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Modernity And The Schema Of Co-figuration: A Genealogy Of The Modern

Consider how translation is displaced by its representation and how collective subjectivity, such as national and ethnic subjectivity, is constituted in the representation of translation. Through the translator's labor, the incommensurable differences that call for the translator's service in the first place are negotiated. In other words, the work of translation is a practice by which the initial discontinuity between the addresser and the addressee is made continuous. In this respect translation is like other social practices; translation makes something representable out of an unrepresentable difference. Only retrospectively, therefore, can one recognize the initial incommensurability as a gap, crevice, or border between fully constituted entities, spheres, or domains. But when so represented, it is no longer an incommensurability. It is mapped onto a striated space, which may be segmented by national borders and other markers of collective (national, ethnic, racial, or "cultural") identification.

Incommensurable difference is more like a feeling prior to the explanation of how incommensurability occurred, and cannot be represented as a specific difference (in schemas of genera and species, for example) between two terms or entities. What makes it possible to represent the initial difference between one language unity and another as already determined is the work of translation itself. Hence the untranslatable, or what appears to be so, cannot exist prior to the enunciation of translation. It is translation that gives birth to the untranslatable. The untranslatable is as much a testimony to the sociality of the translator, whose elusive positionality reveals the presence of an aggregate community of foreigners between the addresser and the addressee, as the translatable itself. We fail to communicate because we are in common with one another. Community itself does not mean we share common ground. On the contrary, we are in community precisely because we are exposed to a forum where our differences and failure in communication can be manifest. Nevertheless, the translator's essential sociality with respect to the untranslatable is disregarded in monolingual address, and with the repression of this insight, monolingual address equates translation with the representation of translation.

When the temporality of translation by which the translator's disjunctive positionality manifests itself is erased, translation is displaced by the representation of translation. Because the disruptive and dynamic processes of translation are leveled out, the representation of translation makes possible the representation of ethnic or national subjects and, despite the presence of the translator, who is always ambiguous and disjunctive, translation as representation posits one language unity against another and one "cultural" unity against another. In this sense, the representation of translation transforms difference in repetition (Deleuze) into a specific difference between two particularities and serves to constitute the putative unities of national languages, thereby reinscribing the initial difference and incommensurability as a specific, or commensurate and conceptual, difference between two particular languages within the continuity of languages. As a result of this displacement, translation is represented as a form of communication between two fully circumscribed, different but comparable, language communities in which social antagonism and the various loci of difference are expunged.

The particular representation of translation as communication between two particular languages is no doubt a historical construct. Given the politico-social significance of translation, it is no accident that, historically, the regime of translation became widely accepted in many regions of the world, after the feudal order and its passive vassal subject gave way to the disciplinary order of the active citizen subject in the modern nation-state, to an order consisting of disciplinary regiments that Michel Foucault describes brilliantly. The regime of translation serves to reify national sovereignty. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued, it makes "the relation of sovereignty into a thing (often by naturalizing it) and thus weed out every residue of social antagonism. The nation is a kind of ideological shortcut that attempts to free the concepts of sovereignty and modernity from the antagonism and crisis that define them" (Hardt and Negri, p. 95, italics in the original).

Kant thought of the schema as a "third thing" heterogeneous to either sensibility or understanding, in which an intuition (in sensibility) is subsumed under a concept (in understanding), and attributed it to the general faculty of imagination, a faculty to give a concept its figure or Bild. He called this operation of schema schematism. Following the Kantian schematism, the poietic technology embedded in the regime of translation that renders translation representable may be called "the schema of co-figuration." Since the practice of translation remains radically heterogeneous to the representation of translation, translation cannot always be represented as a communication between two clearly delineated ethno-linguistic unities. Rather, it was this particular representation of translation that gave rise to the possibility of figuring out the unity of ethnic or national language together with another language unity. Thanks to this co-figurative schematism, there emerges an ethno-linguistic unity as if it were a sensuous and unified thing hidden and dormant behind the surface of extensive variety. In other words, the schema of co-figuration is a technology by means of which an ethno-linguistic community is rendered representable, thereby constituting itself as a sub-stratum upon which national sovereignty can be built. "People" is nothing but an idealization of this substratum.

This self-constitution of the nation does not proceed unitarily, but on the contrary, its figure constitutes itself only by making visible the figure of an other with which it engages in a relationship of translation. Precisely because the two nations are represented as equivalent and alike, however, it is possible to determine them as conceptually different, and their difference is construed as a specific difference (daiphora) between separate identities. Nevertheless, cultural difference, which calls for the work of a translator, is not a conceptual difference but an incommensurability. The relationship of the two terms as equivalent and alike gives rise to the possibility of extracting an infinite number of distinctions between the two. Just as in the co-figuration of "the West and the Rest" by which the West represents itself, constituting itself by positing everything else as "the Rest," conceptual difference allows one term to be evaluated as superior to the other. This co-figurative comparison enables typical binary oppositions—such as the presence of scientific rationality versus its absence, the future-oriented spirit of progress versus the tradition-bound sense of social obligation, and internalization of religious faith and its accompanying secularism versus the inseparableness of the private and the public—to characterize the West and the Rest.

The "modern" is marked by the introduction of the schema of co-figuration, without which it is difficult to imagine a nation or ethnicity as a homogeneous sphere. The economy of the foreign—that is, how the foreign must be allocated in the production of the domestic and non-universal language—has played a decisive role in the poietic—and poetic—identification of national languages (Berman). Most conspicuously in eighteenth-century movements such as Romanticism in western Europe and Kokugaku (National Studies) in Japan, intellectual and literary maneuvers to invent, mythically and poetically, a national language were closely associated with a spiritual construction of a new identity that later naturalized national sovereignty. This sub-stratum for the legitimization of national and popular sovereignty was put forward as a "natural" language specific to the "people," supposedly spoken by them in their everyday lives. Literary historians generally call this historical development "the emergence of the vernacular." With the irruption of the sphere of nearness—extensive obsessions with things of everydayness and experimental immediacy—in which the ordinary and the colloquial were celebrated, the status of "universal" languages such as Latin, literary Chinese, and Sanskrit was drastically and decisively altered. In their stead, languages emerged whose markers were ethnic and national—English, German, Japanese, Spanish and so forth—and the ancient canons were translated into these languages. For this reason, Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible and Motoori's Japanese phonetic translation of the Kojiki (Records of ancient matters) can be said to mark crucial steps in modernity. This emphasis on ordinary and colloquial languages was correlated with the reconception of translation and the schema of co-figuration.

Historically, how one represents translation does not only prescribe how we collectively imagine national communities and ethnic identities and how we relate individually to national sovereignty. It is also complicit with the discourse of the West and the Rest through which the colonial power relationship is continually fantasized and reproduced.


Benjamin, Walter. "The Task of The Translator." Translated by Harry Zohn, with a note by Steven Rendall. In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 15–24. London: Routledge, 2000.

Benveniste, Émile. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meck. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971.

Berman, Antoine. The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. Translated by S. Heyvaert. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translated by Aln Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Jakobson, Roman. "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation." In his Selected Writings. Vol. 2, 260–66. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Laca, Jacques. Écritis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977.

Motoori, Norinaga. The Kojiki-den. Book 1. Translated by Ann Wehmeyer. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1997.

Sakai, Naoki. Translation and Subjectivity: On "Japan" and Cultural Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

——. Voices of the Past: The Status of Language in Eighteenth-century Japanese Discourse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation. London: Routledge, 1995.

Naoki Sakai

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsTranslation - The Concept Of Translation And Its Complexity, Translator: The Subject In Transit, Modernity And The Schema Of Co-figuration: A Genealogy Of The Modern