Stavros Deligiorgis, At the Limits of Translation East and West or The Ethological Engram

|Editorial, Nr. 33-34 iulie-august 2018, Revista de Traduceri Literare

The diversity of languages is not a diversity of sounds and signs (Schällen und Zeichen)
but a diversity of their views of the world (Wilhelm von Humboldt, 1820,
” . . . die Verschiedenheit der Weltansichten,” Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 4:27, 1903–36)

The name that no human research can discover —
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable

Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
S. Eliot, The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939

Freund, es ist auch genug. Im Fall du mehr willst lesen,
So geh und werde selbst die Schrift und selbst das Wesen.
Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann, 1675

Very recently two friends of mine wrote me about encountering some obscure documents regarding the passing on of Confucian sayings (551 BCE – 479 BCE) to later generations of Chinese and Japanese readers. The gist of the documents was that whole collections of Confucius’ sayings in Chinese were potential failures since they did not really ensure the ushering of their readers to the primordial “source” of the published wisdom and, thence, to a face-to-face meeting with the Master himself. The editions, regardless of their philological status, were at best expected to be summarily transcended and set aside once the goal of the mystical encounter with the Master was in sight.

Among the Chinese scholars neither the Confucian Mengzi (4th century BCE) nor the Daoist Zhuangzi (4th to 3rd century BCE) seemed to care much about the textual rendering of the sayings. Mengzi, as a matter of fact, goes directly to the subject of interpreting the actual linguistic material of Confucius’ “Book of Songs” by suggesting that the words of a poem had better not overshadow the importance of the verse they are used in. And the verses, in turn, had better not get in the way of the process of accessing the concepts roiling in the poet’s mind.

Zhuangzi reduces even pure content to the overarching metatextual instrumentality of the verbal medium. “Traps exist because fish exist. Once you’ve caught the fish you stop thinking about the traps. Rabbit snares exist because rabbits exist. When you’ve caught the rabbit you stop thinking about the snare. Words exist because meaning exists. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you don’t think about the words. I have been looking for a man who has gotten the meaning and is done with words so I can talk with him.” It would be worth remembering it was Confucius himself, in his Appendix to the I-Ching, that articulated the ideal of unmediated communication that is far superior to any definition of language by first demoting “writing, that cannot capture all that is said” and, in a second move, demoting speech “that cannot capture all that is meant.1

My friends were equally dismayed to discover a similar tendency in Ogyü Sorai (1666-1728), an illustrious Japanese historian and analyst of Confucian ideas. Sorai’s overview of the history of Confucius studies is important for several reasons. He first openly wished Confucians would stop interpreting Confucius because the ridiculous amounts of accumulated commentary in editions he knew both distorted and obscured the chief Confucian message. Sorai’s second complaint was the Japanese Confucians’ habit of reciting the Chinese originals from books using diacritical marks that made the most commonplace statement sound lofty. Sorai sincerely hoped that readers of Confucius would find themselves in some kind of neutral space, cleared of exegetical overkill and able to hear from the master directly.2

The double ideal of the Taoist / Confucian wordless contact with “wisdom” via a dispensable textual crib was reinforced in China, and finally Japan, by the centuries-long influx of Buddhist translations from Sanskrit into Chinese. Huángbò Xīyùn (Huang Po, 850 CE), whose teachings on the pure transmission of the mind are indubitably elaborations of the dialogue between the Buddha and Mahāmati—un nome parlante, for “wisdom”—in the Lankavatara sutra (Descent to Lanka, the island of demons; composed about 350-400 CE and translated into Chinese between 420 CE and 704). Buddhism, especially of the variant that would reach Japan, had already so structured itself that it assumed that every seeker of the supreme experience of “Buddhahood” be a meditator first and foremost, living in a monastic community, probably under the guidance of a superior who would first model the non-discursive mode of attaining “illumination” by the use of koans and then disposing of them also. The most iconic illustration of this progression is the ink drawing of Bodhidharma look-alikes laughing their hearts out, their hands throwing unneeded sutras in the air.3

It was the oriental scholars’ unconcern about the importance of the precise reconstruction most of us expect from an ancient cultural document that offended my two western colleagues. They, as well as we all, have so essentialized the “word” and its centrality to any definition of cultural import that talk of experiences above or beyond words becomes unacceptable.

Fixed-order texts, sacred as well as civic, since their Sumero-Accadian use in formation training, have so thoroughly occulted their origins in magic and in ritualistic sacramentalism that any discussion querying their value or their validity is instantly viewed as anti-social. In other words, we are back in the mid-nineteen fifties once more: On the one hand Jacques Derrida was promoting extreme anti-logocentric theses attracting theorists and experimenters of every stripe. On the other scores of Christian theologians were discovering “higher” Bible criticism, casting stylo-statistical doubts on some of the logia of Christ in the gospels. And while the basic Christian conversion formula could be a simple ennoncé (” . . . by one’s words” one is either saved or doomed, Matthew 12:37; Romans 10:8-10; parall. Deut. 30:14) a very close existential synching with the divinity was also available conceivably in a supra-verbal mode, as in Paul of Tarsus’ words regarding the believers’ “mind of Christ,” 1Cor. 2:16. Which should take us even further back, in the times of the pre-Socratics, with God-as-mind having already been proposed by Xenophanes of Colophon in the sixth century BCE.4

The philologico-legal accuracy the western mind so persistently projects on words could as easily be viewed as another social and “scientific” convention in itself, if not an illusion, to echo Huángbò’s terms. Valorizing words above “meaning,”5 is adhered to probably by the overwhelming majority of Euro-American readerships acculturated under the pervasive Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman value system since the beginnings almost of the Common Era. Clayton Eshleman, an important contemporary American poet and translator, for example, will not for one moment relinquish the primacy of the word in matters creative and interpretative. “Each one of us who cherishes poetry . . . is under the complex charge of a world letter that means getting the word out and keeping the word intact, unpacking words and weighting words, ‘keeping the divine vision in a time of trouble.’6

Plato’s Cratyllus must have been among the earliest dialogues to raise the question whether or not words are indeed what our minds have always believed them to be, Freud being among the few modernists to make use, in psychoanalysis, of the newly discovered contradictory polysemy of most Proto-IndoEuropean roots in the languages spoken by his clients.7

Indoctrinated as we all are to the jingle that words are tools that facilitate communication we may find it difficult to see how users of Proto-Indo-European could convey necessary information amongst themselves if “high” could so easily be understood to mean “deep,” and “dark” to mean “bright.” Perhaps we might do well to ask what are we are missing whenever we overhear oriental readers crudely say they could do without words. Could the speechless, contemplative mode that is reserved for the apex of the human experience be but a phenomenon due to the fact that Sino-Japonic languages are uninflected?

Indeed, I do affirm the creative possibilities of an esthetic that ignores or by-passes the gravitational pull of the innate psycho-cerebral matrices that most of us SAE’s—Benjamin Lee Whorf’s term for Standard Average European users of the Romance, Germanic, Balto-Slavic and Balkan languages—call our cherished “parts of speech,” the rails that permit the translating of countless systems across most of the ultimate analytical categories of being, becoming, quality, quantity, causality, agency and contingency, from one psychosocial order to another. Wilhelm von Humboldt is typically understood to imply that the worldview of a community is reflected in the grammar of its language. Shouldn’t we, perhaps, reverse the theorem and imagine that it is the particular dynamics of any grammar, a language’s parts of speech and syntax that are projected onto the universe in order to structure it “in the grammar’s likeness?” If a sentence like ” . . . had I been there . . . ,” expressing a spatiotemporal / hypothetical situation is inconceivable in certain languages, or so the rest of humanity thinks, is it because the grammatical logic of these languages “does not compute,” or because parts of speech, particles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs etc are not there to visualize a semblance of coherence to the situation and (re)produce a Gestalt of it?8

Entire aspects of the world cannot be posited to exist because of the makeup of human languages, in general, and because of the intrinsic, probably evolutionary neurological basis of speech—from grunt to articulated syllables—creating languages, in particular, that choose not to process classable data requiring sharper differentiations (if the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary could serve as an example) between originally very ambiguous lexemes.

The scenario could be reversed yet another, Moebius strip-like way, that might yield much greater possibilities of topological organization. Were we to imagine a language with forty-five parts of speech, and I am assured by anthropologists that such languages do exist, wouldn’t the simple Confucian / Taoist / Buddhist phrase that is so insouciantly translated as “I wish I could be there and speak with the Master” have a depth of resonances and implications that would be beyond the ken of the SAE languages to imagine which, according to von Humboldt, have been blessed by rich inflectional structures and are therefore superior to all others?

A short excursus in translation and the myriad ways it ought to serve the language of literature would be in order at this point. The longed for intimacy in supra-personal communication one finds in at least three Oriental traditions is not unknown in the civilizations of the Near East, starting with the Sumero-Akkadian and continuing with the Egyptian and the Hellenistic. Gods conversing with their offspring, typically, date at least from the earliest records around 3000 BCE.9

AT the other end of “time” the New Testament foretells of a future state in which both the Redeemer and his followers will have new names, new identities, in other words, and new apperceptions of the universe they were born into but also delivered, soul and body, from. From a Christian point of view the one word that cannot be dispensed with is Christ himself, the incarnate Logos Word of God, by whom and for whom the worlds were created (Colossians 1:16). While on earth it may be assumed that at some point all Christians came under a modicum of Bible-based instruction intended to communicate ways of approaching God.10 A minority of believers ask to be filled, or “tabernacled” by the prompter-like person of the Holy Spirit (Gospel of Luke, 11:11-13) who will be reminding them of the logia of Christ around the clock, and thus be in permanent conversation with the maker (Gospel of John, 14:15-18, 26). Regarding the overall content of such conversing with God, and contrary to the popular belief regarding his “mysterious ways,” the New Testament explains that precisely the “mystery which was hidden for whole ages and for entire generations has now been made manifest to the believers” (Epistle to the Colossians, 1:26).

Let the word dwell in you richly (Epistle to the Colossians 3:16) in the New Testament is, I think, the end product of a culture of verbatim memorization of religiously transcribed formularies on parchment copies. Attention to the act of copying the Hebrew Bible was such that in some instances the Kabbalah would proceed to interpret even the spaces between words as semantically significant. There is a scribal metaphor in Jesus’ “. . . though heaven and earth pass away, not an iota will pass away” (The Gospel of Matthew 5:18) which clearly indicates the persistence of a virtual textual record even in the absence of human memorizers.11

An obvious argument could be raised, naturally, that the sum of the SAE’s of occidental civilization is as tenaciously fixated on the textual word as the orient is on the unmediated trade of mental data and sensations with the ultimate Auctor. Rather ingeniously Jacques Lacan latched on the idea of the psyche—mind; frequent partial overlaps with raison, (in)conscient and even mémoire—being best illustrated by the persistence of the ambiguous letter, or “lettre,” in the subconscious. He had found that the letter both in the sense of an occasionally encrypted missive and in the sense of an alphabetic element could prove very productive in a serious psychoanalytic transaction.12

Shakespeare’s metaphor, in Sonnet 108, for ink-scribed language in the brain is an obvious analogue to the image of God’s covenant written on hearts of flesh (Jeremiah’s 31:33) in the Bible. Homer, in the western canon, telescopes personal destiny with the fortunes of the war at Troy in Aphrodite’s description of a piece of sexy apparel she lends to Hera saying “everything is crafted onto this belt” [κεστός ἱμάς] ᾧ ἔνι πάντα τετεύχαται (Iliad, 14:214-220).

With the additional significance words or panels acquire if set in a particular spatial order, quite apart from socially established conventions of written linearity, we are entering the domain of the legible and lisible. Tom Conlay’s The Graphic Unconscious in Early Modern French Writing, 1992, more than does justice to the historical period mentioned in his title. The range of Conlay’s associations, however, coupled with his methodology invite valuable comparisons both with the double duty of the semitic alphabet as sonograph and as numerator, and with the “concrete” or phanopoeic dimensions words acquire as they are presented in para-syntactic ways, e.g., the visual construction of wings, altars, etc in the technopaignia and countless examples thereof throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The similarities between the two macro-systems of the east and the west could not be more emphatically highlighted than by Roman Jakobson’s research during WWII on the Pacific theater of operations. Japanese soldiers who had suffered cranial injuries in Broca’s area exhibited predictable degrees of aphasia and dysgraphia. Neuro-physiologists had always known that of all parts of speech following a stroke, for example, the personal pronouns were the first to be lost and the last to be recovered following therapy. In the case of the Japanese wounded Jakobson observed the instant inability of the men to use the un-iconic Kana syllabary of written Japanese whereas large parts of the semi-pictographic, Chinese-based Hiragana vocabulary, somehow, and among the same wounded, did not seem to be affected.13

We might as well make our peace with the ethologists and accept their jargon.14 Even the oriental brain will not disdain to entertain the notion of writing as an engram.


1. Emily Goedde, “On Not Giving a Distich: Words and Insights of Lucian Stryk,” Translation Review, 93, 2015, 35-6, concludes, in unison with several other scholars, that the true intent behind the reaching beyond the mere “word-wisdom” in both Daoist and Confucian thought was interpersonal communication not power posturing and attitudinizing.
2. Sumie Jones, “Translation as Overtextual Reading; Or, How to Compose a Japanese Rap in English,” Translation Review, 93, 2015, 99–116 [esp. 99-100]). Jones, like Goedde above, reads Sorai’s critique as the expression of a desire for a “dialogical” relationship with the idealized author.
3. The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1908 ed., and subsq., various editors of Buddhism in China, s. v. “Huang Po.”
Comparable superseding of institutionalized Christian scripture reading by the awareness of the “inner light” and “source of faith” in the believers was preached and practiced by George Fox (1624-1690), the founder of the Quaker movement.
4. H. Diels & W. Krantz, Die Fragmente Der Vorsokratiker, 1951, (sections B 24, 25), 135.
5. “Meaning” being more ambient and diffuse, see C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 1923.
6. I am using Clayton Eshleman’s statement as an illustration of the exacting conscientiousness translators in the western world, beginning with the “Seventy” of the Septuagint and through Hölderlin’s Pindar, bring to their work as a matter of course. “Regarding Our So-Called ‘Letter to the World’,” a Talk, part of a panel, held at the First Los Angeles Poets on Poetry, A Celebration, sponsored by the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts, May 21, 1983; in Matthew Jennett, ed., Pharos Books: A First Editions Serial Catalogue, New Haven, CT, 29-33, ad fin.).
7. For the semantic contrariety in a large segment of the Proto-Indo-European lexicon see Freud’s “Uber den Gegensinn der Urworte,” Studienausgabe, IV, 1910, 227–234. The two most important analyses of this paper are a. Emile Benveniste, “Remarks on the Function of Language in Freudian Theory,” in Problems in General Linguistics, 1971; and b. Paul Gordon, “Freud’s ‘On the Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words: Psychoanalysis, Art and the Antithetical Senses’,” Style, 1990, 24, 167–186.
8. The questions of universals in human experiences and perception are raised, both directly and indirectly by Wolfgang Köhler, Gestalt Psychology, New York, 1930, and later revised editions.
An important contribution to the relationship between language and “reality” is Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 1923–29; English translation 1953–1957, Yale U P, 4 vols.), esp. vol. 2, 1955, translated by Ralph Manheim. Cassirer’s 1925 Sprache und Mythos, was translated by Susanne Langer under the title Language and Myth, 1946; ch. 4, “Word Magic,” is particularly pertinent to the present discussion in light of its citing the Egyptian analogue of the god Re’s formidable power residing in his secret name.
9. Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, esp. Chs 13 “Cosmogony,” and 19 “Bible Parallels,” 1959, 76 ff, and 143 ff, respectively.
For magical writing traditions in the later Semitic and Greco-Roman cultures see Franz Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie (Stoicheia: Studien zur Geschichte des antiken Weltbildes und der griechischen Wissenschaft. Heft 7) 1922. For the Greek speaking Byzantine period see Βυζαντινών βίος και πολιτισμός (in Greek, French subtitle, Vie et civilisation byzantines, Phaedon Koukoules, 6 vols., Institut Français d’Athènes, 1948-1957, vol. 6, 167-261, entry under “βίβλος ἐνεργουμένη” [get yourself] a book of magical powers.
In the Hebrew Bible Moses and God communicate with each other “mouth to mouth, visibly and not through riddles,” Numbers 12:8; the Septuagint translation from the Hebrew, ca. 280 BCE, is explicit regarding the intimacy of the encounter: “. . . στόμα κατὰ στόμα λαλήσω αὐτῷ, ἐν εἴδει καὶ οὐ δι’ αἰνιγμάτων.” Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho (2:6; ca. 147–161 CE) sums up the mission of any Platonist as an unstinting effort to come face to face with God.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, near the conclusion of the Tractatus, 6.522, alerts us to the limits of language. He calls the grey area of the inexpressible the “mystical.” “Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.”
Incidentally, neither the Ogden-Ramsey version (There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical), nor the Pears-McGuinness (There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical) appear to be satisfactory. In spite of the copious notes dealing with specific problems in rendering Wittgenstein’s German into English, the printed result shows total disregard for English idiomatic usage. Would the following be untrue to statement 6.522 in German? “Then there is that which cannot be expressed. It asserts itself. It is the “mystical.”
10. E.g., Martin Luther, on cultivating the presence of God through prayer, letter “To Peter Beskendorf,” 1535. Analogous directions for the pious were proposed by Miguel de Molinos’ Quietism (1628-1696; Guia Espiritual, 1675).
11. In the new spiritual order of the cosmos—let’s not call it eschatology yet—and the restoration of man to a point where he can converse with God as he used to when it all began, the agency of “writing” is not done away with and even a new element of mystery is being re-introduced! Revelation 2:17 To him that overcomes will I give . . . a white stone, and in the stone a new name written . . . ; 19:12 . . . on [Christ’s] head [were] many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. Is it possible that Jesus is represented, even during the last of the last times, as the high priest whose authority and power could not be usurped by a person making unauthorized use of his name. From a presentist perspective we notice the double employ of Jesus’ name, in close proximity, in the miracle of the Acts of the Apostles 3:16: “. . . it was [Jesus’] name, and the faith in his name that has made this man strong.” Teleologically however we are back to the terrible, unutterable name which, as befits a paradox, is itself encoded in the four letters of the TetraGRAMMATON (Τετραγράμματον. Τhe alternative would be TetraΦΘΟΓΓΟΝ, four vocal sounds).
“Memorizers” ought to recall Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953; and François Truffaut film, 1966) in which individuals, who are forbidden from owning and reading books, secretly recite by heart and share as many of the classics of world literature as they can.
For the ontological status of a literary text (“is a book destroyed if all copies of it are destroyed?”) see René Wellek and Austin Warren, “The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art,” in Theory of Literature, 1956, 129-145.
12. Jacques Lacan, “L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud”, Écrits, 1966; see especially the sections dealing with Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1844).
13. Roman Jakobson, “Verbal Communication,” Scientific American, Sept. 1972, vol. 227, issue 3, 72-81.
In this context see Henri Michaux (1899-1984), Idéogrammmes en Chine, 1975, which is of the same order of importance to literature and translation as the Stèles of Victor Segalen (published 1912-14), and Ernest Fenollosa’s classic study, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (Ezra Pound, ed., 1918). For the minims of letters of the alphabet as spaces see [Robert] Massin, La lettre et l’image, Préface de Raymond Queneau, 1970; reviewed by Roland Barthes, “L’esprit de la lettre,” La Quinzaine littéraire, 1-15 Juin, 1970, 3-4).
14. The 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to ethologists Niko Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for their groundbreaking research in the (instinctual) behavior of animals. Animal bioesthetics is all too apparent at work in pattern building and display in numerous species of birds and fishes during their mating season. For useful speculations regarding the human domain see Constantin Crișan, Sociologie și bioestetică, 1987.
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