This essay compares Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin to argue that the most creative way of engaging with an elusive mode of meaning within any cultural source is to provide a tertium quid, a new “supplementary legibility” present neither in the source culture nor in the target culture. Cultural translation thrives when it exceeds the act of imitating a “foreign” illegible text, becoming instead a bold, conscientious effort to imitate the freedom of the originary signifier in all of its inevitable indeterminacy of meaning and plurality of signification. The author focuses on exemplary practitioners of this demanding task—on historically situated insider-outsiders such as Freud and Benjamin as well as on subaltern groups who seek recognition and reattachment to an illusory transcendental “civilization.”

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