Translating Signs, Producing Subjects

Brett Neilson


This paper moves between two streets: Liverpool Road in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield and Via Sarpi in the Italian city of Milan. What connects these streets is that both have become important sites for businesses in the Chinese diaspora. Moreover, both are streets on which locals have expressed desires for Chinese signs to be translated into the national lingua franca. The paper argues that the cultural politics inherent in this demand for translation cannot be fully understood in the context of national debates about diversity and integration. It is also necessary to consider the emergence of the official Chinese Putonghua as global language, which competes with English but also colonizes dialects and minority languages. In the case of these dual language signs, the space between languages can neither be reduced to a contact zone of minority and majority cultures nor celebrated as a ‘third space’ where the power relations implied by such differences are subverted. At stake is rather a space characterised by what Naoki Sakai calls the schema of co-figuration, which allows the representation of translation as the passage between two equivalents that resemble each other and thus makes possible their determination as conceptually different and comparable. Drawing on arguments about translation and citizenship, the paper critically interrogates the ethos of interchangeability implied by this regime of translation. A closing argument is made for a vision of the common that implies neither civilisational harmony nor the translation of all values into a general equivalent. Primary sources include government reports, internet texts and media stories. These are analyzed using techniques of discourse analysis and interpreted with the help of secondary literature concerning globalisation, language and migration. The disciplinary matrix cuts and mixes between cultural studies, translation studies, citizenship studies, globalization studies and political theory.

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