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Untranslatability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Duncan Large et al.

Reviewed by Byron Taylor, University College London

Untranslatability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Duncan Large, Motoko Akashi, Wanda Jóźwikowska, and Emily Rose. London: Routledge, 2018. £115. ISBN: 9781138082571.


We assumed, for a while, that globalisation was as continuous as it was inevitable; nowadays, we are less certain. In such a climate, what better time for the theme of the ‘untranslatable’? For Duncan Large, ‘untranslatability has always been both a philosophical problem, and a problem for philosophy’ (50). In the wake of resurgent nationalisms on every continent, ‘untranslatability has never had a higher profile than at present.’ (2) The question no contributor here can avoid is a simple one: does such a thing as an ‘untranslatable’ exist?

            The topic’s academic attention was sparked by two highly significant works, published in close succession: Emily Apter’s ‘Against World Literature’ (2013) and the English translation of Barbara Cassin’s ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables’ (2014). Apter argued that literary critics must learn to ‘think of translation as a kind of philosophy, or as a way of doing theory,’ and claimed her aim was ‘to activate untranslatability as a theoretical fulcrum of comparative literature.’ (2013: 247; 3-4) Cassin’s ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables’ (2004/2014) meanwhile, was more ambitious still: her Dictionary contains hundreds of such words, each entry an overview. With each word, we see its etymology, altering usages, philosophical purchase, with contributors ranging from linguists to translators to philosophers, from Judith Butler to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

            Fittingly, Cassin’s opening chapter rearticulates the Dictionary’s purposes once more. Addressing the questions that have plagued its reception (its critics ranging from Carlo Ginzburg to Lawrence Venuti) Cassin’s entry reads like an afterword to the Dictionary and a prelude to this collection. She responds to her critics with a palpable relief, and ends her chapter with a statement as bombastic as the Dictionary itself:

‘there is no point of view that sees all points of view, no Leibnizian God who, if each language is a vision of the world, possesses the tota simul vision of all visions. If there is a God, it is rather a translator God.’ (22-3)  

            In Chapter 2, Theo Hermans’ masterful overview chops confidently between Apter’s and Cassin’s projects, before approaching his case studies: Juan de Betanzos, a Spanish interpreter who learned Quechua in Peru; Thomas Harriot, an Early Modern scientist who invented a phonetic alphabet for native American dialects; Matteo Ricci, the first Italian Jesuit to learn Chinese. ‘What renders these cases compelling as well as colourful is the complex set of entanglements, agendas, preoccupations, needs and desires that made up their outlook.’ (33) Their contexts remind us that ‘the concrete, real-life entanglements’ of such figures ‘cut through the theoretical problems’ recently posed. (33) Largely complimentary of Apter and Cassin’s work, his contention lies in the scope of what their version of untranslatability comes to accommodate: acknowledging how it seems to stand for ‘the bumps in the road which give translators occasion to pause and reflect,’ he expresses concern that ‘if every hesitation is an index of untranslatability, there is little else besides untranslatability.’ (38) Where and how do we draw the theoretical line?

            It is a question that co-editor Large begins by articulating next: ‘Any attempt to define untranslatability is obliged to map the contours of the translatable, to delimit its furthest extent, and that in turn presupposes a definition of translation itself.’ (50) Tracing the earlier genealogies of Cassin’s project, Large claims the German Romantics were keen on ‘philosophising translation in a minor key,’ (55) before turning to his recent translations of Nietzsche’s complete works. It is a perfectly-written meditation on how philosophy and translation are forever at odds. Philosophy may aspire to be timeless, but translation must always be revised to stay relevant.

            Klaus Mundt’s chapter argues that the recent popularity of the concept of untranslatability reflects a novice’s naivete, ‘a concept that seems to work best in an artificial, theoretical environment with deliberately narrow definitions of translation.’ (65) He seems less interested in engaging with Apter and Cassin than revealing that their project, as he sees it, is symptomatic of a postmodern ideology that has spread ‘around the globe, creating in many parts of academia a somewhat homogenised school of thought.’ (71) David Gramling’s chapter proves perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive of all the contributions, examining a series of clashes caused by this controversial term, be it in translation, philosophy, political theory or advertising. Both chapters impress upon the reader the sheer scope that the topic entails.

            As the collection moves towards issues encountered before, during and after literary translation, untranslatability comes to the fore as a variety of practical problems. Phillip Wilson explores the untranslatability of an ineffable God in various theological texts, with help from Wittgenstein’s early work and the more accessible thoughts of David Bellos. Simon Everett claims that Chinese regulated verse ‘is impossible to translate in its entirety,’ yet ‘such an inflexible stance’ (114) does not foreclose a historical narrative that encompasses the 8th century T’ang poets and ends with a demand for translators to continue ‘doing the undoable.’ (125)

            Helen Gibson suggests next that translations themselves ‘may play with, and shift between, modes of translatability and untranslatability,’ dealing more delicately with the issues of cultural comparability than ‘Apter’s large-scale analysis accommodates.’ (129) She finds impressive confirmation of this in her exploration of how poet Ciaran Carson made Dante’s Inferno resemble the murky checkpoints and conflicts of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Wanda Józwikowska’s contribution offers a grand historical landscape of Polish Jewish interwar fiction, tracing how such texts have battled with cultural exclusion, anti-Semitism and Communist censorship, only to now find themselves hopelessly untranslated amidst the country’s recent rise in nationalism. Józwikowska makes the convincing case that a work’s untranslated status or ‘untranslatability,’ stems from broader issues than linguistic eccentricity.

            Continuing in this vein, Emily Rose and Andrea Stojikov present projective assessments of translations (that is, of translations that do not yet exist). Rose revisits a 1646 Basque memoir by Catalina de Erauso where the first-person singular shifts between masculine and feminine. It is vital, Rose claims, ‘that undecidability be maintained in translation so that the text is not cheated’ (162). A new translation, in such cases, ‘can counter the fossilisation of 17th century gender identifications but can also be a locus of trans engagement today.’ (164) Picking up an autobiography from a famous Yugoslav musician, Andrea Stojikov claims that due to the book’s ‘strong cultural embeddedness, its translation into English would be rather tricky: the text could be deemed untranslatable.’ (178) Enumerating references now lost with the fall of Tito, Stojikov anticipates how some texts are doomed to singularity when their context crumbles.

            In the final chapter, Joanna Drugon scales empirical NHS data to detail the necessity of translation when multiculturalism meets medical demand. Pointing out that 25% of UK births in 2013 were to women born abroad, she asks us to ‘consider a Tagalog-speaking mother, speaking to a Tagalog-mother tongue interpreter, who then translates English for a Polish-mother tongue midwife.’ (207) Such speculations close the collection with a reminder that issues of untranslatability reverberates far beyond the realms of academic debate.

            However diverse its contributions, the book’s quality is consistent, singular and assured. While many collections aim for such standards, its diversity never feels forced, nor does the topic ever feel stretched beyond its scope of relevance. All the contributions are referring and responding to Apter and Cassin’s work, nevertheless in ways that are diverse and original each time. The contributors who are translators themselves, inevitably, baulk at a notion that refutes their profession. As Gramling sarcastically puts it, the topic of untranslatability ‘exacerbates the sense among translators that theorists who do not themselves translate (often, well or at all) ought perhaps to go ahead and translate a novel or poem cycle before writing an essay about untranslatability.’ (86) Some concerns are of a more practical nature: how applicable can such grand projects be to literary criticism? While Everett applauds Apter’s originality, ‘it is less clear how individual literary translations might enact the kind of untranslatability she advocates.’ (129)

            This does not mean that Cassin’s appearance in this volume feels like that of an uninvited guest. The collection is aware of the works to which it owes its themes – though the range of approaches prevent repetition, or a sense of slavish praise. It successfully addresses the void between these works and the wealth of translation studies, between theoretical comparatists and practicing translators. While the collection does not necessarily put such debates to rest, the range provided does not make us wish for closure. As this brilliant collection amply demonstrates, engagement with Apter and Cassin’s work is far from over.