IN THE FOLLOWING, I will try to clarify what the prefix “trans-” in compound words such as “transatlantic,” “transfer,” “translate” may signify, if we do not look at the product of said activities or at a static meaning of the adjective with a starting point, a trajectory, and a point of arrival. In other words, I am less interested in the result designated by the “trans-” compounds, but more in the dynamic of “trans-,” its potential for new insights and perspectives. The formal aspect would be that the movement inherent to “trans-” is not the completed metamorphosis of a “source object” into a “target object.” A text translated from German into American English does not change the German text into an American text; what changes are the signifiers within a new language system. Signs and indicators of the origin are still present and keep the attention on the friction between the two language and cultural systems (backgrounds) alive and productive. In a similar vein, a Germanist, socialized, educated, and trained in Germany, who makes the transatlantic move into American life and academia, certainly adapts to the new environment, but the mission of his or her teaching and research consists to a large extent in mediating between the two cultures, not in giving up one and being absorbed completely by the other. The constant awareness of differences (and, in a second step, commonalities) as the center of mediation between cultures is the energetic center of the “trans-”: in this way, differences are not glossed over but rather made to sparkle through this productive prefix.
However, things become of course more complex when put into a broader and deeper context. The “trans-” as the in-between of departure and arrival is in fact one of the cornerstones of human cognition in modernity. To be more precise about my understanding of the term “modernity,” I use it to refer to the mode of relation of the human being to his or her idea of “reality” in Western thought and imagination, as initiated in 1637, the year when Descartes's Discours de la méthode was published.