Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)

Defining the Untranslatable: Dictionary of Untranslatables

by Michael O'Sullivan


Barbara Cassin (editor), Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood (translation Editors), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, Princeton University Press, 2014. 1344 pgs.


A dictionary of untranslatables is perhaps a little counterintuitive. We usually go to a dictionary for clarification, for the "true" meaning of a word. However, Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon may serve a similar purpose even though all its entries are both untranslatable and untranslatables. Several of the entries, by some of the leading humanities scholars and philosophers of our age, demonstrate how the meaning of a word becomes easier to grasp once we are introduced to the blind spots that it unveils in the other languages that have tried, always unsuccessfully, to translate it from its source language. Of course, it helps if one has some grasp of the range of languages covered—frequently European—but it is not essential. As the book's French chief editor Barbara Cassin explains, untranslatability here is not so much about emphasising the impasse between languages as what she describes as the "interminability of translation: the idea that one can never have done with translation." The editors believe that the book engages in a new kind of philosophy through the prism of translation. It must also be noted that this is an English translation of the original French edition of untranslatables. While this may sound like a plot for a Borges story, it is in fact an incredible academic feat; as Emily Apter, one of the chief translators describes, the book occasions reflection on how "untranslatable" carries within it a philosophy of "languages together." Indeed, it helps to learn that this English translation of the original French edition has already, in being written and put together, asked itself how it can "translate the untranslatable."

In tentatively finding one's way into a review of such a work, one is constantly reminded that any review that tries to translate or transmit a core message or theme can only really experience that difficult double bind the translators also experienced: "to balance the temptation of disappearing down the rabbit hole of philosophy against the need to withdraw from content so as to concentrate on the material management of the text." A review of such a dictionary can really only comment on the magnitude of the spirit of such an endeavour since to comment on anything like the method or the style of the book as a whole would be foolhardy; one quickly realises that this dictionary of untranslatables exists precisely because each untranslatable is untranslatable for unique reasons. Each description of an untranslatable, whether it be belief, mimesis or logos, takes you down a different warren hole of that vast collective imaginary the history of language has traversed. A review can only really direct the potential reader back to the original source—this erudite and eclectic collection of untranslatables.

One obvious concern that emerges when confronted by a dictionary of untranslatables is the question of how there can ever be an end to such words. One intention of the original French edition was to try to "rewrite the history of philosophy through the lens of the 'untranslatable'" what is defined loosely as a "term that is left untranslated as it is transferred from language to language," and this does help us understand what an untranslatable is. One might also learn a little more about the spirit of translation and untranslatability embodied by the book by comparing the original French title with the English title: Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionaire des intraduisibles has become Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. This is quite a dramatic shift. We learn that the editors have dropped "European" because it "misrepresents the complexity of identifying "Europe" culturally and geopolitically." In providing us then with a dictionary of untranslatables that has rather belatedly thrown off any explicit connection with Europe—a tendency it arguably shares with other recent European inventions such as the EU constitution, the EU's Bologna Accord and Eurovision—are the editors implicitly connoting a larger dictionary of translatables that exists in some archive somewhere or perhaps in a collective conscience?

Of course, such a possibility raises the question of how the Academy—something that is definitely becoming less European—frames the supplementarity of language in general, its omnipresent unstranslatability. In other words, is it worth asking if words such as Dasein, phronesis or jetztzeit are included as untranslatables in the book while words such as difference, race and ethics (ethique, Ethik, eitic, ética) are not because they speak for an easily managed philosophy of untranslatability, an untranslatability that does not call attention to how "writing is the origin of inequality" because "violence is writing"? (Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology) But this is only to call on one of the true artists of untranslatability, Jacques Derrida, who I'm sure would have enjoyed this book that was published in French in the year he left us.

Translation calls attention to the enriching inequality and untranslatability of language and languages in terms of missing the point or being semantically off—what the translators call the "always absent perfect equivalence"—and yet we must be mindful of how any attempt to frame untranslatability is also involved in this violent sense of inequality that inhabits all writing. In order to do justice to the promise of untranslatability, philosophy must therefore resist any tendency to confine or delimit untranslatability. In writing of untranslatability, one can't stop recalling the work of Derrida, whose most celebrated translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak defines his style of reading—deconstruction—as a way "to show the text 'what it does not know.'" This is the true essence of translation and untranslatability; no matter how much etymological or historical detail we are given for words that are seen to exist between languages, Derrida was an inventor of untranslatables that kept showing the text what it did not know. In the end, one feels, in reading many of the entries in this book, that this spirit of unknowability, and hence inquisitiveness, is preserved by the presentation of these untranslatables that one feels should not be read as exemplars of untranslatability.

This reviewer only had time to read a selection of the entries. However, he felt that some aspects of the editors' introduction did not sit very well alongside many of the remarkable and erudite entries. Therefore, a few words on the introduction. This is a book, the editors tell us, that is definitely not untranslatable: the editors argue that they "assume" the book "by dint of being in English" will disseminate broadly and will lead they "hope" to "more translations in other languages" and to "spin-off versions." Not only that—they "hope" it will "advance experimental formats in research" and lead to a "shift from concept-driven philosophical analysis to a new kind of process philosophy," or to what the chief editor calls "philosophising in languages." And there is more: they hope that it will even lead to "cross-institutional degree programmes." However, one aspect of their justification for outlining what the book might achieve is a little problematic. They argue that "in an era in which countries all over the world are adopting policies—often in line with the European Union's endorsement of English as its lingua franca—that would make English the official language of instruction in scientific and technical fields […] students increasingly naturalise English as the singular language of universal knowledge, thereby erasing translation-effects and etymological histories."

The argument appears to be then that this dictionary of untranslatables will offer some kind of compensation for this hegemonic encroachment of English as the last lingua franca. Students of science and technology who are taught in English in the new educational powerhouses in China and elsewhere will therefore now be able to break from their English lectures and readings in thermodynamics and differential equations to delve further into the correct European origins of words such as I/Me/Myself and Destiny, since words such as thermodynamics and entropy are not included in the book (whereas English and entrepreneur are!). Apart from this sounding a little far-fetched (and this is from a former student of thermodynamics and philosophy), it also raises the question of why the editors, who are presumably committed practitioners of multilingual education, would appear to be offering the "English is a lingua franca" argument in relation to the future of education as a reason for why their book is important. In acknowledging that they may only be relaying European policy documents on university education, one would still have liked them to sound a little more enraged about the monolingual future education faces in science, technology, the social sciences and the humanities.

To conclude, I now want to focus on two untranslatables in the book, the words logos and gender. Logos is a difficult word at the best of times. I have tried explaining it to Chinese students on numerous occasions. I was therefore delighted to see it included as an untranslatable. Obviously, it is never good enough to explain to non-native English students that you can't explain a word simply because it is untranslatable. The book gave me hope that I would find a foolproof reason or definition for why the word logos is so hard to define and thus so untranslatable. I turn to page 581. I see the word LOGOS in bold at the top of the page. Its Greek root is given alongside. The word Greek is even included for those who might not spot ancient Greek characters first off. So far, so good. However, I look below the word LOGOS and I see lists of synonyms for the word in 5 different languages. The English synonyms alone range from discourse to tally; the French from langue to calcul. Already, I am unsure how to explain it to students—and the Stoics, Aquinas or Gadamer have not yet been mentioned. I then move to the prose definition below. There are 13 pages of dense script with four special boxes set apart in darker font explaining in detail how the word is related to, among other things, the Hebrew for reason and the German for brightness (Lichtung). I come to the following sentence in the first paragraph of the 13-page definition: "What is untranslatable here, paradigmatically, is the unity beneath the idea of 'gathering together,' a series of concepts and operations-mathematical, rational, discursive, linguistic-that, starting with Latin, are expressed by words that bear no relationship to one another."

I try to imagine how a Mainland Chinese student studying thermodynamics in the same campus as me will be drawn to this book. I then realise that the book offers nothing like quick-fix solutions for untranslatables. In fact, I begin to feel that the definitions of the untranslatables are themselves untranslatable! Is it all then a clever academic ruse, like one of those exploits described in a Borges story? The reader that naively looks for easy ways to explain to students why certain words are untranslatable will only ever find new unexplored and stubborn interstitial spaces between languages; however, if one takes the time to read how the equivalents in different languages are never entirely suitable, one runs up against the blind spots of languages and these in themselves help in clarifying the meaning of the word in the source language.

The erudition and scholarship of entries such as LEIB/KÖRPER/FLEISCH by Natalie Depraz and LËV by Rémi Brague are enlightening and enthralling. However, this reviewer's favourite is the word gender, and specifically its genealogy as elaborated by Judith Butler. Butler's erudite and eloquent description of gender plays off the word's unsuccessful translations in other languages such as French, German and Chinese, and, in so doing, comes up with the finest description of gender's variegated faces this reviewer has ever read. In fact, Butler's description is so rich and imaginative that one is left with the impression that gender is in fact a metaphor for the very notion of translation itself. Gender moves from being a term in "English-language contexts" that "usually refers to a cultural meaning assumed by a body in the context of its socialisation or acculturation" that "so often makes use of a distinction between a natural and cultural body" to something that is an "assignment" that "arrives through the enigmatic desire of the other, a desire by which somatic life is infiltrated and that, in turn, or simultaneously, incites a set of displacements and translations [my italics] that constitute the specific life of the drive, or sexual desire." Therefore, one feels that the intention of the editors to present us with a book that tries to "rewrite the history of philosophy through the lens of the 'untranslatable'" truly comes to fruition in entries by writers as imaginative as Butler. In furnishing concepts such as gender with all of the richness that is found in a career's contemplation of the various enigmas and blind spots hovering about the borderlands of languages we do indeed "encompass opacities at the edges of the spoken and the written."

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.