It is not enough for language to have clarity and content… it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion. ~Rene Daumal
If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing [up], it would have been permitted. ~Franz Kafka
We begin our conference today with a rather bold opening. We will explore the underlying problematic of hermeneutics as first articulated by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 19th Century. We begin, in short, with a consideration of the concept of human understanding. And we will enjoin this discussion by drawing attention to a rather curious fact. It seems that some folks believe the problem of understanding — among speakers of different languages and from diverse cultures — that this problem has already been solved. Yes, you heard me correctly. And they call this solution… mathematics! As one relatively unknown novelist and screenwriter, Nathaneal West, noted:
Numbers constitute the only universal language.
Yet there are other, perhaps brighter minds, who did not feel as comfortable drawing such a conclusion. Albert Einstein, for example, wrote,
Mathematics are well and good but nature keeps dragging us around by the nose.
Then, of course, we have the more cynical perspective voiced by Charles Darwin.
A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there.
So much for a consensus opinion among the community of scholars. Now let’s examine the problem by trying to negotiate a biblical passage, the principal home of hermeneutical theory. Let’s look at the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11:1-9.
1 Now the whole world had one common language. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Despite what we might otherwise believe, I do not see the story of Babel as principally about the multiplicity of spoken tongues (i.e., the confusion of men). Let’s look more closely.
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens…
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building…
Very quickly, the tale focuses on the city and the building of the tower itself. But what was it that provided the impetus for urban life, enabling its diverse and newly-minted citizenry to coordinate and execute the building of such a tower? Again from Genesis.
6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
The Tower (no doubt a real Babylonian Ziggurat) — itself a metaphor for the burgeoning of urban life in ancient Mesopotamia — is the product of a new (and unifying) mode of thought and communication. The “one language,” I would argue, refers to advent of the the technology of writing — and subsequently, of unambiguously univocal communications, including the consequent emergence of clear codes of conduct to guide civic interaction. In other words, it heralds the arrival of history, the establishment of the first written laws, and the earliest signs of kingship. We see this, for example, in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian text dating back some 4,000 years, one of the oldest known written documents. (The Book of Genesis itself is thought to be 3,500 years old.)
Of course, this situation may have been forced by the break-up of pre-urban clans and the accumulation of newly estranged indigenous (tribal) peoples within the anonymity of the city center. These conditions demanded a severe change in the nature of human communication, including the removal of any polysemic ambiguity found in primal speech, and the articulation of a strictly univocal semantic. Such linguistic conceptualization was finally effected with the invention of the syllogism and applied by legislators, scientists, and other specialists down through the ages. In this newly established logistic hierarchy, universal statements were related to particular circumstances, leading to logical legal and scientific conclusions.
This [tripartite logistic] form becomes a foundation-layer of both the internal and external life of the West. We can call [this] logistic stratum of the univocal linguistic hierarchy the curriculum of the West. (Bram, 2002: 26)
So, it’s entirely feasible that the impetus for the biblical story is precisely the emergence of a new mode of thought, syllogistic reasoning — itself dependent upon the emergence of writing — with its ability to unify and subordinate disparate elements within a single logistic framework (e.g., All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Therefore Socrates is mortal.) And, yes, this would also include the syllogism’s perfection in mathematical laws as well (If A=B and B=C, then A=C).
The very process of urbanization, as well as coordination and management of such civic work-projects, thus required the unambiguous articulation of clear rules, accurate accounting, and above all, the hierarchical authority of enforcement. [Incidentally, this may be why the God of the Israelites was so upset at the tower, the man-made laws and their growing hierarchy (kingship)].
I am the Lord your God, King of the Universe. And thou shalt have no other gods before me!
Clear and imperative, no?
Why else would the tale reference a divine intervention, attempting to confuse yet again the tongues of man.
7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Without a doubt, animism, totemism, and polytheism went into a death spiral with the advent of writing, while Monotheism was born and flourished. And yet, in conformity with this growing universal logic, the earliest empires of the ancient Near East established themselves and blossomed, despite marginal attempts to reassert the primal, polysemic and pre-rational discourse of myth.
In short, this biblical tale represents the death throes of mythic consciousness, and the emergence of historical thought, along with the terror of history that would accompany it. And while Daumal, quoted above, feared that language lacking clarity and imperatives — ‘Thou Shalt’ — would quickly descend into chatter and then into babble (or perhaps even worse… into myth); this tale was an expression of regret over the breakdown of mythic consciousness in conjunction with a burgeoning historical perception, a sense of loss of the openness to a present filled by the polysemic nature of the mythic word.
But, what was really lost with the emergence of historical consciousness as a consequence of this new technology of writing? What was forsaken in the subordination of speech to the universal grammar of literacy and the sterile logic of the syllogism, and finally the mechanical procedures of mathematics? What was in fact lost were those rich (polysemic) textures of mythic speech, and the natural dialogue they reflected of our multiple engagements within a living, breathing and responsive cosmos. “As the written word began speaking, the stones fell silent… the trees became mute, the other animals dumb,” said David Abrams in his work, The Spell of the Sensuous.
As the computer screen glows brightly, turning my typed words into a series of ‘1s’ and ‘0s,’ it magically (or perhaps, mechanically) does my translation work for me, turning Greek into Latin, Chinese into Arabic, and Russian into English. Are not numbers, then, the most miraculous of things in the world? Are they not the solution to the challenge of translation, and to creating one shared human understanding?
Actually, I would rather choose to agree with Einstein on this matter. Mathematics is not the solution it claims to be; it does not really address the concreteness of the world-as-lived, a world into which we find ourselves always, already thrown — embodied, and intertwined within a living territory that includes and surrounds us. Nature does indeed keep ‘dragging us around by the nose.’ The point here is that along with the mechanics of writing, typing, or key-stroking, many of us came to believe that translation itself was a mechanical exercise. It is not. It’s an organic process. A translation that is truly adequate to communication, that is to say, to human understanding, must grow from the rich soil of the lived-experience it seeks to re-present in other tongues. It is only in this way that translation can hope to bring real understanding.
This, then, still remains our principal concern — the hermeneutical question of understanding. Translation needs to be addressed within the context of a broader problematic, answering to the concrete facticity of lived-experience. It requires a reconstitution of our taken-for-granted worldview within the framework of an alternative perspective, a perspective grounded in a different set of assumptions and somewhat unique lived-experience. It requires us to look beyond our own engagement in the world, how we interpret it and communicate it. Legitimate translation necessitates that we grasp (to some degree) the life-world of the speaker or hearer in the targeted language (i.e., how the message is received).
Exploring translation in these terms, we must excavate the problem utilizing some of the terminology and theoretical underlayment bequeathed us by philosophical hermeneutics, literary criticism, and reception theory. Translation itself is not an isolated exercise occurring in a vacuum. Rather, it happens within a concrete environment, and it is thoroughly context dependent. The event of translation always resolves itself within the history of an understanding that has already become commonplace within a specific cultural milieu, it’s phrases and its grammatical nuances. How words are used already within the other culture is critical to how the interpreter decides to translate for an outsider’s understanding, as well as how these “outsiders” themselves see, receive, or understand the intended message. In this respect, it is not just an issue of how my fellow citizens receive the message (or text), but rather how a foreign reader (the culturally objectified Other) receives the message in translation.
This, then, brings us to the headwaters an even broader concern, what Hans-Georg Gadamer, in his magnum opus, Truth and Method, referred to as the philosophical problem of pre-understanding. We need to explore this concept and consider how it affects and conditions everything we hear, read or otherwise perceive — from a brief dialogue with a friend online, to our hearing of a biblical passage in church, reading a novel by Dostoyevsky, or, finally, watching a newscast on television quoting Barack Obama. Certain cultural presuppositions or prejudices, pre-reflectively color the way we read a text, hear a communication, or otherwise understand a sign, even a casual advertisement along the roadside driving to Biysk, or deplaning from Aeroflot at Kennedy airport in New York City.
As Gadamer points out:
Our attempts to understand a work [a phrase, a work of art, a translation] will depend upon the questions which our own cultural environment (our past) allows us to raise… Our present perspective always involves a relationship to the past…
This is the horizon against which we always, already comprehend. And that goes for every person and culture on the face of the earth. There will, and must be, a “fusion of horizons,” as Gadamer describes it, in order that genuine understanding emerge. And this is the key to effective translation. In any translation event, there are two disparate cultural horizons — each steeped in its own unique history and replete with its own idiosyncratic expectations — two disparate horizons meeting at the intersection of textual translation. Concretely, the event of understanding is achieved by means of overcoming pre-conscious cultural resistances or prejudices (as well as fixing on potential points of access) which that meeting of horizons forces upon us. The messenger (translator) must, in some degree, come to share in the intended recipient’s horizon of meaning in order to make her act of translation understood. This, as well, is the most difficult challenge for any individual living within a foreign culture… who, like an anthropologist in the field, manages to develop “deep doubts concerning what he had previously taken for granted” (Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture). I’ve experienced some of that myself over the better part of ten years here in Altai.
There are obviously a multitude of issues confronting the translator, but there is an overriding theme that presents itself above all others. Every language gives voice a concrete way of being-in-the-world, a unique life-world, if you will; and that world, as-experienced, is never precisely identical across cultures because the presuppositions that inform them are often idiosyncratic, each bearing some of the remnants or markers of pre-literate oral traditions, some even with polysemy still abounding. Thus, translation is never just about substituting a word in one language for that in another, it is not a mere transposition from one key into a different one. It is, rather, about overcoming the limits of one’s own pre-understanding — enlarging one’s perspective — in part by adopting the position of the recipient and his culture, even as one remains herself native to a different worldview. It is about getting underneath the structure of the life-world disclosed by the grammar, the logic, and the aesthetics of the language into or from which one is translating. It is a matter of adopting a broader set of presuppositions, developing a new pre-understanding that allows one to grasp the reality disclosed by the structure of the target language and the life-world it pre-reflectively discloses.
In closing, let me be clear. Writing was the foundation stone for construction of the Tower of Babel, the advent of univocity — ‘speaking with one voice’ — where one word (ideally) had one, and only one, meaning. This watershed event spelled the eclipse of polysemy and the death of myth. It heralded the birth of history, the voice of syllogistic reason, and the story of human progress we have come to embrace as a singular, universal reality; while nature (including other animals) in their turn became dumb and silent; dead or objectified matter to be used or manipulated for the benefit of humankind. As Tim Ingold, ethnographer, confirms in his work, The Perception of the Environment.
the responsibility for reducing the world to a realm of manipulable objects lies not with the hegemony of vision but with a ‘certain narrow conception of thought.’
Translation, that is to say, unthinking mechanical translation, becomes a hand-maiden to this process of sterilization — rationalizing experience, reducing variability, cleansing cultural difference, and whitewashing the lived-world — to make it homogeneous and sanitized.
It is the same voice we hear today about a global world order, about imperial hegemony, and it is what we experience when we see new American shops —Subway, McDonalds, H&M Clothes, and KFC — opening right here in Barnaul. They are all ziggurats in their own right, projecting US hegemonic power around the globe. In fact, we are still in the late death throes of myth, and there is disparity still evident in the variety of spoken tongues. But the imperialists are moving quickly to close that divide.
Don’t be fooled again!
Presuppositions create their own realities and their own illusions. So, even where translation is not the issue, genuine communication across cultures demands that one sees beyond his or her own myopic view, and genuinely seeks to grasp the Other on his own terms, with an appreciation of their cultural pre-understanding. Is there, in the West, any legitimate sense for the life-world, the presuppositions of Russia or the Russian people, for Syria or the Syrian people, or any number of other far and remote locales? Or is it all just selfish pursuit, gearing up the war machine, and glad-handing niceties? Have the majority of Westerners become so enamored with their own prejudices, their own lived-experience, that they fail to see through another’s eyes? Collectively, we in the West must begin to realize that while some crazy-logic (rationalization) has come to dominate our current thinking and discourse, the primitive roots of our humanity are still crying to be heard. We needn’t speak with one voice. That may be impossible. But we should learn to hear the polysemy of voices speaking back to us.