Category Archives: Language

“Dasselbe ist niemals das Gleiche”

Last December, at a translation conference in Graz, Lavinia Heller drew our attention to the Marini translation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Essere e Tempo, Milan 2006), specifically to the manner in which this new Italian translation incorporated and developed Hildegard Feick’s Index zu Heideggers “Sein und Zeit” (1961), a 104-page glossary of Heidegger’s terminological usage. Later I came across the special issue of Studia Phænomenologica (Vol. V 2005) devoted to the history of the translation of Sein und Zeit into Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.  This is much the best illumination of the problems of scholarly translation I have ever read.

Heidegger sought to articulate Ancient Greek metaphysics in modern German, in so doing creating a work whose language is relentlessly arcane.  His purpose was to bypass the history of Western philosophy, which had migrated first from Greek into the Latin language and thence into the emergent dominant languages of Western Europe.  Beneath the majority of Heidegger’s terms there is a Greek original that has been stripped of its Latin accretions and transformed into contemporary German (Christian Sommer, “Traduire la Lingua Heideggeriana” in Studia Phænomenologica V p. 306) .  By insisting on a meticulous exploration of the possibilities offered by the German language he initiated a deconstruction of language use, a process that turns into the discovery of thought. Since thought is not independent of the natural languages in which it is expressed, the structure of a natural language represents so many possibilities for and obstacles to the formulation of philosophical problems.  In a sense, this is what Sein und Zeit is “about”.

Hence the “thought” embodied in Heidegger’s language cannot be recovered through a simple transposition into another language – rather, that language has to use its own resources to reinvent the thought.  Translation thus involves the transposition of thought into a language which conceives the same thought, but in a different way – as the title to this post suggests, the same is never identical or equivalent.  Or I could write: equi-valent. As Sommer suggests, if one wants to remain true to the Heideggerian conception of translation, then it is necessary to be un-faithful: the text has to be transformed interpretively (p. 312).

However, there is a difficulty with the purity of Heidegger’s project, for natural languages borrow freely from each other.  “Ausdruck” looks “German”; and “Druck” is certainly Old High German, according to the the Grimm Wörterbuch.  On examination, the term “Ausdruck” is a strict equivalent for “ex-press” (as in squeeze out), an English verb taken from Old French in the fifteenth century, according to the OED, hence latinate; and the sense in English of “representing by word or sign” came later, in the eighteenth century.  And, it turns out, that is when the new word “Ausdruck” appeared in German, to signify “expression” in the English sense of representation.  True, it uses German roots, but to signify a latinate neologism.

Further, the discussion in Studia Phænomenologica of translation into Hungarian and Finnish throws up further problems, since these languages are Fenno-Ugric, and not directly Indo-European.  While other Scandinavian and Slavic languages borrowed freely from Western European languages throughout early modern history, Finnish seems today a language apart, almost hermetic and impenetrable for a Western European native speaker.  But this is an illusion, for the language has several layers of accretion – while the terminology of fishing, hunting and foraging is ancient, terms related to religion, trade and agriculture are mostly of Russian origin, and words related to urban life and civil administration have been taken over from Swedish ((Tere Vadén, “Probing for Indo-European Connections”, Studia Phænomenologica V p. 302).  As the contributor on Hungarian translation remarks, if Heidegger had used a standard philosophical terminology there would have been no problem in translating his texts; it is the use of idiomatic German that creates the difficulty.

Translation is not lexical lego, finding matches and slotting them together consistently into a new structure.  For Heidegger, translation involved re-interpreting thoughts; and as Groth has observed in Translating Heidegger (2004, p. 108), “improving” existing translations involves improving our understanding of his thought, not “finding the right English words to stand in for his German terms.”  An English translation of Heidegger would have to reach back into the history of the English language in the same way that Heidegger sought to reach back into German, seeking clarity in etymological awareness.  Of course, the English language draws both syntactically and lexically on a wide range of sources.  Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 draws on Saxon syntax and Saxon vocabulary to produce a translation that has the immediacy of everyday speech.  And after the Saxons, of course, came the Vikings, and so Old Norse is also there in the mix.  Perhaps an opportunity to read Tolkien through Heidegger?

As Sommer also noted, “Traduire Heidegger, c’est traduire une traduction.” (p. 305)  And Gadamer observed that “Sein und Zeit was one of those great books that one should never write off.  It seems to be one of those books that undergo periodic resurrection.  Perhaps somewhere else.  Perhaps one day it will be translated back into German.” (Studia Phænomenologica V p. 224)





Democracy in Action?

In recent days much has been written and said about the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP with no known experience of running anything at all beyond his own life, as leader of Britain’s Labour Party. He was elected through a process that was intended to be “more democratic” than the last democratic election process, but which seems to have produced a result at odds with the wishes of most active members of the Labour Party and almost all its MPs.  The new process permitted all kinds of people who had not even voted Labour in the recent general election to “have their say”.  Matters were not helped by the fact that Corbyn had so little support among Labour MPs that he only gained sufficient nominations to put himself forward as a candidate through nominations from MPs who wished the field to be “representative”.  This alone shows the poverty of imagination of those rightly dubbed “morons”, since the point of having a threshold is to exclude candidates who lack broad support.

It is not yet clear how things will turn out.  The only certain thing is that current punditry is well off the mark: the Labour Party of today is the same Labour Party of last week, except that it has a new leader.  Quite what this new leader will, or can, do with his unexpected elevation is unclear.  Anthony King, in Who Governs Britain?, has plausibly argued that the British Prime Minister has very limited power, and much the same is true of the Leader of the Opposition.  Quite what counts as “strong” or “weak” leadership should always be treated with scepticism.  Media preoccupation with “strong” leadership in politics, business and academia is generally linked to poor understanding of what leadership involves, and a focus on “words” over “actions”.  Max Weber wrote the book on all this during 1918-1919, and what he wrote then still stands as the most insightful assessment of politics in a modern parliamentary democracy.

So this post is not about the end of the Labour Party as we know it, nor about the triumph of the popular will, nor about the rhetoric about the “hard left”, “centre” and “the right”.  I want to focus attention on the sheer poverty in public discussion of “democracy” and “leadership”.  For Corbyn’s election is not an isolated event in this context; this year we have seen the confrontation of EU officials and member states with Greece, a Scottish referendum, a Greek referendum, and the election of a new British Government.  Discussion of all of these has involved much muddled-thinking about “democracy” – principally, the illusion that there is such a simple and self-evident thing as “Democracy” that produces “popular results”.

“Democracy” is rule by the people; but who are “the people”?  For the Greeks who invented the idea, during a period around 400 BC political and judicial decisions were made by a collection of adult males who happened to attend on one day.  All debate and votes took place on the same day; women were excluded; slaves were excluded; all aliens were excluded; all children and young adults were excluded; all those free adult males who did not attend were excluded.  How those present made up their minds to vote this way or that was not really a matter of rational debate; this was always subject to the fluency of orators and their scriptwriters.  But it worked for a while; and some kind of “democratic process” has always worked better than the alternatives, because it creates a basic legitimacy and, very importantly, creates a system for changing the people who make the rules and make the decisions without resort to murder and civil war.  The importance of all this was presented in extenso four hundred years ago in Shakespeare’s History plays.  It remains an issue in the world today.  The downside is always that the process of democracy is messy, argumentative and a massive waste of everyone’s time; but those who deplore the windbaggery of the European Parliament and yearn for “strong leadership” should be careful what they wish for.

Democracy is not so much about “the popular will” (since the Greeks already demonstrated how indistinct that was) as about institutions and process.  As a student I was taught by Jean Blondel, whose Voters, Parties and Leaders (1963) had drawn attention to the way that democratic decision-making was generally dominated by a minority; that what looked like a “majority vote” was usually the outcome of a shift, for whatever reason, in the opinions of a very small number of people.  This gave birth to the idea of the “swing voter”, again, another poorly understood phenomenon since here statistical probability and random phenomena intersect.  When the opinion polls judged the Scottish Referendum “too close to call”, commentators forgot that this only ever means a range, and that 45/55 as it did turn out was in the circumstances predictable, especially since Glasgow and Dundee, in the only pro-independence results, had the lowest turnouts.  As with the Greeks above: if you do not turn up, you have no vote.

Another example is that of the current British government, which commands a majority of seats in parliament having won 36.9% of the votes actually cast, “trouncing” a Labour Party which won 30.4%.  Since one-third of those registered to vote did not do so, this would give the present Government the express support of about a quarter of all qualified voters.  In part this is the product of the electoral system, but there is no prospect of change to this since any reform would have to be implemented by a government whose majority was owed to the mechanics of the first-past-the-post system.  And there are many variants of proportional representation, and no perfect statistical system for matching voters to constituencies and parties, as US Congressional elections demonstrate.

Another aspect of the first-past-the-post system is the way that it randomly punishes and rewards small parties.  In the current UK Parliament, the SNP won 4.7% of the vote, and has 56 seats; the Liberal Democrats gained 7.9% of the vote, and have 8 seats.  UKIP, whose core vote seems always until recently to have been around 15% of the electorate, has yet to secure one seat through its own efforts (their one MP defected with his constituency from the Tory party).  it is arguable that thresholds for small parties, as with the German 5% of the total vote, are “more democratic”; but the basic arithmetic generated by the British electoral system is unlikely to change.

Which brings me back to a point no-one seems to have noticed about the Corbyn election.  If he does prove unsuitable as a leader, in whatever way, how could he be replaced by someone more centrist, given that he is the (unanticipated) product of the new rules?  He is a product of the rules, not of the Party.  Arguably, the Labour Party should elect its leaders in a process that involves the Party as a whole ranking candidates in an election, from which the Parliamentary Party then chooses the leader most likely to lead the Party with competence from among, say, the top five.  They will have a better idea of who would make a good leader than the electorate at large; but this thought is probably “undemocratic”.  What might this mean?

The Economy of the Word

EW jacket“There is an algebra of language far more wonderful than the algebra of mathematics” (Max Müller, “No Language without Reason – No Reason without Language”, Nature Vol. 36 No. 924 14 July 1887 p. 251)

In my new book I argue that the proper object of the “history of economic thought” is the analysis of economic language; and that, therefore, this should be conceived primarily as a philological practice.  While the “economy of the word” can be read as an enterprise addressed to verbal rather than mathematical representations of economic argument, it is also another way of describing the object of philological studies: the organisation and arrangement of language.  Placed together, these two ideas shape the book: that “economy” has a range of historical and contemporary meanings, and that exploration of these meanings requires that we pay attention to the organisation of language, and the production of meaning through such organisation.

This orientation to economics and to language is sketched out in the first and last chapters.  The remainder of the book seeks to demonstrate the results gained by adopting such a stance: examining the shifts in meaning of “economy” over two and a half millennia; the work involved in transforming the concept of “national dividend” into a number now known as GDP; Adam Smith’s treatment of international trade in his Wealth of Nations; the transformation of Smith’s writings into the object of modern scholarship via the “Adam Smith Problem”; the manner in which Karl Marx first encountered political economy and how this encounter shaped Capital Vol. I; and exactly where “Walrasian Economics” comes from.  Throughout, there is is an interest in the way in which texts are constructed – physically, as books; conceptually, as arguments placed in relation to prior sources, seeking the manner in which these sources are preserved, displaced, transformed, rearranged, possibly merely repeated.  By treating this as a complex process of linguistic recovery and repetition it is possible to show quite how we might read texts “in context”, hence the emphasis upon philological scholarship.

Philology went out of fashion in the early twentieth century, and became treated as a superseded antiquarianism.  James Turner’s argument that philological studies actually transmuted into the modern humanities (Philology, Princeton UP 2014) does have elements both of overreach and occlusion; but this has, predictably, been met with the kind of condescension that academics reserve for antiquarians and amateurs (Colin Burrow reviewing Turner in London Review of Books 6 November 2014).  It would be more fitting to recognise that much of the past fifty years of “criticism” (from Foucault, through Derrida and Baudrillard, to Moretti) has done rather less than is generally supposed to advance our understanding beyond positions already established more that one hundred years ago:

Philology seeks to ascertain the fundamental forms and most general expressions of thought which recur in the grammars of all languages, and investigates the laws of the development of language as illustrated by literatures, and thus on its objective side becomes a means of throwing light on historical science. (J. Scot Henderson, reviewing Conrad Hermann, Die Sprachwissenschaft nach ihrem Zusammenhange mit Logik, menschlicher Geistesbildung und Philosophie (1875) in Mind Vol. 1 No. 2 (1876) p. 261)

This captures the basis of philological work, language as text, displaced in the early twentieth century by a new linguistics that re-directed attention to the structure of contemporary speech rather than the historical sources of contemporary language use; a modern linguistics whose elementary building blocks were commandeered by cultural critics who then used them to read the world as “text”.  It is time to go back to the historical sources of language.

As I outline in my concluding chapter, “knowledge”, both formal and informal, has since the 1970s been reconceived as “social practice”: however, the “linguistic turn” never did pay much attention to language as such, treating it primarily as a reflection of social practice.  I argue that, in the domain of the histories of the sciences, of formalised, organised knowledge, the emphasis on mode of organisation has come to obscure what it was that was organised.  I note that between the “why” and the “what” of language, the latter lost out to the former.  But, it turns out, Hermann got here first:

Besides tracing the way in which language has come to be what it is now, as a historical or natural product, it is necessary to inquire into the actual contents or the what of Language, so far as it is the revelation or outward expression of the inner principles of the human intelligence.  It has been one of the most misleading errors of modern times to deal with thought and language as if they were mutually independent of and altogether distinct and separate from each other. (J. Scot Henderson, idem.)

Mind was the first academic journal to begin regular publication in Britain.  Philosophy is today a very restricted version of what that journal then represented.  The title would translate into German as Geist.  And in its early volumes we encounter psychology, the study of language, moral philosophy, education and epistemology all on an equal footing.  In turn these formed part of the moral sciences; and, as such, part of the history of economics.