All Communication Is Simultaneously a Miscommunication: Is That True?

The Spanish conquest of Tagalog society posed the questions, in Rafael’s rendition, of history and translation, memory and circulation, conversion and confession.

He starts with a curious observation on the poeticizing of colonialism which was so deeply ingrained into the mind of colonizers they never relinquished it: "The Real Academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española defines conquista not only as the forcible occupation of a territory but also as the act of winning someone’s voluntary submission and consequently attaining his or her love and affection." (Rafael, ix)

In this context, translation is a means of colonization and of establishing the power narrative. Catholicism, with its "ideas of indebtedness and hierarchy" (Rafael, x), seemed to be a perfect instrument of colonization. For it to be successful, the new language had to be invented, namely "the institution of the new vocabulary for the social comprehension of death" (Rafael, xi).

The parallel to Benedict Anderson’s "fatality of linguistic diversity": "The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification." (Anderson, 1983, 56)

To juxtapose it with Rafael’s findings, one might paraphrase: "for whatever superhuman feats colonialism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries."

However, inasmuch as languages made it a struggle for colonizers, to subjugate people and therefore territories and resources, languages also presented a redeemable challenge. 

"Natives" employ linguistic means of resistance: "A distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontexualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself" (Rafael, 3). But their history, in turn, is written by the superseding power. And not only the history during the colonial rule, but also the history of colonialism, is written by the colonizers and their descendants, and not by the colonized.

The spirit of "natives" is unbroken, however, which is evident in the scene when the man recognizes the dead hero of resistance in a madman enclosed in the nearing cell.* 

What makes a translation successful? How spiritual texts of Catholicism could be translated? The tremendous difficulty of the Herculean task is afforded the glimpse if we recollect Laura Bohannan’s telling piece "Shakespear in the Bush" where she described the perils of explaining the vicissitudes of Hamlet to the Tiv people in West Africa (Bohannan, 1966). By any means, to explain the Bible to Tagalog, or any other people, was no easier, especially meaning that this explanation should ultimately lead to them fighting Spanish wars, paying tribute, building churches (some of the duties named by Rafael), and otherwise serving their overlords.

So how does translation emerges in this situation and how does it function? Not only its functions are to convert, but also to build the understanding. "Siegel claims that translation arises from the need to relate one’s interest to that of others and so to encode it appropriately. Translation in this case involves not simply the ability to speak in a language other than one’s own but the capacity to reshape one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with accepted forms." (Rafael, 210)

On this path, not so much translation as mistranslation is happening: "Christian conversion and colonial rule emerged through what appeared to be a series of mistranslations. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, such mistranslations were ways to render the other understandable. Each group read into the other’s language and behavior possibilities that the original speaker had not intended or foreseen." (Rafael, 211)

I think unintendedness, or unforeseenness is relative in the situation of successful colonial subjugation, and should not be overstated. The miscommunications happened, but as Wilhelm von Humboldt famously claimed, "All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding… and all agreement of feelings and thoughts is at the same time a means for growing apart." Similarly, all communication is at the same time simultaneously a miscommunication. But the Marxist thought requires to look closely at the practice, and ask, whether the translation/communication/understanding was practically effective, or not.  

*To digress, the trope of the undying hero, escaping either to lead a new, peaceful life, or impersonated by other people, is strangely evoking, given that we have many examples of its reenactment, such as a city legend of Michael Jackson, supposedly alive. Or, if we are seeking historic parallels, the figure of Yemelyan Pugachev in the Russian history and public imagination.


Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. 

Rafael, Vicente. (1988) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bohannan, Laura. (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Natural History. August–Semptember.

Translation as an Art of Failure


“John Ciardi (1961: 17), in a piece for the Saturday Review, famously (if often misattributed) called translation “the art of failure.” Ciardi was the poetry editor for the Saturday Review and had been engaged for fifteen years in an effort to translate Dante’s Inferno. He argued, in the end, that the goal of the translator—and he is rightly uncomfortable with this term because it assumes an isomorphism, not just of denotation, but of register (my term), of history (his term), and of “muscularity” (his term), between languages—is to create “the best possible failure” (Ciardi 1961: 17).” (Webster, n.d., 1)


Ciardi is a poet and a great poetry theorist. The book “Ciardi Himself” (1986) contains fifteen essays on poetry, writing, and teaching. I read them all. The titles alone suffice for the assessment of the level of his praxis: “For the Love of Language,” “Serious Joy,” “The Act of Language.” I was delighted to see the reference on Ciardi in purely academic, non-literary, anthropological settings, in Professor Webster’s wonderful article.

The notion of the art of failure promises to be productive beyond the immediate context. We do encounter small and dramatic failures all the time. To treat “failure” as a modus operandi takes, however, I am sure, a certain strength.




Ciardi, John. 1989. Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville – London

Webster, Anthony. n.d. The Art of Failure in Translating a Navajo poem: Creative Transpositions, Thick Translations and the Phonosonic Nexus. MS, UT Austin

Notes to the Theory of Translation

Les belles infidèles — if they are beautiful, they are unfaithful.

Different worlds, between which you are doing translation, do not match up, they are incommensurable worlds.

That’s why the “skyscrapers of commentary” (Nabokov) are needed in order to make the translation accurate: if not precise, then at least approximating the meaning. Meaning ultimately can be translated, but the sheer joy of text is quite another matter. What kind of joy, beyond purely scholar enjoyment, is possible from reading the text that, as you know, is not going to be comprehensible unless you read “skyscrapers of commentaries”? Who is going to read commentaries and why?

Translation might be possible, or it might be impossible, but here is the situation when it has to be made, and the most amazing part is it is happening.

The point of the translation is that it is a repetition. The translated text should be seen as “the same thing,” or it’s not a translation. The idea of translation disturbs the idea of singularity of the text itself, because it says: The text can be repeated.

Cultures are “repeatable,” in a grand cultural trope of their difference. Cultures are different, but in a similar way: everyone has different food ways, and ways of organizing sleep. Radical forms of difference are universal: they are organized along the same scales — social life, political life, economic interactions, rituals, routines; these are totalizing entities. The translation of the text is happening between the two cultural universes.

Notes to the Theory of Translation

According to Durkheim (1995), cultural and linguistic translation is universally possible and evolutionary defined: everyone, through different stages, should arrive at science, because societies are rooted in the real. Translation is inevitable, in a sense, since the humanity moves in one direction, that of universal progress.

Durkheim, Emile. (1995). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Fields, trans. Free Press.