Translation : Jacques Lezra

Daniel Lefcourt / Breach of Contract
Daniel Lefcourt / Breach of Contract

Translation : Jacques Lezra

[O]nce adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system . . . set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages (die Arbeiter selbst nur als bewußte Glieder desselben bestimmt sind) . . . In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labour.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse



Dear Dr. Seitz: In April of 1964 you formed an Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee at the request of Dr. Leland Haworth, Director of the National Science Foundation, to advise the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Science Foundation on research and development in the general field of mechanical translation of foreign languages. We quickly found that you were correct in stating that there are many strongly held but often conflicting opinions about the promise of machine translation and about what the most fruitful steps are that should be taken now.

Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics
A Report by the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee Division of Behavioral Sciences (ALPAC Report)
National Academy of Sciences (1966)



A question that is of considerable interest is the optimum combination of man and machine. It has come to be generally recognized that machine translation with intensive human pre- and post-editing is hardly worthwhile since this method is largely concerned with remedying the defects of the machine. A far more satisfactory concept is that of companionship. An efficient translating machine that can operate whenever required, can continue when its human partner is fatigued, can instruct its partner without the wearisome labor of consulting dictionaries and grammars, and can retire quietly into the background when the human partner desires to exercise his powers unaided qualifies in considerable measure as a good companion.

R.H. Richens, “Preprogramming for Mechanical Translation”



There are urgent reasons for reworking “translation” as a “political concept.” What’s tricky is to know what sort of “translation” one is setting out to rework, in part because treatments of translation—its theories as well as its practices—largely turn on a disabling, if (or because) authoritative, distinction between instrumental and non-instrumental uses of language. Translations may thus be relevant or not; technical or poetical; practical or literary; idealizing or materialist. They may be domesticating or foreignizing; the field of translation may orient itself about translatability or untranslatability.1 Can we set that archaic distinction aside? What contemporary concepts will step in to organize the complex, discontinuous, antagonistic semantic fields designated by the term “translation”? In what way will these contemporary concepts of translation be “political”? How is what we call “politics” transformed—translated—when “translation” becomes a “political concept” (and joins terms we might more readily be willing to call “political”: a people; a tongue; representation; interest)?

In this brief essay I will sketch the outlines of the prevailing, but conceptually trivial, sense of translation we might be tempted to press into service as a “political concept.” I’ll then describe a different sense of translation, with different futures as a “political concept,” that flows from the rise of so-called “machine translation” and which may already organize (and if not already, may soon come to organize) the semantic field covered by the term “translation.” Finally, with the help of different sorts of machines entirely, or different sorts of mechanical entities, I’ll hope to show how these two senses of “translation” should be thought in relation to one another and then re-worked into our understanding of the practices of translation we encounter today.

It is no secret that the group of phenomena that we call “globalization” today takes shape around the differential flow of people, labor, commodities and capital among different regions, along axes that line up North to South but also East to West, and which might be charted politically on a slightly different map, in which domains of protectionist legislation, specific labor practices, relations to colonial tradition or access to natural resources are the organizing devices, rather than national borders or strictly geographical ones. “Translation,” the conveying of information between natural languages, is a political concept in this sense: it is at the same time one of the instruments that make possible certain flows, and it is itself what one might call a second-order commodity-practice whose value is established in relation to the flow of capital and of first-order, material commodities. I am using the rather special term “commodity-practice” where others would probably use the expression “immaterial labor,” so as to decouple, sharply for the sake of brevity, the notion of value from the scheme of “material labor” on which it classically depends.2 “In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labor,” says Marx in the “Machine fragment” from Grundrisse. This is the tendency I would like to stress: in no way does translation appear today as a worker’s “means of labor.”

Something like this articulation of commercial production and translation has of course obtained for a very long time indeed. Translation and mercantilism emerge hand in hand well before the modern concepts of “market,” “commodity” and “value” are agreed, and well before translation joins its other hands to religious evangelization and to colonial administrative practices. The situation today inflects that longer, geocultural picture with the particularities of labor-export manufacturing, a highly-articulated global transportation and communication system, and a system of global credit and finance that makes both possible.

If I want to locate my widget-making assembly line in Nicaragua or my iPad factory in China, where labor laws are lax, environmental regulations negligible, and the cost of labor sits at about one fifteenth of what it might be in the EU or in the United States, then I’ll need to understand Spanish or Mandarin, or hire a translator who does, in order to transact business; the value of the practice of translation is indexed among other things to the worth of that business, and not only to the supply of speakers of Spanish or Mandarin who can serve as translators, or to the supply of laborers who speak only those languages (and who must be convinced in them to work on my assembly lines).


1. For a review of recent theories of translation in an historical context, see Susan Bassnett-McGuire, Translation Studies (New York: Routledge, 2002). The most forceful articulation of the “domesticating-foreignizing” distinction is to be found in Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995). Lydia He Liu’s edited volume Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), along with Emily Apter’s The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), provide the most comprehensive contemporary approaches to the relation between globalization and translation—from a conceptual rather than a practical perspective. See particularly Lydia He Liu’s “The Question of Meaning-Value in the Political Economy of the Sign,” in Tokens of Exchange, 13-41 for a very clear reconsideration of the rather muddy analogy between meaning and value to be found in weak readings of Baudrillard’s early works. My own earlier work on the philosophy of translation seems to me to settle too quickly on a polar or focal structure I would now like to distress—the distinction between “idealist” and “materialist” philosophies of translation. See Jacques Lezra, “The Indecisive Muse: Ethics in Translation and the Idea of History,” Comparative Literature 60:4 (2008): 301-330.

2. On the structuring of the “pure expenditure of time and money” in post-Fordist economies, see Maurizio Lazzarato, Lavoro immateriale. Forme di vita e produzione di soggettivita (Verona: Ombre Corte, 1997) and Videofilosofia. Percezione e lavoro nel postfordismo (Rome: Manifestolibri, 1996).

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