This essay studies an emerging discourse on forms of exchange in mid- to late nineteenth-century Iran, both in national economic practices and international concessions. As the system of economic exchange is transforming in conversation with “foreign” forms and terms of exchange, the signifiers used to arrange those forms of exchange are also reshuffled in this context. Evoking different imperial powers and different languages—rather than one particular power or one particular language—this comparative discourse on economic modernity is marked by a palpable sense of ambiguity caused by the semicolonial condition of nineteenth-century Iran, which in turn complicates notions of “translatability” and “untranslatability,” introducing what the author calls a speculative category of “would-be translations.” Speculative translations in this semicolonial context uniquely reveal how miscategorization and misnaming are part of the structure of modern codification of exchange with universal ambitions. The essay thus argues that the two main avenues of colonial encounter—namely, economic exchange and translation—are necessarily ambiguous. Always suspicious and speculative, economic exchange and translation circularly feed into each other’s ambiguities in this semicolonial context.

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