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.

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*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.