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In place of a real (though not necessarily existent) object underlying the rigid designation of the term “widget” or the term “translation,” I now imagine a real (though not necessarily existent) concept called “aesthetic value,” which is rigidly predicable of my expressions, whatever they may be. That bare predicate is then undisseverably, rigidly, characteristically applied to the specific translation of my expression or my poem, from English to whatever other natural language I may envision, whether I am reciting a poem that begins “Let’s make widgets,” or one that sings, “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.”

We might comfortably imagine the long history of translation, the practices as well as the theory or conceptualization of translation, in terms of these two poles or foci, which are also paradigms for valuing one translation over another, even for deciding what counts or does not count as a translation. We might remark that at different times and under different economic, political, and cultural pressures, the comparative value of the instrumental form of translation on one side, and of the aesthetically-inflected sort on the other, will fluctuate in relation to one another and to different criteria. We might believe ourselves to be working on the ground of a three-way analogy or a ratio­­—a natural language is to a term in that language, say “widget” or “translation,” as the ecologies in which it is to be valued and marketed are to a real object; the movement from one natural language to another in which “widget” or “translation” is to be expressed is like the movement from one ecology or one market in which a widget or a translation is to be valued, to another.

In this imagining and remarking we establish the genealogy of the concept and practices of translation and we globalize the ecology and the market in which these concepts and practices obtain. We reassure ourselves in doing so that after all we are, still and always, the expression of the word despite ourselves, the animal or zoon logon echon, who in the course of forgetting its archaic relation to the word becomes the rational or the marketing animal.9 And in this remarking and imagining we remain, always and necessarily, at sea in the modern political economy of possible markets.

In all this remarking and imagining, however, we will be overlooking two related matters. We will be overlooking, in the first place, something that appears in some respects entirely new: the epochal shift introduced in the standing map of practices and theories of translation by the advent, in and following the Cold War, of machine-translation.10 No longer do workers translate; the task of the translator is no longer primarily a human, even a humanistic task. The paradigm of Babel, turning in the ellipse formed by the two foci of instrumental and aesthetic translation, underwriting but also expressing a distinction between technical and intellectual labor, a conception of the human as homo laborans or homo faber, has given way to what one might reasonably call the Babel Fish paradigm. Or the Babel Fish epoch, the age of a double displacement: on one hand, the displacement of what might allow logos, the flashing-forth and gathering-in of Being as unconcealment, Heidegger would say, to flash-forth in otherwise technical expressions like “natural language,” “linguistic difference,” “information,” or “semantic distinction or drift.”11 But on the other—and this is what would make the story something other than the account of the advent of a technological world-picture—the simultaneous displacement of the characteristically inessential, mystified dimension of linguistic expression that, in Heidegger’s telling, steps in where logos is forgotten.

The Babel Fish epoch marks, simultaneous with the displacement of whatever in language attends to what Heidegger calls “the being that was originally opened up in gathering,” the displacement also of language become “mere hearsay,” the work of glossa, language become the mechanical organ of the tongue, language inasmuch as it represents the “loosening” of “truth,” that is, of language become, both gradually and catastrophically, the expression of a machine, “the act of speaking, the activation of the organs of speech, mouth, lips, tongue.”12 The Babel Fish epoch takes from us our tongues, the act of speaking, expression inasmuch as it pertains to the articulating machine we call our body; indeed, but it also takes from us whatever relations to more authentic, primary, archaic terms the long history of metaphysics has sought to employ to designate what is not merely expressible, and yet makes the human animal properly and distinctively human.

The Babel Fish epoch: a different keying of value to time and to labor than obtained before the advent of Machine Translation; a different indexing of labor to human action, intention, body.13 And as a result, a different concept of the human altogether. Witness, for instance, the fate of the metaphor that governs the conceptualization of Machine Translation in 1956—the cozy figure of the collaboration between the human translator and his machine aide: “An efficient translating machine [is] a good companion,” writes R.H. Richer. But when Franz Joseph Och, the lead developer of Google Translator, was asked in 2010 by the Los Angeles Times about the “training of the translator,” it was not companionship between human and machine translators that was envisioned.

9. Heidegger not infrequently cites Aristotle’s definition or description, in Greek, of man as zoon logon ekhon, in order then to translate that into Latin as animale rationale, and to argue that this translation from logos to ratio is the mark of a characteristic and definitive metaphysical forgetting. The phrase zoon logon ekhon occurs nowhere, exactly thus, in Aristotle—so Heidegger’s seeming citation is in fact already something more like a gloss or a translation. To cite the phrase, then, and to attribute it to Aristotle is to obscure a specific sort of work—a sort of thought. Zoon logon ekhon may not figure as such in Aristotle, but its constituent terms and their relations do appear, in different spots. We may say that Heidegger assembles the definition from other places in Aristotle’s corpus where nearly synonymous expressions do occur: he gathers them together from the point of view of what lay before him, recognizing the kinships of the terms from the point of view of what the definition will come to be. Heidegger “translates” Aristotle when appearing to cite him, and this “translating” expresses Heidegger’s gleaning of the traces of man’s disposition toward the word from within the word, from a corpus in which the expression of that disposition lay scattered. Elsewhere Heidegger will call this assembling-gathering by the name of “thought.” Here, as in Heidegger’s treatment of the translation of Aristotle’s term energeia, it is only slightly more modestly called “translation.” See Martin Heidegger, “The Anaximander Fragment” in Early Greek Thinking, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975).

10. The history of the development of machine translation—MT—is a complicated and rich one; the term is the most recent of a series, and is not guaranteed to last. An excellent review of the history of MT—and a useful definition: “The term Machine Translation (MT) is the now traditional and standard name for computerised systems responsible for the production of translations from one natural language into another, with or without human assistance”—may be found in An Introduction to Machine Translation, W. John Hutchins and Harold L. Somers (London: Academic Press, 1992). Calling it a Cold War phenomenon does not seem to me controversial. The first major studies of MT in the United States were all funded by the United States Department of Defense and the CIA, who were interested among other things in finding ways of translating, quickly and accurately, documents in Russian.

11. In Heidegger’s essay “Logos,” we find this famous concluding thought-image: “Once, however, in the beginning of Western thinking, the essence of language flashed in the light of Being—once, when Heraclitus thought the logos as his guiding word, so as to think in this word the Being of beings.” Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, 78.

12. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 198; see also Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 96: “If we take language directly in the sense of something that is present, we encounter it as the act of speaking, the activation of the organs of speech, mouth, lips, tongue. Language manifests itself in speaking, as a phenomenon that occurs in man . . . Language is the tongue.”

13. Among the most promising developments of this line of thought are to be found in treatments of so-called “immaterial labor” by the Italian sociological and philosophical school since Antonio Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, published in 1979. See Negri’s remarks about Marx’s “Machine fragments” in Marx Beyond Marx, ed. Jim Fleming, trans. Harry Cleaver et al. (New York: Autonomedia, 1991), 139-150 and Paolo Virno, “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment,” in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 21-24, especially his comments regarding the “general intellect” in Marx, the “epistemic models that structure social communication [and] incorporates the intellectual activity of mass culture, no longer reducible to ‘simple labor,’ to the pure expenditure of time and money. There converge in the productive power of the general intellect artificial languages, theorems of formal logic . . . and images of the world.”

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