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Eco: Translation

Diego de Torres Rubio de la Copania de Jesus, 1616

Diego de Torres Rubio (1547-1638), Arte de la lengua aymara, Lima, Francisco del Canto, 1616. Digitized courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Today more than ever before, at the end of its long search, European culture is in urgent need of a common language that might heal its linguistic fractures.

Yet, at the same time, Europe needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages, each of which, even the most peripheral, remains the medium through which the genius of a particular ethnic group expresses itself, witness and vehicle of a millennial tradition.

Is it possible to reconcile the need for a common language and the need to defend linguistic heritages?

Both of these needs reflect the same theoretical contradictions as well as the same practical possibilities. The limits of any possible international common language are the same as those of the natural languages on which these languages are modeled: all presuppose a principle of translatability.

If a universal common language claims for itself the capacity to re-express a text written in any other language, it necessarily presumes that, despite the individual genius of any single language, and despite the fact that each language constitutes its own rigid and unique way of seeing, organizing and interpreting the world, it is still always possible to translate from one language to another.

However, if this is a prerequisite inherent to any universal language, it is at the same time a prerequisite inherent to any natural language. It is possible to translate from a natural language into a universal and artificial one for the same reasons that justify and guarantee the translation from a natural language into another.

The intuition that the problem of translation itself presupposed a perfect language is already present in Walter Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce all the linguistic meanings of the source language into a target language, one is forced to place one’s faith in the convergence of all languages.

In each language “taken as a whole, there is a self-identical thing that is meant, a thing which, nevertheless, is accessible to none of these languages taken individually, but only to that totality of all of their intentions taken as reciprocal and complementary, a totality that we call Pure Language [reine Sprache].” (Benjamin 1923).

This reine Sprache is not a real language. If we think of the mystic and Kabbalistic sources which were the inspiration for Benjamin’s thinking, we begin to sense the impending ghost of sacred languages, of something more akin to the secret genius of Pentecostal languages and of the language of birds than to the ideal of the a priori languages.

“Even the desire for translation is unthinkable without this correspondence with the thought of God (Derrida 1980: 217; cf. also Steiner 1975: 64).

In many of the most notable projects for mechanical translation, there exists a notion of a parameter language, which does share many of the characteristics of the a priori languages.

There must, it is argued, exist a tertium comparationis which might allow us to shift from an expression in language A to an expression in language B by deciding that both are equivalent to an expression of a metalanguage C.

If such a tertium really existed, it would be a perfect language; if it did not exist, it would remain a mere postulate on which every translation ought to depend.

The only alternative is to discover a natural language which is so “perfect” (so flexible and powerful) as to serve as a tertium comparationis. In 1603, the Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio published his Arte de lengua Aymara (which he supplemented in 1612 with a Vocabulario de la lengua Aymara).

Aymara is a language still partially spoken by Indians living between Bolivia and Peru, and Bertonio discovered that it displayed an immense flexibility and capability of accommodating neologisms, particularly adapted to the expression of abstract concepts, so much so as to raise a suspicion that it was an artificial invention.

Two centuries later, Emeterio Villamil de Rada described it as the language of Adam, the expression of “an idea anterior to the formation of language,” founded upon “necessary and immutable ideas” and, therefore, a philosophic language if ever there were one (La Lengua de Adan, 1860). After this, it was only a matter of time before the Semitic roots of the Aymara language were “discovered” as well.

Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions.

Thus, to conclude, there have been proposals to use Aymara to resolve all problems of computer translation (see Guzmán de Rosas n.d., which includes a vast bibliography). Unfortunately, “due to its algorithmic nature, the syntax of Aymara would greatly facilitate the translation of any other idiom into its own terms (though not the other way around)” (L. Ramiro Beltran, in Guzmán de Rosas n.d.: III).

Thus, because of its perfection, Aymara can render every thought expressed in other mutually untranslatable languages, but the price of this is that once the perfect language has resolved these thoughts into its own terms, they cannot be translated back into our natural native idioms.

One way out of this dilemma is to assume, as certain authors have recently done, that translation is a matter to be resolved entirely within the destination (or target) language, according to the context.

This means that it is within the framework of the target language that all the semantic and syntactic problems posed by the source text must be resolved.

This is a solution that takes us outside of the problem of perfect languages, or of a tertium comparationis, for it implies that we need to understand expressions formed according to the genius of the source language and to invent a “satisfying” paraphrase according to the genius of the target language.

Yet how are we to establish what the criteria of “satisfaction” could be?

These were theoretical difficulties that Humboldt had already foreseen. If no word in a language exactly corresponds to a word in another one, translation is impossible. At most, translation is an activity, in no way regulated, through which we are able to understand what our own language was unable to say.

Yet if translation implied no more than this it would be subject to a curious contradiction: the possibility of a relation between two languages, A and B, would only occur when A was closed in a full realization of itself, assuming to had understood B, of which nothing could any longer be said, for all that B had to say would by now have been said by A.

Still, what is not excluded is the possibility that, rather than a parameter language, we might elaborate a comparative tool, not itself a language, which might (if only approximately) be expressed in any language, and which might, furthermore, allow us to compare any two linguistic structures that seemed, in themselves, incommensurable.

This instrument or procedure would be able to function in the same way and for the same reason that any natural language is able to translate its own terms into one another by an interpretive principle: according to Peirce, any natural language can serve as a metalanguage to itself, by a process of unlimited semiosis (cf. Eco 1979: 2).

See for instance a table proposed by Nida (1975: 75) that displays the semantic differences in a number of verbs of motion (figure 17.1).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 17.1, p. 348.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 17.1, p. 348.

We can regard this table as an example of an attempt to illustrate, in English–as well as by other semiotic means, such as mathematical signs–what a certain class of English terms mean.

Naturally, the interpretative principle demands that the English speaker also interpret the meaning of limb, and indeed any other terms appearing in the interpretation of the verbal expression.

One is reminded here of Degérando’s observations concerning the infinite regress that may arise from any attempt to analyze fully an apparently primitive term such as to walk.

In reality, however, a language always, as it were, expects to define difficult terms with terms that are easier and less controversial, though by conjectures, guesses and approximations.

Translation proceeds according to the same principle. If one were to wish, for example, to translate Nida’s table from English into Italian, one would probably start by substituting for the English verbs Italian terms that are practically synonymous: correre for run, camminare for walk, danzare for dance, and strisciare for crawl.

As soon as we got to the verb to hop, we would have to pause; there is no direct synonym in Italian for an activity that the Italian-English dictionary might define as “jumping on one leg only.”

Nor is there an adequate Italian synonym for the verb to skip: Italian has various terms, like saltellare, ballonzolare and salterellare; these can approximately render to skip, but they can also translate to frisk, to hop or to trip, and thus do not uniquely specify the sort of alternate hop-shuffle-step movement specified by the English to skip.

Even though Italian lacks a term which adequately conveys the meaning of to skip, the rest of the terms in the table–limb, order of contact, number of limbs–are all definable, if not necessarily by Italian synonyms, at least by means of references to contexts and circumstances.

Even in English, we have to conjecture that, in this table, the term contact must be understood as “contact with the surface the movement takes place upon” rather than as “contact with another limb.”

Either to define or to translate, we thus do not need a full fledged parametric language at our disposition. We assume that all languages have some notion that corresponds to the term limb, because all humans have a similar anatomy.

Furthermore, all cultures probably have ways to distinguish hands from arms, palms from fingers, and, on fingers, the first joint from the second, and the second from the third; and this assumption would be no less true even in a culture, such as Father Mersenne imagined, in which every individual pore, every convolute of a thumb-print had its own individual name.

Thus, by starting from terms whose meanings are known and working to interpret by various means (perhaps including gestures) terms whose meanings are not, proceeding by successive adjustments, an English speaker would be able to convey to an Italian speaker what the phrase John hops is all about.

These are possibilities for more than just the practice of translation; they are the possibilities for coexistence on a continent with a multilingual vocation. Generalized polyglottism is certainly not the solution to Europe’s cultural problems; like Funes “el memorioso” in the story by Borges, a global polyglot would have his or her mind constantly filled by too many images.

The solution for the future is more likely to be in a community of peoples with an increased ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savor the aroma of different dialects.

Polyglot Europe will not be a continent where individuals converse fluently in all the other languages; in the best of cases, it could be a continent where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.

In this way, even those who never learn to speak another language fluently could still participate in its particular genius, catching a glimpse of the particular cultural universe that every individual expresses each time he or she speaks the language of his or her ancestors and his or her own tradition.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 344-51.

Eco: Conclusion


Gustav Doré (1832-1883), The Confusion of Tongues, 1865-68, currently held privately. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Plures linguas scire gloriosum esset, patet exemplo Catonis, Mithridates, Apostolorum.”

Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima

“This story is a gesture of propaganda, in so far as it provided a particular explanation of the origin and variety of languages, by presenting it only as a punishment and a curse [ . . . ] Since the variety of tongues renders a universal communication among men, to say the least, difficult, that was certainly a punishment.

However, it also meant an improvement of the original creative powers of Adam, a proliferation of that force which allowed the production of names by virtue of a divine inspiration.”

J. Trabant, Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache

“Citizens of a multiform Earth, Europeans cannot but listen to the polyphonic cry of human languages. To pay attention to the others who speak their own language is the first step in order to establish a solidarity more concrete than many propaganda discourses.”

Claude Hagège, Le souffle de la langue

“Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe, a semiotic system of understanding the world, and if we have 4,000 different ways to describe the world, this makes us rich. We should be concerned about preserving languages just as we are about ecology.”

V.V. Ivanov, Reconstructing the Past

“I said at the beginning that it was the account in Genesis 11, not Genesis 10, that had prevailed in the collective imagination and, more specifically, in the minds of those who pondered over the plurality of languages.

Despite this, as Demonet has shown (1992), already by the time of the Renaissance, a reconsideration of Genesis 10 was under way, provoking, as we saw, a rethinking of the place of Hebrew as the unchanging language, immutable from the time of Babel.

We can take it that, by then, the multiplicity of tongues was probably accepted as a positive fact both in Hebrew culture and in Christian Kabbalistic circles (Jacquemier 1992). Still, we have to wait until the eighteenth century before the rethinking of Genesis 10 provokes a revaluation of the legend of Babel itself.

In the same years that witnessed the appearance of the first volumes of the Encyclopédie, the abbé Pluche noted in his La méchanique des langues et l’art de les einsegner (1751) that, already by the time of Noah, the first differentiation, if not in the lexicon at least in inflections, between one family of languages and another had occurred.

This historical observation led Pluche on to reflect that the multiplication of languages (no longer, we note, the confusion of languages) was more than a mere natural event: it was socially providential. Naturally, Pluche imagined, people were at first troubled to discover that tribes and families no longer understood each other so easily. In the end, however,

“those who spoke a mutually intelligible language formed a single body and went to live together in the same corner of the world. Thus it was the diversity of languages which provided each country with its own inhabitants and kept them there. It should be noted that the profits of this miraculous and extraordinary mutation have extended to all successive epochs.

From this point on, the more people have mixed, the more they have produced mixtures and novelties in their languages; and the more these languages have multiplied, the harder it becomes to change countries. In this way, the confusion of tongues has fortified that sentiment of attachment upon which love of country is based; the confusion has made men more sedentary.” (pp. 17-8).

This is more than the celebration of the particular “genius” of each single language: the very sense of the myth of Babel has been turned upside down. The natural differentiation of languages has become a positive phenomenon underlying the allocation of peoples to their respective territories, the birth of nations, and the emergence of the sense of national identity.

It is a reversal of meaning that reflects the patriotic pride of an eighteenth century French author: the confusio linguarum was the historically necessary point of departure for the birth of a new sense of the state. Pluche, in effect, seems to be paraphrasing Louis XIV: “L’état c’est la langue.”

In the light of this reinterpretation it is also interesting to read the objections to an international language made by another French writer, one who lived before the great flood of a posteriori projects in the late nineteenth century–Joseph-Marie Degérando, in his work, Des signes. Degérando observed that travelers, scientists and merchants (those who needed a common language) were always a minority in respect of the mass of common citizens who were content to remain at home peaceably speaking their native tongues.

Just because this minority of travelers needed a common language, it did not follow that the majority of sedentary citizens needed one as well. It was the traveler that needed to understand the natives; the natives had no particular need to understand a traveler, who, indeed, had an advantage over them in being able to conceal his thoughts from the peoples he visited (III, 562).

With regard to scientific contact, any common language for science would grow distant from the language of letters, but we know that the language of science and the language of letters influence and fortify each other (III, 570). An international language of purely scientific communication, moreover, would soon become an instrument of secrecy, from which the humble speakers of their native dialects would be excluded (III, 572).

And as to possible literary uses (and we leave Degérando the responsibility for such a vulgar sociological argument), if the authors were obliged to write in a common tongue, they would be exposed to international rivalries, fearing invidious comparisons with the works of foreign writers.

Thus it seems that for Degérando circumspection was a disadvantage for science and an advantage for literature–as it was for the astute and cultivated traveler, more learned than his native and naive interlocutors.

We are, of course, at the end of the century which produced de Rivarol‘s eulogy to the French language. Thus, although Degérando recognized that the world was divided into zones of influence, and that it was normal to speak German in areas under German political influence just as it was normal to speak English in the British Isles, he could still maintain, were it possible to impose an auxiliary language, Europe could do no better than to choose French for self-evident reasons of political power (III, 578-9).

In any case, according to Degérando, the narrow mindedness of most governments made every international project unthinkable: “Should we suppose that the governments wish to come to an agreement over a set of uniform laws for the alteration of national languages? How many times have seen governments arrive at an effective agreement over matters that concern the general interest of society?” (III, 554).

In the background is a prejudice of the eighteenth century–and eighteenth century Frenchmen in particular–that people simply did not wish to learn other tongues, be they universal or foreign. There existed a sort of cultural deafness when faced with polyglottism, a deafness that continues on throughout the nineteenth century to leave visible traces in our own; the only peoples exempt were, remarked Degérando, those of northern Europe, for reasons of pure necessity.

So diffuse was this cultural deafness that he even felt compelled to suggest provocatively (III, 587) that the study of foreign languages was not really the sterile and mechanical exercise that most people thought.

Thus Degérando had no choice but to conduce his extremely skeptical review with an eulogy to the diversity of tongues: diversity placed obstacles in the way of foreign conquerers, prevented undue mixing between different peoples, and helped each people to preserve their national character and the habits which protected the purity of their folkways.

A national language linked a people to their state, stimulated patriotism and the cult of tradition. Degérando admitted that these considerations were hardly compatible with the ideals of universal brotherhood; still, he commented, “in this age of corruption, hearts must, above all else, be turned towards patriotic sentiments; the more egotism progresses, the more dangerous it is to become a cosmopolitan” (IV, 589).

If we wish to find historical precedents for this vigorous affirmation of the profound unity between a people and their language (as a gift due to the Babelic event), we need look no farther than Luther (Declamationes in Genesim, 1527).

It is this tradition, perhaps, that also stands behind Hegel’s decisive revaluation of Babel. For him the construction of the tower is not only a metaphor for the social structures linking a people to their state, but also occasions a celebration of the almost sacred character of collective human labor.

“What is holy?” Goethe asks once in a distich, and answers: “What links many souls together.” . . . In the wide plains of the Euphrates an enormous architectural work was erected; it was built in common, and the aim and content of the work was at the same time the community of those who constructed it.

And the foundation of this social bond does not remain merely a unification on patriarchal lines; on the contrary, the purely family unity has already been superseded, and the building, rising into the clouds, makes objective to itself this earlier and dissolved unity and the realization of a new and wider one.

The ensemble of all the peoples at that period worked at this task and since they all came together to complete an immense work like this, the product of their labor was to be a bond which was to link them together (as we are linked by manners, customs, and the legal constitution of the state) by means of the excavated site and ground, the assembled blocks of stone, and the as it were architectural cultivation of the country.”

(G.W.F. Hegel, trans. T.M. Knox: 638).

In this vision, in which the tower serves as a prefiguration of the ethical state, the theme of the confusion of languages can only be interpreted as meaning that the unity of the state is not a universal, but a unity that gives life to different nations (“this tradition tells us that the peoples, after being assembled in this one center of union for the construction of such a work, were once again dispersed and separated from each other”).

Nevertheless, the undertaking of Babel was still a precondition, the event necessary to set social, political and scientific history in motion, the first glimmerings of the Age of Progress and Reason. This is a dramatic intuition: to the sound of an almost Jacobin roll of muffled drums, the old Adam mounts to the scaffold, his linguistic ancien régime at an end.

And yet Hegel’s sentence did not lead to a capital punishment. The myth of the tower as a failure and as a drama still lives today: “the Tower of Babel […] exhibits an incompleteness, even an impossibility of completing, of totalizing, of saturating, of accomplishing anything which is in the order of building, of architectural construction” (Derrida 1980: 203).

One should remark that Dante (DVE, I, vii) provided a “technological” version of the confusio linguarum. His was the story not so much of the birth of the languages of different ethnic groups as of the proliferation of technical jargons: the architects had their language while the stone bearers had theirs (as if Dante were thinking of the jargons of the corporations of his time).

One is almost tempted to find here a formulation, ante litteram to say the least, of the idea of the social division of labor in terms of a division of linguistic labor.

Somehow Dante’s hint seems to have journeyed through the centuries: in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon wondered whether the confusion of Babel might not have arisen from the fact that, when the workmen came to give names to their tools, each named them in his own way.

The suspicion that these hints reveal a long buried strand in the popular understanding of the story is reinforced by the history of iconography (cf. Minkowski 1983).

From the Middle Ages onwards, in fact, in the pictorial representations of Babel we find so many direct or indirect allusions to human labor–stonemasons, pulleys, squared building stones, block and tackles, plumb lines, compasses, T-squares, winches, plastering equipment, etc.–that these representations have become an important source of our knowledge of medieval building techniques.

And how are we to know whether Dante’s own suggestion might not have arisen from the poet’s acquaintance with the iconography of his times?

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the theme of Babel entered into the repertoire of Dutch artists, who reworked it in innumerable ways (one thinks, of course, of Bruegel), until, in the multiplicity of the number of tools and construction techniques depicted, the Tower of Babel, in its robust solidity, seemed to embody a secular statement of faith in human progress.

By the seventeenth century, artists naturally began to include references to the latest technical innovations, depicting the “marvelous machines” described in a growing number of treatises on mechanical devices.

Even Kircher, who could hardly by accused of secularism, was fascinated by the image of Babel as a prodigious feat of technology; thus, when Father Athanasius wrote his Turris Babel, he concentrated on its engineering, as if he were describing a tower that had once been a finished object.

In the nineteenth century, the theme of Babel began to fall from use, because of a lesser interest in the theological and linguistic aspects of the confusio: in exchange, in the few representations of the event, “the close up gave way to the “group,” representing “humanity,” whose inclination, reaction, or destiny was represented against the background of the “Tower of Babel.”

In these dramatic scenes the focus of the representation is thus given by human masses” (Minkowski 1983: 69). The example that readily springs to mind is in Doré’s illustrated Bible.

By now we are in the century of progress, the century in which the Italian poet, Carducci, celebrated the steam engine in a poem entitled, significantly, Hymn to Satan.

Hegel had taught the century to take pride in the works of Lucifer. Thus the gesture of the gigantic figure that dominates Doré’s engraving is ambiguous. While the tower projects dark shadows on the workmen bearing the immense blocks of marble, a nude turns his face and extends his arm towards a cloud-filled sky.

Is it defiant pride, a curse directed towards a God who has defeated human endeavors? Whatever it is, the gesture certainly does not signify humble resignation in the face of destiny.

Genette has observed (1976: 161) how much the idea of confusio linguarum appears as a felix culpa in romantic authors such as Nodier: natural languages are perfect in so far as they are many, for the truth is many-sided and falsity consists in reducing this plurality into a single definite unity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 337-44.


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