indians seem to have requested permission to use the bodies of some Shakers in upstate New York, still Indian country in those days, in order to reconnect with earthly life: “It was reported,” Jon Klimo writes, “that an entire tribe at a time would take over, whooping, singing, dancing, eating, and conversing with one another in their native language” (96). Mid-nineteenth-century Spiritualism, born through the three psychic daughters of John Fox in Hydesville, New York, became a full-fledged movement on both sides of the Atlantic that finally peaked just after the first World War with tens of millions of devotees. Isaac Post developed, supposedly in collaboration with inventors in the spirit world (notably Benjamin Franklin), a system of raps for spelling out words (more on this technology in the cyborg chapter). The Russian Czar Alexander the Great and the American President Abraham Lincoln were thought to have received the command to free the serfs and slaves from the spirit world, at almost exactly the same historical moment in 1861; Lincoln’s trance channel, Nettie Colburn, was one of the President’s most trusted advisors. The international scientific community launched massive investigations into the channeling phenomenon, but many of the most famous channels–Daniel D. Home, Florence Cook, Eusapia Palladino, the Rev. William Stainton Moses, John Ballou Newbrough, Frederick S. Oliver, Lenore Piper–baffled the scientists by passing every test for fraud (skeptics sneered that scientists were the easiest of all to fool). Piper was examined by William James in 1885, and utterly convinced the Harvard psychologist that she had supernormal powers.


Philosophical Underpinnings: Pre/post-Kantian Views

Both claims are highly problematic in the rationalist regime of Western thought, especially (and increasingly) since the Renaissance. There is no rational model that would explain the power of a dead author (or of a living one who is distant in time and place and unconnected to translators either directly or through intermediaries–editors, agencies) to speak or generally initiate communication through a translator–or for that matter through anyone else. To the extent that we imagine authors, especially dead authors, as having the power to reach out to target audiences through the mediation of a translator, we are operating within a mystical model that has been under serious assault in the West for hundreds of years, perhaps even as many as two thousand years–and even if that model has not been entirely discredited or displaced, it is certainly way beyond the pale of credibility in an academic setting. Ditto the notion of readerly access to a writer’s intentions: that has been considered a bogus claim at least since W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published their famous “Intentional Fallacy” essay in 1954. If we can’t read our own spouse’s mind, how can we claim to know what Dante or Homer was thinking hundreds or thousands of years ago? Rationally speaking, the claim to have access to a writer’s intended meaning is, as Wimsatt and Beardsley insist, a fallacy. It can’t be done. We only wish it could–and so pretend it can.

The rationalist models that have been developed in the past two or three decades to explain what is happening when we as readers think we’re reading an author’s mind are many, but most begin with the assumption of the constructive or constitutive activity of the reader. This is often called post-Kantian philosophy, since the German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant transformed philosophy two centuries ago by arguing persuasively that the Ding-an-sich or “thing in itself” or objective reality is ultimately unknowable by humans, and can only be constructed or constituted imaginatively by the understanding, which is prestructured to construct the world in certain ways. What we think of as reality, therefore, is not reality, not the Ding-an-sich, but a mental or “ideal” fiction that has whatever properties our “constitutive” understandings have assigned it.

The key literary-theoretical application of this notion in our own day might be reception or reader-response theory, for example Norman Holland’s claim that all readers (re)create or (re)construct everything they read through their own experience, which is shaped powerfully by what Holland calls their “identity themes.” Holland is both an English professor and a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, and his thinking about readers of literature draws heavily upon Freudian thought: based on empirical experiments with students as respondents to literary texts, he argues that a reader with, say, an “oral” identity theme will tend to construct any given text in terms of oral, verbal, mouth- or eating-related imagery and thematics, while another student, with say a codependency identity theme, will tend to construct the exact same text as about people needing each other, relying on each other, sticking together through thick and thin, etc.

These readers may convince themselves that what they are finding in (or projecting onto) literary texts was actually put there by the author–or they may not. The conventional reification of more or less idiosyncratic interpretations as authorial intention is for Holland and other reception/reader-response theorists a social fiction, something we are taught to do by an intellectual tradition that used to believe in such things and still hasn’t quite gotten out of the habit of acting on those beliefs–but not every reader puts that fiction into actual reading practice. Some readers do assume that what they see in a text is (must be) what the author intended for everyone to see there; others proudly declare their readings personal and idiosyncratic; still others construct self-consciously fictive images of the author and his or her intentions, never forgetting that those images are their own inventions, however heavily steeped they are in biographical research.

In any case, this rationalist reading paradigm views authorial intention as the unknowable Kantian Ding-an-sich; anything that is said about it must be treated as a lectorial construct. This is true even of the author’s own pronouncements on his or her intentions: the author constructs coherent images of the intentions that undergirded his or her work only as a reader of that work, not as its godlike creator. Authorial intention is first the author’s lectorial fiction, something the author invents in the course of reading what s/he has written, by way of explaining to herimself or others what s/he was doing while writing. Later, then, and neither more nor less reliably, it becomes the fiction of other readers, people who did not actually write the words down but who must be thought of as playing a crucial creative role in generating a significant text, in and through the act of reading it. In neither case is authorial intention what is really going on in the text; it is an imaginative construct, an explanatory model, an idealized image–first the author-as-reader’s, then the reader-as-coauthor’s–of the text as conceived, planned, and executed in a coherent and meaningful fashion in the mind of the author.

And this is all there is. This lectorial image is not a pale copy of reality; it is the only access we have to reality, a creative one, one that we ourselves generate imaginatively. In this post-Kantian framework what we are pleased to call “reality” only exists–at least for humans–in this fictional form, an illusion generated by our attempts to make sense of it. Authorial intention, supposedly the “true meaning” of a source text, is the byproduct of a reader reading.

Authors, then, are not the active initiators of communication who wield readers or translators as their passive and submissive and attentive instruments. They are the dead and/or distant screens onto which we project our constitutive readerly imaginations. The reader is active, and creates the author through a complexly personal projection. Readers and translators do not, in this post-Kantian model, “gain access” or “open themselves up” to an author’s “true meaning”; rather, they themselves construct meaning-images that are more or less persuasive but never “true” or “false,” “accurate” or “inaccurate.”

Hence my incredulity when I started reading translation theory in the mid-eighties and found that almost everybody in the field–everybody but a few polysystems and translation studies people in the Low Countries and Israel, and a few action-oriented people in Germany–still believed in the pre-Kantian model, according to which the translator surrenders passively to the speaking of the original author. Where have these people been, I wondered. Two hundred years after Kant, and they’re still plying the old platitudes that Kant supposedly demolished? In graduate school we had been told by the most exciting critical theorists on the faculty that it was virtually impossible these days to imagine what it must have been like to philosophize before Kant, so radically had he transformed philosophical thought. What a laugh! Here were dozens, hundreds of seemingly respectable scholars who found it quite easy to imagine a pre-Kantian approach to translation; indeed, who had apparently never heard of Kant, or been exposed to his “ubiquitous” and “inescapably dominant” philosophical radicalism; and who were thus proceeding blithely as if Kant had never existed–as if it was not only possible to know and be significantly guided by authorial intention, but essential. For these scholars, nothing else was translation. They could not imagine a conception of translation that deviated in the slightest from this pre-Kantian mentality that my professors in grad school had said was no longer even possible.

My first book on translation, The Translator’s Turn, was by an large an assault on that mentality. I wanted to discredit it by tracing its historical roots in the dualism, instrumentalism, and perfectionism of the medieval church–by showing that it is (a) not “universal” or “natural” or “inherent” in translation but constructed, invented, the end result of a long historical process, (b) grounded in authoritarian ecclesiastical attempts to control Bible translators, (c) philosophically simple-minded (pre-Kantian), and (d) unrealistic, ungrounded in what translators actually do.

Interestingly, however, in the course of building my alternative, rationalist, demystificatory paradigm for translation studies, I struck off from the narrow path of rationalism in ways that left me too open to at least some of the charges I was bringing against what I was calling “mainstream” translation theory. The rationalist (often called the “enlightenment”) model of human subjectivity posits a fully conscious, analytical self that assesses any given situation, considers the options for action as carefully and comprehensively as possible, makes a conscious and rational decision, and proceeds accordingly. Translators too are fully conscious professionals who proceed analytically in their work by first doing a painstaking textual analysis of the source text, then mapping that analysis semantically and syntactically onto the target language, and only then beginning to translate, referring throughout that process back to the analytical map they have charted out. I found this model a repressive and defensive idealization, a nervous Garden of Eden myth of rationality, a fiction designed to draw attention away from the great blooming (but for rationalists shameful) irrationality that governs so much of what we do. Much of the time (my main theme again in Becoming a Translator) translators translate more or less unconsciously, without conscious or analytical reflection; they get into a “zone,” a reverie or fugue or “flow” state in which the words just “come to them” from somewhere and then “feel right” or “feel wrong” or “feel problematic” or whatever. They don’t know why a specific rendition feels right or wrong; it just does. If it feels right, they will stick with it, even in the face of analytical nitpicking from editors or critics or their own rational minds. If it feels wrong, they will change it, but often without quite knowing what is wrong or what must be done to make it “read” or “scan” (=feel) better, or for that matter at what point in the editing process they have now actually improved it enough to move on.

My rationalist explanation of this “somatic response” to a text in The Translator’s Turn was specifically that collective norms are inscribed on our bodies, specifically in our autonomic nervous systems–so that we feel that a certain word is “right” or “wrong” not because we are psychics or mystics but because our bodies have been conditioned or “inscribed” with regulatory ideological norms and conventions. This somatic or unanalytic or unconscious knowing is not mysticism, certainly not what I’m now wanting to explore under the rubric of spirit-channeling; it is a complex sociobiologically (“experientially”) conditioned network of neural (electrochemical) events in our central and peripheral nervous systems, which transform collective norms into regulatory impulses for individual behavior. This is how we can be “moved” by black marks on a page, put there by authors who are often long dead; this is how authors seem to speak to us, to wield power over our emotions and actions, to wield us as their submissive tools or instruments. They tap into the somatic power of language, which exists not in some abstract intellectual realm called la langue but in the bodies of all the people who speak it, and which through the regulatory effects of the autonomic nervous system upon our behavior is able to make us do its (i.e., the society’s) bidding. The ideosomatics of language is the voice of social mastery internalized in the workings of our own bodies; in opening ourselves up to somatic response, in slipping into that “zone” where translation is rapid and dreamlike, we are in fact opening ourselves up to ideological control.

Hence my irritation when Lawrence Venuti misread that book as advancing some sort of “biological mysticism” or “mystical biologism” (323)–as if I weren’t talking about ideology! As if I weren’t radically secularizing and problematizing the mystical model, submitting all of its claims to a rationalist regime! Because I did not see the translator as perfectly rational in the enlightenment mode, in complete analytical control of every translation decision, I was–must be!–slipping inexorably back into the muck of mysticism, a deplorably “reactionary” mode from Venuti’s vantage point of scientific materialism. And here I thought I was taking Marxism one big step further: exploring the material (electrochemical) channels through which ideology actually regulates individuals’ lives!

What I propose to do in this book, then, is to make it just a little easier for Lawrence Venuti and others to misunderstand me as some kind of mystic; to tweak the spiritualistic underpinnings of translation theory a little more overtly, with a little less of that kneejerk need to reduce mystical phenomena like spirit-channeling to tidy rationalistic explanations. In the terms I’ll be using in this book, The Translator’s Turn might be read as arguing that what the translator channels in that somatic or mediumistic “zone” is not discarnate spirits–the “true” voice and meaning of the source author–but ideology, the collective voice of the society. For how could the translator channel the actual original author? That’s impossible. No one can do that; the very idea is a mere remnant of ancient superstitions.

Here I’m going to leave the door open just a bit wider to the possibility that translators channel not only ideology but–perhaps through ideology, I don’t know–original authors as well. Is it just an illusion when I get the overwhelming sense that I know exactly what an author was trying to say? I get that sense so often when translating technical and commercial texts that I catch myself feeling annoyed when I don’t get it–when the original makes so little sense to me that I become convinced that the author was an idiot who had no idea what s/he was trying to say.

Or, in the example I gave in The Translator’s Turn (17), what exactly was going on when Diana derHovanessian sensed the word that the Armenian poet was reaching for and insisted on using it in her translation, even though her Armenian scholar/collaborator kept telling her that her word was completely wrong for what the poet had written? When she later met the poet, he told her that she was right and the scholar was wrong. That was the word he had been looking for; he just hadn’t found it while writing the poem. How did she know?

Must we demystify this story, reduce it to a rationalist explanation, by arguing either that (a) the poet was just being nice to a foreign visitor and nothing of what he told her ever happened, or that (b) the poet was telling the truth as he saw it, but actually was merely being persuaded retroactively by the enthusiasm of his Armenian-American guest into actually believing that her word was the one he had been looking for?

I remain rationalist enough to gravitate uneasily in these demystificatory directions myself. I don’t want spirit-channeling to be real. I don’t want to believe that translators can channel the actual voices and meanings of long-dead authors. There is a part of me that does believe it–as I say, I even feel it sometimes, that sense that I know what the author is really trying to say from across the centuries, or across the intelligence or style gap–but I want to find a good rational explanation for that too. It’s the lingering effects of an age-old superstition. It’s the speaking within me, despite all my demystifications, of a still-dominant ideological norm for translation.

But why is it still dominant? Why do I hear so many translators and translation scholars repeating with great conviction these old chestnuts about letting the author speak through us, when by rights that premodern paradigm should have been dead and buried decades, even centuries ago? Are they just stupid, blind, unreflecting, theoretically unsophisticated slaves to outdated and discredited paradigms?

universalism and relativism

This is an ancient battle. On the one hand, there are stable universal truths that are handed down from generation to generation like a sacred trust; on the other, each person and each group quite naturally tends to see the world through the personalized lens of his or her or their own needs.

Our favorite representatives of the two positions from classical Greece are Socrates and the Sophists; and a half-generation or so before Socrates, Herodotus, the “father of history,” mapped out a powerfully attractive and to our self-satisfied minds strikingly “modern” relativist ethos, which he couched, paradoxically, in universalist terms: “Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best. … There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country” (3.38-39).

According to the universalist position, the center of all things is God, creator of heaven and earth, who was, is, and will be, unchangingly. God is the source of all truth and all stability. Anything that is true, therefore, is true for all times and in all places. Its truth is an inherent and essential quality; it does not depend on the perceptions of human viewers. Individual humans must therefore adopt a subordinate position with regard to truth: they receive it, or they block it; they receive it submissively and so truly possess it, or they attempt to foist their own personal predilections on it and so distort and destroy it.

According to the relativist position, the center of all things is the individual human, or at most a group of individuals (“man is the measure of all things,” in the famous apothegm of the ancient Greek Sophist thinker Protagoras). Truth is always a matter of perspective. Greeks find the Egyptian custom of brothers marrying sisters repugnant; Egyptians find the Greek attitude incomprehensible. Individuals and groups therefore have enormous power to shape truth, and also enormous responsibility for the results of that shaping: some truths will make you free, but others will enslave you; some will make you happy, others will make you suicidal; some will inspire you to noble altruistic deeds, others will make you selfish and grasping; some will make you love others and want to extend yourself so as to understand them, others will make you rigid and intolerant.

The universalist position, clearly, is roughly the “pre-Kantian” mentality that I was so astonished to find almost unchallenged in translation studies when I first started reading it, and the relativist one is more or less the “post-Kantian” one. The universalist position explicitly assigns translation a stable essence, that of transferring the meaning of a text in one language to another without change, and it places primary authority over that transfer in the past, in the source author and source culture. Authority descends hierarchically from the source author to the translator, and from the translator to the target reader. The translator is subordinate to the source author, and must follow his or her lead in everything–and part of the reason for that is so that the target reader, who is subordinate to the translator, will remain subordinate to the source author as well. If the translator distorts the meaning of the source text, the target reader will gain access to distortion, not original meaning, and thus be cut adrift from the stable hierarchical transfer of meaning and authority and truth–a transfer process that is a priori valuable, because it is each individual’s most reliable source of truth, someone passing it down from on high.

The relativist challenge to this position takes the leading form of a pointed epistemological question: “How do you know?” If the center of all things is God, if each individual is only at the tail end of a downward transfer process, how does anyone know what truth was originally? The weak version of this question is: what if there was a distortion at some point in the transfer process, and everyone who has received the ostensible “truth” ever since has been sorely misled? Human beings are subject to error; how can we be sure that some crucial error at one or more points in history hasn’t skewed the whole process? Many revolutions have been based on the claim that this sort of “crucial error” happened at such-and-such a point in time, and that it is now necessary to start over fresh, with that error corrected: the Protestant Reformation and its conception of Roman Catholicism, for example (go back to the “early church”); Martin Heidegger and his conception of the Romans (go back to the ancient Greeks). But how is it possible for anyone to “go back” and even perceive, let alone correct, such an error?

The stronger version of this question is: how does anyone ever occupy a viewpoint not his or her own? I see the world through my eyes; I cannot see the world through God’s, or Augustine’s, or any given source author’s. I can temper and complicate my own perspective by studying other people’s viewpoints, reading their words, listening to them talk, and attempting to incorporate as much of each as possible into my own expanding one; but my perspective nevertheless remains my own. Sometimes I think I know exactly what someone is thinking, especially someone I live with, or interact with intensively, like a spouse or child; but I realize that I am just projecting my own experience onto that person’s external behavior and making educated guesses, not really reading his or her mind. And in any case I would never presume to read a dead person’s mind, or to claim to know God’s “will” or “plan” for me or anyone else.

This is the relativistic assumption that is most powerfully challenged by spirit-channeling, which does offer a coherent explanation of how it is possible to be yourself and someone else at the same time: “I have come to recognize the unique texture and flavor of my own energy as it combines with other beings,” Kathryn Ridall writes in Channeling: How to Reach Out to Your Spirit Guides, “and to recognize all channeling as a merging of my own higher self with other beings” (13). Spirit-channelers defy the rationalist/relativistic paradigm that has dominated Western thought for three or four centuries (and has been increasingly influential for well over two millennia) through access to an ancient mystical tradition that has never quite been displaced or discredited by that paradigm. According to that tradition, when people die they are not snuffed out; their spirits leave their bodies and continue existing on a higher plane, where we can communicate with them psychically. From that higher plane they can follow our activities back in embodied life, and without the distractions of the body they are also able to read our minds, so that spirit-channelers gain access to telepathic channels of truth that they themselves do not have. (Talking with another living person, the spirit-channeler cannot read his or her mind, but the spirit s/he is channeling can, so it may seem as if the spirit-channeler were telepathic.) Discarnate spirits continue to evolve after death, and the more advanced spirits become less and less interested in communicating with embodied persons; but when they do deign to communicate with or through channelers, they can tell us universal truths about our world and theirs.

What makes this model of universalism attractive to me as a counterstatement to my own quite rampant relativism is not its dismissibility–what good is a counterargument that offers no serious threat to one’s own views?–but its coherence and articulateness. Conservative universalism has typically repressed so much of its spiritualist origins that its proponents quickly grow uneasy and defensive, without quite being able to defend their powerful investment in authority and the past. How do you know? How can you claim to know what a source author meant? Well, I … I just do. And you would too if you had any respect for tradition. So stop asking stupid questions.

Spirit-channeling as a challenge to relativism is easily dismissable, of course, if you are absolutely (i.e., nonrelativistically) predisposed against mysticism. To dismiss conservative universalists who don’t know why they believe what they believe, or how it might be possible for them to occupy a viewpoint not their own, all you have to do is call them on their ignorance–a demystification we relativistic rationalists are good at and thoroughly enjoy. To dismiss mystical universalists who do know why they believe what they believe, and base their belief on personal experience, you have to voice a rigidly universalist rationalism that declares of every mystical claim everywhere “it’s all lies, it’s a hoax, it’s a fraud, it’s impossible”–which has the unsettling effect of undermining relativism.

The relativistic post-Kantian view, therefore, according to which reality and truth are constructed experientially by individuals and groups and not channeled directly from God, leaves its proponents uneasily vulnerable to the experiential constructs of individuals and groups who claim to be channeling truth directly from God. Radical relativism leaves the door open to the possibility that mystical universalism too is a valid construction of reality. The relativistic rationalist who feels compelled to dismiss the possibility that spirit-channeling really works can only do so by reference to the authority of a universalizing rationalist past.


St. Paul on Glossolalia and Interpreting

In chapter 14 of his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul takes an strong stand on glossolalia that also became the emerging Christian church’s first policy statement on translation–and specifically, and most interestingly for my purposes, on translation as spirit-channeling. To be sure, Paul does not explicitly state that the glossolalists in the early churches are channeling individual discarnate spirits, the usual meaning of spirit-channeling. But their ability to speak in tongues that they do not know is traditionally attributed to possession by the Holy Spirit; glossolalia is considered one of the “gifts of the spirit” or charisms. And clearly the ability to speak a foreign language that you’ve never studied–perhaps to which you’ve never even been exposed–is only imaginable within the larger mystical context of psychic or spiritual communication. The glossolalists trance-channel, as it were, the Holy Spirit; we are never told whether they do so in a light, medium, or deep trance. In any case the Third Person of the Trinity, who elsewhere appears in the form of a dove (Luke 3:21-22, John 1:32-34), here appears in the form of “unearned” foreign language fluency in the bodies and voices of devout monolinguals who submit their wills to divine guidance.

Here are the relevant passages from 1 Corinthians 14:

1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speakeath not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speakeath mysteries.

3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.

4 He that speakeath in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that he prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? …

9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. …

13 Wherefore let him that speakeath in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.

15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. …

23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and there come in those with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? …

26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

Glossolalia is wonderful, Paul admits; it is a powerful sign of God’s presence and favor. But it is mainly beneficial for the glossolalist, not for the congregation that cannot understand the foreign speech. This is a crucial watershed moment for Christianity in at least two ways:

(a) Paul introduces a radical pragmatism into the ancient mystery cults from which Christianity borrowed so much, a growing sense that mystical experience is not and should not be allowed to become an end in itself, that we must constantly ask cui bono, who benefits, and how we can maximize the benefit to the group.

(b) Paul also edges mystical Christianity from esoteric toward exoteric religiosity, from a closed in-group of priests and initiates who possess the sacred knowledge and closely guard it against the prying eyes of the profane, to an ever-expanding inclusive group including “those that are unlearned, or unbelievers,” who are to be welcomed into Christian gatherings. (See chapter two of my Translation and Taboo.)

Paul still sees glossolalia as an important gift of the spirit, but it is too private (“He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself”, “let him speak to himself, and to God”) for his exoteric and pragmatic vision of the church. For Paul the issue is not even one between benefit to a small exclusive group and benefit to a larger group, as the esoteric/exoteric opposition implies; it is rather between benefit to the individual and benefit to the group, and even between “benefit” and “profit” on the one hand, the cornerstones of his ecclesiastical pragmatism, and the ancient mystical ideal of absolute oneness of being with the spirit, an ideal that lies beyond all utilitarian concerns.

As I argued in Translation and Taboo, this division between esoterics and exoterics, mystics and pragmatists–those who want to experience and those who want to communicate, those who strive for the pure delight of spiritual being and those who strive to achieve transformative goals in the political realm–runs through the entire Western history of thinking about translation, almost always in the split between a cultural elite that wants either to enjoy a foreign text in the original language or to translate it in ways that defy communication and understanding among the masses (especially various literalisms) and a populist group that wants to make foreign texts readily and easily accessible to all and sundry (various paraphrases, sense-for-sense translation, Schleiermacher’s “bringing the author to the reader,” Venuti’s domestication). The class differentiations should be clear as well:

the upper classes by and large constituted the in-group of the ancient mystery cults, and throughout the Middle Ages and modern era continued to set the key example for any group (the intelligentsia, especially) that wanted to hold itself aloof from debased popular tastes, for example by controlling access to education, and by championing the classical languages and literatures over easily accessible modern vernacular languages and national literatures and the Latin Mass and Latin Bible over what Paul calls “proselytizing” in the target audience’s language;

the lower classes, including by the late Middle Ages the emergent middle class, were quintessentially the outsiders who wanted not only to break into the exclusive clubs but also to open them up to everyone, through universal education and literacy, democratic or free-market “elective” systems in universities, and “open” or assimilative translation.

Note, however, that Paul is not really talking about modern vernacular translation here. He is not, for example, calling for the formation of a professional Christian interpreter corps. He is pushing the early church, to be sure, in a direction that would later be adopted and advanced by Jerome and other Church Fathers, and picked up by the emergent middle classes in the late Middle Ages (the Lollards, for example–Wyclif’s group) and Reformation–openness, easily accessible vernacular preaching and translation–but in Paul it is still only a potential, an anticipation of later historical developments, which seems like a “potential” or “anticipation” to us today because we see, two thousand years later, what has been done with it in the centuries since.

The interpreters Paul wants are not highly trained professionals who have studied the various languages in which the glossolalists are speaking and have extensive experience interpreting them into Greek. Rather, they are themselves charismatics who also pray, as a parallel gift of the spirit, for the ability to interpret. The split Paul is calling for is not, in other words, between charismatics who channel the spirit and what we would think of as modern professional interpreters who are in full possession of their reason and analytical skills. It is, rather, between different charismatic roles:

“Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret” (the same person in a dual role as glossolalist and interpreter–perhaps consecutively, first speaking a sentence in an unknown tongue, then interpreting it into Greek); or

“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret” (charismatic teams that divide up the roles, one or more speaking in tongues, one interpreting).

Clearly, interpretation is a gift of the spirit just like speaking in tongues; the interpreter is as much a spirit-channeler as is the glossolalist. The glossolalist channels the speaking of the spirit into foreign speech; the interpreter channels the speaking of the spirit into local speech. Both, Paul says, are important; both roles or functions can coexist comfortably in the same person; indeed presumably the individual has little or no control over which role he will adopt (“he” because in this very chapter–1 Cor 14:34–Paul forbids women to speak in church), as Paul exhorts people to pray for the spiritual gift of interpretation, and hope for the best. You open your mouth and words come out; perhaps in an unknown tongue, perhaps in a local vernacular interpretation of your own or someone else’s foreign words. The spirit speaks in tongues, using your tongue; or the spirit interprets, channeling its interpretations through you.


Presumably also the spiritual or charismatic nature of the interpreting Paul is calling for in 1 Corinthians 14 obviates the problem of errors and inaccuracies. If it is the Holy Spirit that allows a monolingual to interpret speech in an unknown tongue, if the interpreter interprets by trance-channeling the Holy Spirit, surely the Holy Spirit also guarantees the interpretation’s accuracy? One would assume so, though Paul never takes a stand on this issue. Interpreting (and by extension written translation as well) in this charismatic mode is not primarily a human affair, in the derogatory sense of “human” that we hear in phrases like “human error” or “the human factor.” (Note that those phrases typically contrast humans negatively with machines, which like the spirit in Christian thought are imagined as “above” human error. In important ways the dream of machine translation [see side bar] in the West is a technosecularization of translation as spirit-channeling.) The human interpreter or translator is merely a channel of the spirit for whom (which?) all languages are as one, all logoi are the translinguistic Logos. The true interpreter (Horace’s fidus interpres, though in a sense that Horace himself would reject) interprets by surrendering all fallen human will and knowledge and planning and skill to the divine guidance of the suprahuman spirit.

This Pauline conception of interpretation as spirit-channeling clearly informs and steers Augustine’s enthusiastic embracing of the Philo Judaeus legend of the translating of the Septuagint as well:

And in emending Latin translations, Greek translations are to be consulted, of which the Septuagint carries most authority in so far as the Old Testament is concerned. In all the more learned churches it is now said that this translation was so inspired by the Holy Spirit that many men spoke as if with the mouth of one. It is said and attested by many of not unworthy faith that, although the translators were separated in various cells while they worked, nothing was to be found in any version that was not found in the very same words and with the same order of words in all of the others. Who would compare any other authority with this, or, much less, prefer another? But even if they conferred and arrived at a single opinion on the basis of common judgment and consent, it is not right or proper for any man, no matter how learned, to seek to emend the consensus of so many older and more learned men. Therefore, even though something is found in Hebrew versions different from what they have set down, I think we should cede to the divine dispensation by which they worked. (49)

For Augustine, what makes the Septuagint superior to the original Hebrew texts is that all 72 translators surrendered their wills to the speaking (or the writing) of the spirit, surely the exact same process as described by George Anderson, or by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. Humans wrote the Hebrew Bible; humans also sat in those cells on an island off the coast of Alexandria, translating it into Greek. Humans are subject to error, lapses of memory and judgment, deliberate distortions, personal predilections, etc. And all of those humans, both the original Hebrew writers and the Alexandrian translators, lived before Jesus and so were subject to the additional burden of not being Christians, not having been saved from sin. The only way that the Hebrew Bible can lay claim to being God’s Word, therefore, is if its writers wrote not as their human selves but as the channels of God’s spirit; and the only way that the Septuagint can lay claim to being God’s Word is if its translators channeled that same spirit also. For Augustine, proof that the 72 did in fact channel that spirit lies in the legend (for him the historical fact) that all 72 translators were kept sequestered in separate cells and still managed to produce 72 verbatim identical translations. Humans could never achieve this sort of result on their own; hence the legend must be true.

Something like this circular logic survives today in similar pronouncements about translational accuracy and the translator’s willingness to submit to the guidance of the “spirit” or sense of the original author or text. For Augustine, perfect translation can only be achieved through total surrender to the spirit of God, which uses the translator’s body as its channel, therefore the 72 translators at Alexandria must have channeled God’s spirit, and the legend must be true that they generated 72 identical translations while sequestered in separate cells; and the 72 can only have generated 72 identical translations if they were channeling God’s spirit, therefore their translation must be perfect, even better than the original. Perfect translation, hence divine inspiration; divine inspiration, hence perfect translation. The modern version, slightly secularized but still immediately recognizable, goes something like this: the translator’s personal subjectivity always leads to distortions of the original and thus to nontranslation, hence the only way to produce an accurate (equivalent, professional, ethical) translation is to renounce all personal subjectivity and let the source author or text speak through you; because translation is total surrender to the spirit of the source text, or of the source author’s intended meaning, any survival of the translator’s personal subjectivity distorts that spirit, gets in the way of its channeling directly and immediately from the source author to the target reader, and thus leads to nontranslation. Surrender to the spirit of the original, hence accurate translation; accurate translation, hence surrender to the spirit of the original.

In a sense, however, analyzing this circular logic is unfair, since Augustine and modern “charismatic” translation theorists do not actually derive their premises from their conclusions; they inherit them from previous generations. In fact they “channel” them from previous generations, in the broad sense of receiving and transmitting ideological norms–a process that I want to return to in a moment, in the ninth reading. The logic is only circular in an artificial synchrony, a falsely dehistoricized present moment in which no reference to repressed historical origins is permitted. In fact the logic is thoroughly historical. In the following tabulation, I imagine point zero as someone like Philo Judaeus or Augustine for the Septuagint:

-6. Translation X (the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James Version) is created by a translator or group of translators.

-5. Translation X is taken up by an increasingly influential group in society, who find in it a center around which to organize the group’s cohesion, social and political justification, and eventual triumph.

-4. Translation X assumes great social and/or political significance.

-3. Ideological forces in society invest Translation X with the somatics of awe, taboo, the solemn power of the alien word.

-2. Ideological forces in society mandate that I read and respect (perhaps even worship) Translation X.

-1. I channel those forces, so that I feel what they want me to feel.

0. Translation X feels holy to me.

1. I sense that I could never on my own create anything that holy; nor could anyone else I know. It exceeds the bounds of “fallen” human achievement.

2. Those earlier translators must therefore have been angels on earth, or the channels of divine inspiration..

3. Divine inspiration must somehow transform human translators, so that they are more than human.

4. For that transformation to work as powerfully as it obviously did in translation X, human translators must have to be willing to surrender fully to it.

5. Translators who are not willing to surrender to that transformation will not produce holy translations.

6. Because their translations will not be holy, they will also not be perfectly accurate (they will be full of human errors), hence they will be no translations at all, or only very bad ones.

7. Translators who are unwilling to surrender utterly to the spirit of the original are no translators at all, or only very bad ones.

8. They are not only bad translators; they are bad people. The unwillingness to surrender utterly to the spirit of the original stems from sinful pride and presumption, from a desire to advance oneself at the expense of the holy original.

Book of Mormon

A collection of quotes about Joseph Smith’s spirit-channeled translation of The Book of Mormon:

Jo. Smith (Mormon) came here when about 17-18 y. of age in the capacity of Glass Looker or fortuneteller…. Jo. engaged the attention of a few indiv[iduals] Given to the marvelous. Duge for money, Salt, Iron Oar, Golden Oar, Silver Oar, and almost any thing, every thing, until Civil authority brought up Jo. standing (as the boys say) under the Vagrant act. Jo. was condemned. Whisper came to Jo. “off, off”–took Leg Bail…. Jo. was not seen in our town for 2 Years or more (except in Dark Corners).

(Letter from Joel K. Noble, presiding judge in one of Smith’s 1830 trials; quoted in David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of “The Book of Mormon,” 54)

In the commencement, the imposture of the “book of Mormon,” had no regular plan or features. At a time when the money digging ardor was somewhat abated, the elder Smith declared that his son Jo had been the spirit, (which he then described as a little old man with a long beard,) and was informed that he (Jo) under certain circumstances, eventually should obtain great treasures, and that in due time he (the spirit) would furnish him (Jo) with a book, which would give an account of the Ancient inhabitants (antideluvians,) of this country, and where they had deposited their substance, consisting of costly furniture, &c. at the approach of the great deluge, which had ever since that time remained secure in his (the spirits) charge, in large and spacious chambers, in sundry places in this vicinity…. It will be borne in mind that no divine interposition had been dreamed of at the period.

(Obadiah Dogberry, “Gold Bible, No. 4,” Palmyra Reflector, February 14, 1831; quoted in David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of “The Book of Mormon,” 56-57)

After Mormon completed his writings, he delivered the account to his son Moroni, who added a few words of his own and hid up the plates in the hill Cumorah. On September 21, 1823, the same Moroni, then a glorified, resurrected being, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and instructed him relative to the ancient record and its destined translation into the English language.

In due course the plates were delivered to Joseph Smith, who translated them by the gift and power of God. …

(Introduction to The Book of Mormon, 1830)

“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of all people.

“He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;

“Also, that there were two stones in silver bows–and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim–deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were was constituted Seers in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book. …”

(Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, 1830)

“Joseph, Emma and Alva arrived in Harmony early in December, 1827, where they met with a warm welcome from the Hale family. After a brief rest, they began to make plans for the translation of the plates. Two upstair rooms were to be used by Joseph and Emma, one for sleeping and one for translating purposes, and they were to eat their meals with the family. …

“Martin [Harris, the scribe to whom Smith dictated his translation] arrived in Harmony about the middle of February with the determination to make further investigation, and learn for himself. In the meantime Joseph had transcribed some of the characters onto paper, with their translation. When Martin saw these, he asked permission to take the characters with their translations to New York and show them to some of the great educators and get their opinion as to their genuineness.”

(Pomeroy Tucker, The Beginning of Mormonism; quoted in Preston Nibley, Joseph Smith the Prophet, 59-60)

It was in July of this year, 1828, after his return to Harmony, that the first of the recorded revelations was given, as found in Joseph Smith’s history. This most interesting revelation was addressed to himself; it was the voice of the Lord speaking to him.

Here I wish to dwell for a moment upon the manner in which the revelations were received. In this instance, troubled as he was by the disappearance of the 116 pages of the translation of the sacred record, Joseph states that he “inquired of the Lord, through the Urim and Thummim, and obtained the following,” quoting the revelation. The Urim and Thummim, it will be remembered, was that instrument found with the plates and described by himself as “two crystals set in the rim of a bow.” Through these he looked as he inquired for and received the divine information contained in many of the revelations. Whether the printed word appeared before his eyes, as stated by David Whitmer, or whether the divine thought came into his mind, we do not know; he does not state himself, nor offer anywhere a more complete explanation. …

It was some time during August or September of this year 1828, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, that Joseph received the second revelation which is recorded in his history. This is a remarkable document, and as it forecasts the work which Joseph was to perform in this world, to my mind it establishes him as a Prophet of God.

In the opening paragraphs he is chastized for having delivered the sacred writings into the hands of Martin Harris. He is also urged to begin the work of translation once more, and to follow it through to completion.

“Now behold I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power unto you to translate by means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.

“And you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened.

“Nevertheless, it is now restored unto you again, therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun;

“Do not run faster, or labor more, than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent to the end: …”

He was not again to translate that portion of the writings which had been lost.

“And now, verily, I say unto you, that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands, is engraven upon the plates of Nephi; …

“And now, because the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account;

“Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of King Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained.

“And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi, and thus I will confound those who have altered my words.”

(Preston Nibley, Joseph Smith the Prophet, 67, 69-70)

The Prophet Joseph alone knew the full process, and he was deliberately reluctant to describe details. We take passing notice of the words of David Whitmer, Joseph Knight, and Martin Harris, who were observers, not translators. David Whitmer indicated that as the Prophet used the divine instrumentalities provided to help him, “the hieroglyphics would appear, and also the translation in the English language … in bright luminous letters.” Then Joseph would read the words to Oliver (quoted in James H. Hart, “About the Book of Mormon,” Deseret Evening News, 25 Mar. 1884, 2). Martin Harris related of the seer stone: “Sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin” (quoted in Edward Stevenson, “One of the Three Witnesses: Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris,” Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, 6 Feb. 1882, 86-87). Joseph Knight made similar observations. …

Oliver Cowdery is reported to have testified in court that the Urim and Thummim enabled Joseph “to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates” (“Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 9 Apr. 1831). If these reports are accurate, they suggest a process indicative of God’s having given Joseph “sight and power to translate” (D&C 3:12).

If by means of these divine instrumentalities the Prophet was seeing ancient words rendered in English and then dictating, he was not necessarily and constantly scrutinizing the characters on the plates–the usual translation process of going back and forth between pondering an ancient text and providing a modern rendering.

The revelatory process apparently did not require the Prophet to become expert in the ancient language. The constancy of revelation was more crucial than the constant presence of opened plates, which, by instruction, were to be kept from the view of unauthorized eyes anyway.

While the use of divine instrumentalities might also account for the rapid rate of translation, the Prophet sometimes may have used a less mechanical procedure. We simply do not know the details.

(Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “By the Gift and Power of God,” 39)



This latter “wielding” has been one of the recurrent themes of my work on translation over the past decade. The ideosomatics of The Translator’s Turn was an exploration of the ideological regulation of individual behavior through the somatic imprinting of collective norms on the autonomic nervous system. The double binds I have elucidated in Ring Lardner and the Other and elsewhere are attempts to articulate the inward regulatory “speaking” of ideology, in all its paralyzing conflictuality, through our bodies–what I called in Lardner the “esemphonic” shaping of individual and collective behavior through the speaking-us of various sociopolitical Others. My tracing in Translation and Taboo of the displacements of taboo in the schizoid/ascetic/metempsychotic intellectual/religious traditions of the West was an attempt to narrow in on a single powerful strand of ideological regulation. My “abusanalysis” of translation in the “(Dis)Abusing Translation” chapter of What is Translation? –my discussion of the dynastic culture of abuse in the context of Philip Lewis’s Derridean concept “abusive fidelity”–was likewise an attempt to untangle the complex webs by which we are taught to submit to and be shaped by abuse, both as abusers and as abuse victims (typically, and complexly, both at once).

And my initial interest in spirit-channeling as my current book project was taking shape in my mind derived from precisely this threeway isomorphism: the possession of channels by discarnate spirits, the possession of the translator by the source author, and the possession of ideological subjects by collective forces. The first had always seemed to me a rather boring fraud, not even worth looking into; the second, a normative idealization that represented everything I hated most about traditional assumptions, worth taking seriously only long enough to launch an effective counterattack. But since the third was one of my most abiding scholarly interests, the parallels between it and the other two made me take another look at them, and generated this book.


Nietzsche on ideology as internalized mastery (from A Genealogy of Morals):

“How does one create a memory for the human animal? How does one go about to impress anything on that partly dull, partly flightly human intelligence–that incarnation of forgetfulness–so as to make it stick?” As we might well imagine, the means used in solving this age-old problem have been far from delicate: in fact, there is perhaps nothing more terrible in man’s earliest history than his mnemotechnics. “A thing is branded on the memory to make it stay there; only what goes on hurting will stick”–this is one of the oldest and, unfortunately, one of the most enduring psychological axioms. In fact, one might say that wherever on earth one still finds solemnity, gravity, secrecy, somber hues in the life of an individual or a nation, one also senses a residuum of that terror with which men must formerly have promised, pledged, vouched. It is the past–the longest, deepest, hardest of pasts–that seems to surge up whenever we turn serious. Whenever man has thought it necessary to create a memory for himself, his effort has been attended with torture, blood, sacrifice. The ghastliest sacrifices and pledges, including the sacrifice of the first-born; the most repulsive mutilations, such as castration; the cruelest rituals in every religious cult (and all religions are at bottom systems of cruelty)–all these have their origin in that instinct which divined pain to be the strongest aid to mnemonics. (All asceticism is really part of the same development: here too the object is to make a few ideas omnipresent, unforgettable, “fixed,” to the end of hypnotizing the entire nervous and intellectual system; the ascetic procedures help to effect the dissociation of those ideas from all others.) (translated by Francis Golffing; 192-93)

There it is: “hypnotizing the entire nervous and intellectual system.” Ideology as trance channeling. Hypnotism, if that is truly what Nietzsche meant, would suggest a deep trance; in fact, of course, he is using hypnotism figuratively to mean “mind control” of external origins but with internal activation in a more or less fully conscious state–perhaps what Kathryn Ridall calls a light trance, in which you have some sense of what is being done to you but no power to prevent it.

Nietzsche’s historical argument in brief is that asceticism, the ascetic ideology aimed at “civilizing” the Germans throughout the Middle Ages and on well into the modern era, is created by the Germans themselves in an attempt to transform their own group’s individual and collective behavior. But that transformation is not effected intellectually or contractually, as previous theorists had argued; it is achieved by working directly on the body, through pain. Once burned, twice shy. Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me–except those words that reactivate the purposeful pain inflicted in the past by sticks and stones and other weapons. Those words, Nietzsche is arguing, do hurt; and the hurt they inflict is the primary channel of ideology. They may be the spoken words of living people, or the written words of dead ones. They may even, though Nietzsche does not explicitly raise this possibility and might not have been entirely happy about it, be the spoken words of dead people or spirits, which do often seem, in the spirit-channeling literature, to reinforce collective norms for their living relatives’ behavior. In all these cases, words that activate ancient memories of inflicted pain channel ideological forces, and so enforce obedience to “civilized” norms from within. Every time we hear or read someone calling for “respect” before a work of great social power, like the Bible or a literary classic, even before a deified translation like the Vulgate or the King James, we channel some of that early pain that is still stored in our collective and individual memories, and find it in ourselves to treat the text named, and others like it, with respect. “‘A thing is branded on the memory to make it stay there; only what goes on hurting will stick'” (192).


Althusser on interpellation:

I say: the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects. In the interaction of this double constitution exists the functioning of all ideology, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning. …

As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subje ct. …

I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’

Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn around. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). …

Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal sequence. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ one individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing. (244-46)


Quoted from Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, translated by Peggy Kamuf (148):

The treatment of the phantomatic in The German Ideology announces or confirms the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion, to ideology as religion, mysticism, or theology, in his analysis of ideology in general. If the ghost gives its form, that is to say, its body, to the ideologem, then it is in the essential feature [le propre], so to speak, of the religious, according to Marx, that is missed when one effaces the semantics or the lexicon of the specter, as translations often do, with values deemed to be more or less equivalent (fantasmagorical, hallucinatory, fantastic, imaginary, and so on). The mystical character of the fetish, in the mark it leaves on the experience of the religious, is first of all a ghostly character. Well beyond a convenient mode of presentation in Marx’s rhetoric or pedagogy, what seems to be at stake is, on the one hand, the irreducibly specific character of the specter. The latter cannot be derived from a psychology of the imagination or from a psychoanalysis of the imaginary, no more than from an onto- or me-ontology, even though Marx seems to inscribe it within a socio-economic genealogy or a philosophy of labor and production: all these deductions suppose the possibility of spectral survival. On the other hand and by the same token, at stake is the irreducibility of the religious model in the construction of the concept of ideology. When Marx evokes specters at the moment he analyzes, for example, the mystical character or the becoming-fetish of the commodity, we should therefore not see in that only effects of rhetoric, turns of phrase that are contingent or merely apt to convince by striking the imagination. If that were the case, moreoever, one would still have to explain their effectiveness in this respect. One would still have to reckon with the invincible force and the original power of the “ghost” effect. One would have to say why it frightens or strikes the imagination, and what fear, imagination, their subject, the life of their subject, and so forth, are.


Logologies of Spirit

How are spirits secularized into the metaphors that inform our thought about this world, this life?–negating (but never quite eradicating) with these thisses an occult or supernatural world beyond the grave, the realm of the discarnate spirits of he dead. Karl Marx is not the only one for whom, as Jacques Derrida [see side bar] insists, ghosts or spirits or specters give form or body to ideology, market forces, prosthetics, virtuality, and so on. It happens to all of us … I want to say: it is done to all of us. We are all haunted by the spiritualist imagination. Even when we least believe in it. Even, like Marx and Max Stirner, whose debate over ghosts in the pages of The German Ideology provides Derrida his main text in Specters of Marx, when we despise that imagination and want to hurl abuse at it. This “go away closer” inclination of the spiritualist imagination Derrida dubs the “paradoxical h(a)unt”:

And the ghost does not leave its prey, namely, its hunter. It has understood instantly that one is hunting it just to hunt it, chasing it away only so as to chase after it. Specular circle: one chases after in order to chase away, one pursues, sets off in pursuit of someone to make him flee, but one makes him flee, distances him, expulses him so as to go after him again and remain in pursuit. One chases someone away, kicks him out the door, excludes him, or drives him away. But it is in order to chase after him, seduce him, reach him, and thus keep him close at hand. One sends him far away, puts distance between them, so as to spend one’s life, and for as long a time as possible, coming close to him again. The long time is here the time of this distance hunt (a hunt for distance, the prey, but also a hunt with distance, the lure). The distance hunt an only hallucinate, or desire if you prefer, or defer proximity: lure and prey. (Specters 140)

The ghost you hunt, in other words, continues to haunt you. Which is why you hunt it.

Kenneth Burke calls this hunt (or something very like it) “logology”: the imaginative displacement by which the Logos, the supernatural Word of God, becomes Logic, the secular techne of reason and science; the geistesgeschichtlich (“literally” spirit’s-historical, “figuratively” intellectual-historical) process whereby words for otherworldly things become words for thisworldly things: “‘Spirit’ is a similar word. Having moved analogically from its natural meaning, as ‘breath,’ to connotations that flowered in its usage as a term for the supernatural, it could then be analogically borrowed back as a secular term for temper, temperament and the like” (Burke 8).

And in this sense the series of ten ghosts (Gespenster) that Derrida shows Marx tracing or enumerating in Stirner would be a logology of Gespenst in German religious/philosophical thought: (1) das höchste Wesen, the highest or supreme being, God; (2) das Wesen in general, being or essence; (3) the vanity of the world; (4) a pluralized Wesendie gute und böse Wesen, good and evil beings, animistic spirits; (5) an imperialized Wesendas Wesen und sein Reich, being and its realm or empire; (6) another pluralized Wesen, this time apparently closer to human beings, die Wesen, (the) beings; (7) der Gottmensch, the god-man or man-god, Jesus Christ; (8) der Mensch, the human being, a generically masculine “man”; (9) der Volksgeist, the spirit (or ghost) of the people; and (10) Alles, the All, everything, which is, as Derrida says, Marx’s excuse for stopping the enumeration, throwing his hands up in mock despair over Stirner’s tendency to see ghosts everywhere: “One could throw it all together in any order, and Stirner does not fail to do so: the Holy Spirit, truth, law, and especially, especially the “good cause” in all its forms …” (Derrida Specters 146).

Shifting terms just slightly, from Gespenster to Geister (a crucial shift, as Derrida shows, for Marx as for German philosophy in general–see also my discussion of Schleiermacher on Gespenst and Geist in Taboo 179-81), we might tabulate a logology of spirit as a kind of structural framework for my argument here, in the transition from “the spirit translates” to “the market translates.” Let’s build it around three dualisms: singular/plural, control/no control, and knowledge/no knowledge, on the assumption (or perhaps we can agree to call it a hypothesis) that the more singularity, control, and knowledge we ascribe to spirits, the more magical and alive and meaningful and patterned our world will seem to be, and the less we ascribe to them, the more inert and chaotic and out-of-control our lives will seem:

1. God (singular, control, knowledge)
the sole ruler, omnipotent, omniscient

2. gods and goddesses, angels and demons, sprites and familiars (plural, control, knowledge)
possess supernatural or occult knowledge and can control events on earth, but because they are many, to achieve their ends they must compete and conflict with other similar spirits

3. channeled spirits of the dead (plural, no control, knowledge)
possess supernatural or occult knowledge but cannot control events on earth; they must depend on living spirit-channelers to convey their messages to other living beings

4. worshipped/remembered/imagined spirits of the dead (plural, no control, no knowledge)
have no power to act, no agency, no independent existence; in some sense don’t exist at all, except as memory images in “real” or living or carnate beings’ minds

In the hallowed tradition of literal/figurative dualisms, the entities in 1-3 are “literal” spirits, those in 4 “figurative” ones: we might say that “remembered” or “imagined” spirits aren’t “really” spirits, they don’t “really exist”; we only think of them as spirits by analogy (or logology) with other (conceptions of) spirits. 4, to put that differently, is the breach in the wall of spirituality: once we call things spirits that have no (or are imagined as having no) agency, that have neither (in)visible form nor intentionality, then anything, really, can be a spirit.

And we could extend that logological chain, 5, 6, 7 … n, enumerating ever more “figurative” spirits, spirits lower and lower on the logological foodchain, farther and farther from the supernatural. But I want to set it up a little differently: to use that four-step hierarchy as a template for structurally parallel conceptualities, concept-clusters that (can and will) become structurally parallel in and through the act of imposing this spirit-template on them. Notably, first, ideology, which I broached a few pages ago toward the end of “the spirit translates”–but also, and more centrally here in “the market translates,” the economy, and Darwinian evolution, which economic theorists like to invoke as a control-model for economic systems.

First, then, ideology:

1. At the top of this secularized (analogized) hierarchy, then, we would find all the ideologies that are not conceived (and that don’t conceive themselves) as ideologies, but as “the way things are”–universalist ideologies that ascribe not only singularity (universality) but control and knowledge (agency) to abstractions like truth, logic, reason, fact, morality, natural law, history, evolution, human nature, inalienable human rights. Burke calls these “God-terms,” and they do play in universalizing imaginations like divine spirits. Like God, they are conceived as unchanging (no temporal instability), sovereign (no competitors, thou shalt have no other ideologies before me), and often determinist as well (no freedom of choice). They are not merely passive ideal forms, deviation from which marks deviancy of some deep and abiding sort (for example, the belief that translation flatout is the transmission of source-text meaning into the target language without change, and anyone who fails or refuses to do that, or–worse–even to attempt it, is undeserving of the term translator). They also have the power to enforce conformity, to shape humans’ attitudes and behavior so as to incline them to obedience. This would not, however, be the level (see below, level 3) at which the source author is imagined as having some sort of active power over the translator. There are too many source authors for this level’s singularity–except, perhaps, for God as the Source Author of the Bible. At this level the spirit-analogy would be something like “translation,” or “the true nature of translation,” or even the fidus interpres, the “faithful translator”: the repressive universalizing ideal that will brook no complexity, contextuality, or change.

2. At the level of “polytheism,” next, we would find conflicting ideologies or norm-structures as they are analyzed by ideological theorists: social classes, economic systems, the “ruling class,” religious groups, political parties and causes, social movements, eras (Zeitgeister, time-ghosts, spirits of the times), age groups and generations, genders, races, professional groups. Polysystems or descriptive translation theory is particularly interested in this level, where literary and cultural “systems” have the power to shape and regulate the nature and aims of both specific translations and translation “in general” (in practice within the confines of each system, of course, though systems sometimes “forget” their own limitations and begin prescribing for all time and all space). One fairly broad spectrum of postcolonial translation theory, too, sees translation in terms of the continuing impact of the former colonizing cultures on the former colonies, “dominant” vs. “dominated” cultures. (For systems theory, see Lefevere, who talks about “the European system” [34], “the Islamic system” [73], etc., and Robinson What [25-42]; for postcolonial theory, see Cheyfitz, Jacquemond, Venuti, and Robinson Empire.)

3. The channeled spirits of the dead in an ideological perspective will metamorphose or logologize into various ideological superstructures–fads, trends, rumors, reports, news, novels, poems, plays, translations, adaptations, legends, retellings–and the people who transmit these things, including source authors, translators, editors, helpers, agents, users, etc. This is, it should be obvious, the level with which I am mostly concerned in this book–in the “spirit world,” in the marketplace, and in the prosthetic/virtual world of cyborgs. The analogical entities at levels 2 and 3 could both be described colloquially as “they,” as in “They say,” “Look what they did to this,” “They just won’t leave these things alone, will they?” In 2, however, “they” are larger-than-life forces, shadowy individuals or groups imagined as wielding almost unimaginable power, “the government”, “the ruling class”, “the Christian Right”; in 3, “they” are anonymous and invisible people like you and me, people we could even meet one day, perhaps even people we occasionally speak to over the phone, but people whose impact on our lives is still somewhat mysterious. We deliver a translation and it “gets edited”–by whom? By “them.”

4. At the bottom of this ideological hierarchy, finally, we would find various social functions as conceived by theorists: author-functions (Foucault), translator-functions (Díaz-Diocaretz; see also Robinson What [66-77]), agent-functions (agencies), helper-functions. In this perspective the actual human agents that perform the ideological actions–writing, translating, editing, helping–are virtually nonexistent, at least theoretically irrelevant, imagined as subsumed so thoroughly into their social function or role as to have little or no independent power to act. This shift from a liberal-humanist conception of active independent agents who wield a certain amount of power over their actions to a poststructuralist/posthumanist conception of abstract or actantial social functions recapitulates the modern shift from a spiritualist belief in ghosts and other discarnate spirits (who really exist and perform actions, etc.) to the rationalizing or secularizing belief that these entities exist only in our imaginations.


Rothschild offers five reasons for concluding that Adam Smith did not like the idea of the invisible hand:

(a) The agents controlled by invisible hands in his work are “undignified: they are silly polytheists, rapacious proprietors, disingenuous merchants” (Rothschild 320).

(b) Invisible-hand theories diminish the rational subject’s power of action, self-mastery, making it seem as if individuals are not as free as Smith, an enthusiastic liberal individualist, would like them to be.

(c) The invisible hand presupposes an emperor’s-new-clothes type of relation between the blind ordinary people to whom the hand truly is invisible and the theorist who sees the hand and can make it visible to others. As Rothschild notes, “This knowingness of the theorist is characteristic of 18th- and 19th-century doctrines of unintended consequences; when G. W. F. Hegel talks of the cunning of reason, he is also talking of his own cunning” (320). This is not only condescending; it leaves economic agents vulnerable to those who would manipulate their actions in the name of the “market”–something Smith disapproved of.

(d) The implicit deism or even spiritualism of the invisible hand (especially as it was read in the nineteenth century) was foreign to Smith’s own agnostic temper.

(e) The invisible hand in the context of Smith’s argument in The Wealth of Nations was a kind of politically useful “trinket” (Rothschild 321), a rather silly and simplistic reduction of political and habitual forces that Smith didn’t like and was engaged in theorizing in far more interesting ways.

disaggregated theories

Nozick first raised this issue in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where among other scenarios he imagined the emergence of a loosely organized mutual protection agency through a series of related and perhaps partly modeled or influenced but nonetheless at least in part independent decisions, people agreeing officially and unofficially to protect each other’s interests and assets, firms offering protective services, etc. This agency, which could be called a kind of “ultra-minimal state” (“Explanations” 314), would not need to have been intended or planned by any one of the agents whose actions helped to create it. It could exist without any official, legislated or licensed, status. The process by which this sort of “unintended” economic entity arises Nozick called an invisible-hand process; the theory that explains its formation he called an invisible-hand explanation. As he later summarized that argument:

Two types of processes seemed important: filtering processes wherein some filter eliminates all entities not fitting a certain pattern, and equilibrium processes wherein each component part adjusts to local conditions, changing the local environments of others close by, so the sum of the local adjustments realizes a pattern. The pattern produced by the adjustments of some entities might itself constitute a filter another faces. The opposite kind of explanation, wherein an apparently unintended, accidental, or unrelated set of events is shown to result from intentional design, I termed a hidden-hand explanation. The notion of invisible-hand explanation is descriptive, not normative. Not every pattern that arises by an invisible-hand process is desirable, and something that can arise by an invisible-hand process might better arise or be maintained through conscious intervention. (“Explanations” 314)

The question still remained, however: what powers those “filtering” and “equilibrium” processes? What forces lie behind them? A hidden-hand explanation presumes rational agency: someone somewhere intended for this or that event-structure to emerge; and it did. An invisible-hand explanation by definition remains in what Friedrich Schleiermacher called der unerfreuliche Mitte, the unpleasant middle ground, between randomness, chaos, sheer accident, on the one hand, and rational planning on the other. Something drives these event-structures; but what?

In his later exfoliations of invisible-hand theories Nozick has attempted to answer this question by drawing on Daniel Dennett’s theories of the disaggregated self in Consciousness Explained (1991). Economic theorists typically attempt to explain event-structures by reference to the decisions and other actions of rational agents, agents conceived in terms of God’s singularity, control, and knowledge: each agent is a single unified being, organized and directed by reason and utterly lacking in conflicting or other centrifugal agentive forces or impulses; each agent is in control of its actions; each agent possesses the knowledge it needs to plan and execute a well-informed course of action. The difficulty faced by such explanations lies in the plurality of agents: obviously an economy is more polytheistic, more like the squabblings of the ancient Greek or Roman gods and goddesses, than like the monotheistic model of a single all-powerful God in perfect control of all his actions. No economic agent can ever control his or her actions perfectly, because there are too many other such agents also striving to maximize their own action-control. Hence the importance of hidden-hand and other power-group theories, which would see (certain) economic agents as the secularized equivalents of gods and goddesses, angels and demons: the ruling class, those who control the means of production, etc. But such theories still idealize the possibility of rational control, ignoring the modern and postmodern fragmentation of the self postulated by Freud and others; these point us to invisible-hand explanations, which move us to the third level of a logological [see side bar] hierarchy of economic agents:

1. Rational-agent explanations, Smith’s liberal ideal: each agent is master of his or her actional realm, and possesses sufficient knowledge of other such realms to make and carry out decisions for the adequate control of his or her own. Larger event-structures are the product of collective decision-making, which entails rational conversation among individual rational agents, moving eventually toward consensus or majority rule. Wherever rational agents are outvoted by their peers, they are not to be thought of as “surrendering” their will to the collective; rather, they make a rational decision to go along with the majority, because they have determined that it is in their best interests to do so. There is never, in other words, a surrender of will or intentionality to external forces. There are only different fully sovereign expressions of rational intentionality.

2. Conspiracy and ruling-class theories, including hidden-hand explanations: each agent is rational and strives for knowledge-based control, but the plurality of such agents makes total control impossible. More powerful agents, those with better social, financial, and intellectual backing, will therefore tend to rule over less powerful ones. Social Darwinism: the socioeconomic survival of the fittest. Powerful cliques too will conflict, generating a constant jockeying and intriguing for control. When power is wielded overtly, various despotic formations result. When power is wielded covertly, hidden-hand theories come into play.

3. Invisible-hand theories: agents are disaggregated, fragmentary, self-divided. Each agent may see itself as functioning rationally, but in fact is constantly being surprised by ideas and impulses arising out of its own unconscious or semiconscious thought processes and behavior chains. Sometimes the best solutions to difficult problems emerge from a prolonged state of confusion, from stumbling and groping about. Opposed forces within the agent will vie for control over an action, and sometimes the force that sees itself in control will be forced to yield to other internal forces. This model applies both to individual humans and to groups: the decision-making process that leads to the creation of a single translation, for example, will be divided and conflicted whether the translating agent is a single individual or a group of individuals (translator(s), expert helper(s) [see side bar], editor(s), project manager(s), end-user(s) [see side bar], etc.). Neither the individual nor the group should be imagined as any more rationally organized or directed than the other. To the extent that rationalist models remain dominant in such a process, any potential awareness of the disaggregated nature of decision-making must be repressed and reexplained as the product of rationalist consensus or the like. Indeed rationalist and other ideologies should be regarded as disaggregated forces at work within the agent.

4. Posthumanist death-of-the-self theories: any talk of agency or selfhood is a mere semantic echo of once-dominant but now phantomatic ideologies. Agents, in the sense of subjective forces (individuals or groups) that perform actions with intentionality, do not exist; we merely act as if they did.

The advantage of such a schematization is that it helps us sort out the differences among levels 2, 3, and 4, which are often lumped together in dismissive ways by rationalist thinkers for whom there is only rationalism and everything else:

2. If you resist the liberal-humanist conception of the social contract, the idea that nothing is done in a liberal or democratic society without every individual’s implicit or explicit consent, if you insist that there are forces and power conglomerations that work very effectively to bypass and overcome such liberal procedures, you’re talking about conspiracies, cabals, secret plots. In a word, you’re paranoid.

3. If you resist the liberal-humanist conception of the unified subject, if you insist that no one ever quite knows what s/he is doing or why, if you invoke Freud’s theories of libido and the unconscious, if you speak of the many layers of somatic programming (The Translator’s Turn) or the infinite displacements of taboo (Translation and Taboo), you think everybody is sick, crazy, everyone has Multiple Personality Disorder. You think translators aren’t professionals self-governed by knowledge, training, craft, and ethics, they’re out-of-control intuitives, empaths, spirit-channelers. You’re a mystic, a dreamer, a flake.

4. And if you resist the liberal-humanist conception of the individual will or intentionality, if you suggest that selfhood (including your own) is an illusion, you’re completely cut off from reality, you’re delusional.

Except that, insofar as all these forms of “insanity” blur together in the rationalist mind, it’s never this clear. If you invoke Freud’s or Dennett’s theory of the disaggregated self, you’re as likely to be called paranoid or delusional as morbidly flaky. If you invoke poststructuralist theories of the death of the self, you may well be accused of seeing conspiracies everywhere. By night all irrationalities are gray.

expert helpers

Invisible Helpers

Imagine that, while living in the United States, I have been asked by a US-based translation agency to translate technical documentation for fuel dispensing pumps from Finnish into English (an actual job I did a little over a year ago). There are numerous technical terms that I do not know. They are not in my dictionaries. How do I find them?

My first step is to get on-line: I send term queries out over Lantra-L (lantra-l@segate.sunet.se–to go to the Lantra-L archives, [obsolete links]) and the forum for Finnish translators, Translat (translat@lists.oulu.fi). “I’m translating a text on fuel dispensing pumps from Finnish to English. Can anybody help?” I cc three or four Finnish translator friends who are not subscribers to those lists, hoping they can help if no one else can. I give the terms in Finnish, with a rough description and best guess in English based on the context and what I have been able to find in my dictionaries, and wait for a reply.

Because I know that replies to term queries often take two or three days, however– especially when you factor in the back-and-forth that follows an initial answer that I’m not satisfied with–I am not immediately impatient. In fact, knowing how long these things can take, I have deliberately read through the source text and asked my questions early, to give people time to help me out before my deadline.

While I’m waiting I keep translating. But with another part of my mind I am also running through the people I know who might be able to help me: translators I know from other languages who are good with technical terminology; local people who work in similar industries. The first day I can think of no one; and the replies from the discussion groups are not encouraging. The second day, however, I think of a friend who owns his own construction firm. Would he know about fuel dispensing pumps? His company is medium-sized, but has annual revenues in the millions. I pick up the phone and dial; and to my relief he knows a lot about pumps, answers all my questions quickly and reliably.

Or does he? How would I know? Here is the first hitch: if I don’t know the word I’m looking for, if I’ve never even heard it, how do I recognize it when I hear it?

I hear it in his voice: he sounds reliable. I listen for subtle nonverbal clues of doubt or uncertainty, like hesitations or bluster. I hear none of that; he sounds as if he uses these words every day, and is simply drawing from his large terminological repertoire just those words that will help me. I know him well enough to know that if he doesn’t know, he will have no compunction about telling me so. I am not someone he needs to impress, and he is not the sort of person to pretend to knowledge he doesn’t have even if I were.

But how do I know these things? And do I, really?

There is no way I can justify my trust [lost link] in this man rationally. I have a strong intuition about what he is telling me. It flatout sounds right. All the verbal and nonverbal cues are utterly congruent with rightness.

I am, let’s say, “channeling” his knowledge. Not by occult means–he isn’t dead, and I’m not a medium. But perhaps the channels through which this sort of intuitive appraisal of another living person’s words flow through to me are not so very different from those through which the voices and visions of dead people come to George Anderson and the others. Certainly in the broadest sense of the word, as defined by Henry Reed and Kathryn Ridall–an empathetic [lost link] openness to communication from another being–what I am doing is unquestionably channeling.

And then, when replies start coming in from the on-line translator forums: who knows best? When do I know (when can I assume) that I have a good enough answer to finish the translation and deliver it? A lot more in the translation process depends on this process of sifting through “help” in search of the right answer than translation theorists have recognized. Channel the wrong “help” or “knowledge” [lost link] and you will produce an inaccurate translation. Channel both correct and incorrect, useful and useless “help” or “knowledge” and fail to distinguish between them properly, and the result will be the same.

Then, too, the more help you get on your translations, the more significant the question becomes: Who translates? [lost link] Who should get paid for the translation? At what point does the help you get turn into editing or collaboration and thus a form of work-for-hire? And given professional translators’ heavy reliance on the contributions of other people, helpers, editors, project managers, etc., how should we handle translator accreditation and certification {lost link]? Should accreditation candidates be allowed to get help from experts, other translators?


Discussion on Lantra-L, December 10, 1996 [obsolete link]:

Doug Robinson:

The term “end-user” implies a chain that comes to some definite end. But does the chain of users EVER come to an end? Well, yes, potentially. I’ve had private individuals pay me to translate something for their own use. They were the client, agency, intermediary, and end-user. They read it and put it in their desk drawer. But what if, ten years later, something comes up in conversation that makes them think of that translation I did and they go get it and show it to a friend. Is this friend now the end-user? And the friend shows it to another friend, etc. Valeria’s colleague might have been the end-user in that particular situation. But who knows about the future?

Maybe it would make sense not to talk about END-users. Maybe all we have is users of various sorts. Some we meet, speak to on the phone, dun for late payments, etc., and call “agencies” or “clients,” others we just imagine and call “end-users.” But that’s just a way of talking, a handy shorthand for a much more complicated social/professional process.

Haydn Rawlinson:

Food for thought here. I think the best approach is to see the user generically, not on an individual level. Thus: the user is that reader or class of readers for whom the translator is to be a transparent intermediary standing in the place of the original writer–the whispering voice between the two. They are the readers of the magazine the article is published in, the audience listening to the speech, the 13-year-old who saves up his pocket money to buy the computer game and its manuals. In the examples offered previously by both Valeria and Phil, their understanding of the “end-user” did not, strictly, correspond to this definition.

A translation agency (or direct client looking simply to publish your xlation somewhere) would not, in this sense, generally be considered a user; it’s merely another step in the intermediation process, one with a different set of expectations regarding your xlation: definitely a non-user outlook. The user (or users) can then be considered a largely homogeneous group, or at least one with more in common with each other than with the agency aspect of the intermediary function.

Maybe this distinction isn’t particularly useful for most translators out there; for me, as a xlator going into a TL which is not the national language (nor, by the same token, the language of the agency/client), it does put a different slant on things. The high level of institutional identification between my clients/agencies and the ST writers doesn’t help much either. I think one or two members of the Swedish contingent (Ro?) on Lantra have said similar things in the past: presumably the into-English gang in Sweden is in a similar situation.

Valeria Opazo:

I agree with Haydn. I envisage the end-user as an entity which is present while I’m translating (the implied reader?). When that entity becomes an actual client or user it no longer belongs to my experience of translating that text. I think I conceive of the “user” as part of the process not as end actually.

Food for thought.


An “entity which is present,” Valeria writes. Not a spiritual entity, presumably. But the parallel is suggestive. Certainly an “ideal” or “imaginary” entity that nevertheless wields, or seems to wield, or is thought to wield, significant power over the act of translating. “Present,” and “part of the process,” but only “belongs to my experience of translating that text” when not “actual.” Virtual vs. actual? Imaginary/ideal/mythic vs. real? Disembodied vs. embodied? Haydn prefers to draw the distinction between the “generic” and the “individual”: “the user is that reader or class of readers for whom the translator is to be a transparent intermediary standing in the place of the original writer — the whispering voice between the two.” The user, as Valeria also says, is the implied reader, Wolfgang Iser’s term; the translator imagines this “nonexistent” or “mythical” entity as someone with the power to imagine the translator as a “transparent intermediary standing in the place of the original writer.” The user is an invisible entity with which the translator renders herimself transparent. The implied reader becomes the translator’s conjuring tool and the force that conjures the translator into being.

Of course, we hasten to add, this is all just an illusion. The user isn’t really an entity at all; just a figment of the translator’s imagination. And the translator imagines that figment not in order to become transparent in physical fact, but to generate the illusion of transparency–and of intermediacy, and in-the-place-of-the-original-writerness.

science fiction

Machine Translation

Cyborg Translators


Languages are a problem. Intercultural communication is a problem. There are lots of people who speak lots of different languages. As long as people stay in one place for a long time, they tend to learn the language(s) of the people they’re living with–though even then there are problems, explored by intercultural communication studies. If there is little or no migration, in or out, the problem seems to disappear–though only within the confines of the fairly stable language community. This situation has been idealized and normatized in nationalist Europe: one language per nation, or at worst one language per region; everybody studies foreign languages at school, enough to travel to the nearest foreign culture and get along, or to help foreigners from that culture get along where you live.

The more migration, the worse this problem becomes. Then we start imagining shortcuts. Paul’s vision of spirit-channeling is one: not only can people pray for the charism of interpreting foreign languages; they can even produce the foreign languages themselves, create a kind of mini-Babel under more or less controlled (though not by them!) conditions.

Another is machine translation. Indeed in important ways MT is a scientific dream of spirit-channeling. Just as the Holy Spirit (or other spirit-guides) transforms the human speaker instantaneously into the perfect interpreter, so too does the dream translating machine. Invent a machine that will transform anyone into a translator or interpreter. The machine as Holy Spirit? The Holy Ghost in the machine.

Let’s look at some of the forms of MT as imagined by science fiction writers over the past few decades, relying on the tabulation offered by Walter Meyers in Aliens and Linguists. Meyers traces linguistic and other related scientific thought as it is worked out in the pages of science fiction novels and stories up through the late seventies, when he wrote; his main concern, though it’s sort of a subtext in an ostensibly “neutral” scholarly book, is to debunk the so-called science of science fiction where it touches his specialty, linguistics. But I want to use his chapter on MT–and, in a minute, the preceding chapter on language learning–as a kind of sourcebook.

Meyers distinguishes between “known-to-known” and “unknown-to-known” MT–the former is common in sf, the latter (which he calls a “magic decoder”) less common

Gordon R. Dickson, “Jackal’s Mean” (1969): “‘Good to see you again, gentlemen,’ said the Jhan, through the mechanical interpreter at his throat”; Poul Anderson, “A Little Knowledge” (1971): “The vocalizer on his breast rendered the sounds he made into soprano cadenzas and arpeggios, the speech of Lenidel” (119)

James Tiptree, Jr., “I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool Is Empty” (1971): “a character lands on a planet and sees a battle going on. ‘Without pausing to think, he switched on his Omniglot Mark Eight voder and shouted ‘Stop that!’ (p. 46). And they do. … Tiptree’s model has a switch marked ‘Semantic Digest’; when set to this position, the decoder will boil down the input speech and give you just a summary of what is being said, rather than a sentence-for-sentence translation, although it can do that too” (120)–this story is humor

Horace Fyfe, “Random” (1952): “the human explorers both gather and analyze data in a few hours; as they tell the master of the properly impressed slave who has reported their landing, ‘We analyzed the speech of your companion this morning. … The machine translates as we speak into it’ (p. 211)” (120)

Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966): the hero Cugel is given a device by a magician: “In order to facilitate your speech, I endow you with this instrument which relates all possible vocables to every conceivable system of meaning” (a burlesque of the idea)

Michael Moorcock, An Alien Heat (1972):

“Greetings, people of this planet,” began Yusharisp. “I come from the civilization of Pweeli”–here the translator he was using screeched for a few seconds and Yusharisp had to cough to readjust it–“many galaxies distant …” Again a pause and a cough while Yusharisp adjusted his translator, which seemed to be a mechanical rather than an organic device of some kind, probably implanted in his equivalent of a throat by crude surgery–“I see you put the news more tactfully, but I, skree, skree, have so little time. There is nothing we can do, of course, to avert our fate. We can only prepare ourselves, philosophically, skree, skree, for (roar) death.” (122)

Alan Dean Foster, The False Mirror (NY: Del Ray/Ballantine, 1993):

1. MT adjustments

(a) “‘How know should I?’ A disconsolate Fifth-of-Medicine adjusted his translator as he gestured in a vaguely southward direction with a long, delicate, claw-tipped finger” (47). Adjusted his translator to do what? Rearrange his syntax? In this book all Hivistahm use inverted syntax, whether they are speaking to each other in their own language or to other species via translator.

(b) “He’d adjusted his translator to handle the creature’s own language, having determined that throwing words could be as provocative as throwing stones” (57). Does this imply that there are settings on the translator that allow the user to specify the target language? Elsewhere it is called a “universal translator” (89)–why then these adjustments?

(c) “Teoth fiddled with his translator, wanting to make certain everything he said was clearly comprehensible to his Hivistahm companions” (78). This seems to be operating on the analogy of a radio tuner: you fiddle with the dial to make a station come in more clearly. But even on a radio, is it possible to “fiddle” with the transmitter to make reception better? How does the sender know when the receiver is comprehending his or her transmission clearly? Even if it were possible to know such a thing, how could it be remote-controlled? And what would “fiddling” do to a machine translator? In our current state of MT incompetence, we would dearly like to know how to fine-tune a system so as to optimize target-language (re)production and so maximize receptor comprehension. But so far all our attempts remain woefully inadequate. What must this sf technology be like that a user, untrained in computational linguistics, can improve the results of translation by “fiddling” with the instrument?

(d) “He paid close attention as the finely tuned translator they had given him interpreted their conversation” (81). How does he know it’s finely tuned? Or is this the narrator’s omniscience at work?

2. The socioeconomics of MT

(a) “Since everyone had been equipped with translators, he found himself wondering at the presence of the Wais. Not that their contribution to the Weave was restricted to translating. They could do other things almost as well” (90). Does the existence of a species that has specialized in translating imply that MT technology is not universally available? Perhaps it is too expensive for some people, some groups, some planets to purchase, and they must rely on Wais?

(b) “The S’van hastened to intervene, disdaining the use of his translator in favor of fluent Hivistahm. He could speak Massood as well” (147). Socially, that “disdaining” implies, proficiency in foreign languages is valued more highly than translation.

3 The scope of translatability

(a) “The translator managed to convey the other Human’s gruffness along with his words” (121). Does the translator imitate voices?

(b) “It [an enemy, a member of an alien species, the novel’s main character] emitted an untranslatable grunt” (66). Does this imply that all grunts are untranslatable, or merely that this particular one was? Can the translators distinguish between language and nonlinguistic noise? Or is nonlinguistic noise simply anything that it cannot translate?

(c) “Fifth-of-Medicine’s claws clicked together sideways, a gesture his kind used to express sarcasm” (71). Do the translators do body language? Or would this fall into the same category as “untranslatable grunts”?

104 learning foreign languages is slow and dull and tedious, it would drag the action down too much in an sf novel, so sf writers invent wishful devices like Clifford D. Simak’s “transmog,” “a snap-in section of a robot brain that contains all the information needed for a particular competence”, including foreign languages. “The human himself, however, has to learn the native language the usual way, and finds it a hard job: ‘For a fleeting moment, he wished that there were some sort of transmog that could be slipped into the human brain’ (p. 215)” (104)

105 Beverly Friend lists five solutions to the problem of foreign languages in sf: the first is telepathy or MT; the other four are variations on the theme of the foreigners all speaking English, a postcolonial attitude that some spell out clearly, like Stephen Tall’s explorer in The Ramsgate Paradox (1976): “With primitives I try to teach them our language rather than learn theirs, mainly because I can take the initiative. My objective is communication, not language study. We leave that to the etymologists. Further, good old English is much more versatile than any speech they are likely to have” (Meyers 105).

106 two solutions: make the traveler a fast language-learner, and make the foreign language simple

109 the trendy language-learning methods reflected in sf over a 25-year period: hypnosis, neural changes, sleep-learning, electric shock, chemical means, DNA/RNA

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (1877): “while I had been placed in the state of trance … I had been made acquainted with the rudiments of their language” (Meyers 109)

Poul Anderson in “Inside Earth”: “several of the Earth’s languages were hypnotically implanted in my brain” (110); PA, “A World Called Maanerek”: “Kidnap a native, use accelerine and hypnosis to get the language and basic cultural information” (110); Larry M. Harris, “Lost in Translation,” drug hypnosis

neural changes, based on the idea that memory is stored in a specific place in the brain and can be transplanted: Tak Hallus, “The Linguist,” has an operation called an engramectomy: “The central figure of the story, Eberly, is an engram donor, a quick learner of foreign languages, who has seven times learned Spanish, only to have his engrams removed for sale. The operation costs $5,000, which explains why ‘Liberal Arts seldom become economically interesting enough to transplant, except foreign languages, Eberly’s specialty’ (p. 91)” (111)

EEGs led to the idea that electrical brain waves could be transmitted: a character in Edmund Hamilton’s “The King of Shadows” (1947) receives “a direct transmission of thought-currents” (111)

Poul Anderson, “Starfog” (1967): a character has a foreign language reencoded “into his own neurones” (112); PA’s The Dancer from Atlantis (1971): “here the helmets, provided by a time-traveler from the future, are ‘twin two-foot hemispheres of bright metal upon which were several tiny studs, plates, and switches’ (p. 26). The traveler tells an American of our era that the machine scans the speech center in the brain, takes the language information, and passes it to the receiver’s brain (p. 30). It’s harmless, but stressful, ‘seeing as hole … the data patterns aren’t just scanned, they’re imposed’ (p. 30)” (112)

sleep-learning: hero in Charles W. Runyon’s “Sweet Helen” “threaded a tape into the reader, swallowed a narco-hyp capsule, and lay down on the bunk. He awoke a half hour later with a 2,000-word Eutrian vocabulary etched in his mind” (112)

vaccination against monolingualism: Poul Anderson gives a character in “Eutopia” (1967) an “electrochemical inculcation” of specific foreign languages for a trip (112-13); Alan Burt Akers, Transit to Scorpio (1972), “When the pill has dissolved and its genetic constituents habilitate themselves in your brain, you will have a complete understanding, both written and oral, of the chief language of Kregen” (113)

“Perhaps the best way is to always have an interpreter handy. Roger Zelazny supplies his hero in Doorways in the Sand (1976) with a semi-sentient information processing device that enters his body and thereafter translates for him. This being possesses all the benefits of a transmog, and provides conversation besides” (117)

“Writers of science fiction seldom spare their characters: they may slam their heroes’ ships into planets or send their heroines to kill tigers with knives; they may freezd them into statues on Pluto or shoot them through exploding suns. Hardly any degradation or suffering is spared–with the exception of exposing them to the rigors of learning a foreign language. Off hand, one might think that mastering a planet is a task beside which memorizing a paradigm becomes insignificant, yet writers freely exercise their ingenuity in creating means of achieving instant fluency” (117)