Translating the Untranslatable: An Interview with Barbara Cassin

Barbara Cassin is a French philosopher, translator, and theorist of translation. Trained as a philologist and philosopher specializing in ancient Greece, she is the director of research at the Centre ...

Barbara Cassin is a French philosopher, translator, and theorist of translation. Trained as a philologist and philosopher specializing in ancient Greece, she is the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. She is the author, editor, and translator of many books, and for more than a decade she has been leading an international project devoted to the multilingual history of philosophical concepts. That project led to the 2004 publication of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, which has been enormously successful in French and has been followed in the past decade by editions in Ukrainian, Arabic, and now English. The US version was published earlier this year as Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, the 1,300-page Dictionary retains the original introduction, most of the entries, and an orientation toward Europe, but it has also been adjusted and supplemented for US audiences. Apter’s robust preface documents the enormous complexity and scale involved in translating intraduisibles.

One of the most provocative and important contributions of the Vocabulaire is its insistence that philosophical concepts, often assumed to be transhistorical and universal, in fact have a history in languages. The editions, adaptations, and translations of the project are important too, however, because they show that philosophical concepts have a history in books as well. The Vocabulaire may be a multilingual project, whose entries collate and compare terms in more than a dozen languages, but the editions are not all multilingual in the same way and for the same reasons. Whereas the Ukrainian editors sought to expand the vocabulary and prestige of their language, their US counterparts were more concerned to acknowledge and mitigate Anglophone dominance. The books are different structurally and economically as well as linguistically. The Ukrainian and Arabic editions have appeared only in parts, while the US edition appears as a whole. In tongues with fewer readers and fewer resources, publishing one part helps to fund a subsequent part. That kind of funding is not necessary for most books published in English.

Readers interested in how the translation, adaptation, and circulation of the Vocabulaire has shaped the production of the Dictionary might begin by turning to the entry on “gender,” which now includes a sidebar by Judith Butler that adds to and physically interrupts the original contribution by Monique David-Ménard and Penelope Deutscher. The text of Butler’s sidebar—really a very large inset box—is in fact longer than the text of the entry proper. The US editors gently describe the relationship between the two contributions as a “colloquy,” but others might describe it as a kind of counterpoint. Butler’s essay also stands out as one of the very few contributions in the volume to make reference to philosophical concepts in Chinese. As Cassin writes in her introduction, the Vocabulaire is focused on “the space of Europe” and thus on the languages of Europe. Of course, since the project’s first appearance in 2004, the European Union has expanded to include a dozen additional countries, and, as the US editors acknowledge, the distinction between European and non-European languages is not always clear. The Dictionary’s entry on “Europe” is worth considering for its approach to the history of that concept as well as to the history of European philosophies.

Finally, English-language readers interested in the politics of translation might want to consider the Dictionary’s references to English-language writing and intellectual traditions, which are often attributed to the “Anglo-Saxon world.” Phrases such as this serve to remind US audiences that they are holding a French book. The Dictionary of Untranslatables is a welcome arrival. It gives us the tools to think seriously about the history and politics of languages, about the relationship between philosophy and languages, and about how concepts not only reflect but also crucially shape the meanings of citizenship. And this is how the project started, as Cassin notes below: “It has always been linked with political ideas, with the crossing between philosophy and politics, from the beginning …”

I | What Animated This Book?


Rebecca L. Walkowitz (RLW): Did you imagine at the time that there would be translations of the Vocabulaire into other languages?


Barbara Cassin (BC): No, not really. I thought it was a gesture, not a closed book. And I’ve always thought that it could be increased in many ways. But the way I imagined it most often was just to augment the thing, because, of course, there are many other important symptoms of the “untranslatable.” I define “untranslatable” as a symptom of difference between languages. There are heaps and heaps of differences, and we chose the most significant ones that we were used to fighting with as philosophers and translators. Of course, we could expand online. But it is not so simple for the French editors. And it’s a huge job to control. I didn’t feel like doing that as a full-time job.

What was certain is that people who would translate or, better, make an adaptation of the original book were to be native [speakers of the target language] and very conscious of philosophical, linguistic, and political issues in their own country, such that the gesture could be continued one way or another with them. And the first one to propose a translation was the Ukrainian Constantin Sigov. We had both been invited to Citéphilo Lille, which is a big philosophy event held every November, and [while there] we spoke about the Vocabulaire, for which he wrote the entry on “Pravda,” and about translation.

And he suddenly declared that he wanted to translate it [the Vocabulaire] into Ukrainian, because he wanted to rebuild a philosophical language. He wanted to create a philosophical language in Ukrainian that was different from Russian, and to bring together a kind of assembly, a community of philosophers that did not yet exist as such in Ukrainian. The Orange Revolution had just happened, and he hesitated for a while about whether to translate it into Russian or into Ukrainian, but after the Orange Revolution he was sure it needed to be Ukrainian. That was the point. So it has always been linked with political ideas, with the crossing between philosophy and politics, from the beginning, and from my beginning, too, because the idea was to make something for Europe. I wanted that kind of pluralistic Europe, neither globalizing, Globlishing Europe, nor what I call “ontologically nationalist,” philosophically nationalist Europe. So that’s why the idea for the book was also a political idea.

I wanted something else,
and this something else is rephilosophizing words with words and not with universals.

I have two enemies: the Heideggerian way of thinking, which roots language in nation and race or strain, and which imagines that some languages are better than others as they are nearer to, let us say, the language of Being—so Greek and German, more Greek than Greek. This hierarchy of tongues and ontological nationalism is what I didn’t want. And I had been working with Heidegger. I’d been a pupil of Heidegger at one point in my life. Well, it was absolutely interesting. But I didn’t want this kind of understanding, even of Greek, as an untranslatable, as something sacralized. This I didn’t want.

And the other enemy was analytic philosophy, done badly in France, which says, for example, that we all think the same, that there is no problem of tongues, of languages, and no problem of time (Aristotle could very well be my colleague at Oxford), that the universal is universal and we are all human. So I didn’t believe in this either, and I don’t like the effects it has. So I wanted something else, and this something else is rephilosophizing words with words and not with universals. And these words are words in languages. Let us see what it means, how it can bring us to dwell a little bit on the difference between mind, Geist, and esprit. What happens if we look at the words, where they emerge and where they philosophize? Let us have a look.

RLW: Your project seems to have a kind of local ambition also, which is to remind readers in French of the significance and texture of foreign words.


BC: Yes. But when you translate you are always making footnotes, and these footnotes become the point of departure for our work. For example, when you translate, I don’t know, disegno, and you say, “Of course it’s dessin [drawing], but it is not exactly dessin because it’s also dessein [design or intention], with an e and not only the i.”


RLW: So in that sense it seems to be a kind of slowing down of language.


BC: Absolutely. And there are also questions of syntax. For me, I worked a lot on [Aristotle’s] Sophistical Refutations, and the Sophistical Refutations contain many reflections about the ambiguities of syntax. There is a sentence of Lacan’s I find very interesting, where he says, “Une langue entre autres n’est rien de plus que l’intégrale des équivoques que son histoire y a laissé subsister.” (A tongue [or a language], among others, is nothing more than the integral of the equivocities its history left in it). It’s absolutely precious to understand what is untranslatable. And going back, looking forward, looking backward, the entries we’ve chosen, for example the Russian ones, we become aware that they are all homonyms for us, and they are “équivoques.” But these multiple meanings, you see them from outside. You see them, as Deleuze would say, only when you are leaving the territory. It’s from outside that you can say, “Oh! Pravda [justice/truth] is an équivoque.” And from Russian, you can say, “Vérité [truth/exactitude] is an équivoque.” The point is, how do you manage with the équivoques, both syntactic and semantic?


II | Philosophy and Language


RLW: Can you say a little bit about what the globalized version of the Vocabulaire would have looked like? How would that have been different from the one you produced?


BC: The idea of taking into account the difference of languages as such is in itself not a globalized idea. You know, language is more than a flavor. If you look at Google, they say, “We have linguistic flavors!” That’s not the point. We have a linguistic constitution of ideas. And we don’t speak with concepts; we speak with words. And we philosophize in languages. So that’s the point. That was my point of departure.


RLW: How do you take account of words moving across languages, at the same time that you take account of the history of the word within its own language? It’s very hard to keep both going at the same moment, because the horizontal comparison requires at least a provisional moment of stasis in which you say, “Okay, I’m going to hold it here. It’s this in French,” so that you can get to Japanese. But you may also want to say, “Well, today it is this in French, but a hundred years ago it was this other thing in French.”


BC: It depends. You can choose moments. And symptoms of the history [in which a word has been used] are also welcome. The first key is to think that it’s not a concept, it’s a word. And the second key is to think of everything as symptoms. So let us speak of this moment because it’s very symptomatic of the difference between, say, French and English. And then let us take this other moment and see that it’s another way of languages being combined or different. But you have to reconstruct things and not derive the whole thing from one point of departure.


RLW: When you use the word symptom, are you trying to keep your readers from imagining that they are in direct contact with the meaning of the word or that the word exists the same way in every moment?


BC: We have been more cautious than that. No, we are in Europe and within the European languages; we don’t compare with Japanese or Chinese. Judith Butler completed [the entry on] “gender” because “gender” was maybe not worked up enough for the US. But she compares it with the words for “gender” or “woman” in Chinese. This will be one of the very few articles like that because such a comparison is something else entirely.


RLW: So it seems it’s hard to draw the line between what is a translation and what is a new edition, where there is translation and where there is recontexualization and reinterpretation …


BC: Adaptation. In the case of the Arabic edition—the first volume is already published in Arabic—they chose to make it as faithful as possible a translation. They didn’t add anything. But their choice is already interesting in itself: they chose to translate the political vocabulary, in order to see how it might interact with existing Arabic terminology. They wanted to add [material], but it was too difficult. They ought to have added some words. Sharia for example, was treated in the entry on Torah. It’s difficult … I do hope there will be a new and longer article [on Sharia], but it has not yet been done. But for now I think they want to make their version whole, and I am not sure they want to make it the same whole as the French one.


RLW: I could imagine that translators would feel that they wanted to register their own sense of Europe from their space.


BC: That’s why there is such a need for a preface. It’s very important to say what gesture is being made. I ask that my own preface always be present [in the various editions], but with another one.


III | Why Translate? And How?


RLW: It often seems to me that we assume translation is a consistent political gesture, either nationalist or cosmopolitan. But what I think is very interesting, particularly in the Ukrainian example, is that for them translating the Vocabulaire involved both cosmopolitanism and nationalism, since they are enriching the language by absorbing new ideas and also bringing new status to their language through the translation of a distinguished text.


BC: Absolutely. You know, it just continues what happened with the translation of the Bible, for example. It’s the formation of vernacular language. So it’s a kind of philosophical vernacular language. That’s the point. There are a lot of interlocking strategies. One consists of fixing the right term [a single term], the term you can find. The other is to make readers conscious that there are problems of translation and that there is a Ukrainian language that is able to deal with it but in several different ways. And then you choose one, because you think it’s better for now and for people who need to use that language. And then you have to add terms, other symptoms, which are very important for the language, [in this case] for the Ukrainian language, for the Ukrainian philosophy, for the Ukrainian intersection between philosophy and theology, between philosophy and politics, or between philosophy and literature. And with this they [the translators] conquer their right to be actually philosophical, in a sense.


RLW: It sounds like you imagine the Vocabulaire changing.


BC: That’s even the point. That’s why I didn’t imagine it was closed, but rather a gesture, an energeia. But I couldn’t imagine immediately how the gesture could be transposed into another language’s gesture. But it was possible.


IV | Translating the Untranslatable


RLW: I want to return to the idea of the untranslatable because, in English, the untranslatable sometimes makes one think of irreducible singularity, the idea that a word cannot be translated or really should not be translated, because to translate it is to violate it in some way or to violate the culture from which it comes.


BC: This is the Heideggerian way of thinking.


RLW: The term untranslatable is itself difficult to translate. I might translate it into English, as—this is not a real word—“un-translated-able,” that is, unable to be finished being translated. And obviously, there’s no word like that.


BC: Yes, yes, that’s what I call, ce qu’on ne cesse pas de (ne pas) traduire: what never stops being (not) translated.


RLW: And I think that right now in the US there’s a real conversation about what it means to say that something can’t be translated. And about those two meanings of “can’t be translated”: mustn’t be translated, or—


BC: Is difficult to—


RLW: Is difficult to, or—


BC: Will never be—


RLW: Or will never be perfect, as if there could be a perfect translation, but you can’t get to it. And that gets back to the question: how do you translate in a way that registers the incomplete nature of the process of the translation? Expanding the paratext seems to be one way.


BC: Yes, but explaining the difficulties is the other one, and that’s what we have chosen. We have always been in the metatranslation.


Interview conducted (mostly in English and occasionally in French) and edited by Rebecca L. Walkowitz. Interview transcribed and translated by Jennifer Raterman.


Correction: June 19, 2014

The introduction to this interview previously mischaracterized the financing of the various editions of the Vocabulaire. French government support was in fact provided not only to the Ukrainian and Arabic editions but also to the US edition published by Princeton University Press. icon

Featured image: Crispijn de Passe the Elder, Destruction of the Tower of Babel, engraving (1612). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art