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Philosophy's Treason: Studies in Philosophy and Translation, edited by D. M. Spitzer

Reviewed by Byron Taylor, University College London

Philosophy's Treason: Studies in Philosophy and Translation, edited by D. M. Spitzer. Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2020. £45.00. ISBN: 9781622735068.


Translation and Philosophy are vast and capacious disciplines, and it is to D. M. Spitzer’s credit that the volume Philosophy’s Treason (2020) collects contributions from a suitably international range of thinkers, translators, and critics – from Moscow to Rio, Hong Kong to Vienna. Maybe it is too early to say with certainty, but if practitioners of both disciplines are not careful they may come to regret not capitalising on the recent interjections of Barbara Cassin and Emily Apter’s work on untranslatability. The recognition of their mutual importance will need to be sustained in pedagogy and syllabi – as much as in recent research – if it is to continue and develop further.

            By emphasising the ‘treasonous’ nature of a translated work of philosophy, Spitzer’s title may lead some to believe that it follows the ‘instrumentalist’ view of translation Lawrence Venuti has warned scholars against. At its worst, it is one that considers a translation an inherently inferior version of the unquestionable (and thus untranslatable) original, and thereby overlooks the achievements and complexities that translated texts can also extend. Thankfully, this is far from the case, as Spitzer’s introduction elaborates:

To name such actions ‘treasonous’ is metaphorical, yet it also points to a history of the philosopher’s oppositional status, their marginalisation with respect to the state: no wonder Socrates was sentenced to death; that Plato’s Academy was built outside the city walls […] and that, in the last century great figures of the European philosophical scene – Adorno, Arendt – fled a Europe in the grip of totalitarianism. In this political dimension, a pattern of oppositionality within Western philosophies, tolls a third valence of philosophy’s treason: a suspicion that thinking violates, transgresses, betrays, might erode trust in philosophy and philosophers. (xii) 

            The American poet and scholar H. L. Hix opens the collection with an overview of the philosophy that has come explicitly to denounce translation, along with the flaws therein: translational equivalence, he explains, ‘would work, and translation and philosophy sister seamlessly, if words stood to the world as Hobbes insists they do. But they do not’ (6). Hix goes on to stabilise various categories or paths for how Translation and Philosophy’s engagement could continue.

            Brazilian scholar Paulo Oliveira goes on to direct these debates to an analysis of Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances – though more attention to the philosopher’s views on translation itself would have strengthened this argument. Spitzer’s own contribution comes next, marking a significant shift in length and ambition with an extensive, masterful analysis of translative gestures in the work of Immanuel Kant. ‘If,’ Spitzer argues, ‘thinking occurs inseparably from language(s), as language(s), the formulation of philosophic vocabulary constitutes the work of philosophy, the task and operation of thinking itself’ (48). The chapter reflects the merit derived from this engagement of disciplines: work equally targeted at Kantian scholars as to those preoccupied by the phenomena of translation in his work.

            Emerging scholar Sabina Folnović-Jaitner’s contribution comes next, tackling the issue of untranslatability in its recent reincarnations of discourse, before looking more closely into its instances in the work of Martin Heidegger. She reminds us that, while translators complain that untranslatability is untenable, the idea of ‘equivalence’ in translation is a concept disowned by its own scholars, yet remains a topic researched in ‘analytic philosophy, hermeneutics, and deconstruction’ (73). She ends with a brilliant remark on translation and philosophy’s synonymity:

philosophy in itself is a sort of translation […] by studying the history of philosophy, we also study the history of translation. In line with Walter Benjamin’s thought that one should be able to hear the echo of the original resounding in the translation, one may also say that in each philosophical text, the echo of the translation already resonates. (86) 

            Next is, perhaps, the collection’s most impressive contribution, from Natalia S. Avtonomova. That Avtonomova was the first to translate the likes of Derrida, Foucault, and Freud into Russian should lend her more global attention in this field. Beginning by considering the topic in the abstract, the chapter shifts to the post-Soviet thaw in access to academic texts, her own contributions to this process, and the work still to be done in this direction. She recounts the terminological untranslatability of presenting post-structuralist thinkers to post-Soviet audiences, who had largely been isolated from the discourses where these works took shape. Turning to Apter and Cassin’s work, her assessment is refreshingly nuanced:

The Vocabulaire is an open text which is designed to be constantly updated. Yet for us, it is not only a cultural fact but also a cultural challenge. This is certainly a valuable aid, but besides that, it is a perspective, a stimulation of our participation in the overall work, of the realisation of its resources and discursive possibilities of every intellectual culture. (101) 

            Mauricio Mendonça Cardozo’s next chapter is equally far-reaching, as it critiques the institutional and pedagogical issues of Translation and Philosophy, before considering their interaction in anthropological, psychoanalytic, and scholarly contexts. Along the way, Cardozo makes a salient point about Translation Studies (TS), which tends to be increasingly split between the literary and the technological: ‘does the contemporary state of TS (in all research branches) really allow us to speak consensually of one real subject, of one subject that can be taken unequivocally as the real one’ (120)?  Cardozo goes on to elaborate on the relationality of translation in ways that are as philosophical as they are eloquent: ‘every single translational act, no matter how simple, immediate and transparent it may seem, always implies the whole complexity of human conditions’ (126). By way of an anthropological metaphor, Cardozo continues that ‘the way we relate to each other is not just an external, instrumental way to get access to the world, but actually a constitutive and transformative movement of ontological force’ (126):

Translation is not only the practice par excellence that performs relations to/with the other; this is manifest even in the most blatant expression of its instrumental reduction. If one takes its opacity into account, translation becomes evident also as a practice that dramatizes the conditions of possibility and impossibility of relationality. (126) 

            Spitzer’s chosen ending to the collection is an eccentric but interesting one: Douglas Robinson provides a postscript in which he analyses the texts of the volume altogether, commenting on their lacunae, connections, and blind spots. Robinson ends by claiming that no understanding of the topics of this collection is complete without reference to periperformativity. ‘One of the verbs Spitzer uses frequently in his introduction is “perform” – twelve times, in fact, always with salutary effect […] but he does not reach into his theoretical toolkit to pull out for transformative use J. L. Austin’s notion of the performative utterance, and none of the other writers of Philosophy’s Treason does either’ (133). As a strangely abortive conclusion, Robinson suggests ‘the claim of “translatability” or “untranslatability” is likewise a periperformativity,’ (150) before a brief diversion back to Heidegger.

            Curious as its end may be, it does little disservice to what is a slender but bold collection, one that not only envelops the thinking of globally disparate scholars, but also points to new directions for work on these topics. Philosophising translation – and, conversely, rendering philosophy’s dependence on translation more intelligible – can offer us work that is eloquent, thought-provoking, and genuinely original. While, for much of its history, philosophy ‘did not understand itself as the action of translation’ or the ‘object in translation’ (102), Avtonomova insists it is a field that ‘constructs its own language’: ‘it is similar in some ways to a foreign language because one needs to learn it and it does not grow spontaneously on its own’ (96). Both Avtonomova’s and Cardozo’s chapters, especially, offer glimpses of the promise that such dialogue can lead to. If, as Cardozo points out, Translation Studies is split between its literary and technological inquiries, it is high time the former rank demonstrates how elegant and accomplished its inquiries can be.

            Translation Studies is a relatively new field, still in the process of recognising its possibilities. Philosophy, by contrast, is a discipline under longstanding critique for its Anglo-American exclusivity. Calls to ‘decolonise’ its syllabi are frequent, while Cassin and Apter’s Dictionary of Untranslatables (2004) presents perhaps the most articulate and formidable demand for such change. Spitzer’s collection only reaffirms that, if Philosophy as a discipline is genuinely interested in broadening and sustaining its horizons as a part of the Academy in a globalised world, it will struggle to do so for much longer without engaging with translation. Whether reference is made to Apter and Cassin, if (or when) this happens, is of a secondary importance; this change would not have happened without their enduring input. Spitzer’s collection, while accomplished, is not a book that leaves one with a sense of totality, but one that the reader puts down with a sense that the possibilities it gestures to are only now beginning to come to light.