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Mercy and Translation

I want to make a brief note here so I never forget the beautiful article we read today in my Translation in the Middle Ages seminar.  We read Derrida's article "Relevant Translation" and spent nearly an hour unwinding this complicated text together as a class.

The translation issue at stake deals with the notion of "Pure Language."  That would be the language that was spoken before the Tower of Babel, a beautiful time when you could presumably express what you meant and be perfectly understood without needing to mediate the meaning through differences of language.  What a fantasy.

Translation is a huge issue for me.  I am devoting my career to Dante and have never read the entire poem purely in the old Italian without significant help from English translations, and I probably never will.  What is it about reading something "in the original" that seems so significant to us?  We are trying to be faithful to the original meaning of the text, but (this is probably not surprising), Derrida is not at all concerned with original meaning.  The notion of meaning in the first place is nebulous with Derrida, but he does conceive of a Pure Language that can achieve clear communication between writers and readers, where nothing is "lost in translation," as we would say.

He chooses a beautiful example from the Merchant of Venice wherein the Jewish Shylock is owed a literal pound of flesh from someone who has wronged him, and he does not want to accept in its place a monetary equivalent.  Portia the Christian urges him to accept the replacement payment of money for flesh, and does so in an eloquent speech about the nature of forgiveness.

Mercy is the mightiest force that is knowable to us because it "passes beyond humanity even as it passes through humanity" (Derrida 188).  Mercy is entirely beyond our human economy and goes against our notion of justice and order.  And yet in order for mercy to happen, human beings need to be the sources and dispensers of it.  So while it goes beyond us, it also needs to go through us.

This is a helpful starting point for me to walk into an understanding of Jesus as both fully God and fully Man.  Because he IS Grace, he has to be more than human and also no more than human at the same time.  Derrida brings up the example of the sacrifice of Isaac, where as soon as Abraham's knife is stopped mid-swing, a replacement sacrifice of a lamb is waiting in the nearby brush.

Derrida speaks thus of translation.  Because the meaning of two versions of the same text will never be identical, it requires grace and mercy to accept one as a substitute for the other.  They aim to approximate the same meaning in the end, but a new text will always seek to take the place of another text in that process.

Texts standing in for one another and the grace required to accept them as equivalent.  I love that.


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