Lydia Liu’s Super-Sign & Translingual Practice
It’s very helpful for me, as a translator, to read theorists who imagine new ways of thinking about translation. Since translation, as commonly perceived, remains such a marginalized activity, I think it’s heartening to be reminded that translation is a crucial activity that goes on everywhere all the time (even within the “same” language & culture) and literary translation–as we practice is–is just one rarefied version of it.
I recently read “The Birth of a Super Sign” in which Prof Lydia Liu talks about the Treaty of Tianjin in 1958. Two articles of the treaty are discussed. Article 50 says that “any difference of meaning between the English and Chinese text [of all official communications addressed by the Diplomatic and Consular Agents of Her Majesty of the Queen to the Chinese Authorities] will hold the sense as expressed in the English text to be the correct sense.” (my emphasis)
Article 51 bans the usage of the Chinese word “yi”, perceived by the British to mean “barbarian” (it can mean that, but it also means a number of other things). Prof. Liu suggests there is something very telling (and deeply ironic) about “the injury” the British felt at being called “barbarians”. One interesting observation shows that the Chinese sometimes used “yi” to talk about foreigners from a certain part of the world, and the British pedantically (and shrilly) insisted that since the British Empire existed everywhere around China (east, west, south), the term “yi” was inappropriate. (In other words, it wasn’t just that the Chinese were being rude or imprecise in their use of “yi”; the word called into question the very legitimacy of the British Empire.)
I still don’t understand what Liu means by the super-sign (what are the necessary and sufficient conditions of a super-sign?) but yi/barbarian/[Chinese character for yi] is one example. She describes it as “hetero-cultural signifying chain”, and a way for an imperialist culture to “invade a language and assume the look for a known word in that language.” The super-sign “never fails to defer the meaning of that word elsewhere, toward some foreign language or languages.” This suggest languages shouldn’t be seen as closed systems, that the act of translating (legal or literary) is actually an act of creating circuits between cultures and languages that have to do with power as well as meaning.