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Dictionary of Untranslatables

A Philosophical Lexicon
Cassin, B (ed)
Princeton University Press


One of the most urgent problems posed by the exis­tence of Europe is that of languages. We may envisage two kinds of solution. We could choose a dominant language in which exchanges will take place from now on, a globalized Anglo-American. Or we could gamble on the retention of many languages, making clear on every occasion the meaning and the interest of the differences—the only way of really facilitating communication between languages and cultures. The Dictionary ofUntranslatables belongs to this second per­spective. But it looks to the future rather than to the past. 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.

Our point of departure is a reflection on the dif­ficulty of translating in philosophy. We have tried to think of philosophy within languages, to treat philoso­phies as they are spoken, and to see what then changes in our ways of philosophizing. This is why we have not created yet another encyclopedia of philosophy, treat­ing concepts, authors, currents, and systems for their own sakes, but a Dictionary of Untranslatables, which starts from words situated within the measurable dif­ferences among languages, or at least among the prin­cipal languages in which philosophy has been written in Europe—since Babel. From this point of view, Emile Benveniste's pluralist and comparatist Vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions has been our model. In order to find the meaning of a word in one language, this book explores the networks to which the word belongs and seeks to understand how a network functions in one language by relating it to the networks of other languages.

We have not explored all the words there are, or all languages with regard to a particular word, and still less all the philosophies there are. We have taken as our object symptoms of difference, the "untranslatables," among a certain number of contemporary European languages, returning to ancient languages (Greek, Latin) and referring to Hebrew and Arabic whenever it was necessary in order to understand these differences. To speak of untranslatables in no way implies that the terms in question, or the expressions, the syntactical or grammatical turns, are not and cannot be translated: the untranslatable is rather what one keeps on (not) translating. But this indicates that their translation, into one language or another, creates a problem, to the extent of sometimes generating a neologism or impos­ing a new meaning on an old word. It is a sign of the way in which, from one language to another, neither the words nor the conceptual networks can simply be superimposed. Does one understand the same thing by "mind" as by Geist or esprit, is pravda "justice" or "truth," and what happens when we render mimesis as "repre­sentation" rather than "imitation"? Each entry thus starts from a nexus of untranslatability and proceeds to a comparison of terminological networks, whose dis­tortion creates the history and geography of languages and cultures. The Dictionary ofUntranslatables makes ex­plicit in its own domain the principal symptoms of dif­ference in languages.

The selection of entries arises from a double labor of exploration, both diachronic and synchronic. Dia-chrony allows us to reflect on crossings, transfers, and forks in the road: from Greek to Latin, from ancient Latin to scholastic then humanist Latin, with moments of in­teraction with a Jewish and an Arab tradition; from an ancient language to a vernacular; from one vernacular to another; from one tradition, system, or philosophi­cal idiom to others; from one field of knowledge and disciplinary logic to others. In this way we reencounter the history of concepts, while marking out the turn­ings, fractures, and carriers that determine a "period." Synchrony permits us to establish a state of play by sur­veying the present condition of national philosophical landscapes. We are confronted with the irreducibility of certain inventions and acts of forgetting: appearances without any equivalent, intruders, doublings, empty categories, false friends, contradictions, which regis­ter within a language the crystallization of themes and the specificity of an operation. We then wonder...