eipcp Policies
12 2011

European Cultural Policies: The Perspective of Heterolinguality

Boris Buden, Birgit Mennel, Stefan Nowotny

Boris Buden


Birgit Mennel


Stefan Nowotny


Every attempt to create a cultural policy usually faces a twofold challenge: if it strives to articulate itself in response to a demand coming from its political outside, it will betray its cultural task; if it tries to create itself exclusively following a demand from (its cultural) within, it will fail politically. Isn’t the only possible way out of this dilemma for a clever cultural policy to carefully navigate between the Scilla of pure politics and the Haribda of pure culture, concretely, to occupy a middle ground and act as an intermediary between both politics and culture connecting their particular interests and thereby bridging the gap between those two originally separated spheres of social life?

But what if the proper answer to this dilemma is to be sought precisely in the opposite direction? The real task of a genuine cultural policy is not to mediate between culture and politics, but rather to lay bare the intrinsic impossibility of their separation. It has to address what is political in culture, and vice versa, what is cultural in politics. But where it is supposed to do so? In a public space of a particular – nationally framed – society? Even if we believe in this possibility, there is another question that cannot be ignored today. What if what is at stake is the articulation of a cultural policy that transcends any particular public space, any particular society and any particular nation-state? For instance: a European cultural policy?

But, is Europe a society, is it a public space, does it have a common political sphere, has it articulated its own culture as a common, homogenous field yet?

To face this challenge, one must reach out to new concepts that are able to deal with today’s reality of the global economy, of transnational social and political formations and cultural articulations that cannot be confined into distinct, clearly framed spaces. One of these concepts is “translation.” Let’s take the already mentioned case of Europe.

We can start from a trivial fact: Europe, in whatever “final shape” (or even non-shape), cannot exist without translation. Although everybody would agree on that fact, very few are aware of how far-reaching its consequences are. Even fewer would be prepared to think of translation, an otherwise modest concept of general linguistic and literary practice, as playing such a central role in the formation of Europe as a common political project. Étienne Balibar is one of those few. He radicalized the question of building Europe as a democracy. Its major precondition is, clearly, a common European public space. But which language should be spoken in this space in order for a functioning public to be constituted? English? French, German, Spanish? (But why not, for instance, Slovakian, Latvian or Maltese, or rather Arabic, Chinese or Wolof? All of which are indeed languages spoken in Europe …)

The answer to this question, so crucial for the European future, cannot be given in terms of a single national language, since it very obviously points to a heterogeneous field of linguistic practices that cannot be understood as mere “exercises” of given linguistic codes. For Balibar, the building of a transnational democracy openly contradicts the concept of monolinguality, in which even the allegedly most developed of the current existing democracies have been based. It contradicts the concept of unique, homogeneous monocultural spaces – national cultures and, we can add, it contradicts the concept of a common cultural policy that is generated as a simple sum of such already existing particular spaces.

He, therefore, suggests a different model: the future language of Europe can only be imagined in terms of what he calls “social practices of translation,” a permanently changing system of differing linguistic customs which are involved in constant interaction. This also applies to the idea of a “common” European culture and a “common” European cultural policy.

Thus, the concept of translation, or what is often referred to as “cultural translation” today, offers a vision of a new trans- or post-national society, of its common public space and its democratic political life as well as of future forms of its cultural and educational system, and needles to say, of a democratic, transnational cultural policy. Moreover, Balibar believes that the idea of translation could even revive and push forward the case of universal emancipation on a global scale. But what are indeed the links between translation and the political, both in a historical and contemporary perspective?

From the very beginning of modern theoretical reflection on the practice of (mostly) literary translation, translation was given a clear social and political task. This becomes very clear if one considers the theories of the German Romantics, where translation was supposed to be a constitutive means for the formation of a national cultural community. In short, the concept was related to the idea of the nation as a unique language community – and, therefore, spiritual and/or cultural community (Humboldt). The classical binary theory of translation and its termini technici (the original, and translation as its secondary production; the fidelity of translation; the foreign and foreignness; domestication, etc.) fully corresponds to an idea of the world – and of Europe as well – as a cluster of irreducibly different linguistic and cultural communities. According to this binary model, the task of translation is not simply to establish and facilitate communication between these communities, but rather to participate in their creation, i.e. to actively and decisively contribute to the so-called “nation-building” processes.

With the epochal abandoning of binary theories of translation and consequently of the very idea of the original (for instance in the work of Walter Benjamin), the social and political task of translation has also been reconceptualized: translation could henceforth be seen as playing an important role in the strategies of social criticism and social or generally human emancipation, inspired by Marxism or psychoanalysis. In the form of “cultural translation” it ultimately became the concept of a new trans-national culture, and as such, also a post-modern and especially post-colonial model of universal emancipation (different versions of this have been formulated by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak or Judith Butler, and vulgarized by numerous cultural scientists and social critics).

However, emancipatory strategies of this kind, although representing a normative counterpoint to nationalistic identification and to every claim to a pure, essential identity, very often lack a genuine political articulation; they specifically lack a political form that could turn a “cultural” mission into an actual historical reality. In other words, they fail to politically challenge the still dominant form of today’s political reality, the model of the nation-state. Even a supra-national project, such as the European Union, is in many respects constructed on the very basis of the principles of the historical nation-state (as demonstrated, for instance, by the EU’s enormous translation apparatus designed to guarantee the integrity of the existing European national languages – as opposed to merely regional languages or migrants’ languages). For this reason, no matter how loudly anti-nationalism is culturally expressed, it remains silent politically. The depoliticization that we speak about here can be understood as a kind of deadlock of various contemporary strategies of emancipation, including many of those based on the concept of (cultural) translation. In fact, it is just another symptom of the ongoing culturalization of social and political issues, a symptom that is also typical of contemporary cultural theory. This is the reason why, precisely when cultural policy is at stake, it seems necessary to critically examine the concept of culture in its very “politicality,” instead of uncritically supporting its almost inevitable self-referentiality.

In fact, the concept of cultural translation designed to forge processes of cultural hybridity, as suggested by Homi Bhabha, fails to address the social, political and existential conditions of migrants and post-migrants, who, being subjected to different forms of repressive exclusion, appear as the human embodiment of untranslatable foreignness today. It furthermore dissimulates and embellishes the various forms of exploitation that (post-)migrants find themselves exposed to. For this reason, we find it hypocritical and politically wrong to romanticize migrant masses as the new transnational “elite” of cultural translators, faithful to the task of proliferating hybridity, and therefore, to the mission of emancipatory change. Instead, by focusing on the phenomenon of migration, it is precisely the unmeasured and mostly unexplored gap between the big promises that (cultural) translation makes in theory and the “broken dreams” relating to them in today’s political reality that has to be taken into consideration.

We are fully aware that no theory alone can bridge this gap, just as any practical initiative can only hope to strengthen existing social practices that deal with this gap. It is all the more important that the reflection on translation leaves the “gated communities” of the scientific and artistic fields and reaches out to a broader public space where practical processes of – linguistic, cultural, ideological, social, etc. – translation takes place in the contingency of everyday life. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, we would like to introduce a concept that both explicitly challenges the politically dominant forms of both monolinguality and multilinguality, and avoids the romanticizations and political shortcomings of the benevolent discourses on cultural hybridity.

We are speaking about the concept of heterolinguality, or more precisely, of heterolingual address, as developed by Naoki Sakai. It can provide, we believe, a strong tool for a reconsideration and reinvention of not only linguistic, but also cultural, educational and political practices and policies that meet the current processes of social recomposition and new subjectifications.

Let us briefly summarize the theoretical reasons for choosing this perspective in order to end with some suggestions on how to tackle the abovementioned topics in a modified way. As introduced by Naoki Sakai, the concept of heterolingual address performs three important shifts:

1) It does not start from the assumption of two or more preexisting language entities between which translation takes place as an activity posterior to them, but rather understands translation as a social relation, as an activity opening up a field of differential, if variously shaped and informed, social practices. It is only a certain configuration and representation of these practices (for instance, in the context of “nation-building”) that allows for the construction of given distinctive, in themselves allegedly homogenous, language entities.

2) Thought of in terms of social relations and social practices, an investigation into translational processes cannot be reduced to the paradigm of communication (suggesting given communities that enable communication, on the one hand, and “failures of communication” between these communities that necessitate the work of translators, on the other). It rather has to start from an analysis of different modes of address. This, however, necessitates an understanding of the concrete regimes and practices of address. Thus, what Sakai calls “the regime of homolingual address” (as opposed to heterolingual address) has to be examined in view of its direct political and social implications in terms of the ways in which it configures and shapes the interrelations between different subjects and subject groups – just as the modes of heterolingual address have to be examined as to the concrete social relations in which they occur.

3) Given that the assumption of homogenous language entities no longer provides the basis for an examination of translational processes, analyses can consequently not be reduced to consistent “communities,” defined by “common languages.” Therefore, an examination of the heterolingual condition has to take into account various kinds of hybrid languages, broken languages, processes of what in sociolinguistics is called “code mixing” and “code switching,” as well as various ways in which those language uses are politically, socially and economically informed, reaching far beyond the idea of different linguistic or cultural “backgrounds.”

If these shifts are applied to the question of “Europe as a translational space” (i.e., not only as a given space in which translation occurs, but as a space-in-translation whose spatiality is precisely determined by translational social practices), then it is quite obvious that the theoretical challenge linked with the perspective of heterolinguality inevitably and immediately calls for an examination of a whole series of questions: What are the social relations which necessitate and trigger translational practices in present-day Europe? How, and on which premises, are these translational practices designed and represented? If translational practices are always linked to specific modes of address, then what are the dominant modes of address in present-day Europe (who is addressed, and who is addressed in which way, when it comes to tasks of translation)? How do regimes of homolingual address, in the confined “multilingual” framework of the EU, relate to emerging practices of heterolinguality, especially when related to migration processes reaching beyond European confinements? What are the linguistic and cultural practices that evolve in a situation determined by both homolingual and heterolingual modes of address, and how concretely are they politically, economically and socially informed?

These are the questions with which every genuine cultural policy, which aims to address the emerging transnational, non-aggregate communities of foreigners – of those that have become foreign to any particular nation, society or culture, and above all, to any particular national politics.

Boris Buden, Birgit Mennel, Stefan Nowotny
work as researchers in the project Europe as a Translational Space: The Politics of Heterolinguality, http://eipcp.net/projects/heterolingual/files/about/

With support of the Federal Ministry for Arts, Education and Culture, IA/4.