2014/06/17

Is the concept that certain concepts are untranslatable itself untranslatable (FR->EN)?

The Vocabulaire européen des philosophies has now been versioned in English as Dictionary of untranslatables and Spanish as Diccionario de intraducibles. Here Mark Liberman cites Adam Gopnik, who seems to think the book is self-refuting Sapir-Whorfism, and here Jacques Lezra, coordinator of the English-language version, seems to be indulging the following incoherence: linguistic relativism is kind-of racist, but out there there are still lots of pretty false friends, as it were, for whom "untranslatable" is a reasonable enough synonym.

One of Lezra's examples of evil will ring a bell with many English/Spanish-speakers of perfectly liberal disposition, if not in his extreme interpretation:

En castellano decimos: 'Se me cayó el vaso', y en inglés, 'I dropped the glass'. De la expresión castellana se podría concluir que el hispanoparlante tiene poco sentido de la responsabilidad por la expresión impersonal-reflexiva. Diríamos que, o bien el idioma le lleva a una posición de irresponsabilidad, o bien refleja, en la sintaxis, esa misma disposición anímica. El inglés, en cambio, parecería ofrecernos un sujeto que asume sus acciones, para el cual no caben ambigüedades, y cuyo idioma-mundo ofrecería instituciones ordenadas, y jerárquicamente transparentes.

Despite what (El Mundo reports of what) Lezra says, there is empirical evidence of some types of linguistic relativism. Given denialist taboos in neighbouring fields, would it be unreasonable to ask whether Lezra has any empirical evidence to refute either the example he cites or something comparable? At the very least we might then come closer to understanding why Sancho Panza is such a lousy servant. Sancho's addiction to proverbs (try Refranes de Sancho Panza) suggests the transcendental view that shit happens, shit has always happened, and shit will always happen. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in The Menace of the Herd, an anti-Procrustean rant from 1943, explains that Sancho and Don Quijote are already thinking of the (Catholic) hereafter:

The word “democratic,” in connection with the Catholic (or schismatic) world, is, as we have pointed out at the beginning, not a happy one. In these countries, whether they have a highly hierarchic social structure or not, we find a certain “demophil” sentiment. De Tocqueville remarks in his De la Démocratie en Amérique that Americans are often astonished and even shocked about the familiarity between masters and servants in France. The insolence of Sancho Pansa also fits perfectly into this picture. Such Catholic pseudo-egalitarian sentiment can obviously not spring from the acceptance of a human equality, which does not exist, but from the aforementioned fact that the most important human value — the degree of sinfulness or sanctity — is hidden to our eye and only revealed in its completeness to God. The nonchalantly polite but nevertheless free interclass manners in the Catholic world are the natural consequence of a conventional (nonideological) egalitarianism, based on the profound knowledge that our final status — on the other side of the grave — will be basically different from our present one.

How satisfying, though, it would be to be able to blame the Word rather than God, though that probably still wouldn't clear up John 1:1 for me. Maybe someone who is better at reading (between the lines) will help me with all this sodding Greek.

No comments: