Lost marble in translation


Before I say what I am about to say, I need to warn that what you are going to read here was used (in 1991) as evidence by one of my colleagues to try and convince the Dean of Arts at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa) that I was insane. Six years later the article was eventually published after being rejected the first time for publication in 1995. On that first occasion, there were three referees; one said, publish without changes, the second said, trash it, the third said he didn’t know what to do with it. Remarkable, especially as the article was a lot of BILBOOL (“confusion”) from which we get “BABEL;” or is it the other way round, that is, BABEL causing a lot of BILBOOL . Oh well that’s what the article – and the confusion at the university – was all about.


It’s truly remarkable the kind of internet searches that are directed to my site. Today a search on the words “marble scattering down pyramid” found my “Mind your marbles” post. That’s not what is remarkable; after all, the words “marbles” – “scattering” – “down” – “pyramid” all come together in my post. What is indeed remarmable is that in 1997 I published an article on Derrida’s Babel and the problems in translating (languages – not people; into heaven).. The remarkable thing is that the whole piece is filled with allusions to marble, yet the word “marble” is not mentioned once. The searcher who typed the words “marble scattering down pyramid” into the search engine found my marbles pyramid in my “Mind your marbles” post, but not the marble pyramid in my Babel post, which would have been much more relevant than my description of marbles cascading down a pyramid in the school yard. I know; there are no pyramids, only ziggurats, in Babylon, but at least Babylon is closer to Egypt than Wynberg School, Cape Town. It’s a pity we can’t just have thoughts without the clutter of words. If we can have empathy, why can’t we have telepathy? The only difference is the one is near – very near – the other, far. As a chassid would say: “feel your thoughts, don’t (just?) think them.

Here is an excerpt from the article. It is a parable about the difficulties of translation. When I say “translation”, I don’t just mean translating from one language like English to another language like French, or Hebrew to Greek, but translating from English to English, French to French. The problem is not the words, which the same language shares, but the thoughts that we intend by those same words. For instance, you probably know all the words I’ve used so far in this post – except perhaps “deconstruction” and “remarmable,”  You still need, however, to “translate” – INTERPRET – my thoughts into your thoughts. Enough. Here’s the parable, which I think the internet searcher would have found more relevant to his search than “Mind your marbles,” but not necessarily more gripping. The parable is all about marble, but nowhere is “marble” to be found! Exactement.

The parable (On the difficulties of translation; start with a pyramid and end up with a mosque).

Like Leonardo chipping away at the white stone, the translator/interpreter endlessly chips away at the articulations between the cladding stones, seeking entry into the sacred tetrahedron (pyramid). After each disappointment he gapes in bewilderment at the bavel of bevelled tiles below. Reluctantly, he abandons the hope of ever finding the entrance which would lead him to the tomb of priceless treasures. But he cannot return empty-handed. Exhausted, he sits down on a heap of tiles. The limestone feels cool to the ruptured hot skin. Bemused, he strokes the smooth surface with bruised fingers, fondling its subtle textures. He arises, refreshed, packs his camel high with claddings, and returns home to build a mosque out of past failures. And so, our translator, although he couldn’t move the right stone, is happy; after all, he did save face. (During the previous centuries no one managed to find the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid until Caliph Al Moumon, who upon finding no treasure, planted his own in order to placate his crew of weary diggers. About the year 1000 A.D. the Caliphs of Egypt stripped the polished white casings of the Great Pyramid, which were then used to build mosques and palaces. What made the stripping easier was a great earthquake that shook the casings loose).

You might say that there’s nothing mad about this piece, and ask why my colleague at Fort Hare thought I was insane. Hang on. Here is another excerpt from the beginning of my Babel article:

An expected surprise is not a surprise. The same applies to rhetorical journeys. If one is not all pumped up and ready for a tour (tour in French = “trip”, “excursion”, “tower”, “trick”, “turn”), but instead merely wants to get from point B to point B – Babel to Bethel, the journey that we are about to take will turn out to be merely yet another well-trodden and tedious detour of Babel and its limitrop(h)es.

The journey begins on p.5 of Derrida’s (1984) Signsponge: Consider the translation of the following sentence: Francis Ponge se sera remarqué; “Francis Ponge will be self-remarked.” Is Rand’s translation a good one? Compare the original French with the English translation. The dictionary meaning of the verb remarquer is “to notice”, “to observe”.

Se remarquer “to notice oneself”, “to observe oneself”. Derrida’s object, however, is different to the dictionary meaning. Marque is also the mark, the margin, the step (the step in marching, and the step in ladder, stairway; marche “step”). Se remarquer contains at least the following deconstructable signifieds: 1. The doubling (re-) up of one’s self in the margin-text. 2. The double self in the double mark. The self in this context belongs, it seems, to Francis Ponge.

The title of the article is “Babel: can Derrida’s tour surprisingly translate us anywhere.” You can see why my colleague wanted to translate me out the University.

(marmar – Central Asian for “marble” as in Iran)

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