Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The frustration and joy of untranslatability

If you want to read a good book about Being, read Prose of the World by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. For him Being can only be understood as the “expression” of something, whether it’s meaning expressed in language or physical things expressed in our perceptual experience. Things are never things “in themselves” regardless of me looking at them or thinking about them. Not because the world is my invention, but because a “thing” always, always implies some kind of “access” to this thing. Whether you want it or not: being is always expression of being.

Expression here must not be seen as the “presentation” of a fully transparent meaning. Because just like the things we perceive in the perceptible world, even the meaning of words is never fully expressed. The tree I see can never be totally present to me because there are always a visual perspective and the “thickness” of the perceptual experience that make a total picture of the object impossible. The same goes for the meaning of words, which can never be fully captured even if you think you can. Let me show you this with an example.

You can jump from one language to another but those who speak several languages know that there’s always something you lose on the way, something you just can’t translate. For example I can get frustrated over the fact that in English and in Dutch you cannot take “du recul” and you cannot “assumer” a decision. Of course there are ways to express this by saying respectively that you take “distance” from the situation and that you “take responsibility” for a decision. But when you speak both English and French you will understand me exactly and vividly when I say that these solutions don’t quite cover the meaning of the original expressions in French.

This untranslatability is due to the fact that meaning is not something purely intellectual that a language points at. Meaning is rather something that sticks to the very “body” of the words as you read or pronounce them. That’s why I cannot fully translate the French expressions "prendre du recul" and "assumer une décision": to convey their meaning I have to perform the expressive act of pronouncing the French words “je prends du recul” and “j’assume!”. 

This probably also explains why I like these expressions so much: they make me literally feel “richer” linguistically speaking. They give me access to a meaning – to an expressive engagement with other French speakers I must say –that I can’t even access in my native language. That’s quite an experience: it feels like you’re able to taste totally new tastes your tong couldn’t taste before. My challenge is to accept that this new French taste can be tasted only with the French tong and not with the Dutch or English ones. Did I ever speak about frustration by the way?

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

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