I just learned a new word, and I rather wish I hadn’t. Reading an interview with Mahmood Mamdani, an Indo-Ugandan scholar who’s currently Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University and has written what sounds like a very interesting book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, I hit the following rough patch:
I do acknowledge the importance of the nativist critique that calls for a fuller grasp of historicity, but one also needs to understand its weakness, because its sense of historicity is compromised by its search for authenticity. The point is not to just to sidestep the nativist critique but to sublate it, in the manner in which Engels understood sublating Hegel in his critique of Ludwig Feuerbach; to take into consideration that which is relevant, effective and forceful in the critique but at the same time to break away from its preoccupation with origins and authenticity.
That’s classic High Academic dialect, but I was able to hack my way through most of it; the verb “sublate,” however, defeated me. It turns out that, although it has been used by logicians to mean simply ‘deny,’ it has a more specific meaning: ‘to negate or eliminate (as an element in a dialectic process) but preserve as a partial element in a synthesis,’ in the admirably clear words of Merriam-Webster. I say “admirably clear” because the OED throws up its hands and says simply “see quots. 1865.” You want to see quots. 1865? Here they are:
1865 J. H. STIRLING Secret of Hegel I. 354 Nothing passes over into Being, but Being equally sublates itself, is a passing over into Nothing, Ceasing-to-be. They sublate not themselves mutually, not the one the other externally; but each sublates itself in itself, and is in its own self the contrary of itself. Ibid. 357 A thing is sublated, resolved, only so far as it has gone into unity with its opposite.
Got that? Me neither. The Secret of Hegel could remain a secret forever with explanations like that. But why “sublate”? Here the OED is more forthcoming: “rendering G. aufheben, used by Hegel as having the opposite meanings of ‘destroy’ and ‘preserve.’” And yes, aufheben is a many-splendored word; the basic meaning is ‘pick up’ (heb es auf ‘pick it up!’), but it also means ‘keep, put aside,’ ‘abolish, do away with,’ ‘raise, lift’ (eg, a blockade), and ‘offset, make up for.’ So if you’re translating dear old Hegel, how do you render it in English, given that English does not have a word with that particular combination of senses?
Well, there are several approaches. You could keep the down-to-earth, colloquial nature of the word and render it “pick up,” letting the reader get used to the specialized usage and forcing future writers to say “to pick it up, in the Hegelian sense.” Or you could keep the sense of the word in context, giving up on the basic-vocabulary aspect; you could, for instance, render it “supersede,” which I think conveys the meaning well enough. But James Hutchison Stirling (for I assume it was he who set English Hegelianism on this contorted course: “his style, though often striking, is so marked by the influence of Carlyle, and he so resolutely declines to conform to ordinary standards of systematic exposition, that his work is almost as difficult as the original which it is intended to illuminate”) chooses to reach into the grab-bag of Latinity he doubtless picked up at Glasgow University and pulls out sublate (from sublatum, the past participle of tollo ‘pick up’), a verb that will convey absolutely nothing to the average reader and thus is catnip to a certain type of scholarly mind. It’s the same mentality that chose to render Freud’s Besetzung by “cathexis,” Fehlleistung by “parapraxis,” and Ich by “ego.” I wish translators would make the reader’s comprehension their main goal rather than seize the opportunity to show off their classical education.