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De Translatione: a link, some hearsay, a paraphrase

September 13, 2011

Lydia Davis on translation!

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?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. linebrick permalink*
    September 15, 2011 12:47 am

    omg so interesting. I’m just posting for now in order to clarify my contributions– here’s the citation for the article Élan was talking about:
    Heffernan, Thomas J. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
    And yeah, Russia’s whole classical legacy is really interesting and something I’ve been kind of half-baking and chewing on for a while. Maybe I’ll write a paper or something on this and post it here so we can really discuss it properly, but basically Russia seems to have inherited from the Greeks & Romans in a sort of inverse way, like a twisted reflection of what the West has from the classics. Most of the Russian faith is taken straight from the Greek Orthodox church (whereas the Roman Catholics have obviously made a more dominant mark on western Europe), but while we tend loosely to think of the Greeks as championing philosophy, most of the classical texts the Russians received and translated either came from or through Rome, in Latin. Most Slavic philological terminology is directly translated from Latin words (my favorite example, which I’ve waxed on about in other media, is the word “translation” itself) and I’ve only just begun to think about the role that the absence of a definite article in both Russian and Latin (two otherwise rather dissimilar languages) plays in this web…

  2. nostalgebraist permalink*
    September 30, 2011 3:38 pm

    This is very late, and I don’t know if my thoughts about translation are interesting or even relevant, but here goes.

    The only real opinion I have about translation is: we shouldn’t pretend we believe in the fiction that translation is a thing that one can “get right.” Of course some translations are better than others, according to one metric or another. What I mean is just that any translation is going to be substantially different from the original, and decreasing the distance from the original according to one metric will often increase it according to another.

    Say you’re translating an idiom into a language that doesn’t have it. You could translate “literally,” producing a word-by-word accurate reproduction of the idiom that doesn’t make any sense in the target language (because it doesn’t have the idiom). Or you could try to find an idiom in the target language that means approximately the same thing. Or you could express the same thought non-idiomatically, writing out exactly what the original idiom “really means,” which would get the denotative meaning across perfectly but could sound stilted and wordy, and would lack the snappy idiomaticness of the original.

    Depending on what you’re going for, any of these could be right (though the literal option is probably a bad idea unless you’re actually trying to produce a crib). But, importantly, none of them is a perfect rendition of the original idiom in the target language. That’s impossible, because the target language doesn’t have the original idiom. (Of course, even if it did, the equality between the two would still be approximate, and would be affected by the relationships of the constituent words to the other words in each language, so that even then, one wouldn’t be a perfect translation of the other, blah blah blah. We could be here all day, but I think you get the point.)

    Since I don’t think there’s any way to perfectly capture an original text in a translation, I tend to think translations should have lots of notes/annotations. Even translation of fiction. And that there should be lots of translations with different purposes in mind, translations that are explicit about their goals. For instance, in prose fiction, I think there’s a role for fairly literal translations that basically act as cribs for people who are trying to read the original but aren’t perfectly fluent. And there’s also a place for translations that are meant to be read in the target language and meant to feel roughly like the original, which should mean lots of looseness and an attempt to produce the target-language-equivalent of the original style, even at the expense of the original words. For mass public consumption, someone like Haruki Murakami shouldn’t be translated by professional translators who know a lot about Japanese literature; he should be translated by a novelist whose role in the English-speaking world of letters approximates Murakami’s role in the Japanese-speaking one. (Well, that novelist would also have to know Japanese, which is a pretty tall order. That’s probably why this doesn’t happen more often.)

    Most of the prose fiction translations that I’ve read have aimed for some awkward place between these two extremes. To me they always sound like bad, awkwardly written novels in the original language, novels that would never have gotten published if they had been original-language works. Constance Garnett’s Crime and Punishment sounds like a department-store potboiler (though I’ve heard Dostoyevsky was a poor stylist in Russian too, so maybe this isn’t the best example).

    To tie this to what you actually talked about in the post: there’s no “perfect” way to translate zoon politkon. As translators we shouldn’t try to find the one “correct” equivalent, and as readers we shouldn’t assume that the translation we’re reading has found such an equivalent. When translating a work of philosophy, there’s no excuse for not including lots of notes explaining the nuances of the original words. (Or, at least, in philosophy we shouldn’t be as worried about disrupting the flow as we would be with fiction.) You could say that someone who really cares about all those nuances should just read the text in the original, but if everyone had the time to learn every language and read everything in the original, we wouldn’t need translations in the first place. Presumably there are some people out there who want to read certain things without having to become fluent in a new language. And we should strive to give those people an honest document, aware of its own imperfections and voluble about the ways it is and is not approximating the original. Rather than something which pretends to be perfect even though the reader must know that isn’t possible.

    (Most of this has only limited relevance to the issue of translating poetry, something I know several others here are interested in. About that, all I really have to say is: I’m glad it’s not my job.)

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