Beyond Words: Translation as a Philosophical Trope - gatewaylitfest.com

| March 22, 2018 | Blog | No Comments

“Beyond Words: Translation as a Trope in Philosophical Discourse”, Translation Studies: Contemporary Perspectives in Postcolonial and Subaltern Translations, Ed. Piyush Raval, Viva Continuum Series, ISBN: 9788130920528, 2012

“What does philosophy say? What does the philosopher say when he is a philosopher?

He says: What matters is truth or meaning, and since meaning is before or beyond language,

it follows that it is translatable. Meaning has the commanding role, and consequently one must be able to fix its univocality,

or in any case master its plurivocality. If this plurivocality can be mastered, then translation,

understood as the transport of a semantic content into another signifying form, is possible.

There is no philosophy in this latter sense is possible. Therefore the thesis of philosophy is translatability in this common sense,

that is, as transfer of a meaning or a truth from one language to another without any essential harm being done.…

The origin of philosophy is translation or the thesis of translatability,

so that whenever translation in this sense has failed, it is nothing less than philosophy that finds itself defeated.”

Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, ed. Christie V. MacDonald,

translated by Peggy Kamuf, New York: Schocken Books, 1985, p. 120

When Derrida writes, ‘the theme of a transcendental signified was constituted within the horizon of an absolutely pure, transparent and unequivocal translatability ‘(Quoted by Alan Bass 1978, p.xv), we realize that his notion of translation is no longer the one which is ‘commonly understood’. In fact, Derrida’s philosophy questions the very possibility of delimiting any notion or concept to the domain that traditionally claims it, philosophy, literary studies, or ‘popular belief’. For Derrida, translation as a notion is tied up not only to the areas conventionally dealing with translation such as translation studies, translation theory, linguistics or literary studies but is inseparable from the very structure of the Western thought that produces the disciplines mentioned above as well as discourses like metaphysics, religion, politics and aesthetics. Translation no longer remains a notion. It rather becomes a trope that is at once central and marginal in philosophical discourses, a philosophical trope, a metaphor, for very act of human communication and understanding. On the other hand when one considers the ideational topography of the discipline of Translation Studies, such as the one given by Susan Bassnett (1980:7-8), in which this wide field has been divided into four general overlapping areas of interest: history of translation, translation and TL culture, translation and linguistics and lastly translation and poetics, we find that the deliberations such as those offered by Derrida cannot be easily accommodated in these schemas. Thus, any similar deliberation that deal with epistemological and ontological questions raised by the activity of translation and operates at a level of generalization and abstractness of philosophy will have to be put, rather uneasily, into the category of translation and philosophy. Then it will be convenient to address the questions of hermeneutics, cognitive sciences, or metaphysics raised by translation. In this essay, I intend to discuss very briefly some of the philosophical statements on translation by major Western thinkers and in addition, also consider the idea of translation in the context of major Indian philosophies like Brahmanism and Buddhism and propose that translation in the philosophical schemas ought to be studied separately in translation studies.

The word ‘translation’ has a Latin etymology which means, “Carrying from one place to another”. The etymological meaning is almost the same as that of the term ‘metaphor’.  In medieval Christianity, the word translation implied transfer of relics or remains of a saint from one place to another (Talal Asad, 1996: 325). Yet translation has always got bad press in the mainstream Western philosophy. Even the seminal thinkers’ like Heidegger (1971:23) complains that the rootlessness of the Western thought begins with the translation of Greek philosophical terms into Latin. He notes that the process of translating Greek terms into Latin was by no means innocent. He says, ‘beneath the seemingly literal and thus faithful translation there is concealed, rather a translation of Greek experience into a different way of thinking. Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek word. The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation. (23).’ The lament is commonplace. The translation is by nature inauthentic in the Western world view. The term ‘translation’ itself becomes a trope for something secondary, derivative and so almost derogatory. Robert Frost’s much quoted quotable quote that poetry is what is lost in translation has become a sort of truism. The ancient Italian pun traduttore, traditore (“translator, traitor”) is the best evidence about the Western attitude to translation.  However, many philosophers have given it the importance it deserves in the philosophical thinking.

George Steiner in his seminal treatise After Babel discusses the historiography of translation and notes that the period between the essay by Schleiermacher in 1813 and the essay by Valery Larbaud in 1946 is the period ‘of theory and hermeneutic inquiry. The question of the nature of translation is posed within the more general framework of theories of language and mind…. it gives the subject of translation a frankly philosophical aspect ‘(1975:237).’He remarks that the significant essay by Walter Benjamin in 1923 ‘caused a reversion to hermeneutic, almost metaphysical inquiries into translation and interpretation.’ In fact, Steiner himself believes that translation is involved whenever the act of understanding takes place and it does not just take place between two cultures or languages but between classes, genders, and age groups, in short between any two human beings. Moreover, along with the thinkers like Derrida and the others discussed in this essay, Steiner’s major contribution was in this category of thinking about translation.

Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of Translator’ written in 1923 is one of the most significant statements in the philosophy of translation.  It is the essential statement in the Universalist, liberal-humanist tradition. Considering the plurality and heterogeneity of human languages in the post-Babelian world, Benjamin believes that translation ‘ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. It cannot possibly reveal or establish this relationship itself, but it can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form (p.72)’. Benjamin is trying to hypothesize the notion of a ‘pure language’ of humanity, which includes all exclusive and different languages. There is a distinct influence of the Kabalistic mysticism on Benjamin’s thought as Steiner notes as Benjamin believes in the holy language in which all languages unite at some messianic moment (Steiner, 62-64). As all the languages for him are incomplete in themselves, translation ‘in a singularly impressive manner at least points the way to this region: the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfilment of language (p.75)’. He becomes more philosophical while distinguishing between the original work and the translation, quoted below is one of his more ‘lofty’ passages:

‘The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, and graphic; that of the translator is derivative,

ultimate, ideational. For the great motif of integrating many tongues into one true language is at work.

The language is one in which the independent sentences works of literature,

critical judgements will never communicate- for they remain dependent on translation;

but in it the languages themselves, supplemented and reconciled in their mode of signification,

harmonize. If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for,

then this is language of truth the true language, and this very language whose divination and description

is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translation. (Pp.76-77)’.

For Benjamin the original work remains within the specificity of a single isolated language organically, while translation forays into the realm of the universal monolithic language of man, which is also the language of truth. He quotes Mallarme who said that as ‘ the supreme language is lacking’ if one were to remove the plurality of idioms on earth, one would materialize the truth. Translation becomes a trope for crossing of limitations of single languages which in themselves are incomplete.

This perspective is characteristic of what Steiner has categorized as the Universalist-humanist stand. Commenting on this stand Steiner remarks,

‘One (perspective) declares that the underlying structure of language is universal and common to all men.

Dissimilarities between human tongues are essentially of the surface: Translation is realizable,

precisely because of these deep-seated universals, genetic,

historical, social from which all grammars derive can be located and recognized as operative in every human idiom,

however singular or bizarre its superficial forms…

hence the universalist position touches closely on the mystical intuition of a lost primal or paradigmatic.’

The opposing view to the Universalist position would be the relativist position, which Steiner terms as the ‘monadist’ view. ‘It holds that universal deep structures are either fathomless to logical and psychological investigation or of an order so abstract, so generalized as to be well nigh trivial. The extreme monadist position, we shall find great poets holding it- leads logically to the belief that the real translation is impossible ‘ (73-74). The Sapir-Whorf thesis in language and cognitive sciences of course is a good example of this perspective. It holds that the ‘real world’ is largely unconsciously built up on the language habits of the groups or the community speaking that language. The people belonging to various language communities live in a different world. Chomskian view on the other hand puts emphasis on the universal deep structures underlying all languages and is distinctly Universalist. G. M. Hyde offers an insightful critique of the notorious Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by pointing out that one does not have to be’ a Chomskyan to see that all languages have built into them devices for circumventing their own limitations and that literature itself is made up of a massive body of these devices, designed to institutionalize just these processes of circumvention’ (1993:7). This debate is central to cognitivist approach to the phenomenon of translation

Octavio Paz (1992) believes that poetry is universal and communicates to the whole humanity, but unlike Benjamin, he points out, ‘while translation overcomes the differences between one language and another, it also reveals them more fully. Thanks to translation, we become aware that our neighbors do not speak and think as we do (p.154).’Paz is not worried by the fact that there is no single monolithic language of humanity of Pre-Babelian times, he values differences and considers them enriching. Although a Universalist, he does not want to straightjacket the human being.  Universalism, in Paz’s thought does not deny the richness of plurality.

In contrast, the famous philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset believes that translation is a utopian act, but then all tasks which man undertakes are utopian for,

 ‘The destiny of man-his privilege and honor is never to achieve what he proposes and to remain merely an intention,

a living utopia’. He then makes a distinction between a good utopian and bad utopian. While the former thinks,

‘that because it would be desirable to free men from the divisions imposed by language,

there is little probability that it can be attained; therefore it can only be achieved to an approximate measure’,

while the bad utopian thinks that because it is desirable, it is possible.’

All utopian acts of good utopian are toward betterment and progress.

Gasset interestingly suggests that it would be a great anguish if one were condemned to do only those activities that are deemed possible of achievement. Translation for Gasset is impossible and necessary (1992:92-112).

Going back to Derridian philosophy, as it seems to be a critique of both the positions, translation seems to assume a crucial role. Derrida’s philosophy is the philosophy of language, which analyses the language of philosophy in a strategic way. In one of his interviews he remarks, ‘ We are all translators, mediators. (1995:1). His philosophy offers a critique of the notion of sign as divided into the signifier and the signified. The signified is believed to be something outside of language or the system of signification but actually, it is a part of the system because what we call signified is yet another signifier. It is the metaphysical desire for a transcendental signified or the concept independent of language, present without the need of mediating signifier, that creates the division between the signifier and the signified in the history of western thought. This metaphysics creates desire for transcendental signified which acts as a sort of anchor, centre or ground outside of system or structure supposedly giving it coherence and unity which cannot be coherence or unity if this centre is transcendental and outside of the structure. Translation is tied up to the very notion of sign, which is a product of western metaphysics. Derrida comments, ‘within the limits to which it is possible, or at least appears to be possible, translation practices the difference between signifier and signified. But if this difference is never pure, translation is no more so… we will never have, and in fact we never had, any ‘transfer’ of pure ‘signified’- from one language to another, or within one language- which would be left virgin and intact by the signifying instrument (Quoted by Bass, 1978: xv) ‘. Translation is founded on a myth that one can separate word/s from their ‘meaning’, or can substitute other word/s from the same or some other language, and yet keep the ‘meaning’ intact. This belief that the ‘meaning’ can remain intact and unchanged if the ‘word/s’ are changed gives rise not only to the notion of translation but also to the notion of ‘transcendental signified ‘. It presupposes the notion of unproblematic ‘translation’ within the language itself as if pure synonymy exists within the language itself. Derrida reads the story of Babel and it ‘, does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues: it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, of saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system and architectonics. What the multiplicity of idioms actually limits is not only a ‘true’ translation, a transparent and adequate inter-expression; it is also a structural order, a coherence of construct. It is then, (let us translate) something like an internal limit to formalization, an incompleteness or construture (1992:208) ‘. For Derrida, the structure of difference between languages and within the language actually limits, not just the possibility of translation, it also resists a systematic and coherent fabrication of any philosophical construct or system. In Derridian philosophy, the allegory of Babel becomes an allegory of not just ‘necessity and impossibility’ of translation, necessity as impossibility, but also an allegory of deconstruction of philosophical system in the process of edification due to ‘differences’ within the language. It is necessary to translate because of differential plurality and heterogeneity of idioms and languages and it is impossible to translate because of the same reason. As in most cases, in the Derridian approach, the reading of an allegory becomes the allegory of reading and interpretation itself.

In Derrida’s philosophy, the idea of ‘origin’ also becomes problematic as no ‘word ‘ or sign in order to be a word or sign can be used once and for all or for the ‘first time’. Signification in order to be significant has to be iterated and can never be for the first time. Hence, the loss of ‘origin’ is a condition for signification. Thus no text can be original and what is ‘original’ cannot be significant or text. The text is already an anuvad in its etymological sense, a repetition with a difference. It is already a translation. Octavio Paz in the same essay echoes this perspective when he says, ‘Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text. No text can be completely original because language itself, in it very essence, is already a translation- first from the non-verbal world; and then because each sign and each phrase is translation of another sign or another phrase. However, the inverse of this relationship is also entirely valid. All texts are originals because each translation has its distinctive character. Up to a point, each translation is a creation and thus constitutes a unique text (p.154).’ Hence, all writing has to be rewriting in order to be writing, in order to have significance. Hence Lefevere’s category of ‘rewriting’ reserved for translation, criticism  and so on is already problematic as it is again functioning within the same metaphysical Platonic distinction between the ‘original’ versus ‘imitation/copy’ which it seeks to overcome (1988). The same can be said about his category of ‘refraction’ which assumes the existence of ‘non-refracted’, pure non-deviant writing.

Besides, Derrida reads political significance behind the desire for a single language of man, unique, homogenous, and undifferentiated- the desire that led people to construct the tower of Babel. This for Derrida is a desire, ‘ to bring the world to reason, and this reason can signify simultaneously a colonial violence (since they would thus universalize their idiom) and peaceful transparency of human community. Inversely, when God imposes and opposes his name, he ruptures the rational transparency but interrupts also the colonial violence or linguistic imperialism.’ He seems to be responding to George Steiner’s query regarding the reason behind existence of an immense plurality and heterogeneity of languages and his question whether such a plurality has a function in Darwinian scheme of evolution (Steiner 54-55).

Towards the ‘end’ of his commentary on the Babel allegory, Derrida in his distinctive style defends translation by arguing that paradoxically even to understand that translation is impossible, one would have to use ‘understanding’ which in itself is an act of translation.

Whatever reasons one may have for disagreeing with Derrida, it is a fact that the metaphysical underpinnings of culture affect the way translation is conceived, produced, and received. The Christian Platonic metaphysics attributes a secondary status to translation as it is a ‘copy’ and not ‘original’ and that it is because of post Babelian condition and the Babel is seen as the other Fall (59). This is quite similar to the Indian brahmanical metaphysics, which is about essentialist, monistic, transcendental, unchanging, original and absolute nature of reality, and it sees all change as illusionary and superficial Maya. The Atman of Bhagwad Geeta remains the same, birth after birth, as It is the unborn one, what changes after the death is merely clothing. This notion is quite similar to Derrida’s transcendental signified of western metaphysics which remains the ‘same’ in spite of the change in material signifiers. It sees all transformation, including translation as illusion and deception of senses. On the other hand, the Buddhist metaphysics sees reality as immanent and in a state of constant Heraclitian flux and devoid of all essences and origins. Anaatma or non-self is truth and the selfhood is not organic awareness, it is divisible and heterogeneous. Reality is constantly being transformed. Transformation and change is the fundamental nature of existence. Hence, we are constantly being translated along with the whole world. No wonder the Buddhists could accept translated texts in far more positive spirit rather than Brahmins and their ‘language of the gods’.

Translation as an activity and a trope has always fascinated philosophers. The importance given to it by the philosophers like Steiner, Derrida, Benjamin, and Gasset is flattering, for even if it fails, it fails because human beings are destined to fail. There is certain grandeur even in failure of translation.  Translation can be fruitfully considered a subject of philosophical reflection. It can yield some invaluable insights into the epistemological and ontological consideration of human language and its relation to reality. It becomes a metaphor for very act of human communication and understanding .Translation is seen not just as an activity of ‘interpretation of verbal signs from one language by the verbal signs from another language’ but being of the nature same as interpretation and enmeshed in the whole philosophical and metaphysical deliberations about interpretation.


Works Cited

Asad, Talal ‘ A Comment on Translation, Critique, and Subversion’ in Dingwaney and Maier eds.  1996.

Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies. London and NY: Methuen, 1980, 7-8.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Task of the Translator: an Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens’. in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections.  ed.  H.Arendt. trans.H.Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969:pp.69-82.

Cummings and Gillespie (eds.) Translation and Literature.  Vol. II, Edinburgh University Press, 1993

Derrida Jacques .Positions, quoted by Alan Bass 1978, p.xv

___________ An interview in Points…: Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford University Press, 1995.

___________  ‘From Des Tours Des Babel’ in Schulte, R and Biguenet. J. Eds. 218

___________  Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass.  London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981

___________  The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, ed. Christie V. MacDonald, translated by Peggy Kamuf, New York: Schocken Books, 1985

Dingwaney, A and Carol Maier. Ed.Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-Cultural Texts. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Gasset, Jose Ortega Y. ‘The Misery and the Splendor of Translation’ Schulte, R and Biguenet. J. eds.), 92-112

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter, Harper and Row Publishers, 1971

Hiriyana, M.  Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1951

Hyde, GM. ‘The Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis and the Translation Muddle’ in Cummings and Gillespie eds., 1993, p.7

Lefevere ,Andre. Essays in Comparative Literature: A Systems Approach.  Calcutta:    Papyrus, 1988

Paz , Octavio .’Translation: Literature and Letters’ in R Schulte, R and Biguenet. J. eds.) 152-162

Schulte, R and Biguenet. J. eds. Theories of Translation: An anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, 237

Sachin Ketkar

About Sachin Ketkar

The Baroda-based Marathi writer Sachin is a bilingual writer, translator, editor and critic, and has a collection of poems in Marathi and English. Apart from translating and editing an anthology of Marathi poetry, titled Live Update, Sachin has also translated short stories and poems from Gujarati and Marathi into English. Sachin holds a doctorate in translation studies and is currently the professor of the English department at the MS University, Baroda.

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