Dictionary of Untranslatables

Throughout the quarter, we’ve been discussing the ways in which different cultures and languages interact with each other, especially in trying to determine frameworks for understanding. Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. This dictionary, as indicated by its title, features a huge number of words in a variety of languages and discusses the complexities of their meanings so that people encountering the words can have a better understanding of their proper usage in the original language, as well as the ways in which they have been used historically.

According to the contributors’ own explanation, the dictionary tries “to rewrite the history of philosophy through the lens of the ‘untranslatable,’ defined loosely as a term that is left untranslated as it is transferred from language to language…, or that is typically subject to mistranslation and retranslation” (vii). I have not had an opportunity to read the entire dictionary, but the goals outlined in the preface bring up intriguing possibilities for “rewriting” texts in ways that are more open to the transnational nature of the ideas and terms in this dictionary, as well as for acknowledging the original (potentially mononational) intentions.

While the concept of such a dictionary sounds incredibly interesting and useful, especially for its seeming ability to make terms understood outside of a one-to-one correspondence of meaning, one of my first interactions with the work was reading the copyright page and discovering that the Dictionary of Untranslatables was, in fact, a translation from the original French text. On the one hand, this could be in keeping with the project as a means of sharing information with the academic/philosophical realms of any interested countries, but it also brought into question how well it could hope to explain terms when dealing with multiple layers of constructions for the definitions.

Emily Apter, head editor for the dictionary, describes how the intensive translation process included wondering, “Which [terms] should remain in their original language? Which should be rendered in English?” (xii). This section seems to highlight the many ways in which the project could have gone wrong, especially when editing a seemingly transnational work through the lens of English-speaking priorities. The preface explains that not every term survived the editing process; while I imagine that the editors exercised their powers judiciously, this may still call into question of how faithful a “translation” the dictionary is in both content and spirit, especially when the project cannot physically be all-inclusive.

For all of its potential problems, the project was undertaken with the view that languages may share many of the aspects of transnationalism that have been depicted in this class’s literary works: the editors explain that “What the Dictionary does best, perhaps, is produce a cartography…of linguistic diaspora, migration, and contested global checkpoints…” (xiii). By explaining the background contexts and usages of words in various languages without necessarily permitting directly equivalent words, the dictionary shows the extent to which certain terms have crossed national boundaries, while still maintaining relevant distinctions between potential national uses.

As in the cases of Appadurai’s scapes, this “linguistic diaspora” can influence both the language using a given term and the language that created the term, since “National languages are profiled not as static, reified monuments of culture” and remain open to change (xiii). With this in mind, examining a translation of untranslatables can show the constant need for change and development in the exploration of meanings in any language, especially when using language to discuss ideas that have value across national boundaries.


One thought on “Dictionary of Untranslatables”

  1. What an interesting concept. While I am, in general, skeptical of how successful attempts to explain the intricacies of certain concepts from one language (culture, etc.) to another can really be, I am drawn to the idea of fleshing out what makes certain terms so difficult to translate well (perhaps by contextualizing them, problematizing them, etc.). I wonder if an idea can really be transnational in nature if it was originally “mononational in intention,” as was mentioned in the post, without being turned into something else. Not to say that we cannot use the same word, but that it might be more effective and less confusing to use a different word that describes the transformed idea (the idea that many be more applicably transnationally) rather than try to amend or widen the meaning of the first one. Maybe I’m confusing myself.



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