Book review: Dictionary of Untranslatables Edited by Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood


Tom Bunstead
Sunday 23 March 2014 01:00 GMT

When I became passably proficient in another language (Spanish, in my case), and particularly during the time that I lived in Spain, I began to have the sensation not only of being able to say the same things in different ways, but of having conversations in which I appeared to be accessing a wholly different set of feelings. A previously hidden aspect of myself? One being generated in a new culture? Or, as I suspected, something to do with Spanish itself? While the forbiddingly dense Dictionary of Untranslatables is undoubtedly aimed at the academy, this, “what a thought can do in what a language can do”, as Barbara Cassin puts it in her introduction, is just one of a number of less specialist points of interest that it delves into, with great success.

An untranslatable isn’t, in fact, a word that cannot be translated. It is one that cannot be straightforwardly expressed in any but its original language. An untranslatable, therefore, has to be translated over and over. For example, the entry for “Feeling” explains that in French, “the substantial infinitive le sentir is sometimes used, but with little conviction it can be a consistently used equivalent. The whole cluster of [English] terms around feeling – ‘passion’, ‘emotion’, ‘sentiment’, ‘sensation’, ‘affection’, ‘sense’ – has posed such serious challenges that [French translators] sometimes prefer … to leave the English word in parenthesis”.

It is set out as an encyclopaedia, so each of the 400 or so headwords proceeds into a discussion of history of philosophical usage. In each case, then, the untranslatable presents not just a linguistic problem but also a jumping-off point for philosophical inquiry.

Paradoxically enough, this encyclopaedia of endlessly retranslated terms, which is itself an expanded translation of the French Vocabulaire europeén des philosophies (2004), is an act of resistance to norms in translation. Broadly, there is a school that opposes the mushrooming of World Literature courses, and attendant academic activities, for the way they sacrifice depth (close readings of books in the original language) for breadth (cross-comparing translations from several countries), plus tend to do so in one “master” language (English). By preserving the specificity of words in their source languages, but then proceeding though so many near-synonyms in other tongues, the Dictionary bridges this ideological divide, providing a different way of understanding what it is to be in, and between, languages.

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