Stefan Themerson, who wrote poetry in Polish, French and English as well as novels, books of ethics, an opera, plays and made films too, had another view of translation:
"What is not translatable is parochial. Even when the parish happenns to be the size of an empire. This applies to history as well as geography. What is not translatable from one period to another belongs not to the current of the river but the crest of the wave. The universal is translatable across both the tribal and the temporal barriers. You may reverse this proposition and say: only what is translatable from one place to another or from one time to another is human. The rest is a vanity bag containing a small coloured mirror, a powder puff and a number of coins."
"What is translatable is human. What is not translatable is merely English or Polish or French or German or Japanese. That's why some people who (e.g.) read Shakespeare in translation know him better that some natives of Stratford-upon-Avon who identify themselves with not translatable parochialities."
Very nize veiw, here at the top, wot. Thanks. a new name to checkinto.
What is translatable is human. What is not translatable is merely English or Polish or French or German or Japanese.
This is very, very reassuring to read, and absolutely correct. Thank you for posting it.
What is translatable is human, I guess because what is human transcends time and geographic boundries (and therefore language).
What is not translatable is parochial ...
What is not translatable is merely English or Polish ...
I'm interpreting that to mean that 'local' stuff doesn't travel well, such as idioms, I mean. Clearly a wise observation, but perhaps still too broad a brush. Similar idioms are found in many languages, for example. To kick the bucket, meaning to die, won't translate verbatim from English to Swahili, but there is likely to be a comparable idiom in the other language. Or merely translate it as 'to die'.
Eskimos are said to have tons of words for 'snow', though, and I am not sure the translator could effectively move them all from one language to another.
Leaves me wondering what concepts could exist in one language that are not expessable in another. Did Themerson offer any examples beyond the vanity bag metaphor?
"What is translatable is human. What is not translatable is merely English or Polish or French or German or Japanese."
At the risk of starting another poetry war here, I have to say I totally disagree, AND I object.
Something that can be said in Japanese, but cannot be translated into English, certainly is human! It is an aspect of humanity that you would miss out on if you never lived in Japan or studied Japanese. (And it's an affront to the Japanese human beings to suggest that it's not.) This is why it has been said that WHEN YOU LEARN ANOTHER LANGUAGE, YOU ACQUIRE ANOTHER SOUL.
If you limit your definition of "human" to "that which can be translated into English," you are mistaking chauvinism for idealism.
That said, when I read the quote anew, I think I see an ATTEMPT to say that what truly matters is what speakers of all languages have in common. If you take it that way, I still disagree, but I don't object so strongly.
My Kant and Heidegger professor in Grad school claimed you could only actually think philosophy in either Greek or German. I thought he was wacked on that one.
"What is translatable is human." is not the same as "what is not translatable is not human."
This is the way I understand Themerson:
I don't know Hebrew and the linguistic intricacies af Yehuda Amichai's poetry are not translatable. But the bare content moves me. Because it's not about experiencing the world through Hebrew (though I would find that interesting, too), but about trying to describe human experience, we more or less all share.
Themerson went rather wider than "that which can be translated into English" in his definition of human. He said that that which could not be translated from English was not human either.
Translation goes further than phrase and idiom in Themerson's view. An idea which could only exist in one language is local and temporal.
Who translated Hume and William James into Greek and German for him?
There's a post on the "Poetry and Translation" thread that includes this quotation:
"What is poetry but translating, from a native (inner) tongue to a foreign one?"
From THAT point-of-view, I guess you could say that what fails to translate from Spanish to French is (by definition) not essential to the poem.
He reads Hume and the James' in the original, so no need to translate at all for him on that.
No: not essential to humanity.
Is it Greek or German he translates them into in his head though?
If a part of Michelangelo's Tondo were covered up for restoration, a person would still catch a glimpse of the artist's genius, the intensity of colours, the quality of the brush strokes, etc., and admire and be moved by the work. But one can't say the covered part is not essential to the painting.
It is difficult for me to separate a poem into essential and nonessential parts. Because a good poem should have no nonessential parts. To say language is nonessential to poetry also sounds wrong.
I like Transtromer's idea of a poem being a manifestation of an invisible poem that is written beyond languages themselves. At the same time I am uncomfortable with the emerging dualism. For me, the Binary perception of the world (body/soul, form/content, Self/the Other, ... ) is what we impose on the world and perhaps better describes the way our brain works, then the world around us.
But, seriously, I would need to find me an olive tree and sit under it for a while :-) A long while :-)
When he reads English, he reads in English; When he reads German he reads in German. He was tested as a "born polyglot.' He has two mother tongues. As for Greek, I suspect he's like the rest of us, only more so. I think that it is the fact that he is a polyglot of this specific kind, a great advantage for him in some ways, that he is so convincingly mislead as to the accessibility of philosophical thinking to the rest of us. For instance, I am almost totally mono-lingual, even though I am a linguist and a philosopher (although not a linguistic philosopher). I agree with Sapir that language 'pre-forms' a culture and so each language offers a differentiatable access to philosophical concepts. I just cannot conceive of a concept that is inconceivable to me. This includes philosophical concepts, all of them. But I have always acted under the pre-conception that if I can know it any other human being can know it because of the human factor -- a kind of philosophical egalitarianism regarding concepts. As Johnson might say: 'A concept is a concept is a concept -- no matter whose it is!'
That's my short answer to your delightful question. I wish I were an adequate translator and polyglot, so I could give you a different answer to the question translating the language of philosophical concepts.
The long answer includes something about the Tower and hermetic language.
Post Edited (04-15-05 09:25)
OH. I thought poetry was 'essential to humanity.' Do you like my little jokes?
I don't think it is the olive tree that you sit under (those pesky little olives would probably keep bopping you in the head)--it's the fig tree. It is easy to mix up the two because the olive branch is a peace symbol and the fig tree is also connected with peace. For example, Micah 4:3-4 (RSV): "...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid..."
Don't sit under the apple tree
with anyone else but me
The Andrews Sisters
the Anglo-Saxon word related to our 'apple' meant 'fruit' -- undifferentiated.
Thick as a Brick
--the measurement of the walls of Uruk
and the Tower of Babble
And nuts as well?
One Apple every eight hours keeps three doctors away
No idiomatic use intended.
Apparently sitting under an olive tree did wonders for Plato, when he needed to think something through.
But I'm always happy to learn a new idiom. That means the day hasn't been wasted. :-)
Post Edited (04-15-05 16:29)
It's no good, if you can't eat it.
I'm not a fan of essences either. Your analogy to the piece of a painting being covered over does help one think through the problem though.
Pound and others have portrayed earlier states of language as more poetic than modern uses. I myself am fond of speculating a highly emotic mythopoetic consciousness between 20,000 BCE and the first written literatures.
Pound's 'The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry' comes to mind here. And his practice raised the question being discussed here, since th philologists at Harvard always denigrated his work as a trtanslator as simply incorrect translation at times, inaccurate at the philological level. Yet he gave us a 'Seafarer' so close to the Anglo-Saxon feel of the thing. But poetry is, I think, not philology. Reference is secondary to the poetic use of language in my thinking, although the common trend is to take Dr. Jaonson as one's model. Or Joe Friday and his bland referential usages.
Just some thought somewhere around the topic of the thread, since translation is both pragmatic and poetical.
Post Edited (04-15-05 18:34)
Edward Sapir spent his later life expounding this very point, regarding the particularity of a language to its culture.
Sapir and-was it Whorfe?- both worked at this: the only problem is that I don't think any one has confimed their hypotheses. Eskimoes might have an enormous number of words for different textures of snow, but people without the words can differentiate between the different kinds of snow. There is a language that doesn't distinguish between green and blue, but people who speak it can tell the different shades.
One of Themerson's experiments was the invention of semantic poetry: this consists of replacing every word in a poem with its exact dictionary definition. It works very well with simple poems- where it is meant to be used- but I once applied it to a poem by william Empson- I'd have needed a three dimensional construct!
But they could tell them apart. Google a few apple names- Egremont Russeett, St Edmund's Pippin, Blenheim orange, say- and you'll find some wonderful collection sof names. Like Auden's lakes, they may not be essential but they are fun.
I think the hyphotesis has only been unconfirmed so far. Their theory was that language influences the way we see the world. Apparenly it doesn't. However, we do create words for things that surround us. I suppose Dutch people have a lot more ways to refer to water than someone living in the desert. However, if the desert would flood over, the people there would soon enough create words in their language to deal with it.
So, in my opinion, we adapt language to what we see and encounter, not the other way around.
No proof, but i think language becomes more poetic as it develops. IT begins as a system of basic signals and I'd say that the moment it becomes a laguage was probably when people learned to tell lies- deliberately siognal something that wasn't true- and then to make hypotheses in it. The little boy who cried wolf was an unknown genius who set us on the trail.
There may be more to your theory than mine. I have read that the reason the Neandertal's were replaced by Homo Sapiens Sapiens was that modern man had syntax and Neanderthal monly had demonstratives and nouns. On could communicate over distances not present and the other only in his immediate surrounds. Perhaps just an interesting speculation. But the translator has his ownset of ploblems with what he can or cannot point to.
Their theory was that language influences the way we see the world. Apparenly it doesn't.
The mutualal implication of the world and language isn't as simple as the Sapir-Whorff Hypothesis. But the full explication requires a thorough Heideggerian analysis of languange, poetry, and human Dasein. A little afar fro the question of straight translateability.
This is a clever and interesting thread, lots of food for thought. Just some points that may (or may not) be relevant, firstly, of course, we translate within a language; from class to class, village to village and formal to informal etc. I suppose we are always adjusting our own speech to our audience, sometimes seeking the exact word, sometimes being able to speak sloppily. Speech being already a translation of thought. Secondly, I've just googled < eskimo word snow > and up popped nearly seven thousand references, there seems to be some debate as to whether our Thulean friends have many words for this stuff, or only as many or fewer than we have in English.
How could anyone tell? Languages don't leave fossils. Who said this anyway, as it sounds interesting?
Extensive research has been done on the subject of sounds, and studying the remainders of the bodies can tell us a lot about the sounds these "people" were able to produce. Based on that, of course, theories can be made up concerning the extend of communication.
Also, many studies have been done on the development of languages. Something that helped greatly was the research on the development of languages was the study of pidgin languages (esp. the ones who turned into creoles): [home.bluemarble.net] />
lots of material on the subject of languages and their origins can be found here:
I found it in an article on the internet which was attempting to account for the domonance of Homo Sapiens apiens over the over two human species of the time. I'll look through my notes to see if I still have the piece. Obviously it is a highly speularive deduction, although itis more scientific than Pound's theories.
what do you think of this one? [economist.com]
Great site - I could fritter away several days wandering those pages!
yeah, should have warned you. Am now wasting my time doing exactly that!
It's an interesting theory. But would it have to be a deliberate lie? ( Is the emphasis here on the “Good” or the “True”) ;-)
Signalling something that does not exist (if I understand you correctly) means driving a wedge between language and reality. I am (again) very uncomfortable with this division into "True" and "made up" (stories, myths, poetry). I don't share the view that the latter are just lies breathed through silver. On the other hand, I try to write according to the motto “No ideas, but in things.”
I will skip the obvious questions (What is real? What is the nature of reality? How do we come to know reality? .... ) and simply say that poetry precedes philosophy. Both help us understand ourselves, the world around us and our existence in it, and (ideally) help us improve the quality of life. But poetry speaks also to the irrational, emotional, prelogical, unconscious, even mystical part of our being. That has sometimes not been valued as highly as the rational, logical faculties that power science and technology, but is equally important for our survival. If not more so.
I like to think that poetry starts with children, learning the language, playing with words, making up senseless rhymes, imitating sounds, not wanting to go to sleep without a story …
I recall a line fron Star Trek: THe Next generation, where Worf is being questioned by a younger Klingon as to whether the stories (myths) of Kahless were true
His response was "I continue to find truths in them every time I read them"
Yes, it does have to be "not true", I think, and "not mistaken" either. It is when it depicts something that is not immediately real or in response to an immediate situation that it becgins to be language with all that that entails. It needn't be a formal lie- perhaps the rhythm of "wolf, wolf" is what triggered them- but it must be not immediately utilitarian.
Certainly reference isn't the main point of a poem, but immediate experience can be the jumping off point, which is what presents the greatest difficulty in distinguishing referential 'true' and truth as historicity, as in Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art," where he says: "Truth should itself be in the manner of work, should itself occur as being." in "Poetry, Language, Thought," (85)
Heidegger elsewhere traces hermeneutics to problems with translation, the topic of this thread. Hermeneutics being how we tell someone what someone else says, as in Scriptual Hermeneutics.
how we tell someone what someone else says
Certainly science fiction and fantasy are genres where the ideas don't have to be 'true,' but they do have to be logical in the context of the story. Whether you're postulating matter transport or magic, the ideas have to work consistently. If they don't, you need a reason as to why they don't work now, and that reason has to be logical in the context of the story.
Why does Walt Whitman value such self-consistency so low? Is he onto something?
Also, I don't think anyone since Plato, and maybe even he, has taken the idea that what poets do is lie as a serious idea.
Also, I don't think anyone since Plato, and maybe even he, has
taken the idea that what poets do is lie as a serious idea.
It is not lying itself, but the possibility of lying which allows us to say things which may- or may not- be true- hypotheses, theories, poetry- that makes a language rather than a sign system, I think
Probably our ability to "lie" lies behind our survival as a race. The ability to think of things as they might be or could be instead of how they are, made the human race a very adaptable one, which is apparently the keystone of the survival of a species. (Once saw this explained in a documentary, can't remember which one).
And what about renaming jobs? Do you also do this in English? For example, household manager instead of cleaning lady.
It's only a sin
if the false witness beared
is the type thats against your neighbor
Household manager is more likely to be a housewife, I'd have thought. A cleaner will be a "hygene enforcement engineer"
I wanted to take lessons in circumlocution, but I never got around it.
Pam wrote: "Certainly science fiction and fantasy are genres where the ideas don't have to be 'true,' but they do have to be logical in the context of the story. Whether you're postulating matter transport or magic, the ideas have to work consistently. If they don't, you need a reason as to why they don't work now, and that reason has to be logical in the context of the story."
That is certainly true of the technology and other-worldish premises of a story. (If you can't transport through the force field in Act I, you shouldn't be able to transport through it in Act V ... unless of course, Scotty finds a way to patch the flux inhibitor nitrate through the convex shield conversion matrix at exactly the same time that a solar eclipse interrupts transmission from the something something satellite array.)
ON THE OTHER HAND: The "ideas" in science fiction also include ideas about human nature, and ideas about current issues, which are presented in a fictional setting. E.g., what would happen to a planet where global warming DID drown all the cities? Or, what if Germany had won the second world war?
ROBERT HUGHES wrote: "Nothing dates faster than our ideas about the future." And he didn't mean just the art direction, which makes floozies of the future look just like floozies of "today." He also meant that when the U.S. was deep in the Cold War, STAR TREK imagined the outcomes of parallel cold-war situations on other planets. When racial tension was addressed on the show, it was with the naive "we're all exactly the same under our skin" attitude that dominated at the time. Watch any science fiction show or movie and you can see the correspondence to whatever was going on in U.S. politics when it was made. And you can tell how long (or short) skirts were, too.
This ties in with the Orwell discussion over on thread 1984. One view of that novel is that "1984" was code for "1948." Orwell wasn't writing about what he thought might happen 30-40 years later. He was writing about what he saw going on RIGHT THEN.
Ursula LeGuin somewhere described one of stories as a thought experiment.
And since (unlike ordinary fiction(!)) sci-fi is obviously "not true", readers will feel less threatened by it. Using this less direct approach is sometimes the best way to apprach a difficult theme. For me this componet of sci-fi is what makes/keeps it interesting, apart from all the wonderful, mind boggling and exciting new beings, thing, places it offers.
Beam me up, Scotty :-)
LIVE LONG AND PROSPER, VERONIKA!
"flux inhibitor nitrate through the convex shield conversion matrix"
Marian, be careful not to violate the Rule of Three
(Four is too many, Two is not enough)
Flux Inhibitor Nitrate is fine, but the "convex" can be dropped
otherwise you'll end up in a Temporal Causality Loop !
A temporal causality loop! Oh, no - I'm in the wrong episode!
and you will be again ! unless, of course, I make adjustments to the subharmonic chronoton generator
Johnny, have you been eating tribbles again?
Nope, just hopped up on Raktajino !