Being foreign is different, by Jonathan Ree
Times Literary Supplement 06/09/1996
Can we find equivalents for philosophical terms? If philosophy really is (as
its enemies keep saying) just another branch of European literature, still
it is a pretty remarkable one. It is cosmopolitan like no other. Even the
most rudimentary philosophical library will contain works written in Greek,
Latin, French, English and German; and even the most Europhobic philosophers
accept, more or less, that they belong to a Pan-European tradition.
What other branch of literature has survived the twentieth century without
succumbing to the madness of nationalism? And where else do you find a
corpus of active classics going back two and a half thousand years? And
spread across nearly all the languages of Europe?
No bookshelves contain more translations than those of the philosopher. And
some of these translations are philosophical achievements in themselves,
written by translators who were great philosophers in their own right. Roman
Ingarden, for example, spent decades putting Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
into Polish. His problem was that he could not translate what he did not
understand; and Kant is sometimes impossible. Some of his arguments, as
Ingarden said, are “truly” and “objectively” obscure. And in philosophy –
unlike any other theoretical discipline – obscurity can be precisely what
makes a work a classic. Ingarden realized he must strive to “preserve the
obscurity of the original”; but when the obscurity was really obscure, how
could he know what to preserve?
There have been very few great works of philosophy in English this century;
perhaps none, unless you count translations. A. V. Miller’s version of
Hegel’s Phenomenology, published in 1977, is brilliant; its only clear fault
is that it has overshadowed the very different but no less marvellous
translation by J. B. Baillie, dating from 1910. Then there is the meticulous
work of several translators of Husserl, and a remarkable sequence of
parallel texts (German and English on facing pages), beginning with C. K.
Ogden’s edition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in 1922, and continuing with J.
L. Austin’s version of Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic and G. E. M.
Anscombe’s of Wittgenstein’s Investigations. Norman Kemp Smith’s commanding
version of the Critique of Pure Reason has been read ragged by thousands of
students since it was first published in 1929, but still hardly any serious
weaknesses have come to light.
Most magnificent of all, though, is John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson’s
translation of Heidegger’s Being and Time, whose publication in 1962 marked
an epoch in English-language philosophy. The bonding of hieratic and demotic
styles in Heidegger’s prose must have made them quail; but Macquarrie and
Robinson, as well as achieving exemplary word-by-word exactitude, somehow
managed to make phrases like “being-in-the-world”, “being-towards-death”, or
“readiness-to-hand” sound almost like colloquial English.
There was one word, however, which defeated them; and unfortunately it is
the most important one in the book, the pivot on which Heidegger’s entire
argument turns. Being and Time is, centrally, an analysis of a particular
kind of entity: one which is both surrounded by a world, and absorbed in it.
In a sense, this entity has plenty of names, more or less interchangeable:
“soul”, “mind”, “spirit”, “consciousness” and “self”, for example. But all
of these trail billowing clouds of the kind of metaphysical thinking that
Being and Time was designed to blow away. For this reason, he needed a
neutral term to designate the object of his inquiry, and he artfully chose
for the purpose a very ordinary German word,within the scope of every little
German child: Dasein.
Dasein would usually be translated by “existence”, but, in the context of
Being and Time, the concept of Existenz had a stronger claim on that word.
Another solution would have been “being-there”, except that it might
reactivate the metaphysical connotations that Heidegger was trying to avoid;
so Macquarrie and Robinson devised an artificial expression to serve as
Dasein’s English counterpart. That new English word was “Dasein” (capital
initial but no italics; plural “Daseins”; possessive “Dasein’s”). Of course,
it is unsatisfying in many ways: “Dasein” in English has none of the
thousandfold connotations of Dasein in German; and – what is even more
serious – an everyday colloquialism in the original enters English as if it
were a scientific-technical term, decked out in pompous professorial robes.
Still, no one has come up with anything better; and a great translation must
have the courage of its compromises.
For some reason, the translation of French philosophy has been a disaster by
comparison. On the whole, the work has been left to translators with little
knowledge of philosophy, no affection for it, and often a quite weak grasp
of French as well. When Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, speaks of “having
to be” (devant etre), for instance, the Hazel Barnes translation renders it
quite bewilderingly as “being beforehand”, and his central claim about
consciousness puffing itself up with totalitarian metaphysics – that
“consciousness is Hegelian – but that is its greatest illusion” – comes out
as “consciousness is Hegelian, but it is Hegel’s greatest illusion”.
The baseline for these unhappy translations was set in 1948, when Bernard
Frechtman – a young American in Paris, who later embarked on a long career
as the translator of Jean Genet – made a very sullen job of Sartre’s pre-war
Esquisse d’une theorie des emotions. He had evidently not mastered the
French for pin-tables (his version is still in print, so students must still
be marvelling at French bars being equipped with “coin-making machines”),
and he reversed the meaning of subjunctive clauses by translating the
particle ne as “not”. Frechtman evidently did not have much clue what Sartre
was trying to say, and he communicates his condition most eloquently to his
Of course, the journey from French to English is a notoriously hazardous
one. Most French morphemes look so similar to possible English ones that the
translator is subject to a standing temptation simply to transliterate them
wholesale. And in philosophical French there is a particularly tawdry
collection of words, redolent of both the lawcourt and the schoolroom –
words like discours, texte, geste, patrimoine, inscrire, interroger,
formation, interpeller and determiner – which constantly impose themselves
on their English hosts as “discourse”, “text”, “gesture”, “patrimony”,
“inscribe”, “interrogate”, “formation”, “interpellate” or “determine”: a
gawky band of look-alikes, somehow drab and swanky at the same time.
Reliance on such banal equivalences expresses the attitude of what might be
called translators-in-terror or translators-at-bay: they are so nervous of
misrepresenting the original that they can hardly bear to translate it at
all. Their versions are perfectly transparent, but only in the sense that
readers with a little French can look straight through them and see what the
original words must have been. Here is Frechtman turning Sartre’s bright and
efficient French into sad mid-Channel dialect: Now it is not a matter of
indifference that this human reality is I precisely because, for human
reality, to exist is always to assume its being.
If you translate back and start again, you will realize that “not a matter
of indifference” is far too weak (“it is important to note” would be a
better rendering of “il n’est pas indifferent”), that “precisely” – a kind
of trademark for translators of French philosophy – is misleadingly placed
(it should come after “because”), and that “assume” demands a paraphrase,
because in this context it has the sense of “take up” (as in “assume a
burden”), rather than the purely logical meaning it has in mainstream modern
But the oddest phrase in Frechtman’s sentence is “human reality”. You would
be right to guess that the corresponding words in Sartre’s original were
realite humaine; but you might well wonder why Sartre permitted himself to
use such an expression. The whole burden of his argument, after all, was
that “humanism” is a bourgeois delusion, and that our existence is an active
nothingness, an absolute vacuum: it would seem that “human reality” must be
the exact opposite of what he meant.
One might conclude that realite humaine was a mere lapse on Sartre’s
part,and that a more confident translator would have airbrushed the error
and improved the text, perhaps by substituting the word “consciousness”. On
this occasion, however, Frechtman’s timidity served him well: Sartre was
making a deliberate allusion, which deserves to be preserved in the English
translation. He was echoing a phrase from Henry Corbin’s 1938 book Qu’est-ce
que la metaphysique? which – though not much read now – is an important
relic of a distinctive phase of French intellectual life. It is a founding
document, in fact, of the existentialism of the war years – of the romantic
Sartreanism that was brought to an end in 1946 by the majestic “Letter on
Humanism”, in which Heidegger poured scorn on Sartre’s insouciant use of the
idea of “humanity”. As Derrida has said, realite humaine is a “monstrous”
phrase, but “so much the more significant”.
And it was not a purely French affair. Corbin’s work was a collection of
translations from Heidegger, and it used realite humaine – for quite
plausible reasons, apparently endorsed by Heidegger at the time – to render
that most ordinary of everyday German expressions: Dasein.
A disconcerting vista opens here. Translators usually think of themselves as
working between just two languages; but when it comes to philosophy, the
assumption no longer holds. Philosophy is always written with several
languages in mind; and it needs to be read, and translated, with
multilingual eyes as well. The very ordinary French words depasser or
relever, for instance, may be used in a philosophical context as equivalents
of aufheben, which is an even more ordinary word in German – except that it
had a special significance for Hegel, who used it to describe the way in
which a later phase in a dialectical process “transcends” or “sublates” or
“annuls” or “supersedes” an earlier one. English translators have not found
a satisfactory equivalent, so the interlinguistic circle disintegrates at
this point; but still, whatever they use for aufheben, they had better use
for depasser or relever as well.Another breakdown is occasioned by the
German colloquialism immer schon, which often becomes toujours-deja when
translated into philosophical French; in English translations of German, it
will normally and properly be translated as “always”, but translators of
French may feel obliged to preserve the rather pointless French
translationism by rendering it as the almost absurd “always-already”.
Philosophical translation is never bilateral, therefore: other, ulterior
languages keep drawing up a seat at the linguistic table, and cutting in on
the discussion. It is like love-affairs, which, as Freud noticed long ago,
always involve four participants, because his mother and her father are
bound to muscle in as well; and subsequent psychoanalytic experience
suggests that Freud may have underestimated the psychic population explosion
by several hundred per cent. In philosophy too, no linguistic coupling can
take place without the quarrelsome assistance of all the rest of the family.
And as in love, so in philosophy: the uninvited guests need not even be
alive. Classical Latin and Greek, in particular – and sometimes classical
Arabic too – can be heard rattling their dry bones in the philosophical
vocabularies of French, German and English, determined to disturb their
bliss, and disrupt the work of the philosophical translator.
Philosophical discussions of “virtue” in modern English will always allude,
whether they know it or not, to the concept of arete as deployed by Plato
and Aristotle, and in this way they have a subterranean link with
discussions of Tugend in German. In the same way, “happiness” is not only an
English word, but also – like the Latin felicitas and its derivatives – the
traditional translation of the Greek eudaimonia. “Nature”, nature and Natur
are manifestly similar words in English, French and German, but in a
philosophical discussion they will be linked, through the Latin natura, to
the Greek phusis. Or again, the fallacy of “begging the question”, in modern
English, is the same as petition de principe in French, since both of them
originated as translations of the Latin phrase, petitio principii, which,
however, has no prearranged equivalent in German.
Philosophy is obsessed with words; but the words that interest it are not
the fancy aristocrats of language, nor yet its specialized technicians: they
are its swarming universal proletarians – terms like “time” and
“unfairness”, “good” and “ugly”, “truth” and “lies”. And it is these
dog-ordinary terms, in their ordinary elusive precision, that set
philosophical translators their hardest tasks.
The biggest problem is the verb “to be”. It is not just that ideas of being
are organized differently in different languages, and cannot be exactly
superimposed on each other. It is that each European linguistic form has a
long inheritance of past philosophical translations wrapped up inside it.
Thus German and French discussions of Sein or etre are linked together not
only as presumed translations of each other, but also as successors of the
Latin esse, which in its turn translates the Greek einai.But they cannot
pass straight into English, where the infinitive is never used as a noun:
the closest equivalent is the gerund “being”. On the other hand, esse, Sein
and etre have also been used as translations of to on, for which “being” is
a far better equivalent. In that sense, translating the German, French and
Latin infinitives by the English gerund could be regarded as an improvement
on the original: it recaptures something of a Greek concept that is lost in
its Latin, French and German translations.
The Greek noun ousia, on the other hand, was usually rendered in Latin as
either essentia or substantia. The former was more characteristic in
translations of Plato, the latter in Aristotle; but in any case “essence”
and “substance” are translational siblings, rival successors to the same
Greek parent. And when Heidegger needed a name for an entity that was
essentially neither “substance” nor “essence”, but perpetually prone to
being misunderstood as if it were both, it was indeed fortunate for him that
Dasein was at hand, since – apart from being utterly colloquial – it was
also what Schleiermacher used as the equivalent of ousia in his classic
translations of Plato. Dasein was an everyday word, but with a long
interlinguistic pedigree; and that was exactly Heidegger’s point.
Philosophical writers have often drawn attention to their position at the
confluence of several linguistic streams by incorporating foreign concepts
into their work, untranslated. The most obvious examples are fragments of
Latin logical theory – the a priori, the ad hominem and the reductio.
Different writers may use them to mean different things, but they all belong
to a third language, and so, irrespective of their meaning, they will simply
be pasted into a translation, unaltered.
Much the same happens when expressions in a third language are turned into
objects of explicit discussion: passages of Aristotle’s Greek or Aquinas’s
Latin can simply be copied out by the translator. But while philosophical
multilingualism may save the translator a little trouble, it can also be
quite frightening. If Heidegger could not discover German equivalents for
the passages he left in Greek and Latin, after all, then what hope for the
translator seeking English equivalents for his German? And the same
applies – a fortiori – to Derrida, who over the past thirty years has
carried a highly developed taste for Heideggerian language-switching into
the heart of philosophical French.
Derrida’s multilingualism has had an electrifying effect on philosophical
translation from French into English. The carelessness of the early
renderings of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty would never be tolerated in
translations of Derrida, especially after Gayatri Spivak’s brilliant version
of De la Grammatologie, published in 1976. Her translation is always kept on
a very short leash: it gets off to a cautious start, for instance, by taking
Of Grammatology as its title, instead of “On Grammatology”, which is the
only natural wording in English. And throughout the book, Derrida is given
an English far more mannered than his already self-indulgent French. For
example: The concept of the sign is here exemplary. We have just marked its
This is an impeccably faithful translation, at least in the sense of being
absolutely transparent; but surely exemplaire is closer to “typical” in
English, and lacks the moralizing tone of “exemplary”; marquer means “to
note”, not “to mark”; and son appartenance metaphysique does not mean “its
metaphysical appurtenance” (which suggests very little, apart perhaps from
an avant-garde fashion accessory), but simply that it belongs to the system
The disadvantage of this kind of scrupulousness is that comparatively
unpretentious originals, their feet more or less touching the linguistic
ground, get levitated by the process of translation into showy exhibitions
of near-incomprehensibility. (It reminds you of Rabelais’s Limousin student,
explaining his use of French to a wide-eyed Pantagruel: “viceversement je me
enite de le locupleter de la redundance latinicome.”) After Spivak, indeed,
readers seem to have developed a relish for philosophical translations that
do not make much sense, and do it at great length; and translators do not
always escape the suspicion that they add an extra dash of
unintelligibility, to gratify the public taste.
Take, for example, the celebrated essay “La Différence”, in which Derrida tried to open out the concept of difference by comparing the French différerwith Greek diapherein, Latin differre, and differieren in German. As everyone must know by now, Derrida dramatized his point by coining the non-word différance, spelled with an “a”, alongside the ordinary French word différence, spelled with an “e”. And since the two forms are pronounced the same, they made a nice illustration of Derrida’s point about writing not being a depiction of speech; manifestly, the difference between différance and différence could be seen but not heard.
As it happens, it is easy to reproduce this effect in English. Différance can be transliterated as “differance” with an “a”, yielding an English non-word which sounds the same as the ordinary English word “difference”, thus translating Derrida’s device perfectly. This was the solution adopted in David Allison’s translation, published in 1973. But a decade later, Alan Bass produced a new version, which opted to leave différance in French. This crazy translation took off, just at the time when Derrida was becoming a cult author in English, and as a result thousands of English-speaking Derrideans were left floundering for a French pronunciation of différance, apparently under the impression that they were being loyal to its quintessential Frenchness. Unluckily for them, though, différance was not a French concept at all, and – by making the difference between differance and “difference” audible, all too audible – the Derrideans were not only missing Derrida’s point, but spoiling it too. It was as if the translator, rather than helping us engage with ideas and argue over them, preferred to fetishize their foreignness and turn us into dazzled spectators of an exotic scene.
George Orwell would have had a quick way with fancy philosophical
translations. They are exactly the kind of thing he attacked, in “Politics
and the English Language”, as the upper-class habit of affecting “culture
and elegance” by means of a scattering of undigested foreign expressions;
and they exhibit, in spades, the “pretentious Latinized style” which is
always predicting, ameliorating, or expediting things, instead of
foretelling them, making them better, or speeding them up.
On the other hand, stripping out the Graeco-Latin fripperies of modern
English and replacing them with rough, tough Anglo-Saxon earthiness would
not only make life hard for decadent philosophical translators. Orwellian
linguistic cleansing would rule out original philosophical writing as
well.Even Orwell, had he tried to make a philosophical analysis of the
English word “being”, would have been a bit hamstrung if denied access to
such Latinisms as absence, presence, essence, existence, substance, reality,
matter and actuality. Of course, it is only a contingency that Latin should
have become philosophy’s international linguistic warehouse and
word-factory; but it is no accident at all that philosophy has never settled
down within self-enclosed national languages, with their defiant national
dictionaries and national literatures all colluding in a mythic process of
national self-discovery. Thinking only becomes philosophical when familiar
words grow strange, and linguistic discord and multiplicity are the element
in which philosophical writing moves. Translated or untranslated, philosophy
knows no mother tongue.
Jonathan Ree is a lecturer in Philosophy at Middlesex University. His books
include Philosophical Tales, 1987.