Philosophers of Babel

The Dictionary of Untranslatables offers proof that ideas like “democracy,” “revolution,” “politics,”
and even “existence” translate easily from County Cork to Kyiv.

Grand translation schemes always flirt with absurdity. The mighty Septuagint—the first-ever translation of the Hebrew Bible, into Greek—is named for the 70 (or possibly 72) learned Alexandrian Jews allegedly pressed into service by King Ptolemy II back in the third century BCE. The King James Bible, named for its cagey sponsor (“the wisest fool in Christendom”), was the work of the 47 forgotten Anglican churchmen he deputized. The urge lives on today in Google Translate, whose gurus crunch their algorithmic way through endless error; the Phraselator folks, whose handheld gizmo is mainly used by the U.S. military and by Native American tribes; and SIL International, with its 5,000-plus missionary linguists busy rendering scripture into every human language.

By comparison, The Dictionary of Untranslatables, newly translated from the French original, wears its modest megalomania well. An 11-year project involving some 150 contributors and comprising more than 400 entries, the Dictionary suggests comparison with Volume XI of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön, described by Borges as “a vast and systemic fragment of the entire history of an unknown planet.” The planet in question here is what we usually call “continental philosophy.” It’s everything that the bone-dry Anglo-American analytical philosophy taught in our universities isn’t: a heady universe of speculative thinking about the meaning of life, the history of ideas, the fate of mankind, and so on.

Postmodern winks aside, The Dictionary of Untranslatables is a mad, encyclopedic tribute in the grand tradition of bizarre translation projects, with the official funding to match: Eurothink at its academic best. Why else would the culture czars of Paris and Brussels who’ve brought you the yearly European Culture Capitals (Umeå, anyone?) and Quaero (the mysterious, amply funded Franco-German search engine) pay theory buffs the big euros, if not to pedal soft power? The first translation of all this ­untranslatability, conspiracy theorists will remark, was into Ukrainian.

Editor Barbara Cassin notes in her introduction that language is “one of the most urgent problems posed by the existence of Europe.” This is not a theoretical statement: The European Union is usually cited as having the largest translation service in the world. For years the proceedings of the European Parliament were translated into every official language (there are now 24), resulting in a massive “parallel corpus” that geeks and linguists have been mining with glee—a veritable Rosetta Stone of the present. The Dictionary aligns itself fervently with this multilingual vision. It is against the threat of all-conquering, homogenizing English and in support of a Europe that “explores divisions, tensions, transfers, appropriations, contradictions, in order to construct a better versions of itself.” If not politically, is this still at least philosophically possible in the Age of Merkel? Will Europe also need an intellectual and spiritual lender of last resort (dernier ressort)?

From certain outside points of view, Europeans are famously and marvelously fractious, as irregular as their indented coastline. Proud languages like French, Italian, and Spanish are swell-headed dialects, a Chinese or Arabic speaker might say—and likewise English speakers, keen to keep up cousinly connections, are held to be ignorant or jesting if they say they speak “American,” “Canadian,” or “Kiwi.” Linguists, too, might question whether the European rainbow (or is it a Rem Koolhaas bar code?) really covers much of the color spectrum. To begin with, the vast majority of European tongues stem from just a handful of branches of the Indo-European language family—and the world begins to look quite different in outliers like Hungarian, Saami, Maltese, or Basque (the last represented in the Dictionary by gogo, which translates, or doesn’t, as “spirit” or “soul”).

What’s more, the European languages represented here (especially French, German, and Italian, plus the venerated forebears Greek and Latin) have grown up together for centuries, evolving through constant interchange into what is sometimes called “Standard Average European.” Indeed, the Dictionary is further proof that “Europe,” for all its agreeing to disagree, is very much a shared intellectual space, an ongoing Republic of Letters: Ideas like “democracy,” “revolution,” “politics,” and even “existence” translate easily from County Cork to Kyiv.

Not that we shouldn’t attend to the nuances—vive la différence! Inevitably, the more different, the more striking: Take Russian pravda, a blackened word that is finally shedding the connotations of Soviet agitprop. Usually translated as “truth”, vérité, Wahrheit, and the like, pravda also has “justice, legitimacy, law, equity” very much in its semantic field according to the Dictionary, reflecting a traditional view, now “broken by modern physics,” that the world endures through the just, that “truth” is not fully autonomous but has a moral character. (It’s not clear if this has affected actual usage, or if a nuanced understanding of pravda is really so far from the idea of “truth” in a contemporary English expression like “speak truth to power.”)

Another case, from the other side of the continent, is saudade, “a tender malaise,” an untranslatable nostalgia-and-then-some long presented as “the key feeling of the Portuguese soul,” the longing of “a people that has always looked beyond its transatlantic horizons.” The Dictionary takes us on a bracing journey through the history of saudade, from a 14th-century codex to the Jesuit António Vieira’s fantastical History of the Future and a samba by the legendary Brazilian musician Antônio Carlos Jobim. We learn that the word has consistently been used to assert a national character in the face of outside intrusion.

This is revealing stuff, but may belong more readily to the history of nationalism than to a cosmopolitan history of philosophy, as the intellectual historian Svetlana Boym reminds us: “Curiously, intellectuals and poets from different national traditions began to claim that they had a special word for homesickness that was radically untranslatable: the Portuguese had their saudade, Russians toska, Czechs litost’, Romanians dor ... untranslatable words of national uniqueness [that] proved to be synonyms of the same historical emotion.” One word, coined by the psychologist Erik Erikson, that does not appear in the Dictionary: pseudo-speciation, the purposeful elaboration of difference where none really existed before.

The Dictionary is at its best not so much when unpacking keywords from disparate national traditions or when wading into the depths of wide-angle comparative philosophy, given that a deep comparison of European “nature” with Chinese ziran would pose many more problems than anything attempted here. But the Dictionary is revealing for the way it sketches, lexically, a set of parallel but alternate intellectual traditions. What language teachers call “false friends” are everywhere, inspiring a constant alertness to nuance. Did you know that French classicisme summons up Versailles (which we’d call baroque) but it was German Klassizismus that crystallized our idea of the “neoclassical”? Or that the vital feminist distinction between “sex” and “gender,” current in English since the 1970s, was “nearly impossible to translate into any Romance language,” not to mention the problems posed by the German Geschlecht, as Judith Butler writes in the Dictionary? Further probing may even make us wonder whether the nature/culture distinction so sharply drawn (and now promoted) by the English idea of “sex” vs. “gender” is the right distinction—the languages of the world offer many other possibilities.

This is the kind of “philosophizing through ­languages” that the Dictionary’s editors have in mind, and they’re right: philosophy has always been about bending (and coining) words to work in particular ways, about consciously harnessing and creating abstraction out of linguistic systems already engaged willy-nilly in much the same task. A century ago, analytic philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein saw the problems of philosophy as all boiling down to unclear language; contributors to the Dictionary lay a similar stress on words but revel in their contested indeterminacy. They chart a middle course between Anglo-American “ordinary language philosophy,” which harvests the way we actually talk, and quasi-mystical etymology spinning and neologism making in the style of Martin Heidegger (though the Dictionary doesn’t shrink from taking on such translation-proof Heideggerisms as Dasein and Ereignis). Though generally grounded in intellectual and linguistic history, the Dictionary’s authors sometimes seem to forget that they’re handling actual words rooted in and shaped by spoken languages, not just talismans passed down and swapped back and forth by a transnational philosopher tribe. Occasional cross-referencing with Urban Dictionary is strongly recommended, likewise Raymond Williams’s Keywords and Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Many languages get their own entries. The one on English aptly highlights the “genius of the ordinary,” the resistance of English-language philosophers across several centuries to building a rigorous philosophical jargon. Even as minuscule a factor as the naturalness of the English gerund can’t be discounted, the Dictionary informs us, noting how heavily we lean on a phrase like “the making of” where French is stuck with the ungainly le faire. Likewise we have to wonder at certain special properties of Greek and German, the two Western languages in which philosophy feels fully at home: the former its native land, the latter a foreign soil to which it was transplanted through great effort and originality by the likes of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Whatever is untranslatable wins out in the end, provided we care enough.

The Dictionary, we should have said at the outset, is too heavy to read and too random to reference systematically. Scrupulous and difficult, it’s everything that the Internet, which wants everything to talk “frictionlessly” with everything else, is not. No dreams of universal translation here—enjoy the friction. Use it for bibliomancy, the lost art of divination by book (with scripture or Virgil or Homer or Hafiz). You flip at random but with intention to a section of the venerated tome, you place your finger on the page, and your fate is there in the text. That fate, those words: They are yours and yours alone.