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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

dictionary of untranslatables

Since the time I was knee high to a lexicographer, I have loved dictionaries and encyclopedias.  For Umberto Eco, these are two text-types that cast a giant shadow over all texts. In Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Eco makes much of both the opposition between the dictionary and the encyclopedia and their metamorphoses one into the other. A dictionary may seem like the simpler form – it consists, at the base, of an inventory of words in a language arranged in the order given by a writing system and attaching to each word a definition  – but of course, as Eco shows, this seeming simplicity disguises a host of complex ideological decisions. Eco gives the example of a dictionary that defines bull as an “adult male bovine animal” as opposed to tiger, which is defined as “a loarge tawny black striped Asiatic flesh-eating mammal related to cat”, to help us see that the decisions that go into what forms a definition never wholly correspond to the logic of one system. Eco goes back to Porphyry’s image of a tree in which the branches are the particular, the species,the  genera, etc. – which would imply branches from one trunk – to a broader forest in which hierarchies multiply, and in which definition becomes interpretation. That is to say, more shortly, that there is an art to definition. We move through a Porphyrian forest into deeper patches where the mere correlate, the definiens, becomes the object of the essayist’s attention. As Eco says, the dictionary is dissolved into a potetnially unordered and unrestricted galaxy of pieces of world knowledge. The dictionary thus becomes an encyclopedia because it was in fact a disguised encyclopedia.”.
Eco doesn’t use the word essay, but one could think of the equivalence embedded in the definition as an essay waiting to get out – or we could think of the essay as a definition that has put on fat. Except that the latter is true for only a certain restricted species of essays. I think of those essays as cowardly – for the truest essay must have the courage of its polyvocity, or, if you like, its contradictions.
We are getting somewhere, although it might look like we are taking a random path to nowhere. We are getting to the book entitled “Dictionary of untranslatables”, which is edited by Barbara Cassin and has quickly installed itself among the books that should be within easy reach of toilers in the humanities.
 There’s a review of the book by Michael Kinnucan  in Asymptote, the journal of translation.  This sums up the paradoxical book pretty thoroughly:
“In this it is astonishingly successful: comprehensive entries on hundreds of words, running to 1400 dense pages in the English edition, incorporating the work of 150 scholars in the original French and dozens more in the English translation—almost all entertaining and revealing, the few I was qualified to check strikingly complete and correct. Flipping through it I found myself increasingly fascinated by Cassin herself: how had the qualities of a Heideggerian-inflected scholar of the pre-Socratics come to coexist in one soul with such megalomania, and such a talent for generalship? For all its virtues, though, the Dictionary is haunted by a sort of joke at its own expense—a joke which accounts for much of its charm while implying that it is not perhaps quite what it thinks it is.” - See more at: 
The joke is, of course, double. On the one hand, the dictionary of untranslatables is itself translated, which seems to make the title invalid. And on the other hand, the very notion of a untranslatable seems to defy the equation at the center of the dictionary – that is, that a word equals its definition. Even if, with Eco, we grant definition a much broader space, we are still stuck with the fact that these terms can’t be exchanged, can’t be substituted, in the languages outside of which they are native.
There’s room for many dissertations here.
The dictionary is particularly strong on the Greeks, naturally. For instance, the entry on fate gives us a cluster of Greek words revolving around the concept. Here’s ker, meaning not just death but death as the shadow self:
In a famous scene in the Iliad, Zeus weighs the kêres of Achilles and of Hector ( 22.209ff. ); we do not know whether the two kêres are personified or not. Both are described as the “kêres of painful death,” that is, the destiny of death that each of the heroes has as his double, or phantom, or personal demon. What is curious is that they have a weight, and they can be weighed. Zeus places the two kêres on the scales, and Hector’s kêr drops and falls into the house of Hades. Apollo abandons the hero, and his fate is sealed.”
This has both the brutal realism of Greek thought and its gnomic peculiarity. From death as a certain weight to the throwweight of ballistic missiles, I can sketch a shaky line.  At some point on the line would be Rilke’s Eurydice, pregant with her own death.
Und ihr Gestorbensein 
erfüllte sie wie Fülle. 
|And her mortality
Filled her like a weight”
Which is of course not a translation at all – but doesn’t every translator go into the depths and come back with shadows?


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