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’.

But there is a straw man here. There is one history of modern philosophy that takes the form of a bifurcation post-Kant. Foucault described it as a crossroads at which one path leads out of the first Critique (centred on concepts, perceptions, logic and epistemology), the other out of What Is Enlightenment? (centred more on philosophy’s engagement with the ‘human’). But Bernard Williams’s old canard returns here with some force: contrasting ‘analytical’ and ‘Continental’ philosophy, he remarked, is rather like classifying cars into ‘front-wheel drive and Japanese’, while declaring that he couldn’t care less whether what he wrote was called ‘analytical’ philosophy; all he aimed for was ‘clarity’. Hobbes, often posited as one of the founders of analytical philosophy, construed translation as a key test of the search for, precisely, clarity (in the stereotype clarté is of course the distinctively French virtue). Later philosophers in the tradition were obsessed with ‘translating’ statements and sentences into the terms of a system of formal logic, a somewhat arid enterprise perhaps, but unambiguously part of the story. Cassin’s hostility rests on a prejudice, and Apter’s preface rather gives the game away when she refers to Cassin’s intention as ‘polemical’. Polemic is a fine thing, but it doesn’t properly belong in the space of a ‘dictionary’.

In any case, the distributions of emphasis call for comment. One is the space and attention given to German. Kant as both a terminus and a point of departure goes a long way towards explaining this, but by no means the whole way. A simple checklist yields some remarkable results. Dichtung, for example, gets a lot more space than either causa or eidos, and one reason for that is Heidegger (in a sub-entry on Sein und Zeit). In the index, Aristotle has 153 mentions, Kant 133, Plato 105, Descartes and Hegel 70, Aquinas 53 and Hume 52. Heidegger ties with Plato at 105. These statistics, though crude, tell us something. It’s generally acknowledged that Heidegger is central to the whole relation of philosophy and translation: he’s the thinker for whom ‘philosophy’ was fundamentally about the problematical transmission of Greek terms and concepts into modern languages in the context of a ‘modernity’ where philosophy had come to act as handservant to the rule of technology and instrumental reason. German, however (at least Heidegger’s German), allegedly had a privileged role to play: an echo perhaps of the blurry line in Luther’s Open Letter on Translation between dolmetschen (the Hungarian loan word he uses for ‘translation’ as such) and verdeutschen – the suggestion being that movement from that language (Latin) to this one (German) is the only game in town. In a letter to Rudolf Bultmann while struggling with Sein und Zeit, Heidegger listed Luther, along with Augustine and Kierkegaard, as ‘philosophically essential for a more radical understanding of Dasein’. The special place granted to German may also have been connected to the capacity of German to generate unusual nouns, very often compound ones: most of Heidegger’s contributions, as either neologisms or adaptations of existing terms to new ends, make an appearance in the dictionary (for example, Anwesen, Geschichtlichkeit, Geworfenheit). There is also the complex of terms around stellen, which attracts four pages of commentary and explication and is described as an ‘untranslatable term par excellence’.

No one can plausibly address the history of philosophy through the prism of translation without passing via Heidegger. But there is also his notorious insistence that ‘only our German language has a deep and creative philosophical character to compare with the Greek,’ though Cassin strains hard to dissociate herself from any kind of nationalist contamination. The spirit of the book is genuinely inclusive, resolutely opposed to ‘sacralisation’, along with a categorical refusal of the doctrine of the ‘absolute incommensurability of languages’. There is, however, one large stumbling block: the word ‘untranslatable’. This is a term conservative fundamentalists like; it puts up barriers and ring-fences cultures. What’s it doing here? A short (and uncharitable) answer is: not very much. Apter claims that ‘it is by no means self-evident what “untranslatability” means.’ But that is far from being self-evidently the case. ‘Untranslatable’ normally means exactly what it says: that which cannot be translated. Cassin wants to deny this: ‘Untranslatables in no way implies that the terms in question … are not and cannot be translated.’ In no way? One possible answer to that is: in every way. There does seem to be here a confusion between the untranslatable and the untranslated. The former is essentialist all the way down (which is why fundamentalists like it), an absolute blockage on transmission. The untranslated is an altogether more open and porous category. It has to do more with difficulty than with impossibility (‘difficulty’ and ‘difficult’ recur often in the volume), although not typically the same order of difficulty as that faced by the translator of poetry (Valéry described this as dancing in chains) or of paronomastic prose (Finnegans Wake, while it has been translated into several languages, remains basically untranslatable into anything other than what it’s made of itself, ‘Eurish’).

Despite its claims, this book isn’t about the untranslatable. It’s about hits and mis-hits, convergences and divergences, continuities and breaks, incomplete and imperfect translation, or even plain mistranslation, what gets lost in translation, a surplus left behind in the carry-over from one language to another, but which can generally be recovered by one means or another. It is irrecoverable only if one consistently operates the doomed model of translation as word for word or ‘perfect equivalence’, but that’s the model Apter rightly rejects on the grounds that this would be to replace translation as a creative endeavour with the meaningless ‘replica’. That way lies death, the other way involves a historical and cultural process without a fixed or finite terminus, evoking the perspective not of the blocked and the arrested, but of translation forever, ‘the interminability of translating’ (Apter), or, in Cassin’s words, ‘the untranslatable is rather what one keeps on (not) translating.’ Echoes here of Derrida and his sparkling pirouette on a sixpence in Monolingualism of the Other (‘Nothing is untranslatable,’ and in the next breath, ‘in another sense, everything is untranslatable’). It’s not immediately clear how that rapid volte-face can reliably guide us through a history of philosophy and translation (imagine a dictionary in which every entry was represented as both translatable and untranslatable).

This matters because, in its normal sense, the term ‘untranslatable’ takes us straight back to where Cassin rightly does not want us to go, the domain of the incommensurable. There was a time when this notion was highly fashionable, especially in anthropology and the social sciences, in its time a necessary corrective to belief in a transcendent metalanguage. A derivative of Wittgenstein’s reflections on the nexus of language games and forms of life, the idea held that cultural vocabularies were untranslatable into one another by virtue of belonging to reciprocally unintelligible conceptual universes. The questions raised by this dismal view of the communicative possibilities of mankind were and remain endless. One that is also a preoccupation of certain branches of philosophy and intellectual history concerns the relation between words and concepts. Apter states, as a main aim of the Dictionary, that ‘entries compare and meditate on the specific differences furnished to concepts’ by the various languages it includes. I don’t think she means that concepts are simply reducible to words and meanings. A language can have one word where another has two (or none), but that does not of itself entail radical conceptual difference. French ‘conscience’ has two meanings for which English has two words (‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’), but it doesn’t follow that French houses different concepts of either conscience or consciousness. There is, however, a real danger of being swallowed up here by the epistemological quicksands. A case in point is the entry for ‘epistemology’ itself, where we are introduced to what is described as ‘a proliferation of “untranslatable” terms’, which however simply comes down to ‘terms without exact correlates’ across the various languages. The absence of exact correlates isn’t the same as the untranslatables.

Take the important case of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. This gets a sub-entry of its own, based on the claim that two different ‘paradigms’ are at stake. There are certainly two philological histories involved – ‘freedom’ stemming from the German line and ‘liberty’ from the Latin/Romance line – that flow into our English political vocabulary. French has only ‘liberté’. But what hangs by that? Is it a question of different ‘paradigms’ in the Kuhnian sense? In 18th-century England ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are hardly ever found together as a pair (which would imply a contrastive difference, the one qualifying the other). Each term has a different reach or ‘stretch’ (the 18th century prefers ‘liberty of the press’ to ‘freedom of the press’; and there may be a trace of republican ideology in that preference). But they are effectively synonyms or at the very least share a semantic horizon so close as to be interchangeable. That has consequences for mutual understanding across language differences. It is hard to imagine a contemporary French thinker interested in things English (let us say, Voltaire drafting his Lettres philosophiques, aka Lettres sur les Anglais) finding himself conceptually disorientated in coming across both these words, hobbled because French has only the one word: ‘liberté’. If there is a story to tell here, it’s not a Kuhnian one.

Intellectual transactions between 18th-century England and France are not of course the same as transactions between 18th-century England and, say, the Indian subcontinent. The greater the historical and cultural ‘distance’ between host and target languages the greater the chances of conceptual car crashes, but remote cultures are not other planets and their inhabitants are not aliens in the sense of extra-terrestrials. Vocabularies may express different conceptual interests, some sharply foregrounded while others recede to a less differentiated background. Colour vocabularies are a famous case in point. In their descriptions of the natural world, the ancient Greeks, it seems, were more interested in luminosity than in hue, but Gladstone surely made a terrible mistake in concluding they were colour-blind. The project of ‘making sense of humanity’ is arduous and littered with enough intellectual casualties as it is without having to contend with its mortal enemy, the unholy alliance of the untranslatable and the incommensurable.

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In short, the editors have done themselves no favours in brandishing the term ‘untranslatables’. It’s a pity because, once we move to the meat of the book we are in for a treat. The longer entries (truth, subject, for example) are less dictionary entries than encyclopedia essays, book-length chapters even, and make the book less a sequence of formal definitions than a collection of histories. The most interesting are those that deal with moments of encounter and transition, above all the shift from the cradle of European philosophy, ancient Greece, to Rome and the difficulties of conversion into Latin. As Cicero’s commentaries make clear, the question is not what it is to philosophise, but what it was to philosophise here and now and to do so in ways that crucially involve the ‘transfer’ of a shaping legacy into a new linguistic idiom. Cicero’s reflections of these issues form part of another of the longer entries, one of the best: on ‘to translate’. The use of the infinitive rather than the translate we routinely find in dictionaries is already the sign of a preoccupation with the cultural work of translation as process – and creativity. It shows us that the view of the aim of translation as the search for one-to-one equivalences was a relatively late development. In earlier times, the understanding of translation, both its forms and purposes, repeatedly evokes the role of paraphrase, exegesis and commentary. In ancient Rome, the line ‘between literal translation and literary adaptation’ is not distinct because ‘translation consists of adhering to a meaning (vis) and not to a word (verba).’ In respect of his own work as translator of the Bible, Jerome (a methodological follower of Cicero) distinguished verbum e verbo from sensum de sensu, and claimed to ‘have not translated the words, but rather the ideas’. In the Middle Ages translatio included the principle of one-to-one equivalence (‘transfer of a term from one language to an equivalent term in another’), but the governing constraint was very general (centred on words in different languages having just ‘something in common’, not everything), while also drawing on the supplement of expositio, expansion by way of multiple exegetical interventions especially where the original was read as having multiple semantic values.

It is not only then, but also now, especially in the field of contemporary anthropology, that the relation between otherness, multiplicity and paraphrase has been stressed to counter the impasse of the incommensurable. Many of the contributors would doubtless be cheered by the terminal moment of the entry on ‘to translate’, which resurrects the voice of Leonardo Bruni, as spokesman for a certain Renaissance confidence. Entering the lions’ den, Bruni straightforwardly declared: ‘There’s nothing in Greek that can’t also be said in Latin.’ This robust humanist assertion is a refreshing reminder that, however the pitfalls along the path are signposted, ‘no access’ isn’t one of the road signs.

Where you draw the dividing line between ‘translation’ and ‘interpretation’ is another question; as the history related here makes clear over and over, they may be members of the same family but they aren’t simply twins. The micro-history of the various terms and expressions for the English verb ‘to translate’ stands as a mise en abyme of the entire project in so far as it evokes the macro-history onto which this book opens a set of windows. Its actual working premise is that there is such a thing as Western philosophy, that it has a history, and a more or less continuing set of central concepts; and that an essential part of this history is the way in which these concepts and their articulations have been reshaped as they have travelled across space, time and languages. What the history shows is that the articulations are not ‘untranslatable’, precisely because the whole history that is being told reflects one of the ways in which they have been translated – for better or worse, more or less adequately – from one language to the next. That history is deeply interesting in itself, and this book is another valuable reminder that a philosophy that ignores its own history, that pretends to operate as if it had no history, is self-impoverishing.