On translating as a philosophical skill

Having been raised as a medievalist, doing translations was part of my education. I don’t think highly of my own few translations, but I think translating should figure in philosophical curricula. Yes, I mean philosophical, not merely historical curricula! The reason is that doing translations will familiarise you with what is often praised as “rigour” among philosophers. Although most philosophers think that logics (and sometimes statistics) are crucial, I think that the subtleties of ordinary language can be explored quite thoroughly by trying to translate a small piece of text. It keeps you pacing through all the nuances of formulations. But what is it that keeps you going? Perhaps it is the fact that you have to succeed somehow, while a perfect translation remains impossible.

Have you ever pored over a sentence for hours on end? Once you’ve figured out the grammatical construction and have an idea of the standard word meanings, the real fun might just begin. I remember finishing the translation of a short text by Ockham and not understanding a word of the German that I had just jotted down. It was on the question of whether articles of faith can be demonstrated. The Latin was easy, but the terminology remained a mystery, and it seemed as if a whole theory was lurking behind every expression. I had not read any other text dealing with the same problem. I had no real idea about the tradition of translations, i.e. other translations of such texts, and as far as I could see, there was no secondary literature available. Now I had a text in my native language and didn’t understand a word of it. – To cut a long story short: I turned my work on that text into my MA thesis. This way, I went from complete blankness (in my mind) to an attempt of actually explaining what I found out. Yes, sometimes I even enjoyed it…

Now what is it that makes translating also a philosophical rather than merely a historical or philological skill? It is often assumed that translating requires a good command of the source language (i.e. the language you’re translating from). That might be true, but it’s your target language (i.e. the language you’re translating into, mostly your native language) that is truly challenging. Whatever you lack in your target language, will be lost. The process of translating makes you believe in the possibility of a correct translation, perhaps because failure is always with you. And it is this belief that keeps you pacing through your mental lexicon until it “clicks”. Understanding or perhaps even justifying what that click means, is where you begin to see the limits of your language as the limits of your world.

I think there are two extreme ways of viewing this clicking. (1) You might think that you finally found a translation that matches your source. But then doubts will arise as to what it actually is that guarantees that match. (Think of Quine’s Gavagai example, if you like) Aren’t you bringing in your presuppositions? Should you not try to replace them by more knowledge about the context? This is the view that you need to figure out the meaning of sentences. (2) The other way is to think that that you cannot even hope to rid yourself of your presuppositions. Rather you have to embrace them. If you take the source to be sincere, any translation that will make the sentence come out true in the target language will be fine. And you will pick the context in accordance with what you believe to be true. (Think of Davidson’s critique of relativism, if you like) This is the view that meaning presupposes an understanding of what makes a sentences true. – Yes, sorry, this paragraph is a bit dense. I’ll translate or reformulate it some other time.*

For the moment, I would just like to ask you to consider adding translating to the philosophical curriculum. In philosophy language is crucial. And except for writing and conversing, translating is perhaps the most intimate way of engaging with other people’s texts and one’s own shortcomings. In addition to that, our philosophical culture is lacking respect: translations are still too rarely acknowledged as serious work. Even if we can’t teach all the languages it takes to keep up the conversation in a global world, we need to teach the appropriate sensibilties that provide at least a glimpse of the efforts necessary for moving between the languages.


*I think that Quine and Davidson can be read as endorsing two opposing  ways of viewing the Gavagai example: a relatvist one, prioritising meaning over truth, and an anti-relativist one, prioritising truth over meaning. I’ll happily go into that another time.

10 thoughts on “On translating as a philosophical skill

  1. I can see how this might lead one to ask different kinds of questions, or at least use translation to illustrate different philosophical conclusions/principles as you have done here, but not how it leads one to make particular judgments of what to do or not (and how) in the acts of translating which for me would be what a philosophical skill would be composed of.


    1. Thanks for your comment! Could you give an example of how exactly a philosophical skill is involved in making “particular judgments of what to do”? I’m afraid I don’t quite understand the contrast you’re making between illustrating and philosophising. – Anyway, I think translating involves at least two relevant processes: (1) the transformation of thoughts into a different language requires an *understanding* of the pertinent ideas, much like the transformation into a formal language. (2) It requires the *creation* or *formation* of these thoughts in the new language. By analogy, I think of the translation of a poem not merely as putting the same piece of literature into a new dress, but as the actual creation of poetry – under the constraints given by the source – in a different language. This would mean that translating philosophy requires *doing* philosophy – under the constraints provided by the source.


      1. I can (as Bert Dreyfus and his brother laid out) walk you thru the skills required to drive or skie or whatever but I don’t see how reading say Davidson teaches you the step by step (however complex/interwoven/improvisatory) how to translate (as opposed to just gesture towards some possibilities of what the goal is/isn’t), how could sources possibly provide constraints around interpretation, even if they contained their own how to lists or the like in them one would still have to have the means/modes to interpret/enact those and so forth


  2. I’m (still) not sure I fully understand your point. Or perhaps it is a number of points: (1) reading doesn’t teach translating? – yes, it doesn’t; (2) sources don’t provide constraints of interpretation? – I think they do.


    1. yes two points, one is that (forget Davidson for a moment) and think of say Biblical interpretation I may have read some theorist who convinces me that meaning/uses change over time and so I’m going to adopt a historical approach, that in and of itself doesn’t tell me what resources are helpful or not in my particular task, do I need to have a very local (or even insider/in-group) sample, do I need to limit myself to preaching (does style matter), do I need to know the particulars of who was in the audience or do I need to focus not on the time of the the scene of the reported event but on the time of the writing and so on, so where does philosophy (or any theory) come into the development of the necessary know-how of making use of something in a way that one might count as skillful?
      The second is to ask again, beyond yer reassertion, how it is that textual sources provide constraints (beyond the restraints of say the materials that they are composed of; paper, ink, screens, etc?) what are the properties at work and how do we know what (if any) their effects are? thanks

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      1. Thanks for the specifics! So to the first point: I probably phrased it badly in the original post, but I simply meant that *doing* translations (not a theory of translations) is a philosophical skill. In what way is it such as skill? In that it helps us in the practice of philosophy, i.e. in understanding and in forming thoughts. – To the second point: Sources provide constraints of their interpretation in many ways. Here are some: they come in a certain language, a certain genre, a certain terminology etc. For all of these things there are conventions one must master (to some extend) in order to produce something that may *count* as an interpretation in the first place. So at the very least I have to agree (tacitly or explicitly) with certain *conventions* of approaching a certain kind of source / text.


        1. I see you mean a skill for doing philosophy not a philosophical skill that a makes more sense with the Davidson and all, well languages do set some limits/affordances in terms of access/literacy but don’t limit interpretation (as in the content ) per say but they don’t come in genres we assign them (often contentiously or otherwise fluid/evolving) genres, which does get us the conventions point which is in part why I mentioned Hubert Dreyfus who does actually offer a philosophical take on skills where say adopting (conforming to) basic conventions/heuristics would be a kind beginners level and then building towards something like mastery but Stanley Fish is right that conventions aren’t set as say computer codes are but are in constant (if subtle) flux as they depend on our relations and contexts, cheers.

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  3. As a bit of a free-association: might there be some different but related merits to the active side-by-side study of original texts and their different translations? Not doing the dirty work yourself will obviously not get you quite as up close and personal with your text, but perhaps reading translations even when perfectly comfortable with a text’s original language keeps one from being too focused on one single interpretation. It might also drive home the limits of languages and how they shape both ideas and which ideas can be articulated.
    (Whether what you find in translations is the translator’s bias or the limits of a specific language remains to be seen, of course.)

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    1. Spot-on! Yes, that is a great idea! This would mean becoming familiar with traditions and varieties of translations, and would indeed have the merits you point out. It would mean to see one’s own reading as perhaps a niche in the “space of reasons.” Additionally, it would be interesting to figure out why certain translations seem more apt or correct to us than others.


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