How do you Translate a Signature?

Jacques Derrida (1985, p. 248) asked: ‘How do you translate a signature?’ with the intention of highlighting the limits of translatability. Of course, the general rule is that a person’s name is not generally translated from one language to another (unless localisation is the focus key concern or the author specifically requests it). So, there we have a simple yet facetious answer to Derrida’s question. However, Derrida uses this question to position translation as an area that goes beyond a concern with words in the sense of having pair of texts in different languages. The question he poses refers to the interpersonal and intercultural dimension of translation, raising an interesting issue: to what extent is our translation going to remain faithful to the original text and what cultural losses are surface in the process of correlating the written word from one language into the target?

A broad definition of cultural losses is the explicit or implicit removal of cultural norms, religious beliefs and social customs that are inherent to the source and reflect its identity. In other words, explicit changes could be equated to the notion of misrepresentation. On the other hand, complete loss is an act of deletion: cultural characteristics forming the uniqueness of the source text are removed. The translator is faced with a tension – preservation of the source text, but making it accessible to a readership in another time and place, shaped by different historical, sociocultural and political forces. Of course, this is an issue that is probably more pertinent to literary translators than those working in legal areas. Yet those working in the social sciences may be faced with the issue of cultural losses.

Social science texts can lack the level of generality that language in natural science attains over time. Often, social science theories and research are bound to particular political, sociocultural and historical contexts. In the act of applying terms developed in social science conducted in one time and space to another context, we are at risk of losses and distortions. The particularities of translation in the social science merits greater exploration and it will be dealt with in more detail in a dedicated post.

Derrida’s (1985) question leads us into, if we allow ourselves to engage with it, the concept of what we could simply term ‘cultural translation’. It can be treated as a general issue in translation as well as having particular relevance for literary and social science translators, for instance. In their work, they face the limits of translatability at a level that is deeper, more profound, that of culture.


Derrida, J. (1985). Des tours de Babel. In J. F. Graham (Ed.), Difference in translation (pp. 165-207). Ithaca: Cornell UP.

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