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Exorcising Translation: Towards an Intercivilizational Turn by Douglas Robinson

Reviewed by Jane Qian Liu, Beijing Normal University

Exorcising Translation: Towards an Intercivilizational Turn, Douglas Robinson. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. £15.39. ISBN: 9781501326042.


The title of Douglas Robinson's new tour-de-force monograph is as intriguing as it is ambitious. What has translation to do with witchcraft? The pragmatic Translation Studies (TS) scholar would ask. Then the subtitle ‘towards an intercivilizational turn’ defines the book's ambition to signpost a new turn in TS, following the Cultural Turn a few decades ago. When the last page of the book is turned, the reader finally realizes that Robinson has delved into a number of complex and multi-faceted problematics in translation studies and has set forth in rational theoretical language some of the most subtle, mystified, and overlooked issues of the field.

            One of the most important issues that Robinson addresses in this book, and he borrows the term from the Japanese scholar Sakai Naoki, is the ‘civilizational spell’. Civilizational spells are irrational, subconscious reflexes that we have when dealing with aspects of other cultures. They ‘curse and haunt us with ethnocentric misunderstandings of other cultures and other civilizations.’ (xii) Here, Robinson quotes Sakai at length to present the example of the apparent oddity of the collocation ‘Asian theorist’, suggesting that the pairing of the term ‘Asia’ and ‘theory’ strikes many readers as odd because ‘theory is something we do not normally expect of Asia’ (vii). Such assumptions and accusations are of course both ungrounded and unfair. It is against these civilizational spells that Robinson proposes the conception of ‘cofigurative regime of translation’, a term proposed again by Sakai Naoki, but granted new significance by Robinson.

            The idea of ‘cofigurative regime of translation’ is hailed by Robinson as a useful theoretical framework to manage difference between distant civilizations. It is used as counterevidence to the East-is-East-and-West-is-West dogma, which is most clearly manifested in Orientalism, Occidentalism, and Eurocentrism. Thinking in these traditional mindsets, people tend to draw a clear divide between East and West. Even though most of the time we struggle to overcome such mindsets, they haunt us like spells. Robinson posits that scholars are drawn to binarization because boundaries have explanatory power, which is an incisive finding. Similarly, categorical thinking helps us understand ourselves and others, though often it results in further misunderstanding only. So in this book Robinson proposes to rethink Eurocentrism ‘in terms of the grand multicentury intercivilizational projects of Orientalism and Occidentalism, specifically as 'cofigurative regimes of translation' (xx).

            So what is the ‘cofigurative regime of translation’? Robinson takes care (presumably?) to delay giving its definition until almost the end of the book, when readers will have already gained an understanding of the term by looking into the examples he offers, or from previous experience of reading Sakai's work. In the last chapter, Robinson recounts Sakai's terminology of ‘cofiguration’, stating that it is ‘the interactive process by which source and target cultures create each other as separate and coherent cultures, through translation, and construct 'translation' as that 'symmetrical exchange between two languages' (109). Then on the following page, the statement of ‘this is the critical shift engineered by Sakai's keyword 'cofiguration': Orientalism is cocreated, in relationship’, the meaning of 'cofiguration' finally becomes clear (110). Orientalism is not created by Westerners alone, but is also created by 'the Orient'. Robinson argues that the framework of ‘cofigurative regime of translation’ allows us to rid ethnocentric appropriation, to rethink questions of boundaries and their leakages, and to see the fuller picture with the middle ground which best suits TS scholars.

            The book is composed of a preface and three chapters. The first chapter introduces the translation theories of Sakai Naoki. The chapter begins by bringing the readers' attention to a group of scholars who have been publishing studies of translation for twenty years but have been disavowing any connection with TS. These include Sakai Naoki and Lydia Liu He, the latter of whom is more familiar to Chinese academics, particularly over the recent years. Robinson refers to their studies as Critical Translation Studies (CTS), and he has written a book about it, Critical Translation Studies (Routledge, 2017). Although he very modestly states that he has never heard anyone else using this term, I believe it will be used more frequently in the very near future.

            Chapter 2 offers a lengthy illustration of the way civilizational spells work by examining the influence of Nietzsche on Harold Bloom. Robinson draws freely from the works and ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, and Bloom, focusing on Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. He argues that while Nietzsche offers a signal theorization of the etiology of Sakai's civilizational spells, Bloom offers a revealing instantiation of those spells. Although Bloom may not be manifestly clear about his indebtedness to Nietzsche, in his seminal work The Western Canon, his evaluative criteria of the canon is based on a mystified standard of literary talent. Such an idea echoes Nietzsche's idea of ‘the strong man’ or ‘blond beast’, who is above any slave morality, which Nietzsche condemns. However, as Robinson notices, in The Western Canon, Bloom fails to acknowledge the role of translators, discussing canonical works as if they were originally written in English, presenting the original works and their translations as commensurate. The same happens when he discusses critical works by theorists such as Shklovsky. As a result, Bloom can be considered a representative of ‘homolingual address’, which, according to Sakai, is ‘to address speakers/readers of one's own national language, homolinguially; translation, then, is a deviant act of rewriting that homolingual text in another unified homolingual sign system’(4). This act of deforeignizing translation is just a counteract to the foreignization technique which Bloom highly appreciates.

            Chapter 3 provides an analysis of an American scholar's attack on an American translation of the Chinese classics Laozi. Compared with the previous chapter, this chapter moves closer to more traditional, text-based Translation Studies, and it at the same time perfectly links the previous two chapters and melts the whole book into an organic unity. The American scholar Kirkland attacks existing American translations of Laozi as Occidentalist, arguing that we should delve into the true, original, Chinese meaning of the work, without any contamination from Western thoughts. In this way, he defies cofiguration, and seeks ‘purified myth of origins’. Robinson finds this argument problematic and posits that it is necessary for translators to resist the temptation to mystify Oriental classical works like Laozi, even if mystifying them proved an easier way to translate. Here Robinson hails the translation done by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall and offers a parallel comparison of their translation with that of Ron Hogan. He argues that Ames and Hall finally overcome the pop-mystical way of translating Laozi by channeling into their translation Emersonian/Peircean/Whiteheadian process thinking. Robinson thus convincingly proves his argument positioned at the beginning of the book, that cofigurative regimes of translation can serve as a most useful approach to overcoming East-West binarization and can open new horizons for TS scholars.

            This book, although at times overwhelming with excursions into disciplines of psychology, somatic theories, and philosophy, is nonetheless extremely thought-provoking and inspiring. It points out new directions for the future endeavour of TS scholars, encouraging them to expand their purview to larger, historical, and political implications, while not undermining the value of textual-based, more traditional translation research. The author's humour also adds to the glow of incisive observations and articulate explanations, allowing readers to smile with comprehension, and therefore to enjoy enormously the reading process.