Heteroglossia.

I wrote back in 2007 “I still haven’t actually read much of Bakhtin (on whose smoking habits I reported here, and with whose concept of ‘reported speech’ I had fun here), but I keep coming across things that make me want to read more,” and now I’m finally determined to get a handle on him. Unfortunately his own writings are notoriously verbose and hard to pin down (I blame his youthful immersion in neo-Kantian German philosophy), so I’m working my way through Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson — I’ve long been a fan of Morson’s literary criticism, so I figured if anyone could make me understand Bakhtin, he could. And it’s working: I’m about halfway through, and I think I’m grasping it pretty well (and confirming that his emphasis on the importance of multiple points of view is close to my own sense of things). But there’s something that’s irritating me, and I’m going to get it off my chest.

Remember when I complained about the use of “sublate” to render Hegel’s aufheben, rendering an already difficult author even more difficult? Well, this is the same sort of thing. Bakhtin uses the perfectly ordinary Russian word незавершенность ‘incompleteness’ to express one of his basic ideas; Morson and Emerson say “It designates a complex of values central to his thinking: innovation, ‘surprisingness,’ the genuinely new, openness, potentiality, freedom, and creativity—terms that he also uses frequently.” Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves they translate it by the rebarbative term “unfinalizability,” which takes twice as long to say and makes me stumble every time it occurs in the text (which is very often).

But even worse is what they do with another of his basic terms, разноречие. This echt-Russian word is composed of the very common elements разно- ‘different, varying’ and реч- ‘speech’; it has meant ‘contradiction,’ ‘disagreement,’ and the like (Melnikov-Pechersky: “― И тут многое непонятно, так много разноречий” [Here too there is much that is incomprehensible, so much contradiction]; Evgeny Vodolazkin: “Разноречие источников приводило Амброджо в смятение” [The disagreement of the sources led Ambrogio into confusion]), but it has an archaic ring these days. Bakhtin uses it to express his view that “there are always many different ways of speaking, many ‘languages,’ reflecting the diversity of social experience, conceptualizations, and values” (which he contrasts to structuralism’s view of language as “a system of abstract norms” — for Bakhtin, language is always grounded in a particular time and place and comes from a particular person, it is never abstract). This is an important and useful concept that has spread widely among different disciplines; unfortunately it has done so under the guise of the ostentatiously Greco-Latin “heteroglossia,” the translation that has become standard. For me, it is a perfect expression of the scholarly attraction to twenty-dollar words that gave us “sublate,” and I grind my teeth when I think about it. Bakhtin could perfectly well have created a Russian word гетероглоссия [geteroglossia] if he’d wanted to — it would have carried the same “screw you, peasant, you’re not educated enough to appreciate my refined thought” air the English one does. But no, he used a down-home word that any Russian could understand at first glance. Of course he used it in a specialized sense, but a translation like “difference” (or, if you wanted to be really cheeky and confuse the hell out of people, “différance“) could equally well be so used. Or, if you wanted to preserve the archaic flavor of the Russian, you could go with “gainsay(ing),” which has a similar archaic/homey feel in English. But no, we must keep the hoi polloi from polluting the rarefied air of our scholarly discourse. Fie, I say!

Comments

  1. незавершенность / ‘incompleteness’

    It has to be said that the most beloved word of Kozma Prutkov was d’inachevé.

  2. Weil, at least heteroglossia, however pretentious, can be said to mean the same as raznorechie. “Unfinalizability” suggests to me “something that can’t be finalized”, which would correspond to a Russian nezavershaemost’, not to nezavershennost’. So I’d say that is the worse rendering of the two.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    Why, in “translation”, does a noun have to be rendered as noun, an adjective as an adjective and so on ? When explaining something in the same language we don’t do this.

    Why the focus on single words, as if there were a 1-1 correspondence between words and things or ideas ?

    Because these struggles with “translation problems” are due to obstacles épistémologiques. These are old-timey ways of thinking that have been dismissed by most people today who think about thinking, but still govern everyday thought (by people who don’t think much about thinking).

    One such obstacle is “veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus”. Another is “a whole is the sum of its parts” which, applied to speech, leads to the crazy idea that a sentence is the direct sum of its words, each word representing an item in the world.

  4. Fie, indeed! Thank you for this post, Languagehat. For what it’s worth, I translated the sentence with “разноречие” in Vodolazkin’s Лавр as “The contradicting sources flustered Ambrogio…” That doesn’t give any sense of anything archaic (or anything that particularly fits the literary tag Oxford gives) but it covers the basic meaning and fits the tone of the English text in that spot. I suppose it’s fitting that one of my favorite aspects of Лавр is its tremendous flexibility: the text gave me a lot of opportunity to work intuitively, picking, choosing, and compensating, depending on what felt right where. Vodolazkin strongly encouraged that since he did the same thing when he combined archaisms and contemporary language in his Russian text. “Heteroglossia,” my foot!

    “Unfinalizability” for “незавершенность” is just awful to attempt to pronounce, spell, and contemplate. I believe we used “incompleteness” in grad school discussions way back when–at least that’s what’s stuck in my head–though now I wonder which translation Dr. Morson might have used all those years ago.

  5. For what it’s worth, I translated the sentence with “разноречие” in Vodolazkin’s Лавр as “The contradicting sources flustered Ambrogio…”

    “Flustered” is excellent — that’s why you’re a professional at this stuff!

  6. Actually, I should have thought to check your translation, though I’m not sure I could have gotten Google Books to show me the right sentence.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps “heteroglossia” is of a piece with a general English tendency to use high-falutin’ vocabulary (constructed from Latin/Greek roots) in academic/scholarly registers to a greater extent than certain other languages do? Compare e.g. English “hydrogen” with Russian “Водоро́д” or German “Wasserstoff.”

  8. Sure, and it is that very tendency that I deplore. (Perhaps English came later to scholarly discourse and thus had to borrow fancy words to show it was worthy?)

  9. Why, in “translation”, does a noun have to be rendered as noun, an adjective as an adjective and so on?

    In ordinary prose it does not. My mother went through her copy of the Muir translation of Kafka’s Trial and marked with a P every word that represented an instance of Prozess in the original, and quite diverse they are too. Likewise we have this passage from the translators’ preface to the King James Version.

    But technical terms are another matter, and it’s important that they are rendered consistently. You yourself have pointed out the problems that arise from the polysemy of German Daten, which can be ‘dates’ or ‘data’.

  10. Actually, I should have thought to check your translation, though I’m not sure I could have gotten Google Books to show me the right sentence.

    Not a problem! The funny thing is that of course I wondered what I’d done with “разноречие” and had to check right away.

    And I’m glad you liked “flustered.” I love the word, perhaps because I think people tend to get flustered a lot!

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Perhaps English came later to scholarly discourse and thus had to borrow fancy words to show it was worthy?

    English came right at the start, with Newton’s Opticks. The difference seems to be that German has had wave after wave of people trying to replace Greek/Latin/French loans by native coinages in order to render things intelligible and/or out of nationalism, and everything north and east of German then copied the German practice.

    In English, similar efforts seem to have existed but not to have gotten far. There are academic institutions in England where job titles are e.g. Keeper or Reader instead of curator or lecturer.

    (…Funnily enough, “curator” is nothing less than Kustos in German, plural Kustoden! “Lecturer” is probably something like Dozent; Lektor means “proofreader”.)

  12. I think that must be tied to the ancientry of own-language literacy in English: only in England out of the whole Roman Empire are those quintessentially Roman activities of reading and writing both known by native words (meaning ‘advising’ and ‘scratching’ respectively).

  13. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    Funnily enough, “curator” is nothing less than Kustos in German, plural Kustoden! “Lecturer” is probably something like Dozent; Lektor means “proofreader”

    Of course, these were borrowed by BCS wholesale (kustos, docent, lektor).

  14. Daniel N. says:

    This is weird. The Russian word means what has not been completed. The English word implies (at least to me) what *cannot* be completed…

  15. I think that must be tied to the ancientry of own-language literacy in English

    I’m having trouble figuring out the referent of “that.”

    This is weird. The Russian word means what has not been completed. The English word implies (at least to me) what *cannot* be completed…

    Yes, that’s another reason it’s a terrible translation. I am at a loss to understand why they didn’t go with the obvious “incompleteness.”

  16. Hat: The use of non-Latinate academic titles in English. They sound a bit … old-fashioned to these American ears, but not impossibly rustic, archaic, or stupid.

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