Das, Veena — Violence and Translation

Das, Veena. “Violence and Translation.” Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002): 105-12.

Das focuses on the events of September 11th and the continuous suffering caused by wars and genocides in other parts of the world in order to discuss problems of translation such as the dichotomy of  the “politics of mourning in the public sphere” (105). She first discusses the two opposing perspectives of cultural interpretation of violence and vulnerability: one considers the “antagonism of human cultures” as a “clash of civilizations” while the other emphasizes the “production of identities through circulation […] and the blurring of boundaries” (105). Das argues that these two perspectives are founded on the idea that human cultures can be translatable.

With this in mind, she first begins to discuss how much more significant one grand act of terrorism seems to be compared to multiple, scattered acts of terrorism. According to Das, “While terrorist forms of warfare in other spaces in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East were leveled against forms of particularism, the attack on America [September 11th] is seen as an attack on humanity itself” (108). She argues that the translated view of the violence occurring in countries portray terrorist acts as rooted in extreme devotion to a party and nation rather than a human right. On the other hand, the one grand act of terrorism towards the United States comes off more as an attack on the ethical human rights and values of America itself. This would mean that any attack on the United States is an attack on the unalienable rights which we support others to reach as well. These rights are translated as a unified, global front, making attacks on them more significant.

Das then goes into the almost non-existent public mourning that never truly happened after September 11th and the connection of such public mourning to vulnerability: “while in many other countries the wounds inflicted through such violence are acknowledged as attesting to the vulnerability of human life, American society seems unable to acknowledge this vulnerability [. . . ] for it would be a sign of weakness” (108). Given this dynamic, the word casualties turns into sacrifices, and the injured are considered “survivors.”  This view of events never happens in the countries that deal with this sort of violence on a daily basis, for the public display of grief is not seen as weak or as a means to act or do more harm.

Das states that “a language of war” in the United States “transforms it into a hunt,” not simply a reaction to the horrific killings of American citizens. These events allow violent language to persist, including the “the rhetorical strategy of animalizing the other.” Das asks whether mourning the lives lost in September 11th is even possible without using the grief of the survivors for ulterior motives. In like manner, she asks if such mourning can even be a possibility when the “languages of division are so virulent in the public sphere.” She ends the article by noting that there would be more possibilities for peace if it was possible to “acknowledge the fallibility and the vulnerability” we all feel. She also concludes that the United States’ conflict with terrorism is very similar to conflicts in those countries that are continuously under war and violence: both point to interests that need to be renegotiated (211).

Das’s article brings up a dimension of violence within a certain type of translation: the interpretation of events to differing publics. The language in which these translations occur is extremely important in establishing the differing interpretations offered to the global public, especially as it represents violent acts toward an entity of great power (the United States) versus violent acts toward a lesser entity (the countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East). I am struck by Das’s argument that the world took September 11th far more seriously as an attack on peace or righteousness than it takes the genocides and wars happening in the less developed countries, whose casualties could be far more than those lost in 2001. She states that the reasons behind the 9/11 attack were based on moral, ideological differences, while the reasons behind the wars in Africa or Asia are usually translated as being about property, economics, or social conflicts.

Moreover, I find Das’s observation of public mourning in the United States extremely interesting: it is almost as if the power controlled by America could be up for grabs if any ounce of vulnerability is shown. In that regard, I think the lack of translation of vulnerability is another result of structural violence, for being vulnerable is an undesirable trait. The use of language creating violence in order to hide vulnerability is the rhetoric that animalizes the other. By animalizing the other, vulnerability is forgotten, since the country that uses the device is once again put in a superior position to the inferior group. The distribution of power is an important aspect of violent language and should be considered in nonviolent language. How can nonviolent language take away the violence between differing powers? I hope to make the connection of translation in this realm and maybe even provide ways in which translation can reverse this idea without violent means.

—Madiera Dennison


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