Paul Keyser

Paul Keyser : Laputan Word-Bags NOR Monty Python’s Hungarian Phrasebook: Translating with Charity

      Every day, we seek to translate the allegedly untranslatable tales and theories of the aliens all around us. Is that task so hard that we must lug around bags of objects to serve as immediate physical targets of references, such as Swift (1726, §III, Laputa, ch. V) imagined for the Academicians of Lagado on Balnibarbi Island? Or are our efforts doomed to chaos and nonsense, suitable for mockery by Monty Python (Chapman et al. 1971; cf. Landy 2005, 91)? I argue contra: there is copious cross-cultural evidence that translation, albeit often hard, nevertheless nearly always can convey meaning, and very often does so. The caveat is, all translation is provisional and revisable.

      Accomplishments such as the decipherment of Old Persian, of ancient Egyptian, of Assyrian and Sumerian, of Hittite, and of Mycenaean Linear B, all demonstrate the possibility of producing a convincing translation of words and syntax formerly regarded as untranslatable in toto. In addition, we have copious evidence of scientific translation on a large scale: Greek to Latin (Keyser 2010); Greek to Arabic and Syriac (D’Ancona 2017); and Arabic to Latin (Hasse 2020). When each translatory effort began, the speakers of the goal and source languages shared only a narrow conceptual space. All the same, those who performed the translations were highly bilingual. Lloyd (2019) 38 argues that even such “simple” words as “fire” and “water” are theory-laden and hence slippery to translate. In Greek and Chinese, those terms refer to fundamental material “elements” (στοιχεῖα) or “phases” (xíng, 行). To translate ancient Greek ὕδωρ (hydōr) or Chinese 水 (shuĭ) into English “water” is “obvious”—and yet misses many resonances; the same holds for translating Chinese 火 (huŏ) or Greek πῦρ (pūr) as “fire” (Lloyd 2012, 85–89). Other “common” terms may be translated with no more—and no less—risk of ontological clash, such as “book,” or “city,” or even “food.” Every effective translation arrives richly qualified, nuanced, and commented. To be sure, there is no neutral or universal language that can mediate meanings. Thus, one must proceed tentatively and provisionally, treating “incommensurability” as opportunity not threat (Lloyd 2019, 39–41). No word or syntax is absolutely “untranslatable.” Instead, every translation requires commentary to achieve the best result—a result nonetheless forever imperfect. Good translation satisfices. This has important consequences for the history of science. The alleged incommensurability of theories presupposes inadequate translation of relevant terms (Kitcher 1978, 523–536; Marsonet 1995, ch.2). This problem is obviated or prevented by deploying a more nuanced concept of “translation.” Advocates of competing theories most often find a way to debate in each other’s terms the merits and defects of their theories.

Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones, & Palin, https://youtu.be/C1Sw0PDgHU4 (1971) D’Ancona, “Greek Sources in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy,” SEP (2017).

Hasse, “Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on the Latin West,” SEP (2020).

Keyser, “Science,” Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies (2010) Kitcher, Philosophical Review 87 (1978).

Landy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (2005).

Lloyd, Being, Humanity, and Understanding (2012).

Lloyd, “The Clash of Ontologies and the Problems of Translation and Mutual Intelligibility,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 9.1 (2019).

Marsonet, Science, Reality, and Language (1995).

Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

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