What's Lost in Translation, and What's Not (part 2)

As if I were addressing a room, rather than casting my bread upon the waters of cyberspace, I'll start with an anecdote, one which I find funny.  Hopefully you will also see the somewhat dark humor in it.

Several years back, Alasdair MacIntyre was on some panel at the Modernity:  Yearing for the Infinite conference at Notre Dame.  I entirely forget what the discussion was about, but remember well a remark he interjected, or at least its essential content.  So, in Thucydidian reformulation (having the characters in one's narrative say not what they really said but what they ought to have said, given their ethos) :
When I was a boy, we were beaten if we did not learn Greek irregular verbs well.  I am not defending beating children.  In fact that is a very bad thing to do, both for the children and for those beating them.  It was painful, and produced anxiety.  But now . . . I can read Sophocles and you can't.
A fellow philosopher Dave O'Hara and I started a conversation on Twitter about languages and translations in philosophy, one which I am certain just as much on his side as on mine, reverberates with countless conversations he carried out with other people down the years. When students in class, other professors, parishioners in study groups, fellow travelers passing the time with talk, and the host of other seemingly chance interlocutors find out that you can read a text in its original language, a language they do not know, there are some standard lines in which the discussion typically develops.  Guiding, understandable, but mistaken assumptions come to light.  Sometimes I point them out.  nowadays, I usually just pass over them and allow the conversation to go as the other person seemingly needs it to proceed.

Wisdom Literature and Philosophy

Already indulging in one digression from the discussion about the value of translations and original languages in studying philosophy -- since I really ought to follow up with a post setting out my probably eccentric views on which criteria can be given, explained, and defended for what constitutes a good translation -- I'm going to take a different tack and blog about a topic which more than tangentially coincides with a long-time obsession of mine, the complicated question of Christian philosophy.  And, since I like to break up my perhaps overly long and dense entries from time to time with an image, here's the cover I ended up choosing for my volume coming out soon with Catholic University of America Press.
So, after that shameless plug. . . on with the digression! 

I noted that I was happy engaging an interlocutor who shared a lack of a typically modern assumption, namely that philosophy was in some way strictly separated from theology or religion.  This was not an assumption commonly made in antiquity, nor in the medieval period (at least until the fields of philosophy and theology not only came to be distinguished from each other but were often separated from and opposed to each other).  For my part, I don't think that this simply represented a confusion or lack of development on the part of those earlier thinkers, as many scholars seem to -- though I am willing to concede that some figures may have blurred these together.

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