One of the most famous and controversial figures in the intellectual forum of France, Jacques Derrida fundamentally altered the understanding of many academic fields with his poststructuralist ideas of ‘Deconstruction’ (Culler 2014). His works are an abstract response to his first-hand knowledge of bigotry. Derrida used the term Deconstruction to describe the way he went about thinking, though when other people used this term quite often, he felt that they had misunderstood what he meant by it. In his ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend’, Derrida intended to provide with some preliminary reflections on the term, so that the professor may avoid misunderstanding and mistranslation of the concept. His motive is to define deconstruction by elaborating on everything it is not. The method of delineation complicates the content of the analysis, but there are better reasons to state that this method, no matter how complicating and abstract, is the most appropriate way of communicating the core matter of the topic. This essay determines how the form of Derrida’s letter complements the content of his thesis. Examining the significance of what has been written about language and translation in the letter, the paper attempts to draw a conclusion about the intensely debated concept of Deconstruction and how the mastermind behind the concept approaches it.
Understanding Deconstruction through binaries
Essentially, deconstruction means dismantling our inherent adherence to traditional idea and learning to see the aspects of the truth that may lie buried in its opposite. The topic of Derrida’s most notable work Of Grammatology is overt, rather strange and even tedious (Derrida 2016). The aim is static: to write about what deconstruction is not for communicating what deconstruction is, this what Derrida precisely elucidates upon in his letter. The essence of deconstruction is to see things from renewed perspectives, without the preconceived notions of the social hierarchical order. This requires a complete reconstruction of the thought-process. For perceiving something in new light it needs a redefinition, describing something by everything it is not appropriately conveys the new meaning of it. This theory of defining something by pointing out its opposites is popularly known as binary opposition. This was deeply explored by eminent Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure, whose works are acknowledge to have laid the ground for structuralism and post structuralism (Fadda 2013). According to Sassure, the element of language is divided into two parts: the sound of the word, which he termed as the signifier, and the concept of the same, which he called the signified. Derrida later described language as a play between the signifier and the signified in his discussion on Deconstruction. Language consists of this endless chain of the signifier and the signified and hence is abstract and arbitrary. Derrida extended Saussure’s ideas in his argument that language is born out of differences, differences between the intended meaning and the interpreted idea of a context. Meaning, according to Derrida, has no fixed dimension; it is subjected to the changing perceptions of the interpreter and to the context in which a word is used. He combines the arbitrariness of language and its tendency of deterring meaning with its systematic differentiality to coin a new term – “differance’’. Derrida suggests that language is an idea of difference, the meaning is created by a sense of spacing. He deliberately uses the word ‘substitution’, implying something that makes up for something which is missing, something which fills up a void. For example, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the play itself is a substitution or a supplement for Godot not coming (Transue 2018). It is a play which may not have happened, but happens anyway. The perennial absence of Godot from the stage implies his presence in a different realm, one that may not correspond with the world of Vladimir and Estragon. Every absence therefore, implies a presence and vice-versa. One’s presence is dependent on something that he/she is not, but nobody is conscious of the not-being. Derrida’s notion of substitution implies that the substitute differs from the source text and by differing from it (Derrida 2017). It is both part and apart from the source-text. The anagram ‘apart’ is very appropriate since apart is also a part (of something). The supplement is both present and absent constituting a paradox, it is neither present nor absent.
Structuralism is based on Saussure’s theory of language; he asserts that language is a static and spatial model. Post-structuralism extends the limits of structuralism, the deconstruction of structuralism marks the development of episteme/knowledge during a certain period. The deconstructed perspective views language to be metaphorical, and if language is metaphorical its meanings are involved in a relationship of similarities and differences. Language itself has elements of deconstruction through the trope of metaphor. One cannot talk about philosophical truth without admitting the truth of language. It becomes an illusion otherwise, created in the history of western philosophy since the time of Plato. Approached from this perspective, every context demands recontextualization- becoming limitless. Every context oversees another context, Bhaba’s concept of liminality is a relevant reference in this regard. For Bhabha, liminality is border-threshold (Bhabha 2014). Every door implies both inside and outside the house, every text has a potential ‘beingable’- a possibility, the possibility is necessarily inscribed in the text, a re-context build inside the text. Context can also mean translation. The original text had the scenes of a re-context, all texts therefore invoke other texts. Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the ‘otherness’ of language. Bhaktin says that language exits in a social situation—implicitly dialogic, it involves actual social situations and the relationship between speakers. Every speech requires an addresser and an addressee. A word or a sign can be used or repeated differently in different social situations having different meanings. The works of language presents itself with codings of meanings and implications. It comes with ‘what has been said’ in different situations. For instance, English is the language of colonization, the traces of colonization is encoded with the English language. It has traversed through countries and boundaries to evolve as the volatile language it has become today. Likewise, a text may be something that is kept on the shelf, but moves outside of it. According to Barthes, it is a system of marks, traces and references. A text is therefore no longer a finished corpus of writing, some context closed in a book or its margins, but “a differential network. A fabric of traces, referring to something other than itself, to other differential traces” (Derrida’s definition of a text). By recontextualization, Derrida suggests the term ‘difference’ (used first in Of Grammatology, his coinage is from the French verb ‘differer’, meaning to ‘defer’ (to put back). The term ‘differance’ includes both the ideas of differing and deferment. It implies the passive condition of difference, the active process of producing a difference. The term ‘spacing’ comes to nearest to the meaning of differance, it implies both noun and a verb. Derrida’s essay Difference contain the ideas of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomenon (Collins 2014), it is neither a word nor a concept- rather a process which makes a word or a concept. He explains translation in terms of structure, sign and play. The trio is a rebuilding, an interpretation of interpretation. Structure is defined by a structurality of context, structurality suggests nature, characteristics of a structure. The relationship between the signifier and the signifier is arbitrary. The structurality of sign is that it is dependent on other signs for meaning. The signifier indicates the signified, which becomes a signifier for another signified, so on and so forth.
Derrida on translation
A considerable part of Derrida’s discussion revolves around translation, and its tendency of postponing the reader’s access to the essential meaning. While cultural theorists produce translations of theoretical and literary texts, their awareness of translation’s inefficacy in communicating a foreign text does not instigate them to conduct a scrutiny on the nature of specific translations, whether their own or by someone else. Spivak’s essay The Politics of Translation serves as an insightful understanding of translation, both feminist and post-colonial, backed up by post-structural theories of textuality and language (Spivak 2013). She focuses on cultural differences that complicates translation between two languages. Her theory is closely related to Derrida in the sense that he maintains how in the act of translation, a text and the meaning of it loses its essence. Going by Derridian precepts, it can be asserted that the original compulsively lacks its own translation, it rather demands translation. Derrida’s thoughts on translations reveals what Spivak has termed ‘spacy emptiness’, the space that lies between the existence of the self and that of the other. In other words, this gap is the space between the target language and the host of auditor. In Derrida’s perspective, translation is both necessary and impossible. Impossible because the disaster of semiotic conveyance is inevitable and necessary because it is of the most crucial practices in difference. Translation therefore serves as a hyphen, revealing the difference between the ineffable and the effable. Derridian interpretation of translation is focused on locating and acknowledging the lack and then attempting to make it functional. Samuel Beckett describes this mandatory failure on the translator’s part as ‘interesting failure’ (Trezise 2014) Derrida makes use of disciplines like cultural studies, literature and linguistics for reflecting on the ideas of translation. He uses the word in a broader sense, connoting a process of representation. His assertion is that translation is intricately linked with the pursuit of knowledge and hence is the backbone of all philosophical learning. A failure in translation also indicates a failure in philosophy. The final sentence of the letter is a confirmation of the risks and misinterpretations that translations are prone to. In a fair attempt to translate the writing of thee ‘other’ which is more beautiful, Derrida acknowledges the risks and inappropriateness that the attempt might entail. The translated version may be better or worse than the original, but it is nearly impossible to guarantee the aptness and authenticity (to source material) of that translation. The sentence “how to translate ‘poem?’ a ‘poem’ ?” indicates the arbitrariness and impossibility of being precise and concrete with translation. It would not be entirely erroneous to conclude that translation too, like the ending phrase of the letter is replete with abstract assumptions which are perennially prone to misinterpretations. The ending line is therefore a critique of translation, since it clearly fails to communicate the essence of the meaning intended by the original source.
The letter is highly relevant to the context of the discussion as it complements the content of the topic. Derrida’s intention was to convey his justifiable criticism of translation and elucidate how it defers meaning, toys with the reader’s interpretation and leaves gaps in the understanding of the context. He reasonably backs up his argument with references to his earlier works on linguistics, culture and literature.
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