Friday, September 09, 2011

I beg to differ

I just saw this brief post by Dr Vallicella. He writes:

When I hear it said that some text is untranslatable, my stock response is that in that case the text is not worth translating. If it cannot be translated out of Sanskrit or Turkish or German, then what universal human interest could it have?

The truth is one, universal, and absolute. If you have something to say that makes a claim to being true, then it better be translatable. Otherwise it has no claim on our attention.

There's a lot to unpack in the above, and if I were to do the matter justice, I would write a lengthy response. Instead, though, I'll risk rudeness by offering a brief disagreement. In my opinion, the fact that a concept is untranslatable has no bearing on whether it's universally applicable. My favorite example is the Korean term nunchi, which has no exact equivalent in English, and may even defy lengthy explanation, but which is, nevertheless, a universal human quality.

I'd submit that, from the level of the most mundane object to that of the most rarefied philosophical concept, there are myriad untranslatable-yet-universal terms. The untranslatability may have something to do with the way in which our cognitive and perceptual filters are formed by our experiences growing up in our respective cultures. However, our common human "wiring" ensures that, despite those variations, foreign concepts are never as foreign as they seem. Nunchi is knowable, even if the word itself resists translation.

Dr. Vallicella's post makes reference to texts, not to terms, but I think what I've said applies equally to that specific domain: a text is a collection of concepts; if the whole text is somehow untranslatable, this is because certain concepts within the text are untranslatable.



Charles said...

I was going to post a comment on this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is so much I could say on this subject. So look for a Liminality entry on this in the coming week.

Kevin Kim said...

I'll be very curious to read your thoughts on the matter.