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.


  1. I don’t feel proud about the fact that I didn’t understand that post at all

  2. “the infinitive is never used as a noun”?!!!? but — but — wha’bout “It is great to be a computer programmer” say — “to be” is the referent for “it” — isn’t that a noun????

  3. Naw, ain’t that more like “It’s raining”?

  4. No, it isn’t, is it. Blech

  5. This reminds much of the Standard Freud ich->ego, es->id, uber-ich->superego idiocy.

  6. The French “être” can be used alone as a noun, and the distinction between “l’être” and “l’étant” is crucial in the French translations of Heidegger, and in the (German and French) texts of his followers.
    There is slightly more discussion of this issue in this post of mine, but personally my preferred solution is not to bother reading continental philosophy in English.

  7. There are lots of pairs and triples of words in English spelled differently but said the same – perhaps more than in French?
    In Britain increasingly we use ‘program’ to mean only computer programs while retaining the Frenchified ‘programme’ to refer to all other kinds of programme, a visual distinction not available to most Americans.
    I rather like these three: ‘palate’ = roof of mouth or taste for food or other things, ‘palette’ = flat board used for mixing colours and by extension any colour range available to a designer, and ‘pallet’ = a flat board used to stack boxes in warehouses, usually with twin slots that the prongs of a fork-lift truck can slide into and use to pick up the pallet and all the freight piled on top of it.

  8. Patrick Taylor says

    Having struggled through Heidegger’s Being and Time in its English translation recently I can only sympathize with the difficulties that translators of philosophical works face. You can go from esoteric to impenetrable in one generation.

  9. Patrick Taylor says

    re: pairs and triples
    In my dialect of English (Maritime Canadian), “Mary”, “merry” and “marry” are all pronounced exactly alike. I don’t think that’s the case for most Americans or Brits.

  10. “Mary”, “merry” and “marry” are homonyms for me down here in Texas, too. Offhand I can’t think of a common American accent in which they are pronounced differently, but perhaps I’m missing the obvious.

  11. I once asked a friend to read that list, along with cot and caught. She was born in Worcester /’wU:st@/, MA, and she actually smiled as she pronounced them, all differently: /’meri/, /’mEri/, /’m{ri/. Out here on the Barbary Coast, I pronounce them /’mEri/, /’mEri/, /’m{ri/. (Using SAMPA.)

Speak Your Mind