Pirouette on a Sixpence

Christopher Prendergast

On the face of it a Dictionary of Untranslatables looks like a contradiction in terms, either self-imploding from the word go, or, if pursued, headed fast down a cul-de-sac in which it is doomed to end by putting itself out of the business of dictionary-making. Strictly speaking, all the definitions of the listed terms would have to be blanks, a new version of Flaubert’s dream of the ‘book about nothing’, a Dictionnaire des riens, replacing the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. In fact, it is the opposite. Clocking in just shy of 1300 pages, it’s a seriously weighty tome in more senses than one, above all in providing a cornucopia of lexical trajectories and semantic adventures across a wide variety of languages and histories: it explores everything from ‘abstraction, abstracta, abstract entities’ to ‘Wunsch, wish, désir’ in close to four hundred impressive entries.

It is the opposite too by virtue of being itself a consummately executed translation – of a French original edited by Barbara Cassin (Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles); there are a few local difficulties in managing some of the French, but not an intraduisible in sight. As for the achievement of Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood in orchestrating the English edition, that qualifies as heroic. The French and English differ in certain important respects concerning both the choice of terms and the word order. The English has ‘philosophical lexicon’ where the French has ‘vocabulaire européen des philosophies’, with moreover reversed word order (the English reflecting a decision to place ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables’ as the dominant partner).

All of this requires some unravelling, first of the somewhat strained relation between singulars and plurals, in turn converging on the joker in the pack – ‘intraduisibles’ (itself transparently translatable as ‘untranslatables’). The French is the more troublesome. ‘Vocabulaire européen des philosophies’ marries a singular and a plural, something that the more abstract English ‘philosophical lexicon’ avoids; the former evokes an odd relation between a diverse multiplicity (‘philosophies’) and a shared ‘European vocabulary’, which then comes out sounding even odder (more singular!) when conjoined with another plural, so that we get a ‘vocabulary’ of ‘untranslatables’.

The principal track through ‘philosophies’ runs from ancient Greece through Latin and medieval Scholasticism to French and German thought, seen as the main branches of modern European philosophy. Other philosophical cultures along with other European languages are represented, but more as minor walk-on parts (a sprinkling of Danish and a touch of Kierkegaard, for instance). The dominant trajectory is likely to raise an eyebrow or two this side of the Channel. The editors of the English edition have incorporated some new material, from fields of inquiry gathered under the heading of ‘Theory’. The additions are attractive gestures, but they are relatively small beer alongside the curtailing treatment accorded to what is variously called ‘English’, ‘Anglophone’ or ‘analytical’ philosophy. Thinkers such as Quine and Kuhn slot in, presumably because the former’s notion of the indeterminacy of translation and the latter’s stress on paradigm ‘shifts’ are congenial. Beyond that there is something verging on hostility to what is called the ‘imperium of English thought’.

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