Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, English translation edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, &Michael Wood, Princeton University Press, 2014, 1297 pp.
Review by James W. Underhill, Professor in Poetics and Translation, Université de Rouen, France, james-william.underhill@univ –rouen.fr
Students, academics and researchers throughout the fields of Translation Studies, Linguistics, Sociology, Philosophy, Cultural Studies and Anthropology, are likely to welcome the publication of the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Why? Because this astoundingly erudite publication of 1297 pages instantly asserts itself as one of the high points in European scholarship by not only bringing together a great mass of data and findings, but because it asks one essential thought-provoking question: What can we translate? And What can’t we? And are there untranslatable terms and concepts?
The dictionary takes us on a tour of languages, and into a myriad of fascinating concepts. Some of them are new to us. Others, we thought we knew well, but they suddenly become problematic, once we realize the difficulties and complexities they entail. The Dictionary invites us to contemplate the different modes in which analogous concepts are carved and moulded.
My ‘self’ does not appear to us as particularly problematic. But comparing it to ‘soi’ in French, as in Foucault’s ‘souci de soi’ (care for the self), to ‘Selbstheit’, in German, or ‘ousia’, in Greek, suddenly forces us to reappraise our naïve conception. And comparing it to ‘samost’, (p927) in Russian, forces us to open up to a conception of the self as the ‘true self’, the ‘inner self’. We then ask ‘ourselves’ (if we still dare use that term), to what degree we must negotiate in everyday life the compatibility and distinctions between the private self and the public self.
Religion has its place in the dictionary. And the authors consider the difficulties, for speakers of French, German, & Italian, to define ‘secularization’ (p932). How do the different traditions negotiate a Latin term within the context of very different cultures and emerging nation-states?
The Portugese language forces us to reappraise our concept of ‘nostalgia’, with its concept of ‘saudade’(p929). Is this feeling peculiar to the Portuguese soul? To what extent does it coincide with ‘nostalgie’, in French, or ‘soledad’, in Spanish? In the same way the entry for ‘Sehnsucht’ in German (p938) forces us to question whether the French will ever understand German Sturm und Drang poetry or English Romanticism. Because the French Romantics were already writing after Napoleon’s defeat and their ‘nostalgie’was already regressive, and introverted: they were trying to find their way back to a brighter happier, more natural, more inspired world. The German Romantics and the Lake poets were ‘striving’ forwards, and upwards, ‘yearning’ for another world, a world beyond, a world that would reanimate this world here and now. They were not looking backwards. This dictionary reminds us that simple word for word transpositions cast aside mountains of differences and bury a wide variety of subtle associations. Is translating a form of betrayal then, as is so often argued?
At one level, translators might be sceptical about this project. A dictionary of ‘untranslatables’? After all, they do translate. They earn their daily bread by straddling the divide between languages, leaping over cultural barriers. What’s more, they take us with them. George Steiner once said, that you can’t argue against translation any more than you can argue against language. Translation happens: people do communicate, negotiating what they mean. We understand each other and fail to understand each other in language. Even incomprehension is impossible to conceive of outside of language. So how does this bear on the project initially launched by the French thinker, Barbara Cassin? What did she have in mind when she first brought together her team of co-workers to map out her ‘untranslatables’ (intraduisibles)?
The project was born of the humanities and more particularly among a philosophically-enlightened set of thinkers and academics who recognized that truth that translators experience every day. That word for word translations do not work. Every first-year language student realizes this. And yet, we constantly fall back into thinking of words as labels. And we get confused when we realize that, as the great linguistic anthropologist, Edward Sapir argued, languages are not made up of lists of words. The lists, and the words, and the worlds do not coincide. Languages are incommensurable. They take us into cultures that divide up the world and put it back together with different shapes, patterns, divisions, and oppositions.
Moreover, we have known since Locke (1632-1704), if not before, that words invent concepts. ‘Fratricide’, may exist, but it refers to a complex concept, a ‘mixed-mode’ to put it in Locke’s term. ‘Fratricide’, implies murder, as unlawful killing, and murder of one of our closest kinsmen, our brother. Fratricide exists, but it exists for us in language, and in culture: we take a stand in terms of what, ‘father’, ‘killing’ and ‘laws’ mean for us in our shared worldview. As the great German ethnolinguist, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) put it, words do not refer to objects outside of language, they refer to categories and definitions invented and arranged within Sprache (the language system). Languages invent objects of understanding.
The Dictionary of Untranslatbles takes us to the heart of the problem of linguistic-specificity by forcing us to face up to one essential fact: it is not impossible to express certain ideas, feelings, and impressions in English. But it is hard: harder than in other languages which have mapped out different patterns of expression. The way concepts interact and rub up against one another enables certain ideas to be expressed more cogently, and more precisely, than can be done in English. This is not a slant on English. English is admired by many for its poetry and its pragmatism. But the supremacy of English and the success of global English has lulled many into believing that English is a ‘natural’, or even a ‘neutral’ mode of expressing ideas. English is flexible. English absorbs other languages. English can be used to empower people around the world. These are the ideas that are behind the promotion of global English. And to be fair, The Dictionary of Untranslatables does nothing to contradict this or disparage the limits of English. It simply stresses that each language has its limits, and cannot take us beyond those limits. For this reason, translators, and reflexions on ‘translatability’ are essential for expanding our horizons.
This book takes us on a tour of more than twelve languages. Is it exhaustive? Of course, not. But it does manage to compare and contrast the various trajectories that our concepts of ‘sense’, ‘body’, ‘being’, ‘nature, ‘logic’, ‘truth’ and ‘homeland’ followed as they sprouted forth from Greek or Latin roots.
These are concepts. And many translators and linguists understand all too well the linguistic-specificity of concepts. Even when a concept is borrowed, it must be transplanted into a foreign soil, which means growing a different kind of plant in a different climate. Angst comes from German, but it refers to a very different and much wider, more prosaic range of meanings than that existential angst and morbid fear that it has come to signify in English as it is used in Modernist and contemporary discourse.
The Dictionary of Untranslatables takes us beyond concepts in themselves, however. It speaks of feelings. ‘Melancholy’ is discussed, and compared and contrasted to its French, German, Latin, and Greek ‘equivalents’. The traditions are taken into account and the relevant literature. How did Aristotle, the son of a doctor, fit melancholy into his theory of the humours, and relate it to bile? In what way does melancholia relate to ‘manic depression’? And how does the split between the mind and the body (and the ejection of the soul) relate to the ways we understand our own concept today in English? How does it make it difficult to understand the speakers of other languages and thinkers of the past? Mind, Soul, Spirit, and Body, are inescapable fundamental everyday concepts with a metaphysical dimension: and these entries make it all too clear that they are highly problematic concepts. They have great bearing to our experience of life, but clearly they are defined and understood within the limits of our own worldview, our own language.
The Dictionary takes us beyond thoughts and feelings and into the process of thinking and remembering. What does it mean ‘to remember’, or ‘to forget’? Homer reminds us (p637) ‘that memory in action is put at the service of the social order. The soothsayer instructs the hero, who defends the town and the kingdom.’ The warrior must remember to wage war, but not to give in to passion. ‘Rage [must be] concentrated and deployed, as the uses of the verb memona’ demonstrate in the Iliad (p637). A whole culture of memory and memorization in oral literature and ethics is at stake here. These examples should go some way to allowing us to explore the extent and scope of this dictionary.
Both the original editor and her team, and the English editors show their own limits. They are thinkers and researchers working within culturally-specific limits, and within prestigious language-cultures. But aren’t most of us in very much the same position? So it would be absurd to criticize this dictionary for having limits. The original authors were working within a philological and philosophical tradition of late 20th Century, early 21st Century France. The Parisian love of Heidegger, Husserl, and Kant, have tended to eclipse authors who would perhaps have had more to offer an English readership on questions of untranslatability (Sapir, Whorf, or Humboldt for example). A more recent author, Anna Wierzbicka would have offered another list of concepts, and modified the project by outlining the limits of the Anglo worldview as she has so eloquently demonstrated in her recent publications: Experience, Evidence and Sense: The hidden Legacy of English, Oxford UP, 2010, and Imprisoned in English, Oxford UP, 2013.
The choice of the English contributors is an interesting one. Among them, Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak are, of course, known throughout their fields and highly respected. They are certainly ‘distinguished scholars’, as the English editors of the new Dictionary claim. And they help ensure the quality and the erudition of the reedited Dictionary. This is a welcome marriage. Such scholars are now very much established voices. So there is a certain strategy in play in choosing them. They will no doubt help make sure the Dictionary is read and promoted. To what extent they will enable established modes of thinking and schools of thought to be challenged by this challenging text remains an open question however.
The one rather disappointing aspect of the Dictionary is the treatment of language itself. By entering into the individual traditions and discussing individual thinkers and their texts, we inevitably move beyond the dictionary as a lexicon, and into individual speech. This is to be welcomed. And yet, little attempt is made to consider discourse as a concept. The entry for the term ‘discourse’ is pitifully short compared to the sprawling passages on what might seem to be somewhat minor concepts. Some entries are given a dozen pages, but ‘discourse’ only seems to merit half a column for the editors it seems. Admittedly, the authors do attribute 14 pages to ‘translate’. But the entries on individual languages themselves are somewhat uneven, falling, at times, into caricatures and stereotypes. And tat times the discussion of language is reduced to questions of philosophical terminology. This is not the aspect of the Dictionary that will seduce or inspire the translator.
Translators are strong in perceiving the way words take on unique patterns and associations in everyday speech. In contrast, the authors of the original dictionary and the new reedited translation tend to work within the more limited and limiting framework of a dictionary of philosophical terms. Their project, however, overruns their methodology, and takes them into thinking, feeling, and associations: into linguistic patterning. It takes them into the heart of Humboldt’s project: the attempt to move into other modes of perceiving and conceiving in language. In this sense, the authors and editors take us on a journey into other worldviews. And that exciting journey, is one which will transform us. Readers who spend any significant amount of time in this Dictionary of Untranslatables will not come back to English, seeing things, words, or their own worldview, in entirely the same light.
James W. Underhill was born in Kirkintilloch, by Glasgow, in 1967, of Geordie parents. He has worked as a professional translator of Czech and French, and he is now Professor in Poetics and Translation at the Rouen University in Northern France. His published books include Humboldt, Language & Worldview, Edinburgh UP, 2009, Creating Worldviews: Ideology, Language & Metaphor, Edinburgh UP, 2011, Ethnolinguistics and Cultural Concepts: truth, love, hate & war, Cambridge UP, 2012, and Voice & Versification in Translating Poems, Ottawa UP, 2015. He is currently engaged in two projects: a book co-written with the sinologist, Mariarosaria Gianninoto, Migrating Meanings, on the transfer of English cultural values such as ‘the people’ and ‘the individual’ to Chinese, and a book on how we understand space in language and in languages, entitled Changing Places, Changing Spaces.