Michael Kinnucan reviews Barbara Cassin's Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon

Translation edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, & Michael Wood (Princeton University Press, 2014)

Philosophy in Translation, Philosophy as Translation

The Dictionary of Untranslatables assumes the task of providing a comprehensive discussion of words significant in European philosophy whose "translation, into one language or another, creates a problem" (in the words of Barbara Cassin, its editor). In this it is astonishingly successful: comprehensive entries on hundreds of words, running to 1400 dense pages in the English edition, incorporating the work of 150 scholars in the original French and dozens more in the English translation—almost all entertaining and revealing, the few I was qualified to check strikingly complete and correct. Flipping through it I found myself increasingly fascinated by Cassin herself: how had the qualities of a Heideggerian-inflected scholar of the pre-Socratics come to coexist in one soul with such megalomania, and such a talent for generalship? For all its virtues, though, the Dictionary is haunted by a sort of joke at its own expense—a joke which accounts for much of its charm while implying that it is not perhaps quite what it thinks it is.

When a translator of Euripides wishes to know how to translate "arete" into English, he may return to the corpus of Attic Greek writing and discover that Sophocles uses it one way, Democritus another, Thucydides has it in this context and then again in that one—that "virtue" may be appropriate but perhaps we should rather say "excellence" or "skill" or "awesomeness" or "power," or "that quality which makes a person 'baller.'" When a translator of Aristotle asks the same question, she'll get some of the same answers, of course, but sooner or later she'll meet Socrates on the road to Piraeus, and Socrates will say with a twinkle in his eye: "Yes, what does virtue mean? I was just wondering that myself the other day. I hope you have time to discuss it." Socrates isn't surprised that a foreigner isn't sure just what that word means—his contemporaries didn't know either!

(As a matter of fact the standard translation of Aristotle's "arete" as "virtue" is rather clunky and connotation-deaf—"excellence" would certainly be better—but that turns out to matter less than one would think, far less than it might in the translation of a poem, for example: as long as the translation is consistent throughout, the reader will discover what Aristotle meant by "arete" the very same way an ancient Greek would, from Aristotle's book-length answer to that very question. Consistency in the identification and translation of technical terms is really the only indispensable quality in a translator of philosophy.)

Which means two things. First, when a student of philosophy goes back to an original text in the hope that some obscure passage may make more sense in the original German or Greek or French, he as often as not returns to his native tongue disappointed: the obscurity is there in German and Greek and French and it's there in English, too, because it's there in the things themselves. The reader who approaches the Dictionary of Untranslatables hoping that, for instance, knowing what "Geist" meant to Hegel's contemporary Germans in his native tongue will shed a great deal of light on what "Geist" means to Hegel, will come away disappointed. This is not so much because Hegel is using "Geist" in a technical sense which would be unfamiliar to most German speakers, but because most German speakers don't know quite what they mean by "Geist", when it comes down to it—no more than English speakers do when they say "mind" or "spirit." This, after all, is one of the impulses that got philosophy started, and that still gets it started today: we say this or that word so lightly, and yet when it comes down to it, do we know what we're saying?

Second, and for this very reason, the problems and pleasures of philosophy have a great deal to do with the problems and pleasures of translation. Philosophy works on the premise that the words we use hide unsuspected implications and ambiguities, refer to entities whose nature we are by no means sure of, involve us in problems we can't solve, ask questions to which we do not necessarily have any answers; a philosopher begins by hearing his native language as a foreign tongue. The famous "homesickness" of the philosopher (per Hölderlin) is sometimes just that: nostalgia for an unproblematic relationship with the way words mean. So which way is home? One might think the philosopher would be at home in a language not of words but of concepts: a language in which each word has been carefully purged of ambiguity, either through careful dialectic or through stipulative definition, so that words become the mere signs of concepts, transparent vessels, implying nothing more than what they say. Even if, as Barbara Cassin notes in her introduction to the Dictionary, all philosophical concepts begin their careers as ordinary words, they may aspire to break free of the bewildering ambiguity of speech and attain to a higher sphere. Philosophy would be the translation of words into concepts. But the clarified concept can never appear in its naked glory: it is always designated by another word, which in turn is defined by yet more words. The pure concept of the understanding has the same necessary and yet ephemeral role in philosophy as the "meaning" of a poem has in its translation from one language to another: it's necessary to the process (otherwise no translation would be possible at all), but it never shows up in the flesh: what shows up is one word or another. Philosophy in this sense is a kind of autotranslation, translation out of and into one's native tongue.

Hence the joke lingering at the edge of the Dictionary. It takes up the task of registering the ambiguities and hard decisions that arise between languages in the moment of translation—but more often than not, a careful inquiry into the original term turns up the very same problems. It's hard to find a precise English equivalent for "arete" for many of the same reasons it was hard at the outset, in Greek, to know what exactly "arete" meant. Our translations are questionable because the word we are translating already contains a question itself.

And this, really, is why the Dictionary of Untranslatables is such a fascinating book. Many of its entries deal specifically with problems of translation. The entry on "Force," which tells the story of how developments in modern physics made "force" and "energy" impossible (though still necessary) translations of Aristotle's "dynamis" and "energeia" ("potency" and "actuality," to translate poorly) is one of many fascinations. But many of the entries cover terms whose translation presents no real difficulties: the term "aesthetics," for example, which was coined by Alexander Baumgarten in the mid-eighteenth century, comes down to us (in French, German, English) as, well, more or less "aesthetics" ("esthétique," "Ästhetik"). Likewise, the various technical terms that translate "abstraction" don't present any serious difficulties, since the words meaning "abstraction" are not particularly thick with connotation in any language and most readers will have little difficulty accepting them as technical terms. But the questions posed by "aesthetics" and "abstraction," in whatever language they show up, present tremendous problems: in the case of "aesthetics," does there exist a science of the sensible, does there exist a logic of the beautiful, and if so are they one and the same science? In the case of "abstraction," is this basic mode of thinking the production of a new entity (the concept of "man" or "triangle" in its glorious generality) or the subtraction (the elimination of all the rich particularity possessed by every given man or triangle) or, somehow, both at once? The Dictionary tracks these problems through centuries and thinkers, revealing not only unsuspected connections and inheritances (Hegel knew more about English art criticism than you'd think; the transmission of "abstraction" from Greek to Latin happened by way of Arabic) but also homologies which cannot be explained by transmission: Locke and Hume encountered the same problems with "abstraction" as the Scholastics, and the positions they adopted on the matter had twelfth-century antecedents—not because they especially admired the Scholastics (they didn't) but because without reading them at all they ran into the very same problems, buried in the word or the concept or the activity of thought.

At times, then, it seems as though what's most interesting about this book is almost unrelated to "translation" in the literal sense: to see a single concept, even one that is not centrally important, chased across the history of philosophy, from language to language, from before Aristotle to after Wittgenstein, is to see the question raised by that concept, in any language, with a new kind of clarity. Does "abstraction" in Locke designate the same concept as "aphairesis" in Aristotle? Certainly not—but it designates the same problem.

But the most interesting moments in the book have everything to do with the problem of translation in its relationship to philosophical autotranslation. Take the entry on "Es gibt." A literal and completely unusable translation from the German would be "it gives." But in everyday German, "es gibt" has the sense of "there is" in English, or "il y a" in French. Just as we don't stop to think where "there" is and the French don't wonder who "il" is, when Germans say "es gibt" they don't ask themselves what gives. In almost every instance, then, this would be the simplest phrase in the world to translate: use "there is," reorganize the sentence, do what you will, no one will notice. Your English readers will pause just as little over "there is" as German speakers pause over the original. But at a particular moment in the history of German-language philosophy, with Kant, the question of what is "given"—what is in the mind without being of it, what we must attend to because we don't produce it—becomes significant. (This meaning has echoes in English, of course: prominently in "given such and such conditions, how can we . . . ?", less obviously in "data," Latin for "that which has been given"—estranged cousin of "fact," Latin for "that which has been made.") A century and more later, Heidegger decides to make a big deal about what "gives." (It turns out that "Being" gives.) The question of how to understand the world enters into relation with the question of how to accept a gift. To make such a move Heidegger must take his own language more seriously than any non-philosophical German: he must allow himself to be surprised by "es gibt" the way I was when I learned German, and he must hold to that surprise. For better or for worse, at this moment the phrase becomes "untranslatable": you won't understand Heidegger unless you know that his "there is" contains "it gives."

At this moment the Dictionary intervenes to offer a window onto a fascinating debate: the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion demands that the phrase be translated in a way that reflects the giving, and excoriates those who would translate it by "il y a." Another Frenchman, François Fédier, replies as follows:

We should remember that geben is the Germanic development of the Indo-European root ghabh–, which yielded the Latin habere . . . It is necessary to try to hear the Latin habere in accord with gaben to perceive what avoir means in il y a – and which is no doubt closer to tenir [to hold] than to posséder [to possess]. 
Perhaps, Fédier suggests, what we can learn from Heidegger is less that the world is given in German than what and how it holds in French. The French translator's proper response to Heidegger's challenge is not to recapitulate in French what Heidegger learned from (or invented through?) German, but to hear French with the same attentiveness and estrangement. The problem of translating Heidegger's German teaches us not first of all that we don't understand German (Heidegger is teaching us German, he's done that work) but that we still don't really speak French, or that French has more to say than we know—a discovery, a problem, a pleasure, at once of philosophy and of translation. (And incidentally, where is "there," anyway?)

One matter about which the Dictionary has a great deal to teach us is the susceptibility of translations to historical events—the poisoning of Russian "Pravda" ("truth," "justice") by the Gulag, the shifts in "force" after Newton and again after Helmholtz, and, for that matter, the way half the words in the book resound with the change that took place in them in the wake of the event named Kant. The Dictionary itself is of course by no means above such influence. In her introduction, Cassin positions the work politically as an avatar of an optimistic European Union: one that resists homogenization and the hegemony of any one language (cough cough English cough) in favor of a productive interplay among nations. This was 2004; in the wake of the financial crisis, faced with the crushing weight of the currency union on southern Europe, it's hard to take any optimism concerning cultural interchange in the EU quite so seriously. The hope that cultural exchange among European nations might render geopolitical and economic competition more benign is an old one, raised repeatedly by the tremendously fruitful cross-pollination that this book so beautifully demonstrates, but dashed just as often by the force of events. The fact that the dictionary can take "European philosophy" as its object and maintain such coherence is testament to a genuine cultural unity that has survived centuries—but which has never prevented intra-European war.

The book's translation from French into English entails entirely different transformations. In her introduction Cassin notes that the book positions itself not only against Heideggerian word-mysticism (according to which "untranslatability is the criterion of truth") but against the blithe faith of a certain strain of Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the fundamental unimportance of word-questions. But as one of the editors of the translation, Emily Apter, notes in her preface, to translate the book against Anglo-American philosophy is not to translate it into "American" Continental philosophy (is there any yet?) but into American "theory"—that strange duck.

This move entails a few additions here and there, for example an excellent entry on "sex" and "gender" by none other than Judith Butler—it turns out they're untranslatable, and this fact does much to force us back from a naive identification of sex/gender with nature/culture to the far more subtle analysis of their interaction which Butler articulated in her early work. But the difference made by the Dictionary's existence in English has less to do with what's in it than what's around it. In English it's a different book. The translation of European "philosophy" into American "theory" has probably been the most consequential event in American intellectual life in the last fifty years, but it has entailed a great deal of "mistranslation": one doesn't inherit a 2000-year-old intellectual tradition largely through the work of half a dozen twentieth-century Frenchmen without finding oneself at times quite out of one's depth. The Dictionary of Untranslatables, in addition to its other pleasures, has a great deal to teach American scholars of the humanities about the depth and complexity of the languages and discourses we've picked up only recently—and a few powerful suggestions about what we may find waiting when we choose to turn back to our own.