Untranslatabilities of Giorgio Agamben's terminology (1)

In my previous blog posts, I brought up the question of terminological patterns every translator of creative non-fiction faces. I argued that it is utterly important to translate such patterns in a coherent manner. Otherwise, the reader of a translated text may be confused and misguided, especially when dealing with classical texts.

However, there is another problem the translator has to consider: the untranslatability of basic terms used by an author. Those are terms whose meaning cannot be captured just in one word in the language of the translation, a term that may have ambiguity intentionally created by the author.

Using the example of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo sacer. Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita (translated into English by Daniel Heller-Roazen as Homo sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life), I am going to show such untranslatability.

In the very title of his book, Agamben uses the crucial notion that will reappear in his entire project, namely il potere sovrano. As is Agamben’s wish, he leaves here the ambiguity that cannot be adequately translated. On the one hand, the Italian noun il potere means power. What is, however, political power, according to Agamben? It is the ability of the sovereign to decide on the state of exception (a notion he borrowed from Carl Schmitt). The state of exception results from the suspension of law. The source of the exception is the sovereign’s ability to suspend the law and to create a quasi juridical situation in which the law applies in no longer applying. Agamben’s argument leads, on the other hand, to the untranslatability in question, for the Italian noun il potere may be considered a verbal noun. The verb potere is a modal verb, which means can, may, and be able to.

Agamben clearly wants to regard power as the sovereign’s ability to suspend the law and create the state of exception. There is no sovereign power without the state of exception. But, in English, we cannot capture this ambiguity in a single word, which is the case in Italian, since the original potere is both power and the ability to suspend the law by introducing the state of exception. Suppose we do not keep in mind this peculiarity of Agamben’s creative writing that is the ambiguity of his basic terms. In that case, the Homo sacer project may appear as a hodge-podge of loosely linked argumentative strategies rather than a coherent line of argument.

In the next post, I will discuss another crucial notion in Agamben’s book: the bare life (la nuda vita).

Ukrainian version