Blogging, Translation, and the General Reader

A comment by Lee Konstantinou to Natalia Cecire's amazing post about academic blogging, in which he writes that Arcade doesn't have the general reader as its main audience, got me thinking about relationships between readership and translation. This train of thought is inspired by Naoki Sakai's notion in Translation and Subjectivity of "heterolingual address," a term he uses to describe writing that doesn't imagine a single linguistic community. The idea comes directly from Sakai's experience of having to draft the same papers in English and Japanese, which makes him question his assumptions about the linguistic communities he addresses. Sakai concludes his exploration of the authorial use of the first person plural as follows:

Thus, "we" comprise an essentially mixed audience among whom the addresser's relation to the addressee could hardly be imagined to be one of unruffled empathetic transference, and to address myself to such an audience by saying "we" was to reach out to the addressees without either an assurance of immediate apprehension or an expectation of uniform response from them. "We" are rather a nonaggregate community, for the addressees would respond to my delivery with varying degrees of comprehension, including cases of the zero degree at which they would miss its signification completely. I want to call this manner of relating the addresser to the addressees the heterolingual address. (4)

Image removed.The most interesting aspect of this passage for me is the way that it doesn't call as much for the addresser somehow ensuring that his address is comprehensible to everyone, but simply to be conscious of the fact that his address will always be greeted with varying degrees of comprehension. What's even more interesting if one reads at least the English version of Translation and Subjectivity is that Sakai has a tendency not to assume common points of cultural reference in his writing, so that a lot of the Japanese-specific material in the book is quite understandable to me as a non-Japanese person or academic specialist.

However, it's also important to note that there are many parts of the book, including the one I quoted above, that I would imagine might be hard to comprehend for non-academic audiences, which brings me to my thoughts about connecting heterolingual address and readership. Just as we (by which I mean everyone who writes publicly), consciously or not, assume communities of readers based on language when we write, a tendency that Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities has brilliantly analyzed and historicized, I think that we also assume communities of readers based on groups to which we imagine those readers belonging. For the most part at Arcade, there is in my estimate a sense among most bloggers that we're writing for an audience of academics working in the humanities, with occasional visits from others. We get single posts that generate a lot of attention from people outside of academia (such as Gregory Jusdanis' post on friendship and social media recently, which generated about 4,000 reads in one day), but I don't think that we have a sustained readership outside of academic circles.

Image removed.When I think about it, I wouldn't want this to change such that I or other bloggers should feel pressure to write to the "general reader," which I can't help but picture as an amorphous blob of assumptions that thrives on the illusion of readerly homogeneity. The concept of general reader seems especially illusory when we consider the ability of the digital medium to cross territorial boundaries, and the fracturing of English into Englishes as it has come to be used in a much greater range of contexts globally.

Though perhaps it's possible and productive to imagine a heterocommunal readership. This would entail not writing for the abstract general reader, but being aware of uneven relations to community and varying degrees of comprehension when we write, which may affect how we perceive ourselves in relation to our addressees. This may allow us to be more aware of points at which we can make our writing comprehensible to more people, without compromising the sense that we're addressing specific readership communities with whom it's important for us to communicate.

As Chris Brew pointed out also in a comment to Natalia's post, Language Log is a particularly good model for being able to address a specialist audience while maintaining its openness to readers outside of the specific community it addresses. I especially love Mark Liberman's Linguistics in the Comics feature, which does a fantastic job of exploring numerous aspects of how topics relevant to linguistics are portrayed in a popular medium. I think Language Log's heterocommunal address is a significant part of why it's so popular among linguists and non-linguists alike.

However, as Lee himself notes in his comment, heterocommunal address may be more challenging at Arcade since our subject is significantly more diffuse than Language Log, both because we want to address the humanities in general and also because the objects of literary study have become much more broad, ranging from philosophy and theory, to cultural media in general rather than written texts in particular. However, I do think that it's worthwhile for us, just as we are constantly defining and redefining our subject, to challenge ourselves to constantly define, redefine, address, and re-address our readership. And when I say "us," I don't just mean Arcade bloggers, but anyone who writes for an audience.*

* As a linguistic aside, these explications of "we" and "us" would be much clearer in Tagalog, which has three forms of "we": "kita," you and me; "kami," us but not you; and "tayo," all of us, which makes it much easier to be explicitly exclusive or inclusive for every use of the first person plural.

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