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  • The Relativity of Translation and Relativism
  • Barbara Cassin (bio)
    Translated by Roland Végső (bio)

My starting point is going to be the core concern of my profession: a Greek sentence by the one whom Plato called “father Parmenides,” which is so important that it can serve as an exemplum.1 I would like to show that this sentence is the product of a series of interpretive operations whose final peak is and is nothing but translation. The most appropriate name for this series of operations is fixion, spelled with the Lacanian x to emphasize that the fact is a fabrication, the factum is a fictum one decides to fix. I will show, therefore, that translation—in this case, the translation of this sentence by Parmenides—regularly (as a rule and every time) violates the principle of noncontradiction to the degree that it must account for ambiguities and homonymies. Finally, I will show that this violation, according to Aristotle himself, who formulates the principle in book Gamma of the Metaphysics, amounts to a return to Protagoras’s position, that is, to what we call “relativism.” I conclude with an exploration of this relativist position based on its foundational text: I will propose to describe it as a “dedicated comparative.” [End Page 23] This will be my way of posing the question of the very complex relationship between interpretative plurality and truth.

I. Fixion and the Relativity of Translation

Parmenides (fifth century b.c.) is the “first to.” He inspires “respect and awe” in everyone from Plato (whose Theaetetus I quote here [Plato 1989, 888]) to Heidegger, who in the twentieth century said the following about his Poem: “These few words stand there like archaic Greek Statues. What we still possess of Parmenides’ didactic poem fits into one slim volume, one that discredits the presumed necessity of entire libraries of philosophical literature. Anyone today who is acquainted with the standards of such a thinking discourse must lose all desire to write books” (2000, 102). Be that as it may, the question for us is, how does a fragment by Parmenides reach us at all?

A. Editors, Quoters, Copyists: Trafficking in Letters

What is at stake here is a series of operations that emerge from the trafficking of the letter—“Erudition is the modern form of the fantastic,” says Borges. A fragment is the result of arborescent series all aiming to produce the One. The “authentic text” is in fact traditionally produced from a multiplicity of sources that all cite or can cite the fragment multiple times, each time from multiple manuscripts, each in turn susceptible to a multiplicity of readings and corrections. Translators, editors, quoters, scribes contribute to the production of the naturally lost original text according to the schema in figure 1.

In fact, this is how the great German philology of the nineteenth century operated, which, through the publication of Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, gave itself the opportunity and made it possible for us as well to embark on an upstream return to the source, seeking to identify what Hermann Diels called in the preface to the Doxographi græci the “first lips” (Diels 1879, v–vi). This collection represents an impressive construction of knowledge and competence that I would like to call, through a suggestive play of multilingual etymologies, the building of Bildung. Its foundation is the work of one [End Page 24] particular person, Hermann Diels, who intervened at every link of the chain. He is the author of the following works:

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Figure 1.

  • Doxographi græci (1879) identifies antique transmitters and modalities of transmission (doxo-graphy: “writing of opinions”).

  • Simplicii in Aristotelis Physicorum Libros quatuor priores Commentaria (1882) is an edition of Simplicius’s commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, which provides a goldmine of quotations from the Pre-Socratics and in particular from Parmenides.

  • Parmenides Lehrgedicht (1897) proposes an edition of Parmenides based on these foundations.

  • Poetarum Philosophorum Fragmenta (1901) presents the first edition of the “philosopher-poets,” that is, those he hence calls the “Presocratics.” [End Page 25]

  • • The latter edition served as the matrix for Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (the first edition was published in 1903...


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