I’m about a third of the way through Badiou’s “hypertranslation” of Plato’s Republic.  It is difficult to describe the experience of reading this book, beyond saying that the “translation” is both marvelous and startling.  What is a “hypertranslation”?  That is difficult to say.  On the one hand, Badiou’s translation, in many respects, follows Plato’s original Republic quite closely.  On the other hand, it turns the text into something entirely different.  It would be a mistake to think that Badiou’s hypertranslation attempts to re-present Plato’s original work.  While it follows the text closely, it becomes something other in this process.  It speaks differently than the original.  As Susan Spitzer, the translator of the translation(!), writes in the preface,

“Hypertranslation” is the word that Alain Badiou has used, in The Communist Hypothesis and elsewhere, to describe his treatment of Plato’s Republic.  Not a “simple” translation into French of the Greek original, then, and still less a scholarly critique of it, Badou’s text transforms the Republic into something startlingly new by expanding, reducing, updating and dramatizing it, leavening it with humor and revitalizing its language with his own philosophical lexicon.  Yet, for all the plasticity of the hyper translation, its freewheeling appropriation of the source text, it still remains an adaptation based firmly on his painstaking translation of Plato’s language into modern French– as he remind us in the Preface to the second edition.  (xxiv)

It would be a mistake to suppose that Badiou merely “updates” Plato’s text.  All sorts of transformations occur.  The vision of the republic is replaced by that of communism.  The famous “Good” is replaced by “Truth” (one must be familiar with Badiou’s concept of “Truth” to understand the significance of this move).  The “soul” is replaced by “subject” (again, one must be familiar with Badiou’s theory of the subject to understand the significance of this).  Adeimantus is replaced by a female character, Amantha, and the characters do not merely say “yes, Socrates”, “No, Socrates”, but are fully realized characters that give their own speeches, that participate in the discussion in a fully dialogical sense, and that criticize Socrates in a variety of places.  There are references to Rousseau, Deleuze, Lacan, and a host of other thinkers throughout the text as if they were contemporaries of Socrates, and Socrates even criticizes Plato at various points.  But above all, there are references to all sorts of “post-Greek” historical events ranging from Lance Armstrong, to the Viet Nam war, to Nazis, contemporary consumer capitalism, and all the rest.

In his admirable Introduction to the text, the great Ken Reinhard remarks that Badiou used four techniques in his hypertranslation:  formal restructuration, universalization, conceptual displacement, and contemporaneity.  The effect of these techniques– and you’ll have to read the introduction to understand what they are –produces a startling effect.  It is indeed Plato’s Republic, but it is something else besides.  It is perhaps– as Reinhard doesn’t fail to note –something in Plato more than Plato.

read on!

Badiou’s hypertranslation, I think, is how one might read philosophy in the bedroom.  What do I mean by that?  There’s a way we read philosophy as scholars and a way we read philosophy “in the bedroom”.  As scholars– especially if we’re professional philosophers –we strive to represent the philosopher.  We want our translations to be “accurate” or true to the original.  We want to know what they originally thought.  We fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic tendency that sees the “truth” in the origin or beginning.  We can also, of course, safely consign thinkers to the past with this style of reading.  Here I think of those crass souls who believe they score points against Lucretius’s sublime De Rerum Natura by pointing out how he– and the other atomists –got the theory of atoms wrong, or how they got the theory of vision wrong (they really didn’t, by the way).  They fail to understand what a true work, what an eternal work, of philosophy is.  We could even say that such a style of reading philosophy is a sort of autoimmune system against the challenge of philosophy that saves us from the itching that real philosophy causes, the challenge that real philosophy addresses to us, by consigning it to the past.  It places philosophy in a museum.

In the bedroom, however, we read philosophy in a very different way.  I’m not entirely sure why I’ve chosen the metaphor of the bedroom here.  Perhaps it’s because there’s so much that transpires in the bedroom.  Above all, I’m thinking of how we (or I) read in bed…  Not in a scholarly way, but to be transformed by what I read.  The bedroom, of course, is also an amorous space.  Yet it is also a space of slumber, waking, dreams, and nightmares.  When we read philosophy in a non-scholarly way, in the way of the bedroom, we do not seek to represent the philosopher we read.  N0, we are seized by the philosophy we read.  We fall in love with it.  It becomes the stuff of nightmares.  It becomes the stuff of dreams.  It wakes us from our slumbers.  Above all, we read it not as something past– no matter how ancient it is –but rather as something contemporary.  This is what it means to say that true philosophy grasps a little bit of the eternal.  It is that which is resistant to all museums.  The eternal is not the endless repetition of the same, but is rather that which is able to repeat itself as different in every contemporary time that it falls.  True philosophy, as eternal, is that which is able to create disruptions in every time where it reappears.  In this regard, we can say that real philosophy is always untimely.

In this regard, of real philosophical texts, we must say that there is something in them more than themselves.  We must not linger on this or that thing in a real philosophical text that has become dated or quaint, but must instead attend to the vitality that runs through a text, its idea, that addresses itself to every time yet to come.  That vitality, of course, is the challenge to thought that the text proposes; and, above all, the provocation to thought that the text poses.  Were a hypertranslation merely an updating of the text to make it more familiar in a contemporary context like a bad Biblical translation, it wouldn’t serve this function.  No, a hypertranslation both brings a text into the realm of the contemporary, but alienates us from the now and forces us to undergo unexpected becomings.  Those forced becomings of which the text is capable are the vitality of the text; its eternity.  The text calls for us not to repeat its letter, not its “hermeneutic horizon”, but its question.  And this is what Badiou’s “hypertranslation” strives to do and perhaps even achieves:  a defamiliarization of Plato, but also of our world and what is possible in our world.  That, I think, is the highest aim of a “reading”.