Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Moreau on Translating Political Thought

This post will probably interest few readers (Mel and Steve, this one's for you), but it's of great interest to me in my work as a translator of many political thinkers. Pierre-François Moreau, the editor of a new edition of Spinoza, offers these remarkably cogent thoughts about translation:

La vie des idées : Qu’en est-il maintenant des principes de la traduction ?

Pierre-François Moreau : Ils sont très simples. On part du principe que Spinoza, comme tout philosophe, s’exprime dans un lexique relativement stable. Cela ne veut pas dire que tous les textes spinoziens sont de la même intensité lexicale. Il y a deux pôles : un pôle systématique avec une série de termes qui renvoient à un champ sémantique dans lequel est prise une expression de sa pensée. Substantia, imperium, libertas, etc. ont une signification forte, qui n’est peut-être pas constante, mais qui varie dans des limites conceptuelles. À côté de cela, il y a la langue ordinaire. Ce serait trop simple, bien entendu, si l’on pouvait diviser le texte en ces deux catégories : il y a toute une série de degrés. Le rôle du traducteur est de jouer sur ces degrés et d’arriver à rendre au maximum une équivalence. C’est pourquoi le vieil axiome selon lequel le traducteur est un traître est parfaitement faux. C’est là une vision spiritualiste de la traduction. En réalité on peut très bien traduire sans trahir. Le degré de fidélité du traducteur renvoie à son degré de réflexion sur la conceptualité du texte. Celle-ci ne consiste certainement pas à rendre un mot latin par un mot français, car le mot latin peut correspondre à plusieurs mots, par exemple, le mot imperium renvoie à deux champs sémantiques classiques : le champ militaire (le commandement), et un domaine juridico-politique. Il est parfaitement légitime d’utiliser deux termes. Ensuite à l’intérieur d’un même champ sémantique, ce serait une erreur de le traduire par un très grand nombre de mots différents ; mais d’un autre côté ce serait une erreur de le traduire toujours par le même terme, ce qui reviendrait à tordre la langue d’arrivée. Il faut alors choisir un petit nombre de termes et les indiquer au lecteur. Par exemple, imperium au sens juridico-politique peut être traduit par « État » et « souveraineté ». Et ensuite il faudra éviter de traduire par un même mot français plusieurs mots latins. Sinon le lecteur risque de reconstruire une cohérence fausse en s’appuyant sur une permanence lexicale qui n’existe pas dans le texte latin. À cela s’ajoute la nécessité de constituer un glossaire qui permet d’exposer les choix que le traducteur a faits. Donner au lecteur les clefs et les conditions de sa lecture, c’est lui donner les possibilités d’une lecture scientifique.

This pragmatic and reasonable approach to the problem of conceptual translation is a refreshing antidote to Straussian dogma.


Streven Rendall said...

Thanks for including this; it's true that it doesn't quite fit under the rubric "French Politics," but then to paraphrase a well-known dictum, "everything is translation." One thing that strikes me is that in the quoted passage at least, there is no acknowledgment that the kind of translation strategy that is appropriate for Spinoza may not be appropriate for other kinds of texts. For instance, the question of which technical terms have to be kept consistent in order to make the argument coherent and intelligible does not arise in the same form in a poem, a novel or even most history books. That is, for me, the Achilles' heel of translation theories that assume that general rules can be given for translation as such; I would argue that translation strategies have to be adapted to specific needs and interests in each case. Now, perhaps if I saw the context of this quotation, it would be clear that Moreau is talking specifically about translating philosophical texts like Spinoza's (though there are few texts "like Spinoza's," even in philosophy).
That said, I agree with Moreau's emphasis on the importance of deciding when it is important to translate words consistently by the same expression in English and when it is more important to translate by context. And I agree that what matters most—at least in the case of philosophical texts, but not only there—is that the translator understand what the writer is saying, and this is not just a matter of knowing the source language, but what I have called elsewhere "discursive competence," that is, the ability to follow an argument, a plot, a formal pattern, etc., and to translate in accord with it. Translation theory seems to me to focus far too much on problems involving particular words, and too little on discourse and style. For example, the book I'm currently translating, a French dictionary of "untranslatable" philosophical terms, has its own value and fascination, but has little to say about the question of how to translate discourse.

Steven Rendall said...

Hmm... what to say about a translator who can't even type his own name right?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Steve (and Streve), What I like about Moreau's position is that he relaxes the Straussian dictum on consistency in the translation of key philosophical terms. He explicitly recognizes the need for variability and the demands of the target language. This is in marked contrast to Strauss.

That said, I agree with your general emphasis on discursive competence and the "transverbal" elements of translation. I am to give a lecture next year at the Collège de France in which I will try to develop some thoughts on the subject.

Anonymous said...

if I were to add something it would be to go back to the case of Spinoza's Latin-language skills and distinguish it from Tocqueville who wrote in his native tongue. Basically, before going "en aval" where we deal with the act of translating words already in print, I'd consider "en amont" (or is the other way around this en aval and en amont stuff? anyway...), I'd take into consideration what is mentioned as the "source language", in this case Latin. Spinoza mastered the language but I think one could argue that he didn't master it as other lettered & educated contemporaries. He was a polyglot - who found it necessary to bend the Latin language to conform to innovative concepts in his Ethica. For instance, what to make of "conatus"? To grasp the sense of that in Spinoza, you basically gotta read all of Ethica!

Chris P.
(*please more philo at FPB!*)

Richard said...

For me, the problem is this: whatever we keep or lose, and whatever the consistency of terms we employ, success can only occur in the tongue of the translator (English, in my case). This would not be a problem if the translator only had to transmit the thought correctly; but he also has to listen to his own language, and it always sounds so different from the foreign tongue. Questions of timing, euphony, options of phrasing--that's where the fun begins!