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Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Translation: The Truth is Translated, edited by Paul Standish and Naoko Saito

Reviewed by Georgina Edwards, University of Oxford

Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Translation: The Truth is Translated, edited by Paul Standish and Naoko Saito. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017. £85.00. 9781786602893.


In light of the passing of Stanley Cavell last year, this volume is a welcome celebration of the American philosopher’s work and enduring impact. Each of the eleven short chapters provides an original response to Cavell’s thought, revolving around the themes of translation, in the contexts of ordinary language philosophy and education. The book’s subtitle, ‘The Truth is Translated’, is an allusion to the following quotation by Thoreau, cited by Cavell in The Senses of Walden: ‘The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is translated: its literal monument alone remains’ (1). Thoreau’s words are used as a springboard by each of the authors responding to the theme of ‘philosophy as translation’ in this volume.

            Standish and Saito, in their introduction, warn that ‘philosophy as translation’ is ‘in danger of becoming a somewhat vague metaphor for transformation’ (2). Instead, we should see translation as ‘a metonym of our lives’ (2). Saito and Standish choose to focus on intralingual translation, which is ‘not simply a matter of linguistic conversion’, but rather ‘the movement of meaning within language more generally’ (2). The underestimation of interlingual translation is problematic; it is not ‘simply’ linguistic conversion. The complexity of interlingual translation and its importance for philosophy is unfortunately underrepresented in several of the volume’s essays, but this is raised as an issue by some authors (such as Claudia Ruithenberg in Chapter 9). Furthermore, the editors’ argument that they want to move their focus towards intralingual translation and away from ‘the ordinary sense of translation’ (2) seems potentially at odds with their interest in ‘ordinary human experience’ and their claim that intralingual translation is ‘internal to Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy’ (3).

            However, the editors do make a good case for the general importance of translation to philosophy, particularly to pragmatism and the philosophy of education. Translation is useful as it is a process that ‘exposes aspects of language that can easily be ignored’ (5). It cultivates ‘self-criticism and receptiveness of the imagination,’ because when translating ‘our words [are] always being tested in the eyes of others in the language community’ (6). Wouldn’t these qualities also be achieved (perhaps even better) by interlingual translation? It is unclear what is unique to the term that adds to philosophical discussion once the linguistic elements are downplayed.

            For Saito, in the first chapter of the volume, translation is essentially ‘an incessant process of human’s reengagement with language’ (12). This reengagement means that ‘humans are always open to a new possibility of and hope for rebirth and conversion when they are undergoing crisis. Such moments of self-transcendence are crucial components in one’s understanding of other cultures’ (12). Saito writes engagingly about why translation is philosophically interesting, in that it prompts us to think about language, and therefore ourselves and our relationship to others. She advances on this by connecting Cavell’s ordinary language philosophy with translation. ‘Returning language back to the ordinary does not mean to replace philosophy’s language by mundane ordinary words;’ rather, Saito claims, it ‘means to find something uncommon in the common by being reengaged with language’ (13). Again, while these are important points, it is unclear why Saito would not agree that interlingual translation would achieve this reengagement just as well. The need to talk of translation as intralingual, and as a ‘metonym’ rather than a ‘metaphor’, seems to tend towards finding the central “essence” of our language and our lives, the essential part that can represent the whole. This need to find the essential gestures towards a metaphysical point of view, where translation could be the key to all philosophical problems. Saito makes the appealing but aggrandising claim that ‘philosophy as translation’ can show us how ‘the life of humans is always being translated, transformed, and transcended; our selves are always on the way, with the gap and chasm never to be filled’ (20). The equation of translation with the human condition strikes a chord, but once again further clarification is needed to explain why ‘translation’ should be used as opposed to ‘transformation’. By adhering adamantly to the idea of intralingual translation as a metonym of our experience of language, Saito is in danger of downplaying its linguistic features. Yet this is precisely why ‘translation’ has been chosen over other analogous terms for the title of this volume.

            This point sadly does not always come across. There are some essays in the volume (such as Chapter 2, ‘Stanley Cavell, the Ordinary, and the Democratization of Culture(s)’ by Sandra Laugier) in which the inclusion of ‘translation’ seems almost tokenistic. While such chapters have their own merit as studies of ordinary language philosophy, it is not clear what ‘translation’ adds to this discourse. In the general philosophical explorations of intralingual translation (Chapters 7 and 8 by Sami Pihlström and Megan L. Laverty respectively), the volume misses an opportunity to discuss real intralingual issues which could also relate to education – such as dialects, loan words and academic literacy.

            The most successful essays draw a connection between ‘untranslatability’ and education. The premise for this is Saito’s conception of translation as ‘reengagement’ with language, which is developed by Vincent Colapietro in Chapter 3, ‘Speaking Out of a Sense of Our Impoverishment’, and Standish in Chapter 4, ‘Rebuking Hopelessness’. According to Colapietro, translation unsettles our complacency when using language. Confronting the difficulties of translation means that one never speaks with over-confidence; rather with humility, ‘out of a sense of impoverishment’. In a fruitful meditation on a meeting between Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan, Standish turns the potentially pessimistic notion of ‘impoverishment’ into a positive view of translation as a constant necessary process of negotiation and compromise. Language should always be thought of in terms of an encounter with others, and such encounters are opened up by poetry and translation. Standish’s close reading of literary and philosophical texts adds a rich depth to his interpretation of translation as intralingual, which is sometimes lacking elsewhere.

            In Chapter 11, Standish describes how as a student, Cavell hoped that all language could be eliminated of misunderstandings and ambiguities by being perfectly translated into logic (171-2). Cavell later moved away from this idea, towards a view of translation not as a complete process but as one always necessarily incomplete. In Chapter 10, Saito links this process with learning and education. Saito aptly states that ‘We continue education not to know about ourselves, but to realize the little we knew’ (168). Ian Munday, in Chapter 7, usefully highlights how this is a significant point for education, in that ‘frustration and confusion’ are ‘integral to a good education’ (96).

            The connection between translation and education is a valuable one. Joris Vlieghe describes situations of ‘radical translation’ in Chapter 5, as contexts where students and teachers have to rely on communicating in a language that is not their mother tongue. Even native speakers are ‘heirs’ to their language, meaning that they are ‘forced to speak the words of others’ and remain ‘strangers to “our” language’ (81). Through interlingual and intralingual translation, ‘we are constantly required to negotiate the terms we use’ (79). Drawing on his own experiences of teaching, Vlieghe describes how negotiating situations of radical translation are educational in a profound sense, in that they show us 1) that a ‘we’ is developed through our endeavours and 2) that commonality is not a condition of communication, but the result (76).

            This book is just as much about untranslatability as it is about translation. Untranslatability can demonstrate the potential of language as well as its limits. Claudia W. Ruitenberg discusses the benefits of ‘untranslatables’ to education. They enhance the students’ vocabulary, adding ‘nuance and complexity to international education’ (142). Untranslatables also prompt the philosophical insight that concepts are not universal across cultures, or independent of the words that represent them (142). Encountering untranslatables enables us to overcome a ‘oneworldedness’, a complacent acceptance of the dominance of a global language. Ruitenberg’s argument is strengthened by her references to her personal experience teaching students philosophy in English (as a native-speaker of Dutch) and trying to explain foreign terms, such as the German concept of Bildung (147). Such experiences ‘demand that we pause before engaging in “cross-cultural” dialogue’ and therefore ‘cannot take for granted that we speak from a common ground’ (153). Ruitenberg takes issue with Saito’s claim that interlingual translation is ‘simply’ linguistic conversion, arguing that ‘we should not abandon attention to the linguistic aspects of translation too quickly’ (145).

            In this respect, the book manages to resolve some of its own problems and contradictions. The downplaying of interlingual translation is surprising, given that its importance has already been widely acknowledged (such as in the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin). Many of the creative responses and meditations on the philosophical appeal of translation could have been improved by further specifying the distinction between ‘translation’ and analogous terms, such as ‘transformation’. The volume’s originality and greatest success, however, lies in its connecting of translation with the philosophy of education.