Annuli, or Translation and Dialectics

Flavia Ocaranza

In his introduction to Adorno’s Três estudos sobre Hegel, Vladimir Safatle writes that “the dialectic as philosophical language is, necessarily, a language able to productively use its own inadequacy.”1 Adorno likens this to an émigré learning a foreign language:

Impatient and under pressure, he may not use the dictionary as much as read whatever he can get access to. By that means, numerous words will be revealed in context but will be long surrounded by an outer area of indeterminateness, permitting ridiculous confusions, until the words decipher themselves through the abundance of combinations in which they appear and do so better and more fully than would have been possible with the dictionary, where even the choice of synonyms is affected by the lexicographer's narrowness and lack of linguistic sophistication.2

Translation, by this logic, necessarily implicates a dialectics, as if what is often said to be lost or obscured becomes its condition of possibility.

I have never read Três estudos sobre Hegel in any language. Arthur Hussne told me the essay “Skoteinos, ou como ler” [“Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel”] would be helpful in my attempt to figure out how to read, and thereby translate, Ruy. I chose to read it in Portuguese for this reason, that maybe I could glean something from the indeterminate halos of a language that I am still and will always be learning (and that is also translated from a language that I am not learning and do not know). But, while numerous words will be revealed in context, others will not. I will only be able to ‘decipher” them with a dictionary, or when I understand the context, or contexts as they shift. Take this sentence from part two of Conservative Revolution and Neoliberalism:

Having won the vote (in the Brazilian case, in very exceptional conditions, in many respects), the power inducted into office seeks to undermine institutions, trying to demoralize the legislature and obtain a majority in the Supremo Tribunal Federal [Supreme Federal Court] (as Orbán did in the Hungarian supreme court), using a dubious language in relation to democracy: one that emphasizes its electoral legitimacy (the people voted for us, and the people are sovereign), while striving to dominate other powers through the executive, without hesitation, even when faced with nostalgic praise for the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s.

[Obtida uma vitória eleitoral (no caso brasileiro, em condições muito excepcionais, em vários sentidos), o poder instalado se empenha em minar as instituições, tentando desmoralizar o parlamento, obter maioria no Supremo Tribunal Federal (à maneira de como agiu Orbán na corte suprema da Hungria), com uma linguagem dúbia em relação à democracia: ela dá ênfase à sua legitimidade eleitoral (o povo nos escolheu e o povo é soberano), ao mesmo tempo em que se empenha no processo de dominação dos outros poderes pelo executivo, sem hesitar, inclusive, diante do elogio nostálgico da ditadura militar dos anos 1960-1970.]3

We seem to begin with the Hungarian case, which is implied by the Brazilian case being in parentheses. But, with the second set of parentheses, what is inside and outside appears to invert: while the first set mentions “the Brazilian case”, as opposed to the Hungarian one, the second mentions the Hungarian supreme court and Orbán’s actions therein, as opposed to the Supremo Tribunal Federal, which is unquestionably Brazilian. In the third set of parentheses, there is no mention of either country, but a voice: the “dubious language” of the elected power attempting to legitimize itself. Perhaps this voice, speaking from an “us”, is a composite, some hypothetical combination of Brazil and Hungary, maybe some countries mentioned earlier in the essay: France, the Philippines, Turkey, the United States. All we know is there is somewhere with a quality of language, that there are places known and unknown that are united by this dubiousness. But then this language, or at least an instance of it, is sited, faced with “nostalgic praise for the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s.”

Ruy continues: “One can see the extent to which this authoritarian form (in a generic sense) differs from governments born out of military coups. Here, the weapon is not the tank but, to an extent, the pen.” [“Vê-se o quanto essa forma autoritária (em sentido genérico) se distingue dos governos que nascem de golpes militares. Aqui a arma não são os tanques, mas, até certo ponto, a caneta.4] The word generic, as opposed to general [geral], possibly gestures towards how the passage moves. Hearing generic, I think of something off-brand, like paracetamol instead of Tylenol. But it can also relate to a genus, suggesting a taxonomy of (authoritarian) forms.

Skoteinós, meaning “dark” or “full of darkness,” became an epithet for Heraclitus, who was known for his cryptic language. As the title of the essay in Três estudos sobre Hegel, it “aludes to Adorno's defense of the ‘obscure’ Heraclites as opposed to the ‘clear’ Descartes”.5 How to read Hegel, then, is darkly, “by describing along with him the curves of his intellectual movement.”6 I imagine walking through an unknown place in a blackout, tracing my hands along whatever walls I can feel to make sure they’re still there, both my hands and also the walls, which may form a room, which may form a house, which may house a form.

Adorno remarks that “language as expression of the thing itself and language as communication are interwoven.” In the medium of language, a dialectic is expressed, in which “the ability to name the matter at hand is developed under the compulsion to communicate it, and that element of coercion is preserved in it; conversely, it could not communicate anything that it did not have as its own intention, undistracted by other considerations”. To translate dialectically would thereby entail attending to not only this tension, this “antagonism between what is in itself and what is for others”,7 but also to the inadequacy of translation as an operation of equivalences, as something that can be appraised by being brought to light. Even where there do seem to be equivalences, whether syntactical or, as with generic and genérico, terminological, these have their own areas of indeterminacy. Only through these can the text, as well as the translator, move.