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Julien Leyre on translation

29 Dec

Much of continental philosophy actually grows in the gap between Greek semantic and conceptual structure and those of modern European languages. One of the most original and stimulating books I ever read on language is a little-known opus by Italian Professor Lo Piparo, and consists entirely of proposing an alternative translation of a short passage by Aristotle on language, then expanding as commentary the basic assumptions that led to that new translation.

Translation is a radical alternative to debating. In debate, thinking happens collectively, and the debating tradition acknowledges this phenomenon. It relies on the presence of an intellectual opponent – past, present or imaginary – and offers ideas in the form of a contention. Fresh, original thought emerges dialogically between competing contenders. Translation follows a different model, and obeys a different set of values: here, the translator-interpreter is a mediator between an author and an external reader, whose worldviews are assumed to be different. Translators bring across foreign or forgotten thoughts within the conceptual world of their audience.

For all its diplomatic underpinnings, translation is a fantastic bullshit detector. Abstract bureaucratese, vapid thought, loose constructions based on cloud-like associations of words, or sheer ‘sound-good’ rhetorics dissolve under the harsh acid of translation. Translation is the great enemy of sophistry, because sophistry, fake reasonings and paralogics, are often harder to translate, but also because sophistry goes against the core ethics of translation.

Translation is a school of honesty and humility for the mind. It teaches how difficult and resistant language is to the feeling of intellectual power that we may have – and forces us to acknowledge the resistance of the real. A good translation is judged on two criteria: how faithful and generous it is to the original, and how well it fits within the shape of its host language. The two, however, are inseparable in their material expression. The task brings translators a special benefit. By challenging our own inherited, sclerotic intellectual constructs embodied in lazy language, translation forces us to stretch our brains, because foreign ideas don’t spontaneously fit within the shape of our own clichés.

Translation is a remarkable writing exercise. Translators are directly confronted with the resistance of language. Different grammar systems or bodies of vocabulary will not allow an idea to simply come across on its own.

Translation also teaches us how much can – and unfortunately sometimes does – get lost in the process: ideas have to be pared down, folded over, flattened, in order to translate easily. In this regard, translation teaches us to listen and read better.

 

  • Julien Leyre