Genius in Translation:
Julia Kristeva’ s Desire in Language and her Love of the Foreign
Sept. 13 2005
My starting point in this discussion of feminine and genius is one of the most provocative studies on genius and the Western tradition by Christine Battersby, whose diachronic and gendered reading of the notion of genius points, in my opinion, a way forward to the possibility of a feminist aesthetic that is no longer trapped by masculinist linkages of a phallic aesthetics with male virility. In her volume, entitled “Gender and Genius” which indeed adheres to Kristeva’s own notion of the third wave of feminism, Battersby traces the implementation of the notion of the male genius from the Greeks and Romans to the present in an attempt to delineate the contours of an aesthetic of an “écriture feminine.” Genius, I would argue with Battersby, is both etymologically and ideologically rooted in the masculine and not the feminine. So, then, what could Kristeva’s feminine genius be?
The Genius in Stone
Those critics and philosophers who work on genius, for example, Christine Battersby, Jochen Schmidt and Penelope Murray, trace the etymology of the word to two possible roots. One, Latin “genius“ denotes the divine forces associated with and protecting male fertility. genii are thus the spirits that are attached to the land, places, and natural objects that protect and ensure the longevity of the gens, or male clan. The other root is “ingenium,” a term associated with good judgment and knowledge, also talent, dexterity, the skills needed by an artist working in mimetic traditions. Battersby argues that “genius” as the logos spermatikos represents a Greek and Roman Stoic central concept that later enters into the Christian concept of God’s word and is far more influential in the semantic field of the word genius than “ingenium”. That is, the engendering aspect of the virile male is privileged over the idea of talent. If one looks at the usages of the word genius in 17th century, for example in Shakespeare, we find Macbeth complaining that his “genius is rebuk’d” (Macbeth III; 1) because he has been given a barren scepter and others will father a line of kings.
In Romantic and Modernist aesthetics, the notion of genius is central to models of both knowledge and representation. For example, Battersby identifies Kant’s epistemological foundation as built on this aesthetic of genius in which some male (but never female) intellectual beings possess “intellectual intuition” that allows them to bring not only the world as it appears to be into existence but also things in themselves. For Goethe, Fr. Schlegel, Novalis, Fichte, the artistic genius’ imagination is a (sometimes) lesser version of God’s creation of the universe. But for a woman to create artistically, she must, as Anais Nin in the 20th century bemoans, become masculine, that is she must unsex herself as a woman and become a man: to create culturally woman must sever her connections to the womb. (Battersby, p. 45)
There is much more to be said about this, but at this point I would like to turn to Kristeva and her essay “Desire in Language” (1975) to begin my investigation of her notion of the revolution in poetry and the relevance of this notion of revolution for the potential of a feminine genius. In this essay Kristeva begins to concentrate on the possibility of a psychological liberatory moment through the recognition of primary narcissism’s access to the semiotic and the “choric” (chora) moment in poetic expression. In “Desire in Language” Kristeva sets up her philosophical paradigm against the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the necessary positing of a transcendental ego in the thetic consciousness of the subject in process. This “thetic” consciousness is necessary in that “any linguistic act, insofar as it sets up a signified that can be communicated in a sentence (and there is no sign or signified that is not already part of a sentence), is sustained by the transcendental ego.” (DiL p. 99) Kristeva argues that the Husserlian phenomenological argument can be understood (translated) into the processes of the subject “as operating consciousness” by drawing on the insights of generative grammar and linguistic understanding thereby countering her contemporaries’ deconstructive attacks on the possibility of such a transcendental ego and its communicative object. In other words, the Husserlian move for Kristeva (at this point) allows her to posit the “thetic” nature of an utterance and then move to the problem of the remainder of poetic language which would seem to exceed its communicative purpose and the recognition of the constraining forces of socializing elements.
For Kristeva, poetic language differs from “rhetorical” language because it goes beyond the function of meaning and signification. Its thetic function is only part of its constraint: what makes it poetic is its ability to transcend the Husserlian phenomenology and access what Kristeva at this point calls the “heterogeneity” of language, or the “semiotic.”
This signifying disposition is not that of meaning or signification: no sign, no predication, no signified object and therefore no operating consciousness of a transcendental ego. We shall call this disposition semiotic (le sémiotique), meaning according to the etymology of the Greek sémeion a distinctive mark, trace, index, the premonitory sign, the proof, engraved mark, imprint—in short, a distinctiveness admitting of an uncertain and indeterminate articulation because it does not yet refer (for young children) or no longer refers (in psychotic discourse) to a signified object for a thetic conciousness. (DiL, p. 101-2)
The Platonic “chora,” a maternally connoted place of language prior to naming, prior to entry into the symbolic and the Law of the Father, is the place that gives the infant, the madman, and the poet, the rhythms and syntactic elisions, the intonations and the timbre of poetry. “It is poetic language that awakens our attention to this undecideable character of any so-called natural language, a feature that univocal, rational, scientific discourse tends to hide” (p. 103)
This realization is of course nothing new: poetic language is by its very definition a “poesis”–a creation, something new and original (see, for example, the poetic language of Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Karoline von Günderrode) that moves beyond the boundaries of rational discourse. However, what is revolutionary is Kristeva’s link between psychological process of maturation that would see the access to the semiotic in terms of the subject-in-process, the figuring of the feminine maternal chora as at once a privileged motif and as a disruptive and productive force of revolt and resistance. In contrast to the semiotic, rhetorical writing has been seduced away from the maternal. In Desire in Language Kristeva identifies the problem with philosophical discourse today (and one might suspect the trace of Derrida here) in France as being its narcissistic fascination with itself.
The rhetorician does not invent a language; fascinated by the symbolic function of paternal discourse, he seduces it in the Latin sense of the verb—he “leads it astray,” inflicts it with a few anomalies generally taken from writers of the past, thus miming a father who remembers having been a son and even a daughter of his father, but not to the point of leaving cover. This is indeed what is happening to the discourse of contemporary philosophers, in France particularly, when, hemmed in by the breakthroughs in social sciences on the one hand, and social upheavals on the other, the philosopher begins performing literary tricks, thus arrogating to himself a power over imaginations: a power which, though minor in appearance, is more fetching than that of the transcendental consciousness.” (p. 106)
Counter to the seductions of philosophy, the stylist (Kristeva echoes Nietzsche in describing the writer who accesses the semiotic chora) no longer needs to seduce the father, may even take another name than the father’s but assumes the role of the “permanent go-between from one to the other, a pulsation of sign and rhythm, of consciousness and instinctual drive.” (p. 107) The semiotic for Kristeva constitutes the means to override the constraints of a civilization dominated by transcendental rationality. By avoiding the traps of symbolic language, the semiotic emerges as “musicated” language, poetic language that laughs back (echoes of Nietzsche again) at the symbolic’s drive to the mastery of meaning.
According to Kristeva, the problem with interpretations of poetic language, and the realm it accesses, consists in reading it as rhetoric, as rational discourse, or else, failing that, mimicking it in a kind of academic echolalia. Original interpretation, like original thought (and as we have heard all translation is interpretation) must access a non-symbolic realm of signification. How can this be done, Kristeva asks. She answers, “It is probably necessary to be a woman… not to renounce theoretical reason but to compel it to increase its power by giving it an object beyond its limits.” (p. 113) Therefore, being a speaking woman, beyond the law of the language of the father, allows access to “an instinctual body… which ciphers the language with rhythmic, intonational, and other arrangements, nonreducible to the position of the transcendental ego even though always within sight of its thesis.” (p. 113)
Does this then mean that the speaking/writing woman has privileged access this place of originality, this non-echolalic prelinguistic realm of sense and sound? Could we then understand Kristeva as making the move that Nietzsche most definitely does not? Namely, in that she identifies the creative voice of genius with writing “as” a woman and not merely “like” a woman? To return to Battersby’s work on genius, we are shown the difference between Nietzsche the stylist and Kristeva:
“Nietzsche asks us to listen to him with a ‘third ear’: one that is tuned into the pauses between the music of reality. But he does not write as a woman. Nor will he even allow women to write as women. We should ask whether it is at all revolutionary to locate feminine strength (and Otherness) in the (pregnant) pauses between the words and sentences of the logos spermatikos?”
(Battersby, Gender and Genius, p. 125)
Genius in Translation
I would now like to move on to the third part of my talk, namely that on translation. If we understand translation as an act that attempts to move meaning either intralingually or interlingually, then how do you move the remainder of poetic language, that which is beyond signification? In her important work on translating feminist philosophy and ecriture feminine, both styles of writing that intentionally access the semiotics of the “chora”, Luise von Flotow investigates the complexities involved in translating “sense” language, the semeion, as opposed to symbolic or rhetorical language. In her essay “From Sense to Sound” von Flotow describes how following the tradition of translating nonsense nursery rhymes from French into English, translators have been faced with the task of searching for an equivalence if not in the semantic realm then in the semiotic for the “emotives” that signal pre-oedipal communication. Drawing on the techniques of translating children’s nonsense verse, von Flotow analyses the rendering into another tongue of feminist philosophical texts that challenge the symbolic order of the Father. In order to achieve this, she argues, the translator must face the question of “translating the sensory” to use Kristeva’s phrase, by employing mimetic and enunciative translation, sacrificing sense to sound in the attempt to echo the semiotics of the original.
Kristeva also addresses the possible nature of the sensory in her essay, originally published under the title “L’autre langue ou traduire le sensible” in French Studies (1998) and which appeared in English as Chapter 14 in Intimate Revolt under the rubric “The Love of Another Language”. Here Kristeva approaches this question from the perspective of her own autobiographical situation, that of the foreign writer in France. The writer is always a translator of the sensory universe in its singularity, the writer, like the analyst, lays bare the foreignness of her inner life, and, like the analyst, she translates that which is before language into language. At the turn of the 20th century Freud argues that Übertragung (transference /translation) is the mechanism or process by which the analysand translates hysterical symptoms and dreams into ordinary language and transfers desires that were unacceptable onto an object that is acceptable. Freud regards himself and the analysand as the decoders/interpreters of deliberately difficult, preconscious material in to the conscious realm, Indeed, Übertragung is the transference or translation that Freud refers to as the vehicle for the success of psychoanalysis. For Kristeva, echoing Freud, the function of the writer/analyst is also one of translation. In the essay, “Love of another Language” she writes in the section entitled “France my suffering,”
“They teach me that, even when native, the writer does not cease to be a translator of his unveiled passions, that the fundamental language that he takes pleasure in translating is the language of the sensory. And that this unnamable foundation, this rumor of our fibers and our dreams, never allows itself to be absorbed or reduced in the codes of schools, clans, institutions, or media.” (Intimate Revolt, p. 246) For Kristeva, then, this translation of desire subverts the rhetorical, as she has termed it. It represents a revolt in language, beyond the realm of the institution.
How then, does the translator reach the “text behind the text” in poetic language? As Susan Bassnett asks in her work Translation Studies, how does the translator communicate what Mallarmé was to call “the text of silence and spaces?” (p. 69) How does one translate this remainder, the connotative and denotative function of language? Does the translator merely translate the linguistic signs literally and trust that the connotations in one language somehow are replicated in another, or does the translator maintain the strangeness, the inherent otherness of the source text in the target language through the use of an artificial, or non natural language somewhere in between the source language and target language text, where the special feeling of the original may be conveyed through strangeness. (p. 70)
The first option might be possible if, as according to the sub-field of semiotics in Translation Studies, we consider languages to be systems of signs, of semiotika. In this case a system of relations between signs might be moved as meanings to a target language. But, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, such a system presupposes a perfect language that both source language and target language mysteriously point to. That is, in order to express in language A a concept that appears in language B one has to refer to a language X in which concepts from both A and B can be expressed perfectly. Walter Benjamin was to refer to this language in his essay “The Task of the Translator” as the pure language, “die reine Sprache,” that lies mystically behind every attempt at translation. It is this pure language that semioticians refer to when they speak of the translatability of the semiotic, the possibility of the entrance into the symbolic of that which lies in the chora.
But Benjamin’s pure language lies beyond the temporal. And our access to language does not. It is also possible that meanings within the source language may become translatable into the target language, given certain changing linguistic and historical conditions. We must move beyond the rationalist tradition where meanings are universal and hence generally translatable into their language specific representations; and we must also move beyond the relativist position, where thinking and speaking are so tightly bound together (and the subjective element in the constitution of meaning is much stronger) to arrive at a third way. This position, mediating between thinking and speaking, and for Kristeva between the semiotic and the symbolic, is represented perhaps most famously by German philosopher and theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher. In arguing that meaning is accessible through a mode of understanding, Schleiermacher terms “sense” or “intuition”, an operation he considers to be a recognition of the incommensurability of languages, as the translator of the sensory (as Kristeva might term it) (See Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, p. 274)
In her essay “Translating the Sensory” (Intimate Revolt, p. 240 ) Kristeva calls upon this trace of the foreign, the other, the semiotic, to be “jarring to the natives.” Here Kristeva speaks of her relationship to her adopted language, French. It is, she claims, “an act of politeness among people who share the same rhetoric, the same accumulation of images and sentences, the same arrangement of reading and conversations, in a stable society. (p. 243) However, her insertion of the strange, her use of this polished stone of language frustrates native speakers as it reveals the “monster”, it exposes her “who takes pleasure in never being content”. Kristeva regards herself as the metisse, the hybrid monster, the “Blendling” as Schleiermacher termed it in his essay on translation, who straddles two chairs of national reference. And rather than reject this metissage, she embraces it; it signals the death of the maternal tongue, Bulgarian, “this warm and still speaking cadaver” (p. 245), it marks the death of “ the vague plural meanings of the Bulgarian idiom, insufficiently severed from Cartesianism, in resonance with the prayer of the heart and the darkness of the sensory” (p. 246). Kristeva’s relationship to French is a love for the “sensory language, a language not of signs but of marks, quotations, pulsations impressions sorrows, and ecstasies– the marks, as she claims, of true foreignness.
If we are to accept Hjelmslev’s proposition, as set forth in his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, that ‘a language is a semiotic into which all other semiotics may be translated’ since in a language and only in a language, can we work over the inexpressible until it is expressed” (p. 109), then the question of the translatability of the semiotic, the translation of genius might be best addressed by how the target language, or in Kristeva’s terms, the symbolic will change, how in the future it will be able to express that which is sense. It is in this way that Kristeva offers us a translation of genius, of the particular, the individual in her embrace of her own position of otherness and her act of translation, not of the logos spermatikos, but rather of the chora. The quality of genius then lies not only as Kristeva argues in the transcendence of the sociopolitical context in which the feminine finds itself, but also in the transcendence of the givenness, the thetic quality of the target language and the act of revolt to change, to explore, its linguistic malleability. Such a notion of the futurity of linguistic change might then challenge the walls of ungenius, of the bedint, the quotidian, and as Kristeva urges us, give us the means to express our feminine genius.
 Ils m’apprennent que, même autochtone, l’écrivain ne cesse d’être un tradacteur de ses passions dérobées, que la langue fondamentale qu’il se plait à traduire est la langue du sensible. Et que cet innommable fondement, cette rumeur de nos fibres et de nos rêves, ne se laisse jamais entièrement résorber, jamais réduire dans les codes des écoles, des clans, des institutions, des medias…” (Julia Kristeva, French Studies LII October 1998:4, 389).