The Bother of Babel

The Bother of Babel

For the Vigdís Finnbogadóttur Institute in Hátíðasalur, University of Iceland, 1 October 2001

By Þorsteinn Gylfason, Professor of Philosophy

1 What everyone knows

On 26 May 1767, in one of his many letters to his good friend Catherine the Great, Voltaire mentioned a certain lady at the court in Versailles who greatly bewailed what she called "the bother at Babel" and the linguistic inconvenience which it had caused the world. If only it hadn't happened, she said, everyone would always have spoken French. Voltaire was of course quick to add that he had never agreed with the good lady - he could hardly have said otherwise, out of courtesy towards the Czarina of all the Russias.

Not everyone speaks French, however, and the question is how to respond to this dilemma. Some people approach the problem by learning more than one language; another solution is for those who know more than one language to make translations for the others. The Vigdís Finnbogadóttur Institute is devoted precisely towards this worthy end: to learn languages and then translate between them.

This is the most obvious response to the Bother. I do not, for instance, have to persuade any Icelander of the importance of as many as possible knowing a foreign language, preferably more than one per head. A decent knowledge of languages has, amongst many other things, allowed Icelanders to pursue their studies far and wide abroad, and bring home with them some glint at least of foreign cultures, thus widening our island vision of the world.

Nor do I have to emphasize to any Icelander how important it is for our diminutive nation, or any nation for that matter, to practice translation. From the Middle Ages to the Reformation, from the Age of Enlightenment to the twentieth century and on to the present day, translations have provided precious windfalls for the cultural history of the country. They have even swayed the balance. Literary Icelandic first emerged with translations of Christian devotional works. Modern literary Icelandic - the language, say, of Halldór Kiljan Laxness - first surfaced in Sveinbjörn Egilsson's translations of Homer in the 19th century. The finest Icelandic of our times is to be found in the translations of Helgi Hálfdanarson. (Which is why Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson and I once proposed that the principle course of instruction for translators in the Faculty of Humanities should be pharmacology.)

No wonder, in view of this long history, that until recent times - at least covering my own school-years - languages were learnt largely though exercises in translation. Little emphasis was placed on our writing skills in foreign languages, and even less on our spoken abilities. Both these skills were supposed to come of themselves if we only learned how to translate good literature.
 I hardly need to stress the importance of translation and language skills, and I shall not continue with this theme. Instead I wish to reflect briefly upon translation and language from a rather different perspective. And since the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute is an academic institute - an institute of the University - I hope to limit myself to academic considerations. Not, however, that I intend to lecture on the philosophy of language, for which this is neither the time nor place.

2 Value in language and the value of languages

The father of modern linguistics was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). I want to look at two of his well-known theories. The first states that "in language itself, there are only differences": the difference between the sounds of language, for instance. The second is that "a language is a system in which all the elements fit together, and in which the value of any one element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others". I don't want to go into these theories at any length, and far less debate them; I am not for the moment interested in examining what they are and why they are the way they are.

These two theories apply to each language individually. But we might also get the wild notion that they were also applicable to the whole family of languages: as if there were nothing more to languages than difference; or that the value of each language - English or Swedish, for instance - depended on the simultaneous existence of all the other languages (such as Japanese, Swahili or Urdu).

It's probably clear to all of us that things don't work like this. We can banish the first notion by observing that there is not only difference but also similarity between English and Swedish, or even between Japanese and Finnish. Perhaps, in the last analysis, all languages are more or less related. This at least is Noam Chomsky's position. And the second notion can be demolished by saying that the value of a human language is not changed by the historical demise of other languages. The lady-in-waiting at Versailles doubtless believed that French would flourish in all its splendour even if it were the only language in the world. This much of her belief seems plausible.

So why am I asking all these silly questions with their endless negative answers? Simply because they open our eyes to the fact that differences between languages, even closely related ones such as the Nordic languages, are in fact manifold and remarkable. And, in the second place, that perhaps the value of each separate language depends to a significant and noteworthy extent precisely on the existence of other languages. I shall briefly reflect on this point before I close, in the light of a few simple aspects of modern linguistic philosophy as far as it relates to translation.

3 Translation, understanding and clarity

Translation - or rather its potential, translatability - is the fundamental criterion by which we recognise linguistic behaviour in a living being. Without translation, language is inconceivable. Birdsong is not language - alas, we might say, - since it defies translation into one of our languages. On the other hand it could be that the dance of the honey-bee is language precisely because it is translatable. It might even turn out that the so-called genetic code of our DNA molecules is a language, since there is a potential there for some sort of translation. (There are in fact other features than translatability to be reckoned with, and no less so, if it comes to that, in the case of the honey-bees.) A language is a language if and only if it can be translated.

Translatability is a basic feature of language in that it demonstrates that a language is comprehensible. That's what languages are for, to be understood; sometimes with stealth, as in poetry. In fact Saussure said that language and thought were like the two sides of the same sheet of paper, so that one could not put scissors to the recto without also cutting the verso.

Let's return for a moment to our wayward notions on language and difference. Languages differ widely amongst themselves, in spite of their occasional similarities. And the same goes for thought. I recently came across a convoluted discussion by an English philosopher which completely eluded him and a number of other scholars simply because there is no word in English for the Icelandic terms "skárri" (better, but still not good) and "skástur" (best of a number of poor options). In English, one can only use the terms "better" and "best", and this can wreak havoc in a scholarly debate on the better of two poor choices. English-speaking moral philosophers have had to write tens and hundreds of papers on similar problems over the last two decades. They ask: "How can it be that the best option is not good?" An Icelander would never have blundered into such confusion. He'd simply say: "This is not the best option, but the skástur - which isn't necessarily a good one." The simple words "skárri" and "skástur" would have solved the problem before it presented itself. (He might also have turned to the Icelandic Sagas: "I'll give you two options, and neither good.")

Another point: and here we come to the second wayward notion. Languages are prone to all kinds of corruption. The writer Gustave Flaubert found contemporary French worn and frayed and moth-eaten so that it fell apart at the slightest touch. Or consider the English which has become the international language of our times, for instance as it is spoken and written at the United Nations or in Brussels. This is no normal English, but a language of administration which has little relation to the living language of the people. You can't make jokes in the language of administration, and you never hear laughter from Brussels - at least not this far north.

Where then is our defence against worn and moth-eaten language? Against lifeless, pompous language? Our defence is, of course, to re-translate into real, living language so that its meaning returns. No matter whether we translate it into Chinese, Arabic or Icelandic.

The greatest virtue of those who speak and write is clarity. George Orwell would add that the prime enemy of clarity is deceit. For the sake of clarity, we have language. And my hope is that the Vigdis Finnbogadottir Institute will be dedicated to this clarity with full integrity - only in this way can it be worthy of the name of Vigdís. It is an academic institute, and perhaps no academic institute of whatever discipline can honestly serve any other cause than clarity of understanding.

Translated by Pétur Knútsson

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