Translation and prefiguration: Consolidating a conceptual encounter

by Jan Buts

Perspectives, Studies in Translation Theory and Practice

Received 15 Apr 2019, Accepted 06 Oct 2019, Published online: 04 Nov 2019


The concept of prefiguration, generally referring to the creation of an alternative society within the here and now, has proven highly productive in coming to terms with contemporary social movements, as the term ‘prefigurative’ is used to group a number of political phenomena that share at least the sense of presenting an alternative to the problematic entanglement of capitalism and democracy. Today, the concept is rapidly crossing disciplinary boundaries, due to its perceived capacity for intersemiotic mobilization, and has consequently come to serve as an important reference point in discussions of translation as an activist practice. This article draws upon the present-day political as well as historical theological usage of ‘prefiguration’ to examine the concept’s circulation in translation studies, which covers a number of distinct but interrelated phenomena concerning the process as well as product of translation. In this context, prefiguration is shown to depend upon performative declarations of equivalence between signs and social practices. Ultimately reversing the suggestion of translation as a potential site of prefiguration, I argue that prefiguration is fundamentally a trope of translatability.

KEYWORDS: Prefigurative politics, translation activism, political correctness