Thoughts on Translation - Jacques Derrida

Published on January 31, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

July 15, 1930, El Biar, Algeria - October 9, 2004, Paris, France


“How dare one speak of translation before you who, in your vigilant awareness of the immense stakes-- and not only of the fate of literature-- make this sublime and impossible task your desire, your anxiety, your travail, your knowledge, and your knowing skill?

How dare I proceed before you, knowing myself to be at once rude and inexperienced in this domain, as someone who, from the very first moment, from his very first attempts (which I could recount to you, as the English saying goes, off the record), shunned the translators métier, his beautiful and terrifying responsibility, his insolvent duty and debt, without ceasing to tell himself “never ever again”: no, precisely, I would never dare, I should never, could never, would never manage to pull it off.”

- Jacques Derrida, “What Is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?”, translated from French by Lawrence Venuti

Why begin our ‘Famous Translations’ segment with a literary philosopher who famously loathed the act of translating, himself? Although Jacques Derrida did not make a career as a French translator, his work centered around his faith in language as the most natural and best way to communicate. His criticism of ‘relevant’ translation can actually be read as a praise to professional translators -- those who are existentially strong enough to cope with the ‘beautiful and terrifying’ responsibility of high-quality translation -- as he, admittedly, was too “rude and inexperienced in this domain.”

  • Jacques Derrida was one of the most famous, controversial, and wisest modern thinkers of the 21st century. He invented a way of doing philosophy that fundamentally altered our understanding of many academic fields, namely literary and translation studies.
  • Born in 1930 to Jewish parents in French colonial Algeria, Derrida grew up in a culture centered around Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Anti-semitism was a reality he grew up with. 
  • ‘Deconstruction’ is his most famous and most famously misunderstood philosophical idea. Derrida uses this term to illustrate his way of thinking. In its most basic form, deconstruction asks us to suspend our initial way of thinking and adopt the opposing viewpoint -- what is lost in the opposition...buried underneath our biases. Seem simple? Before dying in 2004 from pancreatic cancer at age 74, Derrida wrote 40 books on this topic and others-- rendering deconstruction anything but ‘simple’.
  • Many Derridean scholars find it difficult not to read Derrida’s work as a response to a lifetime exposed to bigotry and exclusion. We at MotaWord find it equally as hard to read his work and not feel Derrida’s underlying respect for professional translators. He clearly praises language professionals and their abilities. With his cool demeanor and his huge heart for the art of language, it’s no surprise that Derrida is the father of deconstruction.
  • For more information read Derrida’s thoughts on translation in his work, "What Is a 'Relevant' Translation?". French translation provided by Lawrence Venuti, and watch University of California Irvine’s translator roundtable for translating Derrida’s work here.

For Venuti’s thoughts on translating Derrida, read Translating Derrida on Translation: Relevance and Disciplinary Resistance.

Derrida in numbers:

      books published. Browse Derrida’s books here.


      boxes of collected publications held in the University of California, Irvine archives.


       Of his most notable works include Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology.


  The voting difference when Derrida won an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1992, 336 in favor-204 opposing. 


Opponents of the award claimed his writing to be, “denying the distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice."

With over 700 active professional French translators in our system at the time of this article, we would like to open the comments section up for an open discussion relating to French translation, Derrida, and any other ideas from this segment that may have inspired you. What is your experience in translating? Is translating an existential experience for you? If you have ideas, we would love to hear them! Comment below. Stay tuned to find out more about the Famous Translators and Famous Translations. 

About MotaWord

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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.


Citations: Jstor, TranslationJournal, IEP, Britannica, Shmoop