Douglas Robinson, Translationality: Essays in the Translational-Medical Humanities

Douglas Robinson, Translationality: Essays in the Translational-Medical Humanities (London: Routledge 2017) 239pp.  £105 Hb. ISBN: 9781138727045

At first glance, the main title of this book seems ordinary to the point of blandness, easily mistaken for the simple word ‘translation’; even if this mistake isn’t made, ‘translational’ is common enough and the suffix ‘-ity’ is readily intelligible. Indeed, Douglas Robinson’s Translationality seems a perfect, uncontroversial fit for the book series ‘Routledge Advances in Translation and Interpreting Studies’. Predictably, however, a second glance is very much needed. As the author himself predicts: ‘My title, I suspect, is a bit difficult to parse’ (viii). ‘Translationality’ is itself in need of translation, and that is Robinson’s major task in this far from ordinary volume.

Robinson’s extended sense of ‘translation’ transcends the quotidian linguistic one, as well as the more niche medical sense – in fact, according to Robinson, ‘translationality’ lies at the heart of all human interaction. This is reminiscent of Octavio Paz’s dictum that ‘Learning to speak is learning to translate’,1 whereby the lifelong skill of ‘translating’ the world into meaning is attained concurrently with language during childhood. Where Robinson goes yet further is in suggesting an individual, bodily, somatic basis to translationality, and in turn its fundamental role in a constant social renegotiation of norms.

Thus, the book consists of three interwoven essays and a concluding section, all labelled as interlocking fields: ‘The Medical Humanities’, ‘The Translational Humanities of Medicine’, ‘The Medical Humanities of Translation’, and ‘The Humanities of Translational Medicine’. Robinson’s navigation of the content is well organized, though would have benefitted from the Preface’s more granular breakdown, combined with page numbers in the Contents page proper.

The presentation is lucid and engaging, yet also complex and boundlessly erudite; it would be nigh-on impossible to mention the myriad bases Robinson covers in a mere two hundred or so pages of body text (the expression ‘body text’ itself, to this writer’s mind, quite in keeping with the notion of translationality). He signposts with meticulous regularity his many subsections, alongside what initially seem like abrupt sidesteps, but emerge as significant yet surprising reformulations of previous points. For example, Alexis Hervais-Adelman et al.’s neuroimaging studies of interpreters (starting on p 130) proceed onto German Romantic translation theories (especially Friedrich Schleiermacher’s), through to Russian and Finnish exemplars and anecdotes – but then suddenly refocus on the relationship between Peircean semiotics and Chinese philosophy (164). This feels incongruous to begin with, but precisely this feeling of incongruity is what is significant, and Robinson deftly returns to Schleiermacher and the ‘Feeling of the Foreign/Strange/Alien’ as discussed at length in the previous section.

Practising what it preaches, this book is creative interdisciplinarity at its best, encapsulated in Robinson’s writing, which is often personal and individualistic (perhaps also scathingly opinionated), but always with a view to collective plausibilization. This unconscious communal verification, based on Antonio Damasio’s somatic theory, is intriguingly termed ‘icosis’ by Robinson. The book itself is ‘icotic’, participating in a dialogue with a broad range of ideas, attitudes and fields, all boiling down to this basic empathic notion: that I, you, we all simulate each other’s bodily states in our own bodily states, including during the act of reading, and together ‘periperform’ and thus make plausible communal realities and truths, in opposition to what Robinson calls ‘objectivist’ or non/pre-Kantian reality.

By no means are any of Robinson’s complicated, interlinked concepts easily summarized, yet he renders them convincing, forthright and rather humorous. He takes on umpteen narratorial personae, from playful, intimate co-conspirator (‘my translation is in fact stranger than [Aleksis] Kivi’s original. (Is it a character flaw that I consider this a good thing?)’ (152)), to unflinching, castigating police officer (‘While one could argue that [some] scholarly work is “worthwhile” in the sense that it allows otherwise unpromising MA students to obtain their degree, I’m not convinced […]’ (175)). If something of the egotistical hovers over Robinson’s work, this is more than mitigated by his scrupulously exhaustive scholarship, as well as the fact that, true to his ‘icotic’ word, Robinson painstakingly breaks down in his Acknowledgments section just how collaborative and workshopped the book actually was in its genesis (xx–xxii).

Less inclusive and more far-fetched is Robinson’s claim to have coined the expressions ‘neurocultural’ and ‘neurophenomenological’ (xix). As regards the latter term, it is most associated with the 1990s work of neuroscientist Francisco Varela, but the term itself predates even him; in this case, at least Robinson engages persuasively with the field throughout. However, as regards ‘neuroculture’ and the ‘neurocultural’, despite Robinson’s claim to coinage so early in the book, there is no explanation of the history and development of the ‘neurocultural’, except a brief definition in the same place. In fact, Paul Ekman, who is only fleetingly mentioned towards Translationality’s end, used this term (albeit perhaps differently) as far back as the early 1970s. Nothing in Robinson’s text addresses more recent, prominent uses of the portmanteau term either, such as Ortega and Vidal’s Neurocultures (2011) or Francisco Mora’s as-yet untranslated Neurocultura (2007).

Still, this does not diminish a fascinating, important and arresting book, a synthesis of works by a translation expert ‘working at the interstices among neuroscience, cognitive science, and the humanities since the early 1990s’ (134). It is a volume wholeheartedly dedicated to tackling the ‘stutter in this skirmish, […] that either there is no middle ground between objectivism and social contructivism/periperformativism […] or such a middle ground exists but is too little known’ (118). Robinson is belligerent and bravely so, not only for touting such middle ground, but for dwelling in it, even revelling there.

However, it is only in the abovementioned claims to terminological priority where slight inconsistencies creep in, perhaps due to the very synthetic nature of Translationality, pasted together from parts in the same provisional and ‘klugey’ (but effective) way he insists the neuro-self is composed (29, 40). Robinson is thus alternatingly underconfident in his terminological deployment, such as his unnecessarily repeated reintroductions to Saori Nakai’s (admittedly crucial) concepts of ‘homolingual and heterolingual address’, and overconfident, such as in his somewhat careless reference to neurological ‘normals’. This might be commonplace amongst neuroscientists, but is frowned upon in the medical humanities, not least by advocates (or patients) in that branch known as disability studies. This contrasts starkly and unfortunately with his otherwise judicious consideration of both the ‘normative’ aspects of ‘icosis’ and Thomas Kuhn’s concept of ‘normal’ science.

Nevertheless, Translationality works extremely well as an energizing and coalescing piece at the junction between translation, medicine, literature and philosophy. Furthermore, it ends on a brilliantly, annoyingly tantalizing note, which only leaves one wanting more: ‘science, like all scholarship, and like all storytelling, and indeed like all social interaction, is an unending collaborative attempt to create a coherent reality out of the astonishing resistance life puts up to our attempts to create a coherent reality’ (203; original emphasis). That the agency of life itself ‘puts up resistance’ to its own constituents is an exciting, troubling, yet fascinating thought, and one that Robinson will no doubt tackle with his evident vigour – as well as rigour – in future work.

Romén Reyes-Peschl, University of Kent


1 Octavio Paz, El Signo y El Garabato (Tabasco, Mexico: Joaquín Mortiz 1973), p. 57; in the spirit of this book review, the translation from the original Spanish is my own.