Monday, December 13, 2004


Ariella Atzmon - Exiled Writers

The one thing each one of us reading this must agree to is the importance of communication. Communication of ideas represents the human struggle to exist, to be heard and understood. It is a concept that entails a process of negotiation, starting with the internal level.

Imagine, if you will, a writer who consciously undertakes to express himself or herself in a language that is not the mothertongue. The human condition is somehow altered, and the process of self-translation commences, which Dr. Ariella Atzmon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes, as she presents us the Double Bind between stability and mutation. But, she also expresses the joy in this process of self-invention, so that those who write can become authentic to themselves as well.

The reasons one decides to bridge this gap alone can be aesthetic, to seek mediation between the various elements within the writer, which lead to a full understanding of the true content of one's text. But, they can also be parte of an ethical choice, the selection of whom one wishes to address, the rejection of a group of listeners as an instrument of protest.

I am proud to present this very enlightening and enjoyable paper.

Ariella Atzmon

In everyone’s life there are moments when the need for translation is inevitable. Translation has to do with the complexities of understanding, interpretation and mainly with explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others. In this paper I shall limit the discussion to ‘text’ translations, where one undertakes the role of being his (her) own translator.

From the various nuances given to the word ‘translation’ I choose to concentrate on the aspect of translation as a challenge for increasing the extent of addressees exposed to a written text. Although the word text refers to everything articulated by any specific language, (such as a film, a folklore story or an item in the news), I shall deal with translated written materials only.
The act of self-translating can be seen as a vital urge for being heard and understood. It is a manifestation of the human desire for recognition (Kojeve). The subtleties of translation weave together intricacies of interpretation, hermeneutics and semiology. As such, translation detects the most enigmatic problem where self-referential messages are addressed between two systems of linguistic signs. If translation is an endless journey within the maze of language, where diverse signifiers are striving to tackle an elusive signified, then self-translation is an even tougher mission.

In her inspiring book ‘Lost in Translation’ Eva Hoffman describes ‘translation’ as a project of "explaining my self to myself…back to the beginning, and from the beginning onward." The moment the signified seems to be captured, it turns into another signifier. But despite all that, the act of translation should not be seen as an agony, but rather as a gratifying activity of the human scene. The journey of translation is not an affliction but a creative transfiguration of becoming. The translation of my own writing into another language is where pleasure and pain are ecstatically intermingled. If Jouissance occurs when pleasure and pain are twisted, then the character of jouissance is revealed with joy, as my own (translated) written text becomes a source of pleasure.

This text deals with the issue of writers in self-imposed exile, those who choose to shift their writing to a host language. I shall not venture beyond this subject to deal with theoretical attitudes to literary translations. But between the view that regards the translator as a competent mediator who attempts to match two signifiers to arrive at an equivalent signified, and the theory of the translator as an inventor of signifieds in a move, I shall opt for the second stance. This is predicated on the view that literary translation is not merely a mediation between cultures represented in texts, but rather an hermeneutic act of ‘thinking the between’.

In line with this view, the translator is a hermeneutic messenger between cultures rather than a passive agent between source and target texts. Choosing a word is an intentional act that produces the content. Thus, the translator of his own written text is privileged to modify his own translated messages. Just as Hermes, as the Gods’ messenger interpreted any message according to its addressees, so the translator is allowed to play the part of Hermes. Hence, revision of the signifier/signified interrelation, while crisscrossing the boundaries of two languages, is fully justified.

In keeping with the Heideggerian idea of ‘Language as the home of Being’, language defines what the human subject is able to know about the world and about himself. As human beings we are shaped by language. That’s what Wittgenstein means by a ‘Language Game.’. According to Wittgenstein "an interpretation is something that is given in signs," so that no interpretation can be understood without a rider. Our native sign systems keep the rider in control. The rider navigates our ‘free associations.’, so that the crosscutting between cultures becomes restricted by principle.

Right from the beginning our capability to interact with others and to exchange ideas depends on an acquired linguistic competence. Hence, the more we are acquainted with our mother tongue the more we are able to carnivalize language subversively. The reality of being exiled or displaced from a primary bonding confronts people with the inability to juggle metaphors adroitly. It is where the sense of estrangement, of being muted, intermingles with loss of identity and nostalgia. In Kojeve articulation "it is only by being ‘recognized’ by another, by many others, or - in the extreme – by all others, that a human being is really human, for himself, as well as for others… For only in this case can one reveal a reality in speech…" The nightmare of not being heard and understood, is a fundamental threat to the self as ‘the discourse of the other’ (Lacan).

Being displaced from a native tongue is a dreadful threat to one’s human existentiality. In Eva Hoffman words: it is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now do not stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. Hence, the worst is the loss of an inner language, the lack of interior images, where the path to assimilate the external world is blurred. But the metaphor of ‘getting lost’ in translation might be misleading. Being the translator of my own writings is a route for turning the necessity for translation into a virtue, turning the torture of moving between languages into a gratifying enterprise. It is a moment when from the strong comes the forth sweetness. The more we internalize the idea that all interpretations are games, shaped by the meanings in use, the more the gateway to other languages is widened. The flexibility of translation is dependent upon feeling at home with our native language, which is bound to the basic condition of human existence, namely: recognition. Lack of recognition means despair. The radical disjoining between word and thing "is a desiccating alchemy." It is the loss of a living connection. Therefore, the topic of ‘being my own translator’ takes us beyond language into the realms of nostalgia, loss of identity, rootlessness, floating and being unseen.

Although each of these topics needs further elaboration, I shall concentrate upon those aspects of translation where translation operates as a talking cure. When the writer’s urge to be heard and understood by an audience in a new location manifests nonstop attempts to transform distant meanings into genuine inner expressions; it becomes an endless endeavor to bridge the word that lies on the tip of the tongue with a deferred foreign meaning. This heuristic progression is where panic, stress and desire become entwined into a joyful scene. At the moment the intangible insight flickers into view there is joyful relief. As if the writer reaches his own Eden, where words are shaped in new collages, created as a patchwork quilt by overlapping different realities, one upon the other. In a mysterious indefinable way, the seeds of these vigorous, insightful expressions infiltrate the host language. Signs are transfigured into hybridized meanings. Thus languages evolve in an evolutionary process of change. The profound contribution of exiled writers to their host language has always been greater than acknowledged. Assuming that the center is defined by its margins, it is marginality that re-constructs its canonic textualities.

Evolution and change are carried out by a tendency for preservation (Epigenesis) and mutation (leaping, inconsistent skipping). Preservation functions to duplicate what is in existence, that which ‘remembers itself.’ Preservation and repetition are nailed in a contract of shared meaning that can be seen as constructive negations, a driving force for new mutation. The mutation is created not via the replacement of something with something else but rather via overcoming the given for what does not yet exist (Kojeve). Writers and poets are creative generators of linguistic mutations. The minutes of silence trigger a plunge into the abyss of the inexpressible, namely - the kingdom of the aesthetic act, the origins of new mutations.
The concept of the Double Bind may assist in understanding the paradoxical oscillation between consonance governed by repetition and dissonance created by unpredictable singular mutation. The DB is an essential condition of human beings, which are doomed to oscillate between preservation and mutation. Poets and writers are mostly immersed in an immanent yearning for an authentic voice while submitting to the communal, public linguistic diktat. The inescapable DB oscillation that constructs realities through the invention of words elevates human being to the heights of the sublime. Exiled writers’ fiction transforms particular primordial experiences, located in time and space, into allegories and abstract symbols of deconstructed existence (Ramdin 1977).

For the exiled writer transplanted into a new language, the burden of the DB is doubled. The self-translator/writer constructs a new reality by deconstructing both source and target language, celebrating archaisms and jargon. Thus, the DB swings from singularity towards abstractness, all the while getting closer to its peak. The exiled writer is blessed by the phantasy of starting to dream in a foreign language. Some things get lost in the passage between the source and the targeted language and this lack of precision takes the writer into the realm of the inexpressible…. where new metaphors are generated in pursuit of the inner voice. It is in translation that the DB oscillation is revealed in its full intensive sway, when one’s own writing becomes subversive, not because of the rule, but in spite the rule.

Our generation has produced more refugees, migrants and displaced people than ever before. A huge mass of people is confronted with a loss of identity. Attaining a hybrid identity is a shocking experience, which only very few are able to transform into a constructive process. Edward Said describes this floating in the abyss between languages as a crossing of boundaries, where life means telling my stories of the past in an estranged foreign language. There is no chance of help coming from the new surroundings. In Eva Hoffman’s words: "you have to invent yourself every day by your own means… Nobody knows your past so you have to convince people who you are, and you want them to believe you….it is a re-imaging the self every new day…"

However, working between languages the exiled writer can not escape the need for negotiation. To clarify this point I shall use Homi Bhabha’s concept of hybridization (Bhabha: 1983), whereby two cultures retain their distinct characteristics and yet form something new. From a psychoanalytic aspect, Bahbha introduces the role of anxiety as a sign of danger. But danger can also indicate that something new is emerging, viewing translation as gratifying joy rather than misery.

Being bi-cultural does not mean to feel at home in two cultures. Quite the contrary, it implies rootlessness, where rootlessness alludes to the joy of being released from the metaphor that likens human beings to trees. It is the nationalist biblical metaphor of viewing human beings as rooted plants that sends so many of us to search for their roots. When one imagines oneself as a singing bird, self-translation can be seen as an enchanting glide, crossing boundaries in a ceaseless game between metaphors and metonymies. The translator gets engaged in the navigation process which, is in itself a work of art, where the pleasure of self-translation is amplified.

Another aspect of the DB, refers to the fundamental categories of continuity and discontinuity. Languages are digital systems of symbolic signs, where the gaps are significant as the organizing syntax of those systems. The combination of the discrete digits, is a whole termed analog. The analog is always extended beyond the sum of the single parts as it includes the editing code. There is always an excess of meaning created despite the rigid syntactic rules.
Oscillation between the analogue perception and its privatized, digitalized articulation is a DB issue. We swing to and fro between the inexpressible analogue perception of dreams, and the necessity to communicate by contractual digital signs. If we imagine metaphorically the signifiers which are available for expression as flashes of light appearing in our consciousness, and the gaps as areas of darkness, then each particular signification gives an illusory sense of a continuum enlightened screen namely, reality. Actually, each discourse lights up and leaves behind dark spaces. Thus, every language is distinguished by the wealth of certain words, and the poverty or shortage of others. The implications are that what is left dim are those parts of experience which are repressed, censored or forgotten. These darkened spaces confront us with the inexpressible. Writers and poets are those who dive into the dark recesses of language, illuminating those hidden gray zones by metaphorical substitutions and allegorical devices. All writing is imposed by silence, the listening to our inner voice. ‘Minding the gaps’ of language means awareness of the twilight zone, which cannot be expressed within linguistic signs. The art of translation that has to mind two systems of gaps, is the DB in its extremity. Self-translation is a work of art where the writer is projected beyond the void of thinking ‘the between’ within the boundaries of his native language, into the abyss of a foreign un-promised land. But the pain of translation rewards those who are courageous enough to face the glare of language.

I shall conclude by pointing to writers in self-imposed exile, who shift their writings into a more widely spoken language in protest against their own people. Writers who refuse to share their ideas with the majority of people in their homeland. It is the shift to another language, which is essentially part of the protest.

It is when exile stops being conceived as a dead end of nostalgia and regression, when rage is substituted by a constructive creativity. For the exiled writer there is nothing like a ‘promised land’, what remains clear is the promise of rootlessness.

I shall end this paper with the odyssey of the Hebrew as both target and source language, wandering from the Diaspora to Palestine and back to Exile, questioning whether Hebrew is a Jewish or an Israeli language.

The renaissance of Hebrew from a formerly holy tongue into a lively, spoken language was an enchanting process accompanied by the frenzied invention of neologisms. The pioneer writers of the 19th century, who translated themselves from European languages into Hebrew, had to deal with a rich but archaic language that was definitely Jewish. The act of translation was a fascinating enterprise of originality and creativity accomplished by inventive minds that carried in their cultural baggage the plenitude of the languages they were born into. Zionism, proclaiming Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, hijacked Hebrew, making it into the Israeli national language. Hebrew became the hallmark of the Israeli collective identity, it turned into a symbol of unification replacing the ancient Jewish religious tradition.

Oddly enough, as a fluent spoken language, Hebrew has lost its primary multiversity and turned into a poor vernacular loaded with slang and vulgar jargons. In the course of secularization, the hermeneutic nature of Hebrew was inverted into a signalized speech censored by a ‘language police’, i.e. ‘The Hebrew Academy of Language’. Thus, the distinguished richness of the grammatical conjugation (that compensate for the poverty of synonyms) is forgotten. In an attempt to adopt European modes of idiomatic speech, the kaleidoscopic nature of the Hebrew linguistic sign had gone astray. The Jewish secular young generation are no more familiar with the ‘study of the Torah’, where the sign is bounded to a variety of hermeneutic interpretations.

Alas, under the circumstances of an estranged and impoverished Hebrew invaded by a blend of tasteless vulgar slang, in which the language gets out of control, there is no other choice left for an attentive Israeli non-Zionist writer, but to become a self- imposed exiled writer. That is why we trace these days a route of Jewish writers but this time it is away from Palestine into Exile.

Gershon Sohlem, who very much opposed Hebrew’s revival into a daily spoken language anticipated that people who attempt to communicate in God’s holy language will be marked by arrogance and the assumption of omnipotence. He was right!

For comments on this paper, Ms. Atzmon can be contacted at


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