L'épreuve de l'étranger. Translation, migration, resistance

July 7, 2019 - July 13, 2019
International Symposium in Phenomenology

Casa del Sacro Cuore
Strada del Brozzo 12

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities


Université de Fribourg
Villanova University

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Since time immemorial, the stranger (l’étranger) has aroused the most diverse feelings: the attraction or curiosity generated by the one who comes from elsewhere, but also sentiments of distrust or even open hostility. Georg Simmel put it well in contrasting the host and the stranger: the host, so he wrote, arrives today and leaves again tomorrow, while the stranger has already arrived before one realises it and, above all, will still be there tomorrow. This explains why, even if they sometimes spark dreams, most of the time, the stranger provokes anxiety. In summary, the stranger tolerates all kinds of reactions – except indifference. So long as they have not yet been naturalised and assimilated, the stranger preserves a form of strangeness that makes of any encounter a veritable ordeal.

The 23rd International Symposium in Phenomenology runs under the broader title of “L’épreuve de l’étranger” (the “test”, “trial” or “ordeal” of the stranger/foreigner) The subtitle – translation, migration, resistance – signals straightaway a triple set of coordinates:

  • firstly, one of the most central questions of the phenomenological tradition: the experience of the Other (what Husserl named Fremderfahrung);
  • secondly, the theory of translation (according to the German Romanticists, the task of translation proceeds from an épreuve de l’étranger, which invites translation but and also resists it);
  • thirdly, of utmost urgency in the present, migratory flows and new rises in intolerance and xenophobia.

(i) Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity: How to qualify the experience of the stranger? This is among the most crucial of questions for phenomenology, notably since Husserl’s analyses of intersubjectivity. Is the Other my alter ego, or must they give way to a radical alterity, irreducible to all that pertains to the self? This question has been debated throughout the twentieth century by all the great figures associated – from near or afar – with the phenomenological tradition: from Merleau-Ponty, Sarte and Lévinas to Ricoeur, Derrida and Michel Henry, and today taken up again by Bernhard Waldenfels, Judith Butler and many others. The paradox is this: as soon as they have been domesticated and normalised, the experience of the stranger ceases to be strange or disturbing; but if the stranger had absolutely nothing in common with me, I would not be able to experience them. Husserl himself had expressed this ambivalence when he defined the experience of the stranger (the Fremderfahrung) as one of “accessibility to that which is originarily inaccessible” (Zugänglichkeit des originär Unzugänglichen). The phenomenological analysis of this paradox naturally opens up onto intercultural questions, which themselves pose a question for Western consciousness: from the racialised gaze, analysed so forcefully by Frantz Fanon, to the encounter with or (non)recognition of the non-Western subject.

(ii) Translation: Secondly, l’épreuve de l’étranger refers to translation theory. The task of the translator, to speak with Walter Benjamin, consists of an impossible challenge: to preserve the singularity of a text or work and to transpose it elsewhere – to welcome it into another language, which inevitably betrays its specificity. Traduttore traditore – translation can only ever be a betrayal. In his influential work on the German Romanticists, from which we draw our title, Antoine Berman had well identified this trope of l’épreuve de l’étranger: to receive the other, to do the work of hospitality, is to translate – at the risk of incomprehension. Every translator works at a test bench and experiences the renitence of something that can be transferred into another language but nonetheless remains untranslatable. That which is particularly true of poetry pertains nevertheless to every idiom: in every transposition, something resists, a remainder (“restant”) that refuses to be subsumed under general categories (Derrida). This resistance (or “restance”) is perhaps the only way to access that which we commonly call singularity. In evoking this singular alterity, it is a matter of taking into account this aporetic experience of l’épreuve (itself a quasi-“untranslatable”) – one that ranges from confrontation, constraint and threat to test and even promise or chance – in order to negotiate all the implications of untranslatability and incommensurability. In any event, the activity of the translator questions a classical idea of the universal and foregrounds a “lateral universal” (Merleau-Ponty/S. Bachir Diagne). Without necessarily abandoning it, it “complicates the universal” (B. Cassin), leaving open the field for new connections and solidarities.

(iii) Migration: Thirdly, l’épreuve de l’étranger brings us to a context of migration and exile that constitutes one of the great urgencies of our age. How to make room for this reality? How to reconcile the neoliberal discourse on the free circulation of goods and merchandise with exiles’ experiences of rejection and expulsion at borders and (literal and linguistic) checkpoints? In what way does the figure of the migrant (T. Nail) force us to re-think our ethical and political categories as well as conceptions of sovereignty and rights? Do we need a new ethics of hospitality, one that doesn’t repeat the asymmetry between the one who decides to welcome and the one who is obliged to accept the conditions of the host? Once again, between hostility and hospitality, the encounter with the stranger obliges us to put into question our certainties: in this great movement of translation – between languages, categories and epistemologies, but also between genders and genres, between the particular and the universal, the literal and the metaphorical – some pass and others simply don’t. What can hybridise and mix, and what resists? Can we witness the other, make heard those who “have no voice”, or do imposed representations not repeat in their turn inherited violences? Must we not accept the impenetrable aspect of the other, their desire to flee or to not be recognised, to think with their own words, in their own space at the heart of language – to exercise their “right to opacity” (E. Glissant)? Certainly, this illegibility of the other brings us back to the fact that we are always invariably “strangers to ourselves” (J. Kristeva). As Emily Apter reminds us, the challenge of the foreign (l’épreuve de l’étranger) is to confront the question of the world and its belonging. Finally, in a globalized epoch, the theme of migration – of bodies, goods and concepts – compels us to repose the question of “world-making” and what and who is excluded from this.

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July 1, 2019, 5:00am CET

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