What's Lost in Translation, and What's Not (part 1)

A philosophical colleague of mine, Dave O'Hara, who I must admit not to knowing well, has been carrying on an interesting exchange with me about languages, translations, and philosophy.  So far, we've been conversing about it via the bite-size  passages the microblog Twitter permits (though Dave used the "part 1. . .  part 3" multiple post way around the length limit).  I found myself, as I often do with Twitter, somewhat frustrated at having to reduce complex thoughts on tricky matters to easily misinterpreted sound bites (though I must admit, I also do enjoy the challenge), and the issues raised are genuinely deep philosophical ones, so I decided those issues deserved a blog entry.

Here's how the exchange developed:

(Dave O'Hara)
Philo tweeps: how important do you consider learning languages for the study of philosophy? Which languages?
Langs? Absolutely important! For Western: Greek, Latin, French, German. Ex: Aristotle, key concepts across texts lost in translation

Dave: I agree. I was thinking of something Rémi Brague said a few years ago at the Ancient Phil Soc: he added Hebrew to the list.

Me: Incorporate some Wisdom literature? Of course, Sirach and Wisdom both in Greek. I'd rather add Syriac for interesting Phil commentary

Dave: Brague's point is like yours about Aristotle: the language shows distinctions o'wise lost in x-lation. So not just (1/2)
Dave:  wisdom literature, but many other texts as well, e.g. I Samuel on kingship as political theory. Grk and Hebrew texts (2/2)
Dave: are much more cutting than English, e.g. King will make you give 1/10 of your *spermata* to his *eunuchoi* (I Sam 8.15) (3/2)

Me: Sure, but if you've got Greek, you've got the Sept., which tended to be used more widely by Ancient world Jews than the Hebrew texts.

Dave:  Yes, but if you use the LXX, you're getting a translation. And if translations are fine, why learn languages at all?

Me: LXX: one of the most fertile translations around, inspired for both Christians and diaspora Jews in Ancient times. Think Alexandria!
Me: There's translations and then there's translations. e.g. one great edition: Descartes's Latin below authorized French translation.

Dave: But if there are good translations (and commentaries), why bother to learn the languages? Serious question.

Me: Joking response: Learn some languages thoroughly, then see how much that opened up not only philosophical texts, but world to you
Me: real response: because you desire to know. until you know the languages, you don't know which are good translations, except on faith
Dave:  I think that's a good response. It's also much of why I learn languages. Also, I don't like to rely on what others translate.
Before I set down a few reflections about translation in this post (more to some in further posts), there are two disclosures I'd like to make, just in interest of providing context.

The first is that I'm actually quite happy at the turns this conversation between two philosophers (both of whom work in Ancient Philosophy) took, specifically which texts were brought up as fodder for examples. The divide between philosophy on the one side and theology or religion on the other, which is so taken for granted by many contemporary philosophers that they instinctively blanch at any tincture or invocation of religious concepts, thinks, doctrines, or texts in a philosophical context -- that divide develops historically, and does not apply well for Ancient or even for that matter much Medieval philosophy. As a side note, its articulation, conceptualization, justification, and application is rather problematic for reasons I'll reserve for another blog entry.

Long story short, David's assumptions about what can count as a philosophical text (or at least a text of interest to philosophers) in the ancient world are both welcome and shared on my part.

Second, My remarks here draw on my own experience with languages and translation. I read texts in French, German, Latin, and Classical Greek. For some of those texts, I need and use lexicons and grammars. When I cite those texts, I typically provide my own translations, comparing mine to those of other scholars when available. I have published some translations in French and Latin, and I've been a member of the Aquinas Translation Project for a little over a decade (admittedly, I've done little with that project the last two years).

Those things said, it's clear David and I are in agreement about the value of learning languages for studying Philosophy.  It definitely places the reader at an advantage in many ways.  It opens up a world of nuance, sometimes of meaning, sometimes even of sound and humor.

Now, precisely what's to be gained by reading texts in original languages instead of in translation is not something which will be exactly the same in each case.  It depends on the language, the text, the writer, the purposes for which one reads the text (and sometimes when reading a text in the original language, purposes one had originally only dimly grasped present themselves), and possibly innumerable other factors.

For instance, I remember the joy in reading Thomas Aquinas' deliberately workmanlike prose in Summa Theologiae or in his various Commentaries in Latin for the first time (walking from campus to my apartment, one of the Blackfriars facing-page editions in my hands) and suddenly realizing both that the English translations I had thus far read were misleading and that interesting connections between terms and concepts were now rising to the fore in the Latin words themselves.

Poring through Plato's Symposium over the course of a semester, line by line, guided by a classicist who had been wrestling with the text longer than I had been alive, noting (sometimes on my own, sometimes after having it pointed out) how masterfully Plato imitates not only the content and thought representative of rival claimants to wisdom, but their very style, problematizing his condemnations of mimesis elsewhere -- another set of payoffs for investing the labor to read the original text in its native language.

I have to admit that the full structure and direction of certain of Descartes' arguments became more clear to me as I reread the Meditations and the Discours in French (for myself), but others when I reread them in English (readying for my class lectures).  The meaning and arrangement of the metaphor of the slave at the end of Meditation 1 only captivates me when I read it in the French or Descartes' own Latin.

Had I not read Anselm in his original Latin -- not only the relevant section of the Proslogion, but also other texts in which the terms are used ( e.g. Monologion) -- I would never have suspected any significance to his shift to using existere instead of esse in the famously misnamed "ontological argument," nor that existere, esse and essentia do not posses exactly rhw same meaning for Anselm as they do for his later interpreters and critics.

Examples could be multiplied, and I suspect David would add many of his own.  In fact, it could be interesting to create a blog entry doing nothing but querying readers for such examples, generating a chain of illustrative comments assembling more and more evidence for what the Greek-less, German-less, Italian-less, etc. reader is missing out on by reading texts in translations.

Still, there's nothing intrinsically wrong, unphilosophical, unscholarly about reading, even relying upon a translation.  Dave's last point carries weight:  there are bad translations out there, and unless you can read the original yourself, or you can trust someone else who has read it, you wouldn't know that the translation could be much better.

There's some interesting epistemological problems concerning knowing whether a translation is a good one or not. There's also some much more interesting criteriological problems concerning what precisely makes a translation a good or a bad one.  Both of these sets of problems I hope to explore in further posts.  I will though throw one loaded assertion out there:  I think that the fertility of the translation, reflected in its adoption and adaptation by later readers who themselves are provoked to writing texts worth reading -- that is one important criterion.

So, when it comes to Biblical texts (consideration of which did play a significant role in the development of Jewish and Christian philosophies particularly in Ancient and Medieval thought), though the Septuagint (the LXX referred to in our Twitter conversation) is in significant part Greek translation, at times a bit loose and periphrastic, of Hebrew originals, as a version of the text it possesses a great fertility of its own trumping strict semantic accuracy.  (By tradition, it was considered a translation whose work as carried out under the safeguard of divine inspiration, but that's yet another criterion to mull over).  The Latin Vulgate, and particularly the three Latin versions of the Psalms, have their own productive influence on great thinkers -- for example Anselm and Aquinas, who as part of their orders' discipline, recited portions of the the Psalter daily) that renders me more inclined to regard a certain wealth of meaning as being faithfully passed on, albeit perhaps in somewhat reminted coinage.  But, all of this opens many more topics for reflection and discussion than it resolves and closes.