Transcendental Untranslatables: Emerson and Translation

While until recently translation has been understood as a recondite activity in antebellum literary America, there is little doubt regarding its importance within New England literary culture. Margaret Fuller, Frederic Hedge, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker were all active as translators; and translations of Goethe, Herder, Schiller, Schlegel, Lessing, Fichte, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Novalis, and De Wette were produced, disseminated, consumed, and cited by these so-called New England Transcendentalists. But translation played contradictory roles for the Transcendentalists. They participated thereby in what they saw as a transnational culture that used fiction and nonfiction to range across domains of knowledge. Yet, it was implicated in the construction of a national culture: translations from French and German provided an alternative to English literature, and translation itself functioned as a mode of imperial appropriation justified by the westwards march of universal history.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was part of this culture of translation: he not just translated Hafiz and Dante, Hölderlin and Novalis; he frequently rewrote and expanded fragments from different languages into new texts as well. In fact, translation is for him inescapably part of writing. At the same time, Emerson finds the labor of translation to be fundamentally melancholic. Like Walter Benjamin, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, and Rey Chow, Emerson discovers that the work of translation produces writing shadowed by antecedents that cannot be expunged from or accommodated in a new work.  In this sense, I argue, translation does not work for him. It produces bifurcated, disjointed texts standing in a non-contemporaneous relation to the time of the nation—a temporality Emerson describes as a boundless present. Operative in the interstices between transnational and national literary cultures, Emerson’s translations testify to the paradoxes involved in performatively constituting a singular, national literature out of the transnational labor of translation.

author David Watson

In Institutions of World Literature, edited by Stefan Helgesson and Pieter Vermeulen, 209-225. New York: Routledge.

published 2015