De Translatione: a link, some hearsay, a paraphrase
So I don’t know what it takes to get access to a whole Paris Review article, but I’m not all that bothered by its truncation. I’ve chosen to post this link less to direct y’all to the specificity of Ms. Davis’ thoughts on translation than to goad some of you, whom I know to have thoughts about the possibilities of translation (Caroline, Sam, Rob — but all, especially those belonging to the underrepresented demographics of this fine institution, are invited to chime in), into a fray of scattered languages and arguments.
Caroline and I had a conversation on the phone last night about an article involving the latin noun, “res,” often translated as “affair” or “thing”: “Res publica” (whence “Republic”): “Public affair.” And Descartes’ ontological categories “res extensa” and “res cogitans“: “extended thing” (matter) and “thinking thing” (man, God). Caroline’s article involved some argument about Augustine’s use of the Aristotelian conception of “res,” and how that was a problem or something or other for Russian Christians or something. Now, in Greek, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, there’s no noun simply equivalent to “res.” “Pragmata” is a deed or thing done (think pragmatism, praxis, practicality), “ergon” is a work, sometimes a deed (“logoi xai ergoi“: “in word and in deed”–right Sam?), sometimes a thing made (the “-urge” in “demiurge”), and it’s related somehow or other to “energy” (en-ergon). Then there are participles, which Greek uses all the time for a million things: “on” is the nominative form of the present active participle of the verb “to be.” When it acts as a substantive “on” means something very basic like “a being” as in “an entity”–“a being thing.” But to get the basic sense of of something like “res” across, you could just use a neuter definite article (“to“), which by itself provides the ontological armature of an underlying substance. You can stack adjectives and participles on top of it: “THE [thing]” + “done,” “best,” “before the battle,” “for the sake of glory.” If you just have a neuter article with an adjective–like “to rhetorikon” (” the rhetorical [stuff]”)–or with a non-neutor noun–like or “ta machon” (the [stuff] of war), you can get a sense that resembles the philosophical meaning of “res.” So speculated we. But another problem, Caroline explained, is that Russian (like Latin, for that matter) doesn’t have definite articles.
I also happen to have this idea that at Augustine’s time Aristotle was only available in Latin, but I don’t know if it’s true. If it were true, it would help support the argument of Hannah Arendt’s that our modern conceptions of, for example, the “life of action” and the “life of contemplation” (vita activa/vita contemplativa) are indebted to the Christian misappropriation of Greek philosophy, which was facilitated by some fateful translation choices on the part of certain Romans.
Arendt argues in The Human Condition (22-28) that the translation of the Greek “zoon politkon” into the Latin “animal socialis” erroneously inaugurated Aristotle into a genealogy of political theory that equated the political with the social. Arendt:
All human human activities are conditioned by the fact that men live together, but it is only action [a technical term for Arendt that forms a triad with “labor”–brute toil–and “work”–deliberate fabrication; “action” designates the distinct mode of being that corresponds to our inexorable involvement in a veritable world-wide-web of interpersonal relationships] that cannot even be imagined outside the society of men…
This special relationship between action and being together seems fully to justify the early translation of Aristotle’s zoon politikon by animalis socialis, already found in Seneca, which then became the standard translation through Thomas Aquinas: homo est naturaliter politicus, id est, socialis (“man is by nature political, that is, social”). More than any elaborate theory, this unconscious substitution of the social for the political betrays the extent to which the original Greek understanding of politics had been lost. For this, it is significant but not decisive that the word “social” is Roman in origin and has no equivalent in Greek language or thought. Yet the Latin usage of the word societas also originally had a clear, though limited, political meaning; it indicated an allegiance between people for a specific purpose, as when men organize in order to rule others or to commit a crime. It is only with the later concept of a societas generis humani, a “society of man-kind,” that the term “social” begins to acquire the general meaning of a fundamental human condition. It is not that Plato or Aristotle was ignorant of, or unconcerned with, the fact that men cannot live outside the company of men, but they did not count this condition among the specifically human characteristics; on the contrary, it was something human life had in common with animal life, and for this reason alone it could not be fundamentally human. The natural, merely social companionship of the human species was considered to be a limitation imposed upon us by the needs of biological life, which are the same for the human animal as for other forms of life.
Another problematic translation is the Greek “zoon logon exhon” into “animal rationale.” The issues here are hard to explain, owing in part to the infamous complexities attending the noun “logos” (its myriad translations and interpretations have yielded: “word,” “Word,” “speech,” “reason,” “rationality,” “thought,” “account,” “opinion”…), and owing also also (though Arendt doesn’t go here) to the verb “exhein”: “to have (a property or object)”, “to grasp (something)”, “to be able (to do something)”, “to be (some predicate lifted from an adverb)”. Arendt:
…Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon politikon was not only unrelated and even opposed to the natural association experienced in household life; it can be fully understood only if one adds his second famous definition of man as a zoon logon exhon (“a living being capable of speech”). The latin translation of this term into animal rationale rests on no less a fundamental misunderstanding of the term “social animal.” Aristotle meant neither to define man in general nor to indicate man’s highest capacity, which to him was not logos, but nous, the capacity for contemplation, whose chief characteristic is that its content cannot be rendered in speech* (*Nicomachean Ethics 1142a25 and 1178a6 ff.). In his two most famous definitions, Aristotle only formulated the current opinion of the polis about man and the political way of life, and according to this opinions everybody outside the polis–slaves and barbarians–was aneu logou [“without” logos], deprived, of course, not of the faculty of speech, but of a way of life in which speech and only speech made sense and where the central concerns of the citizens was to talk with each other.
Arendt goes on to explain that the misconceptions justifying and justified by these translations are also manifest in Aquinus’ concommitantly misguided political philosophy. He argues that kingship is the best form of political governance, and he bases this argument on an analogy to the paterfamilias or dominus who exercises perfect rule over his family inside the micro-state of the household. For Arendt, the Christian elevation of the household as the paradigm for all forms of statehood (political, metaphysical) is a betrayal of the Athenian conception of the relationship between the oikos and the polis, the natural and the political, necessity and freedom. The oikos, for the Greeks (according to Arendt), could never provide a paradigm of a truly “political” state of affairs, because the private sphere of the oikos housed man’s battle with nature–it was the realm of human qua animal. Only the satisfaction of the shameful necessities of human animality opened the possibility of stepping into the public, political sphere–into the agora of speakers.
There you go, some of what’s been running through my head on the topic of translation. I invite you all to wax poetic, academic, philosophic, linguistic, mathematic, belletristic, or easern-european, as best suits you. Sam: maybe some thoughts about Stephen Mitchell’s new Iliad? Elizabeth: linguistic misadventures in Montenegro?