The Untranslatable: Triptych on a Sentence by Rey Chow


The Confusion of Tongues, Gustave Doré, 1865

by M. Munro

I. Dichtung und Wahrheit

Strictly speaking, does not thought—or the act of thinking—always
have the capacity for operating like a foreign language?[1]
—Rey Chow

Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Wittgenstein’s imperative translates, “very roughly,” “Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetry.”[2] Yet how is one to approach that directive? How is one to read it—as poetry, or philosophy? If poetry, following Robert Frost, is, precisely, “what gets lost in translation,” how is one to place what’s proposed here? And where does that leave philosophy?

“Poetry may well be ‘what gets lost in translation,’” Craig Dworkin has conceded, “though the phrase should be understood not in the sense of elegiac ruination or privation, but of absorption and reverie—in the way one might be lost in thought.”[3]

Only in poetry lost in thought, as in another language, may philosophy be found.

II. The Untranslatable

Strictly speaking, does not thought—or the act of thinking—always
have the capacity for operating like a foreign language?[4]
—Rey Chow

“To speak of untranslatables,” as does Barbara Cassin, general editor of the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, “in no way implies that the terms in question, or the expressions, the syntactical or grammatical turns, are not and cannot be translated: the untranslatable is rather what one keeps on (not) translating.”[5] Insofar as the untranslatable is that which one cannot translate, it is by definition what one cannot help but translate. And yet, in translating the untranslatable—interminably—what will one have communicated?

However intractable “the terms in question, or the expressions, the syntactical or grammatical turns,” whatever the recalcitrance, what will have eluded each of the untranslatable’s multiple and variegated translations is, in ceaselessly inspiring them, the incorrigible foreignness of thought (un mirage interne des mots mêmes, as Mallarmé has it).[6] On this point one should amend Novalis with the words of the German travel writer Waldemar Bonsels: Philosophy really is homesickness—homesickness for a foreign country.[7]

III. Exile

Strictly speaking, does not thought—or the act of thinking—always
have the capacity for operating like a foreign language?[8]
—Rey Chow

Near the end of his 1975 novel Juan sin Tierra, Juan Goytisolo writes, Si en lo futuro escribes, será en otra lengua, “If you write in the future, it will be in another language.”[9] That sentence, “like all those of its grammatical form,” Daniel Heller-Roazen observes, “is ambiguous”: if it’s not taken to be “a statement describing a state of affairs (albeit of a particular variety in this case, being ones that have yet to take place),” it will be understood to be “a command, an imperative couched in the indicative mood. In the first sense,” therefore, “the words have a straightforward constantive value; in the second,” however, “they have the form of an injunction that could be paraphrased as ‘if you write in the future, you must do so in another language,’ or, more forcefully and fully, ‘if you write again, it cannot be as you have written and write now; if you write again, it must be otherwise, in another language.’”[10] How is one to understand that sentence and the language in which it is written? By what departure will one have heard it for what it says?

“A philosopher begins by hearing his native language as a foreign tongue”[11]—and that for perhaps no one “more forcefully and fully” than for he who was until then a poet: “He wrote of ‘the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ precisely to mask the fact that philosophy did not even exist until he composed The Republic, where he first announces the quarrel, and that it was he who was on the side of the new and against the traditional.”[12]

A shorter version of this piece was previously published at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.


[1] Rey Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 42.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted and translated in Marjorie Perloff, “‘Literature’ in the Expanded Field,” in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. Charles Bernheimer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 184 [175 -186]. Thomas Basbøll has noted that Wittgenstein’s dictum “means, somewhat less elegantly than the German, that ‘one ought really to do philosophy as poetry.’ The German word ‘dichten’ is the verb form of ‘Dichtung,’ which means ‘poetry.’ To my knowledge there is no such thing as poeting in English.” Thomas Basbøll, “Epiphany,” The Pangrammaticon, June 18, 2005, “In any case,” Basbøll concludes, “modifying Peter Winch’s translation a bit, we can render this more naturally as, ‘One ought really only to compose philosophy (as one composes poetry).’”

[3] Craig Dworkin, No Medium (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013), 124. Rémi Brague, “Europe,” Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin, trans. eds. Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 324 [323-328]: “In this history of translations, one paradox awaits us at the outset: the word itself that designates philosophy was never translated, literally speaking, into European languages. It is the untranslatable par excellence.”

[4] Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker, 42.

[5] Barbara Cassin, “Introduction,” Dictionary of Untranslatables, xvii [xvii-xx].

[6] Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted in Richard Serrano, “Fans, Silk, and Ptyx: Mallarmé and Classical Chinese Poetry,” Comparative Literature 50, 3 (1998), 228 [220-240].

[7] Waldemar Bonsels, quoted and translated in John Zilcosky, Kafkas Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism, and the Traffic of Writing (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 4, 29, inter alia.

[8] Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker, 42.

[9] Juan Goytisolo, quoted and translated in Daniel Heller-Roazen, “Speaking in Tongues,” Paragraph 25 (2002), 108 [92-115].

[10] Heller-Roazen, “Speaking in Tongues,” 108-109.

[11] Michael Kinnucan, “Philosophy in Translation, Philosophy as Translation Asymptote (July 2014) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 98: “To be a foreigner, but in one’s own tongue, not only when speaking a language other than one’s own. To be bilingual, multilingual, but in one and the same language, without even a dialect or patois.”

[12] Alexander Nehamas, “An Essay on Beauty and Judgment,” Three Penny Review 80 (Winter 2000), John Sallis, On Translation (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2002), 60: “Here for the first time the structure, the basic constitution, of translation is determined; here the Platonic text declares what may be called the protoclassical determination of translation. But in this determination everything depends on how the single word διάνοια [thought, in a word] is understood.”

About the Author:

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Theory is like a Surging Sea (Punctum books, 2015).