Reflections on Translations-VI: The Advantages to Philosophy

Over at The New York Times‘ The Stone, Hamid Dabashi writes:

Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy…in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.

Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket.  And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.

Dabashi does not really address what might be termed the ‘linguistic problem’ of translation–the difficulties of rendering sensible specialized technical terms for instance–which often leads to the ‘impossibility’ that he notes. Rather, his concern is with translation as a means for improving access to a philosophical work. And in this dimension, he is certainly on to something. (There has been, for some time now, a possibly apocryphal story making the rounds in philosophy departments, that when the first English translations of Kant appeared, an entire generation of German scholars took up English classes so that they could read Kant in translation–the original German was too obtuse for even native speakers.)

One aspect of this improved access that Dabashi does not touch on is that a greater readership achieved via a successful translation can prompt greater study of the text in the original language. A classic example of this is Nietzsche scholarship. Many students who read him find his prose stylings visible even in translation; they are then told by those fluent in German that his style is even more prominent and pronounced in German; they often decide to learn German to find out for themselves just what the fuss is about. (I have recently come into possession of German-language edition of Nietzsche’s collected works, and my resolve to resume my education in German, interrupted many years ago, has now been considerably strengthened.)

And many serious students of a philosopher will learn a foreign language just so that they can deepen their understanding of the material and try to settle disputes in interpretation for themselves. Their access to their philosopher of interest began, of course, with a translation.

Dabashi’s point about translation giving more than it takes works best, I think, in these kinds of cases–when it sends readers back to the original. His point is compatible with an entirely plausible alternative development: that the translations take on a life of their own, and lend themselves to interpretations and applications not possible with the original, thus becoming an entirely new philosophical work.

Such a development is not to be bemoaned; the student of philosophy now has more to play with.

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