Pathos II.

A couple of years ago I wagged my finger at a translator who used “revolutionary pathos” to translate Russian “революционный пафос,” and now I’m going to exercise that finger all over again, this time at the authors of Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Last week I chastised them for using the ridiculously lumbering terms “unfinalizability” and “heteroglossia,” and now I’ve run into another pair of infuriating choices. Here, let me quote a passage from p. 355:

The Discourse of Pathos

The first stylistic line of the novel developed what Bakhtin calls “the discourse of pathos” (or “the pathetic word”). It is important to note at the outset that the Russian words pafos and pateticheskoe, although routinely translated into their English equivalents from the same Greek roots, differ in meaning from English pathos and pathetic. Whereas the English terms carry overtones of sadness and suggest a quality that arouses pity, sorrow, or compassion, common translations of Russian pafos include “enthusiasm,” “inspiration,” “animation,” “passionate ardor or fervor.” Soviet dictionaries offer as sample phrases “revolutionary pathos,” “to speak with pathos,” and “the pathos of creative labor.”

Characteristically for this essay, Bakhtin distinguishes “prosaic pathos” or “novelistic pathos” (terms he uses interchangeably) from “poetic” or “authentic” pathos. [etc. etc.]

Reading that, I was both astounded and enraged. (I penciled in “by idiots” after “routinely translated.”) It’s bad enough when people mistranslate out of ignorance or thoughtlessness, but what kind of person deliberately mistranslates, saying “here, this is a bad translation I’m going to use, so please bear in mind that it doesn’t mean what you think it means”? It’s just… why would you do that?? (Also, “spirit” would be a more appropriate English rendering in this context than any of the alternatives they provide.)

And while I’m at it, a few pages later is another passage that astounded and infuriated me:

Bakhtin describes two broad types of interaction. He calls the less important type “canonization” (not to be confused with what is now called canon formation). As we have seen, novels of the second stylistic line orchestrate the language of particular professions or groups by combining them with the literary language or with the language of other professions and groups. But the linkage of a given expression with a particular group is not fixed; in the course of even a decade, a form that carries the aura of a provincialism or a jargon may become part of the general literary language; it may be “canonized.” In that case, the author will no longer sense it as a previous author would have sensed it.

Once again, we get “please bear in mind that the word we’re using doesn’t mean what you think it means.” So why the hell use it? Why not use, say, “standardization” or “normalization,” either of which would convey the sense you want conveyed? Hopefully, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest I’ll grind my teeth less.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    “Read what I mean, not what I write”. A kind of up-front esoterics. These people are obsessed with reproducing parts of speech and etymology. They have no mastery of the language, and try to conceal that by “fidelity”.

    This is the crutches school of translation.

  2. As I said before, sometimes you have to accept mistranslations because they have become standard. Ernest Jones stuck us with the ego and the id instead of the I and the It for das Ich and das Es, but it would be hopeless to try to change it now. I don’t know if that’s the case with this use of pathos, but if it is, then it is.

  3. I still can’t get over the “pathetic fallacy”.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    All fallacies are pathetic, but only the first time they are proposed.

  5. I don’t see the problem with semantically re-loaning from Greek, classical education will and should allow for this.

    Surely anyone reading this book has read Socrates and is aware of the more general sense of pathos as anything affecting the soul, so I can’t imagine this producing much confusion.

    Making a fuss over the exact nuance of this, already somewhat literary, word seems as pedantic as any arguing about ‘true meaning’ of words.

  6. Wasn’t the phrase “pathetic fallacy” coined when “pathetic” did have the appropriate meaning in English? In any case, it’s a lot better than “begging the question”.

  7. I have certainly read the complete writings of Socrates, without knowing even a single word of Attic Greek.

  8. Actually, Russian translation of technical philosophical term originating from Greek παθός is patos.

  9. I don’t see the problem with semantically re-loaning from Greek, classical education will and should allow for this.

    A tiny minority of people have classical educations. Are you saying only the few, the favored by fortune, deserve to learn about philosophy or literature? That’s straight-up elitism.

  10. In NLP the common term is canonicalization, to avoid the religious reading.

  11. What does it mean?

  12. Lars (the original one) says

    Canonicalization is a useful technique, in data processing as well as mathematical proof, of defining a single (canonical) form as the representation of a class of equivalent forms. For instance, reducing a fraction to the lowest denominator makes the result unique among all fractions equal to it and thus canonical (though the term is not much used in school algebra). Converting dates to full ISO 8601 format will allow you to compare and sort them very easily, since there is only one way to write a date like that.

    In NLP I imagine the canonical form of an utterance could have contractions expanded, the position of adverbial elements fixed, synonyms replaced, maybe even the syntax rewritten, in the hope that a simple string comparison of such forms will tell you if two inputs are equivalent. At least it would be a start.

  13. A tiny minority of people have classical educations. Are you saying only the few, the favored by fortune, deserve to learn about philosophy or literature? That’s straight-up elitism.

    Hey, I didn’t invent our ongoing fetish for Latin and Greek.

    In the 21st century we still coin terms like ‘cliodynamics’ and it’s a descriptive fact that classical culture holds currency for us and that references to it will be tacitly approved of unless overly gratuitous.

    Of course you don’t actually have to have a full classical education for this, but I can’t imagine that the original meaning of ‘pathos’ wouldn’t already have trickled down to someone who’s so far off in his intellectual development to be reading about semiotics.

    You could argue that your problem with this, that it is trampling down the native English idiom, is also elitist* in an age of global English where an English translation of Russian philosophers might be the only accessible translation for many L2 readers the world over.

    * I say this rhetorically, English culture should of course be preserved, but fighting elitism is a two-way street.

  14. The problem is that pathos is probably a bad translation in a sense that it is not what Bakhtin meant, even if a more abstract philosophical meaning for the English word can be restored. Russian pafos drifted from Greek in a different direction. spirit seems to be just what is needed here. Just in case, Russian pafos can mean enthusiasm or even grandiosity, but that’s also not what Bakhtin meant.

  15. Exactly.

  16. I thought ardour was better.

  17. How does it go with the Pathétique symphony? Is that a Russian sense or a French sense? And anyway, which sense of either?

  18. I never could figure out why it was named that, but I can’t stand the piece anyway, so I routinely call it the Pathetic Symphony (dumb joke and far from original).

  19. Quoth Wikipedia:

    The composer entitled the work “The Passionate Symphony”, employing a Russian word, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), meaning “passionate” or “emotional”, that was then (mis-)translated into French as pathétique, meaning “solemn” or “emotive”.


    The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), means “passionate” or “emotional,” not “arousing pity,” but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaya or “Program Symphony”) but realized that would encourage curiosity about the program, which he did not want to reveal.

    His brother Modest claims to have suggested the Патетическая title, which was used in early editions of the symphony; there are conflicting accounts about whether Tchaikovsky liked the title, but in any event his publisher chose to keep it and the title remained. Its French translation Pathétique is generally used in French, Spanish, English, German and other languages.

    Hat’s dislike notwithstanding, the symphony is certainly both solemn and emotional.

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