Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Scruple of Detail

Michael Cronin

Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, Barbara Cassin (ed), Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood (eds and transls), Princeton University Press, 1,344 pp, $65, ISBN: 978-0691138701

Terms of surprise or reaction such as “gee whiz” or “golly”, these are difficult to translate [and] might lose their desired meaning […] Speakers should avoid American “folk” and culture specific references. Target audiences may have no idea what is being talked about. Even when interpreters understand the reference, they may find it difficult to quickly identify an appropriate equivalent in the target audience’s frame of reference. Transitional phrases and qualifiers may confuse non-native speakers and waste valuable time. Examples include “for example”, “in most cases”, “maybe”, and “perhaps”. Speakers should avoid American humour. Humour is culturally specific and does not translate well.

This passage is taken from The US Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual (2007). Whereas conventional warfare aims at the total destruction and unconditional submission of the enemy, counterinsurgency – acknowledging the fluid frontiers between civilians and insurgents – is committed to what its practitioners call “protecting the population”. The difficulty for both the theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency is that the mind needs to understand what is expected of the heart if it is to be won over. Winning hearts and minds is, in effect, a war of words. The difficulty in a world in thrall to the legacy of Babel is that words can start quarrelling amongst themselves. Exclamatory expressions (“gee whiz”), transitional phrases (the example of “for example”) and rollicking, thigh-slapping, bar-room tales (“American humour”) point up the fault lines of language in a multilingual world. Untranslatability is the phantom combatant, always ready to subvert the counterinsurgent mission of conversion.

Why this subversion is not the exception but the rule in language exchange is a theme which runs through the Dictionary of Untranslatables. The Dictionary is a revised and expanded translation in English of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles which first appeared in 2004 under the editorship of the classical philosophy specialist Barbara Cassin. Running to over a million and a half words, the Dictionnaire was an unexpected publishing success, covering a variety of topics ranging across the Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Danish, English, French, German, Greek (classical and modern), Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Spanish languages. The “untranslatable” as understood by Cassin and the editors of the English translation might be loosely defined as a term that is left “untranslated as it is transferred from language to language” or that proves resistant to translation. Examples of such terms would be polis, Begriff, praxis, Aufheben, mimesis, “feeling”, lieu commun, “matter of fact” and so on. The term is not to be understood, however, as indicating the impossibility but rather the indeterminacy of translation. “Untranslatables” point to a way of thinking about philosophy that treats translation not as a secondary but as a primary concern, and pointedly treats language in movement as constitutive of the philosophical enterprise.

The explicit model for Cassin’s project was Émile Benveniste’s Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (1969). Benveniste used his encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient and classical languages to trace the evolution and separate developments of different “institutions” in the ancient world. Comparing, for example, the different appellations for “king” in Persia, Rome and Greece allowed him to explore the radically different concepts of sovereignty that emerged in the different civilisations. The idea behind a vocabulaire or a lexicon as opposed to a dictionary is that it can be added to or is open-ended. It does not pretend to the inclusive exhaustiveness of the dictionary or encyclopaedia.

So why does the translation reverse the order of presentation and give pride of place to the word “dictionary” which is undermined by the democratic incompleteness of the initial project? The inversion is primarily political. By giving pride of place to the notion of the “untranslatable”, consigned to the sub-title in the original, Apter, Lezra and Wood are signalling an instability at the heart of language which has a fundamental bearing on how any knowledge structure (dictionary, encyclopaedia) might want to make sense of the world. More to the point, this instability is often invisible to the primary target readership of this publication, English speakers. As Emily Apter notes in her introduction, the increasing tendency across the world to make English the official language of instruction in science, technology and business mean that “students increasingly naturalize English as the singular language of universal knowledge, thereby erasing translation-effects and etymological histories, the trajectories of words in exile and in the wake of political and ecological catastrophes”. Faced with desengaño or sprezzatura, an English speaker might reach for the dictionary or Google. But in the cases of “consensus”, “conservative”, “performance”, “whole”, “instinct”, “law”, “style”, “duty”? All of these words appear as entry topics in the Dictionary with complex, knotted histories of interactions, shifts and transformations across languages but these histories rarely trouble the monolingual hubris of the Anglophone world. Once the italics, the manacles of otherness, are removed, the word can forget everything about its past life in another language and enjoy the amnesiac embrace of Plain Speaking.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the Dictionary as an antiquarian exercise. It is not the well-informed and well-meaning enterprise of comparative philologists intent on preserving the traces of a forgotten past for an indifferent posterity. Barbara Cassin in her introduction argues that the Dictionary looks resolutely to the future:

It is not tied to a retrospective and reified Europe (which Europe would that be, in any case?), defined by an accumulation and juxtaposition of legacies that would only reinforce particularities, but to a Europe in progress, fully active, energeia rather than ergon, which explores divisions, tensions, transfers, appropriations, contradictions, in order to construct better versions of itself.

In other words, differences become not an obstacle to but the basis of meaningful communication. It is through the exploration of what is dissimilar that one gets a genuine sense of what is singular about the other, a singularity that is hidden from view by the consensual fog of the lingua franca. In thinking about why words and languages matter, there are two attendant dangers. The first is a default logical universalism which views language as wholly instrumental. A global technocracy uses the common language of English. Business gets done, the bridges get built and the cocktails appear on the table. Once we all speak the same language, there is no barrier to what we can say and understand. Conceiving of a universal logic which is identical in all times and all places becomes infinitely more plausible if all your colleagues around the boardroom table speak Global English or Globish. The second danger is ontological nationalism. The untranslatable gets sacralised and each language is seen as the sacred bearer of exalted difference. Language becomes the shield of ethnic otherness and the weapon of exclusion. In this view, translation is forever caught up in a teleology of loss and betrayal.

Too often, debates around language diversity are conducted on these forked paths of indifference or treason. The Dictionary proposes a different vision of what it is that words do by invoking the Deleuzian notion of “deterritorialization” – what it is that happens when words and concepts travel – and emphasising plurality of condition over unity of purpose. That is to say, the concern is not with unity at the point of origin (hallowed words of the tribe, the separate ethnos) or the point of arrival (World English, the rational community) but with a diversity of ways of saying and speaking that prevent the condition of plurality from collapsing into the unifying stranglehold of the monolingual or the monologic. As Wilhelm von Humboldt observed in his Fragmente der Monographie über die Basken (1801-1802), “different languages are not so many designations of a thing: they are different perspectives on the same thing, and when the thing is not an object for the external senses, those perspectives become so many things themselves, differently formed by each person”. This is not an argument for radical linguistic relativism where everyone is locked into the prison house of the language of origin (your black is my blue) but that a language represents a particular take on the world. The greater our awareness of what these takes are (through language acquisition or the deftness of translation), the richer the world we inhabit and the more we can relativise the perspectives that are transmitted unwittingly by our own language.

How these perspectives exist in semantic force fields which have their own reach can best be illustrated by the repeated invocation of “duty” throughout the austerity period in Ireland. Citizens have a “duty” to pay their property taxes, register for water charges, accept wage cuts and more generally abide by the law. In a great number of European languages, both Romance and Germanic, the verbs or nouns that refer to the notion of duty come from the Latin debere and debitum. Thus, we have dovere and debito in Italian, deber and deuda in Spanish, “debt” in English (Middle English, det and dette). The Latin verb habeo gave rise to de-habeo which means “to have [something] that has been received from someone”. This is turn produces debitum – what is “due” – and “debitor”, opposed to “creditor”. As the Latin language evolved, the notion of obligation weakened and debere began to refer increasingly to a notion of what was hypothetical or in the future. The result is that three distinct meanings emerged from debere and debitum, “the fact of being ‘indebted’ to someone, obligation (‘I must [legally or in good conscience]’) and finally evaluation, proposition or reckoning (‘He ought to have received it by now)”. The picture becomes more complicated if we go to German, which has two verbs, müssen (related to the English verb “must”), which indicates being subject to necessity or unavoidable obligation, and sollen, which expresses the idea of moral obligation, or eventuality, probability or approximation. More particularly, the idea of debt is linked in German to the idea of fault, both being expressed in the same noun, Schuld. The adjective schuldig can mean both “guilty” and “indebted”. Some words derived from Schuld refer almost exclusively to the notion of debt – schulden, to be indebted; Entschuldung, the repayment of debts – while others relate primarily to the idea of fault – Entschuldigung, to excuse, demand pardon; Schuldhaftigkeit, guilt; entschuldbar, excusable. What is striking about this cluster of meanings around duty (which brings in ideas of obligation, futurity, debt and probability) is the parallels with the debt crisis in the euro zone and the range of responses from the idea of debt itself as the engine of growth (the Irish Never Never Land of one-hundred-percent mortgages – futurity, probability) to the fiscal brutalism of the ECB and Merkel (debt/fault). This is not to argue for a form of linguistic overdetermination – German bondholders have no problem with debt once someone else picks up the tab – but to advance the idea that the semantic hinterland of words and their semantic networks in and across languages provide a series of possible templates that are readily activated by specific situations. The lack of awareness of this factor, the kind of philological obtuseness that passes for mainstream analysis, means that commentators are often bewildered as to why the Irish or the French or the Greeks or the Germans do not seem to understand what their “duty” is. They don’t. That’s the point. They have very different interpretations of what duty and/or any of its cognate terms might imply. Thinking about what a European future would look like arguably means taking seriously the different languages in which Europe thinks about notions like, for example, probability, futurity, debt, guilt and pardon.

The Dictionary itself is explicit about its own biases. The project was, in part, driven by a desire to challenge the dismissiveness of Anglo-American analytic philosophy towards Continental European philosophy. The reader will not find much on British empiricism. There are no separate entries for sensation or sensationalism. Kant, Hegel and Husserl loom large but Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume tend to have relatively minor parts in this grand orchestration of ideas. For the English translation, the editors felt it necessary to supplement a number of the entries with insights or perspectives from what is generally called “Theory” in the Anglo-American world, defined by Apter as an “imprecise catchall for a welter of postwar movements in the human sciences”. There are additions to the entries on “Memory”, “Animal” (Leland de la Durantaye on Giorgio Agamben’s notions of homo sacer and “bare life”), “Moment”, “Will”, “Macht”, “Fancy”, “Object”, “sense”, “Logos”, “Translate”, “Bildung” (Michael Wood on “the humanities”), “securitas”, “Mitmensch”, “Gender” (Judith Butler on “Gender Trouble”), “ex”, “stato”, “Welt”, “Belief” (Souleymane Bachir Diagne on ijtihad).

Dwelling on what is left out, however, is to forget how much is brought in. The Dictionary is unexampled in its formidably learned and scrupulous investigation of the language fates of key terms in thinking across an array of disciplines. Take the term Bildungsroman, first used by the critic and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey in his Leben Schleiermachers (Life of Schleiermacher, 1870) to describe the novels of German classicism where the hero (invariably) comes both to an awareness of himself and of the necessity of finding his place in the social world. The untranslated term has established itself in the critical vocabulary of English. In Michel Espagne’s fascinating entry on the topic of Bildung, the reader becomes aware of the extraordinary journey of the word from Bildunga in Old High German, derived from Bild (image), meaning the creation, fabrication and fact of giving form. This early conception of Bildung is strongly informed by the mysticism of the late Middle Ages with the notion that God imprinted his image (sich einbildet) on humans. Part of the thrust of Pietism is to reveal the hidden homologies between God and humans. In 1784, when the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn prepares to answer the question “What is the Enlightenment?”, he complains – somewhat anachronistically in the case of the third term – that Aufklärung, Kultur and Bildung are newcomers to the German language. Kant prefers to talk about Kultur, disliking the organicist, mystical flavour of Bildung, whereas for the philosopher, theologian and poet Johann Gottfried Herder Bildung refers both to the biological and organic development of forms and to intellectual education and the refinement of manners. In his Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit (Another Philosophy of History for the Cultivation of Humanity,1774), Bildung is deemed to be not solely the business of books and libraries:

The education [Bildung] and improvement [FortBildung] of a nation are nothing other than the work of destiny: the result of countless causes that converge, so to speak the result of the whole element in which they live.

The French occupation of Germany during the Revolutionary Wars and during the Napoleonic Wars demonstrated that destiny could take distinctly unpalatable forms. German fragmentation was compared unfavourably with French unity and increasingly the view was taken by Wilhelm von Humboldt and others that it was necessary to create a Bildung that would school the intellectual cadres (the Bildungsbürgertum) for the nation that had not yet come into being. For Hegel, in his Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Mind, 1807) Bildung is essentially related to self-fashioning, the way that through thought and learning the mind becomes estranged from itself and the subject an object of inquiry on the part of the self. Increasingly, however, the view of thinkers like Fichte will prevail, where Bildung becomes allgemeine Bildung (general culture), a sort of glue that holds the proto-nation together. Crucial to the recasting of Bildung is the interaction with Greek philology. For the Ancient Greeks, a pais, a human child, is not to be understood as simply the child that his or her mother gave birth to for which there is another word, teknon. The human I has a mind and body which must be shaped and this process of shaping was known as paideia which designates both “youth” and “education, culture”. For Plato and Aristotle paideia is primarily about fulfilling the definition of humans as animals endowed with logos. A prestigious precedent and a compelling paradigm for blending the individual with the collective was all the more attractive to German intellectuals who saw in the fragmentation of the Greek city-states a telling analogy with their own post-Napoleonic predicament.

Just as the German Bildung finds itself in a complex echo-chamber of reference and influence with Greek paideia and Latin cultura, the whole dictionary project makes the reader aware of the dense network of borrowings, elisions and mutations that have shaped the intellectual history of Europe and beyond. The American editors have dropped “European” from the title of the translation on the grounds that future developments of the dictionary project would invite contributions from extra-European cultures and at a more fundamental, philological level, that distinctions between European and non-European languages make little or no sense. These reservations are understandable even if the focus of the Dictionary is still overwhelmingly on the French and German philosophical traditions. Leaving aside the inevitable biases of origins, the Dictionary reinstates a kind of philological vigilance that has increasingly deserted the Anglophone world with the catastrophic drop in the numbers of students at second and third level taking foreign languages. Knowing where words come from, what they meant and mean, how they have interacted with other words within the language and with other words from other languages and how thinkers have used these words in their philosophising through languages would appear to be essential to making the semantic resources and possibilities of language available for future reflection. In other words, what entry after entry in the Dictionary underscores is that the detail of language(s) matters.

This notion of “detail” takes on a wider significance if we situate it within contemporary discussions about the universal. Jean-Claude Milner, the French philosopher and psychoanalyst, in a collection of interviews entitled Clartés de tout: de Lacan à Marx, d’Aristote à Mao (2011), sets up a distinction between “thinking in a massive way” (penser de manière massive) and “thinking in details” (penser en détails). For Milner, one of the pitfalls, for example, of current political thinking is the “rhetoric of massiveness”, the tendency to employ specific terms with a supposedly mass or broad effect such as “freedom”, “democracy” or “empowerment” in ways that silence the hearers. If details such as mass fingerprinting at ports of entry (United States) or the decreased importance of parliamentary accountability through the rise of executive power (Ireland and the cult of the Taoiseach) seem to contradict the effective purchase of these terms, the objections are readily dismissed as mere details with respect to what is seen as the defence of the more fundamental achievement of parliamentary democracy itself.

On a darker but analogous note, a frequent claim of French negationists has been to dismiss the Holocaust as a “detail”. As Milner claims, “When a subject notices a detail, no matter how small, and when he or she is told to ignore it, he or she can be sure that something very important is going on there.” What thinking in a massive way results from is what Milner describes as the “l'universel facile” (easy universal) whereas “if thinking through details leads to the universal, it is of necessity a difficult universal”. For Milner, Freud’s psychoanalytic explorations in the Die Traumdeutung are examples of detailed thinking which takes massive notions like hysteria, neurosis and psychosis and tracks them through a series of illuminating details. At the end, the notions may still bear the same name but their internal structure and the nature of the universal claims they make have radically changed. The difficult universal is arrived at not by systematically identifying what each case has in common, as each case is very different, but by moving towards a notion of emergent commonality based on difference rather than similarity. What philological vigilance aims at then is the scruple of detail, resisting a monolingual rhetoric of massiveness that would sacrifice dissent and imagination to the normative lockdown of the monological.

The counterinsurgency theorists have thought about the untranslatable and come up with a solution. It is called the “Phraselator”. Developed by a company called Voxtec, the Phraselator is a hand-held device, about the size of a PalmPilot. It provides a phrase-based, voice-to-voice translation of American English into target languages such as Arabic, Farsi or Pashto. The range of translatable phrases is dominated by the imperative – “show me your identification”, “Open your bag”, “stop, or I’ll shoot”. Using Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology, the device can recognise commands in US English. It can speak in any number of languages. But it cannot listen. It cannot understand a word its listeners say to it. It is programmed to give orders, not to respond to answers. The communication is all one way. So what kind of future Bildung do governments and educators want? The complex possibilities of the Philosophical Lexicon or the command and control fetishism of the Phraselator? The Dictionary will be there to remind us of how much we stand to lose if we surrender to the categorical imperatives of the monoglots.


Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. His most recent work is Translation in the Digital Age (2013). He is a regular contributor to the TG4 arts programme Imeall.