Avva has posted a complete transcription of Jonathan Ree’s essay “Being foreign is different” (Times Literary Supplement, 6/9/96), one of the most interesting things I’ve read lately on translation. The text is without italics or accents, but it’s generally easy enough to see where they should be; for one section which their absence renders incomprehensible, he provides an accented version, and I will add italics:
Take, for example, the celebrated essay “La Différence”, in which Derrida tried to open out the concept of difference by comparing the French différer with Greek diapherein, Latin differre, and differieren in German. As everyone must know by now, Derrida dramatized his point by coining the non-word différance, spelled with an “a”, alongside the ordinary French word différence, spelled with an “e”. And since the two forms are pronounced the same, they made a nice illustration of Derrida’s point about writing not being a depiction of speech; manifestly, the difference between différance and différence could be seen but not heard.
As it happens, it is easy to reproduce this effect in English. Différance can be transliterated as “differance” with an “a”, yielding an English non-word which sounds the same as the ordinary English word “difference”, thus translating Derrida’s device perfectly. This was the solution adopted in David Allison’s translation, published in 1973. But a decade later, Alan Bass produced a new version, which opted to leave différance in French. This crazy translation took off, just at the time when Derrida was becoming a cult author in English, and as a result thousands of English-speaking Derrideans were left floundering for a French pronunciation of différance, apparently under the impression that they were being loyal to its quintessential Frenchness. Unluckily for them, though, différance was not a French concept at all, and – by making the difference between differance and “difference” audible, all too audible – the Derrideans were not only missing Derrida’s point, but spoiling it too. It was as if the translator, rather than helping us engage with ideas and argue over them, preferred to fetishize their foreignness and turn us into dazzled spectators of an exotic scene.
The essay is full of fascinating examples, and I urge you to read it. Here’s another sample to whet your appetite:
Philosophy is obsessed with words; but the words that interest it are not the fancy aristocrats of language, nor yet its specialized technicians: they are its swarming universal proletarians – terms like “time” and “unfairness”, “good” and “ugly”, “truth” and “lies”. And it is these dog-ordinary terms, in their ordinary elusive precision, that set philosophical translators their hardest tasks.
The biggest problem is the verb “to be”. It is not just that ideas of being are organized differently in different languages, and cannot be exactly superimposed on each other. It is that each European linguistic form has a long inheritance of past philosophical translations wrapped up inside it. Thus German and French discussions of Sein or être are linked together not only as presumed translations of each other, but also as successors of the Latin esse, which in its turn translates the Greek einai. But they cannot pass straight into English, where the infinitive is never used as a noun: the closest equivalent is the gerund “being”. On the other hand, esse, Sein and être have also been used as translations of [Greek] to on, for which “being” is a far better equivalent. In that sense, translating the German, French and Latin infinitives by the English gerund could be regarded as an improvement on the original: it recaptures something of a Greek concept that is lost in its Latin, French and German translations.