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Imagining the Transcultural

The Regimes of Translational and Transtextual Representation

English version
David Palumbo-Liu
p. 37-39

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1It was probably during the Romantic era that a particularly modern sense of translation appeared. Typified by Charles Baudelaire’s famous address at the start of Les Fleurs du Mal, “Hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frère,” we find embedded a notion that both reading and writing are haunted by a moral, and immoral, doubleness. Delicious and irresponsible at once, the transcriptions of the imagination transgressed at once both the notion that only God would be the great creator and point of both reverence and reference, and that there was a sole truth to be pointed to or expressed. Either in writers’ taking on for themselves the graphic signature of creation or in a reader’s belated and yet original reading of that expression and its transcoding into another subject’s repertoire of representation, the arena of writing and reading became newly complex and dialogic. Hence the notion of translation became at least loosely unanchored from both its linguistic, epistemological and ethical obligation to be “true to the original,” since the idea of art and truth had become radically rescripted and the concept of originality with it.

2It may not be an accident that these aesthetic revolutions took place with the flourishing of the bourgeoisie and a sense of individual’s entitlement. And yet, returning to Baudelaire, there is the well-known tension between the aspirations of the individual toward absolute freedom and the registering of the persistent claims of the social and historical. That tension is well expressed in his seminal essay on the modern, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in which the modern is constantly under erasure by the flow of time and yet reconsolidated within something called the “classic.” Let us imagine then that this is not only an aesthetic division between creativity and tradition, or a temporal one between the present and the past, but also a social one between the individual and the collective. I want to consider this inaugural issue of Transtext(e)s Transcultures as engaging, in a strong way, this last element, and I add here the issue of power.

3Each of the essays I have perused in some way or another addresses the question of power in transtextual and translational activity. The power of the second text (and I use this designation simply because it seems the most neutral--I want to insist that this is a cardinal, not ordinal designation, without any sense of belatedness or inferiority) to stand in for the other text as its representative, even shrouded as it is in debt. This power is not a given, nor is it won easily. And it is not permanent and irrevocable. It is rather contingent upon precisely its sociopolitical and historical context. Getting back, yet again, to Baudelaire, the question is how the individual instance is articulated in social space. For instance— Ratheesh Radhakrishnan’s examination of cinematic “translation” in Indian films points out how the Malayalam adaptation of Aithe recontextualizes and reinvents the film in a radically different class context; the essay discloses the ways the narrative of the former film had to be adapted to an entirely different social and political world. And yet what is most fascinating in this discussion is not the recontextualization nor the rescripting alone, but the ways that the narrative and cinematic logic of the former film and that of the adaptation show, in their disjunctions, not only the movement of history but also its power in shaping the ethical, aesthetic and sentimental repertoires of viewing publics. If a strong, material sense of history is foregrounded in Radhakrishnan’s essay, then the abstraction of space and time, and their translation into the logos of geographic and ethnographic discourse is emphasized in Pelletier’s essay on Elisée Reclus. This essay finds the workings of discursive power at the most general level—the segmenting of East and West, facilitated by the work of a scholar whose expertise in “The Orient” was not lessened by the fact that he had actually never visited it. The epistemological and the empirical thus stand in an uneasy tension, and that tension is resolved only through the workings of desire and power—the predispositions of the West to “see” the Orient in a certain fashion, and the accretive power of discourse networks to produce a specific reality effect.

4Florent Villard’s essay similarly focuses on the disjunctures of real space and time, in a fascinating account of the contemporary production of “China”—at once rendered into the past, and yet in which the past is transformed into the most “realistic” frame for the present. Simply regarding this as the commodification of the nation only goes so far in explaining the specific forces of erasure and reconstitution, as Villard demonstrates. It raises the question again of audience, and the assumptions that feed into the production of “China”—how does the state imagine the non-Chinese world to (want to) see it? What dimensions, shapes, details, of the past seem to blend into that perceived object of desire, and what does this tell us not only about the Chinese production of the past/present nation, but also about the ways in which the West has, explicitly or implicitly, instantiated its tastes, desires, appetites?

5Representation is again at the heart of Marie-Eve Blanc’s comparative study of the representations of Vietnamese immigrants in both the French and Canadian press. Her study shows how the difference in representation (as, respectively, the positive image of multicultural migration and the negative image of criminality and contamination) depends on the larger social and cultural contexts of immigration. The essay explains how the historical context behind these different representations situates Asia and the foreign within different nation-state practices and politics.

6Stéphanie Tsai’s study of the reception of André Malraux in Taiwan gives us an excellent example of how the same figure can be very differently received outside their home country. Most strikingly, Tsai shows how different predispositions influence the assessment of whether or not Malraux’s notion of a global community could be grasped fully. Are his terms translatable into Chinese ? Is there a huge conceptual gulf between the languages and cultures? Or was this an historical failure, rather than a linguistic one? Finally, Corrado Neri’s study similarly addresses the idea of influence, noting the affinities between the cinematic project of Tsai Ming-liang and that of François Truffaut. Neri argues that the intertextual elements in Taiwanese cinematographer’s films, conspicuously referencing Truffaut, take on a spiritual resonance as well, as both film-makers are obsessed with the idea of freedom. The distance between the French New Wave and contemporary Taiwanese film-making is thus shortened dramatically. The author does a fine job of using this affinity to reveal the special qualities of Tsai’s films, in contradistinction to the manners in which other film-makers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yang Dechang have employed allusions to European and American films. It would be fascinating to press further the ways in which the different historical contexts in which Truffaut and Tsai work inflect the notion of “freedom” quite differently.

  • 1  For my early meditation on these issues, see “Unhabituated Habituses” in David Palumbo-Liu & Hans (...)

7In the case of the precise location of this publication, in the interstices of Asia and Europe and radiating out and inwards, the “modern” context has not dissipated, but it has been problematized. While the issues of power raised at the start of this short contribution have remained, the essays contained in this issue,and hopefully others to come,have demonstrated that the increased flows of migration, the fissures in local and regional identities brought about by increased globalization, the varied receptions of the “foreign” into the “domestic,”have produced much more complex configurations of power—the transportability, the transcodability of texts is dependent now upon often contradictory aims and interests.1 If I were to make a modest suggestion in this regard, it would be to see how the regimes of translational and transtextual representation are imbricated in a dialectical tension between the residual claims of the autonomy of art and the sociopolitical and historical contingencies that may block, facilitate, force, divert, or erase the “trans”-position of texts. It would then be not a sense of moral indignation or aesthetic propriety (call it “taste”) that would drive us to track the transmutation of texts into other texts, but rather it would be both political and historical sensitivity and commitment that would engage our critical attention.

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1  For my early meditation on these issues, see “Unhabituated Habituses” in David Palumbo-Liu & Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (eds.), Streams of Cultural Capital, Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1997

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David Palumbo-Liu, « The Regimes of Translational and Transtextual Representation »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 37-39.

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David Palumbo-Liu, « The Regimes of Translational and Transtextual Representation »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu  is Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He received both his undergraduate and graduate training at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a founding faculty member of Stanford’s Program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE), and currently directs Stanford’s Programme in Asian American Studies (see his monograph Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier). From 1999 to 2005 he was Director of the Program in Modern Thought and Literature. Palumbo-Liu’s current research includes studies of border art; notions of affinity in literature; race, media and visuality; culture and public policy, the aesthetics and ethics of globalization.

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