- The Untranslatable:A New Theoretical Fulcrum? An Exchange with Barbara Cassin
I. Mapping the Origin of the Project
The Dictionary of Untranslatables (Princeton University Press, 2014) is a lexicon of philosophical terms first published in French as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (2004). What was the initial aim of this ongoing project? How does each translation of this philosophical lexicon (in Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish and English) enact this initial aim by displaying the issue of untranslatability in different idioms? How do you understand your editorial task in this work-in-progress? Did the English version offer a particular challenge?
The initial project was philosophical and political. Philosophical: we philosophize through languages; philosophy has to do as much with words as with concepts. It is ontologically given to philosophize but this donation is enacted through a discursive performance. This perspective, at odds with a Heideggerian stance, is informed by my earlier work on sophistry and the grounding contentions of Parmenides and Gorgias (poem On Nature, or On Being and On Nature or On the Non-Being). Political: how can we make Europe be less dull? How can we make Europe understand that linguistic and cultural diversity is less of a predicament than a fortunate opportunity?
Both aims are linked in the suspicion they entail. Not “Globish,” this sort of global English that Europe clings to and to which we are reduced in a most violent way since this non-language is the idiom that evaluates issues and makes policies. Neither a sort of ontological nationalism fostered by a Heideggerian-inspired linguistic hierarchy that claims degrees of proximity to something like a pure Being – be it Greek, this language I otherwise cherish, or German, more Greek than Greek…
I always thought of this work as a “dictionary of untranslatables” since it is the underlying oxymoron in this expression that interested me. It has to do with the definition of the untranslatable that I’m proposing, one that must necessarily be understood in a plural form: it points less to that which we do not translate than that which we do not cease to [End Page 6] (not) translate. Untranslatables are “symptoms” of linguistic difference, in other words, manifestations that can’t be added up nor essentially identified. These symptoms we come across in those passionate and impassive translators’ notes; that we encounter, that arrest and confront us… They are therefore signs of an open-ended, virtually infinite, ongoing work-in-progress.
But it’s only now that the Dictionary is translated – adapted, imported, refabricated – in other languages, in (no) more than one language (plus d’une langue, as Derrida defined deconstruction1), that I have come to circumscribe the limited scope of the initial “European” iteration of the project. In this respect, I think that if a linguistic translation/adaptation is worth taking up, it must figure out the shortcomings of what I first intended to do and how to overcome them in order to supplement the work, to actualize, transpose and reinvent it. How does its intention differ from mine: what does it want to bring forth in its own language, its own way of thinking in language, its own culture and means to do philosophy? Not only is the issue of comparative inquiry radically emphasized in the challenge [in English] of translating a dictionary of untranslatables but it presents an irreducible philosophical and political problem that is constantly brought into new focus.
I see this evermore clearly as the tenth anniversary of the publication of the French version of the Dictionary approaches. For the occasion, I’m preparing with the help of everyone2 what Leibniz would have called a “geometrics of differences”: Philosopher en langues: les intraduisibles en traduction, a multilingual compendium of the different forewords of each version of the Dictionary along with a series of new essays that each reflect the specificity of the work that was accomplished. Therefore, if all goes as planned, there will be texts in Ukrainian, English, Romanian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian and Greek. We’ll have new takes on “Gender and Gender Trouble,” “Intradu...