“Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe.” Right? Two completely different statements strung together with two completely different intents by markedly different individuals. And, yet, here we are thinking that they offer the same meaning. Reading through “What is Enlightenment” was challenging for me. Yes, it was certainly due in part because Foucault made all sorts of philosophical references that I’m not familiar with and used German without explanation, but also partly because the original French was offered beside the English translation. And, as I read, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated. I’ve taken a bit of French, and while I’m not one to judge a fine translation, there are certain nuances to language that are lost during translation. I prefer reading Rimbaud in French, for example. I might struggle with it sometimes, but there is so much more original intent in his French words; so many implications and connotations are removed when words are filtered through a translation.
As I continued reading, my frustrations grew. By translating Foucault, we were imposing a system of linguistics that didn’t always quite fit his original words. We were embedding an English mentality and set of symbols and connotations on his writing that wasn’t there originally. Who were we to alter his intent? And, yet, without the translation, I wouldn’t be able to most fully understand the basic notions he was exploring. I could see the conflict, and appreciate both sides. At this point, I sat down my papers, turned away from my computer and said, “Well, crap.” In that moment I realized I was subconsciously applying a belief in the “linguistic turn” and poststructuralism while completing my reading. As Gabrielle M. Spiegel said in her AHA Presidential Address in 2008, “We may legitimately take, I believe, the hallmark of deconstruction to have been a new and deeply counterintuitive understanding of the relationship between language and reality—counterintuitive in the sense that deconstruction’s framing of that relationship imposes so many layers of mediation that what we experience as ‘reality’ is seen to be a socically (that is, linguistically) constituted artifact or ‘effect’ of the particular language systems we inhabit, thereby undermining the materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency inherent in them.” When I read this address, I highlighted this sentence because I thought it would be important to remember for class. I certainly didn’t intend to apply it to my reading so unconsciously, resulting in my complete shock when I realized what I was experiencing. After all, I don’t like the Analytic philosophers. All they do is confuse me.
So, I turned back to Foucault and I asked, “But how does this relate to what I’m doing with history?” I can appreciate that I need to learn about historiography and different theories applied to history over time—and I find that learning very interesting. I can understand how Marxist Theory is applicable to history, or how a familiarity with the conventions of cultural anthropology can help shape a more full historical analysis. Yet, I found myself struggling to apply Foucault. I certainly found myself sympathizing more with Spiegel’s statement that poststructuralism isn’t wholly sympathized with today, since it is arguably “overly systematic” in its critique of human behavior and language. I do not believe I will deeply engage with poststructural analysis in my work, but I did realize something important—French-to-English translations can be as equivalent to an act recounted as history as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is to “This is not a pipe.” Not to be confusing, but the frustration I experienced with the loss of original intent or meaning or voice during a translation can, and arguably should, also be felt whenever a bit of history is historicized. When a person, event, act, etc. is studied, interpreted, and placed within a context, we are translating it and forcing into that translation all of the baggage that we as individuals and members of society carry with us. This is exactly why historians cannot deal in facts, and exactly why they shouldn’t want to.
And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back to Foucault. I think we have more to talk about.
 Gabrielle M. Spiegel, “Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian,” American Historical Review (February 2009): 5.
 Ibid., 9.
 Title taken from Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer.
4 Responses to “…la fou soulage, guide, guérit:” Translations and Language in History
How wonderful that you found enlightenment in a parallel translation! That’s so impressive. I’m copying your salient sentence from Spiegel here, as I agree that it is worth taking to heart:
“We may legitimately take, I believe, the hallmark of deconstruction to have been a new and deeply counterintuitive understanding of the relationship between language and reality—counterintuitive in the sense that deconstruction’s framing of that relationship imposes so many layers of mediation that what we experience as ‘reality’ is seen to be a socically (that is, linguistically) constituted artifact or ‘effect’ of the particular language systems we inhabit, thereby undermining the materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency inherent in them.”
I also find it interesting that once again, assumptions have been confounded (how’s that for a deliberately passive construction??), and I am intrigued! I don’t think there are that many people who assume they love cultural anthropology, but on closer inspection discover it was just an affair. But many people assume that post-structuralism is not for them, and that feeling usually remains after direct exposure. It’s fairly rare that a close encounter provokes this kind of epiphany.
I love your insights in this post! First, since studying a foreign language lately I have often thought that nuance, feeling, culture are lost in translation and really at times phrases just don’t translate at all. Secondly, I too have trouble with thinkers such as Derrida, but at times am mesmerized by their own “linguistic turns”, their analysis of language that truly illuminates. And thirdly, I too am impressed with your epiphany. I know that my own ideas about language are certainly evolving. And also while I’ve said I’m not a fan of Foucault, my comments are short-sighted in light of my exposure to his work.
Per usual, you have eloquently brought up points in the readings that I hadn’t even ventured CLOSE to considering. I find it absolutely fascinating that you made a connection between translation of language to the projection of cultural meaning!
While I highlighted and made a note about the same Spiegal quote, I took it at its base value–as a definition–and you somehow subconsciously applied it as a principle to the way you were understanding the readings. Teach me your ways!
I too always find your posts eye opening and very resourceful as they help me to better understand (or at least I hope that I am understanding) the readings each week. Your connection to how things, i.e. thoughts, intents, ideas, can be lost in translation, or at the very least misconstrued as to their original context, is very interesting to me. Thank you once again for bringing something to light that will help me to take a closer look at the readings now that they are under my belt. Dr. Nelson gave me some great advice, to look at Foucault in smaller chunks, now that I had the O’Brien reading in hand. I also like to read each blog and take them into account when I go back to try to get a firmer grasp on the material. I do always look forward to your posts for that insight. I will definitely take into account the translation idea, because that is something that really makes a lot of sense to me.