Distilling George Steiner’s Babel

George Steiner. After Babel. 3rd edition. Oxford UP, 1998. Kindle.

This is my humble attempt to make sense of George Steiner’s monumental (both in terms of sheer size and influence) work on philosophy of language and translation. Steiner is the modern patron saint of literary translators and his famous dictum that “all communication is a form of translation” in incorporated into the banner of the American Literary Translators Association website (which is currently being redeveloped). In terms of his scholarship, he belongs in the distinguished line-up of writers and thinkers who (to use Steiner’s own words) “have said anything fundamental or new about translation”: Seneca, Saint Jerome, Luther, Dryden, Holderlin, Novalis, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Ezra Pound, Valery, MacKenna, Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, and Quine (loc. 5422). And even though the book is occasionally criticized for its subjectivity, namely his “hermeneutic motion” approach to the practice of translation, the motion is described only briefly towards the end of the book, and rather opaquely.  The emphasis is not so much on the practice here, but on philosophy. As such, the book offers a nice counterbalance to the all the translation memoirs that emphasize the role of concrete textual examples in talking about translation theory.

One of the main topics in the book, something that Steiner keeps returning to over and over again, is his beef with linguistic theory of language universals (and Chomsky). Even if “deep structures” in a language do exist, albeit the structures that show structural affinity between all world languages derived from one original tongue, Steiner argues that it does not mean that one “reasonable translation procedure” exists (loc. 2158). Throughout his work, Steiner remains suspicious of facile arguments about the proliferation of languages, whether evolutionary (he insists that there is no set of standards to judge that languages are adaptive in Darwinian sense), scientific (he writes on the danger of approaching languages in predefined algorithms, since that “blocks perception”), or biblical (the scattering of tongues is not a punishment, but a necessary condition for human survival and creativity). His enthusiasm for exploring the enigma of various languages and what humans can gain (and lose) in translation is consistent throughout the 560 pages of his magnum opus. The result is a sort of fascinating mindmap of translation as the most important human activity, something that has sustained our biological, spiritual, and cultural development through time.

Here is a sampling of the areas related to language covered in After Babel:

  • Levi-Strauss, the mystery of anthropology, and splintering of human psyche
  • Nietzsche, importance of lying, speaking to conceal as inherent human activities
  • diachronic nature of translation and the ability to translate “out of time” as a pivotal condition of civilization
  • Liebnitz and language “as determining medium of thought,” the dialectical relationship between language and history/culture of those who speak it
  • cryptotypes and the untranslatable
  • Hopi language and why it is fit for modern science / quantum physics
  • syncretism, personal patois, private languages
  • “many-valued logics” as opposed to the true/false binary
  • nonsense languages, poetical experiments of Dada, lettristes, and Russian Formalists
  • difference between programmable and natural languages
  • how the use of future tense (or very existence of it) affects the way we live our lives (or theorize the eventual thermal death of the universe)

I have two main observations that could make Steiner’s encyclopedic arguments more comprehensible. The first one is that throughout his work he pays particular attention to the notion of time and the passage of time, and his discussion of translation verges on an important distinction that it happens “out of time.” It is the jumbling of time layers and the fission of two different mindsets (the original author/audience and the contemporary one) that has the momentum to produce the sought-after effect of reciprocity in hermeneutic motion, the restoration of what the original has lost, and the corresponding gain in the translation. Synchronous translation of contemporary texts does not have the same momentum — they are, one can say, too familiar. This temporal orientation of Steiner’s argument is what makes it, in a way, timeless. And even though there are hints of cosmic death and entropy, the tone is much more optimistic than the melancholic ending in Emily Apter’s Against World Literature.

The second observation is that in discussing syncretism, patois, Dada experiments, and multi-valued logic, Steiner touches upon the main stress points of Gregory Ulmer’s electracy discussed in his work Internet Invention. In particular, it is Steiner’s insistence that translation is a creative process, rather than a mere interpretation, that injects the famous “four-fold hermeneutic motion” (composed of initial trust, aggression/extraction, incorporation/importation, and reciprocity to restore balance) with a bit of heuretics. Moreover, Steiner’s lament a the separation between “linguistic philosophy” and “philosophy of language” in the 20th century, a separation between science and humanism, could be seen as a movement towards the electrate apparatus described by Ulmer. Similarly, Steiner’s embracing of the dialectic of alterity, manifested in the “overwhelmingly positive and creative” planned counter-factuality of laguage (loc. 4533) seems in spirit with the current digital studies discussions on the “productivity” of glitches, failures, and errors. All of which brings me right back to my first observation about Steiner’s book — it’s seeming timelessness, both in (modern) and out of (ancient) time, something that accounts, perhaps, for its enduring popularity since its original publication almost half a century ago.


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2 Responses to Distilling George Steiner’s Babel

  1. Pingback: Schleiermacher and Benjamin, in new translation | Just Yoking!

  2. Pingback: Schleiermacher and Benjamin, in new translation | Just Yoking!

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