Book review: Dictionary of Untranslatables, edited by Barbara Cassin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:52pm

Dictionary of Untranslatables
edited by Barbara Cassin
Princeton University Press
5 stars

Douglas Kerr

Do you know your erscheinung from your eidôlon? What is the pertinent distinction between zôê and bios? Are you experiencing desengaño? What do you propose to do about the modern episteme?

If you are uncertain how to answer these questions, perhaps you should equip yourself with this extraordinary book. Subtitled A Philosophical Lexicon, its 1,300 pages contain more than 400 philosophical, literary and political terms and concepts, drawn from more than a dozen languages.

Each term is explained in its own essay, accompanied by a brief bibliography for further reading.

Like all good dictionaries, the book lends itself to browsing, being full of internal signposts and links. So the essay on "ingenium", the Latin word meaning wit or humour, can lead you to Aristotle and on to Alice in Wonderland and Freud's theory of the joke - and then across to another Latin word, "genius". Each term nestles at the centre of its own network, a history in itself.

The book isn't confined to intimidating technical terms. It can also help you with more common words, whose meaning you thought you understood - words such as madness, subject, nation, pardon and nonsense.

You could probably, and profitably, spend your life reading this book. But you should have done the basic training first. Beginners will find much of it hard going. The contributors - a team which includes philosophers Etienne Balibar, Alain Badiou and Judith Butler, and sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein - do not make many concessions to novice readers.

The volume offers a detailed and up-to-date map of abstract thinking, from the classical age to now. It is a European map, however. To have included Chinese terms and ideas would require a book twice the size.

The volume seems to be mis-named, since these terms are translatable. Indeed in these pages they have been translated, not once but twice - first in the mini-essays that explain each term, and then in the translation of the original French text into English. Since translators often get scant credit for their essential work, I salute them here gratefully: Steven Rendall, Christian Hubert, Jeffrey Mehlman, Nathaniel Stein and Michael Syrotinski.

In her excellent introduction, editor Barbara Cassin explains that to speak of "untranslatables" is not to imply that these terms are not and cannot be translated. "The untranslatable is rather what one keeps on [not] translating," she writes. Translating such words creates a problem, drawing attention to the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural difference which is the real subject of the book.

Psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, in a moment of unwonted clarity, described a language as "among other possibilities, nothing but the sum of the ambiguities that its history has allowed to persist". Try not to think of this the next time you're doing something with words.