Translation, transflation and betrayal: Plato’s Gorg(i)as

“Translation” is the process of decoding the ideas of one language (the source language, say, French) and encoding them into another (the target language, say English). In A Jewish view of a French bottom, I discussed the French expression de fond en comble, which the Head of Modern Languages at the University of South Africa translated as “from top to bottom.” I alerted him to the fact that it didn’t mean “from top to bottom” but “from top to toe.” As anyone who is on nodding terms with human anatomy should know, your bottom is nowhere near you toes, unless you’re a midget.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Had the Professor been betrayed. Betrayed? By what, by whom? Was I to blame for being de fond en comble (from top to bottom; to toe?) impossible? Or is the impossibility of translation to blame? Is it true that traduttore, traditore :“to translate is to betray?”  Is Robert Payne, Chairman of the Translation Committee of the American PEN Organization, correct when he says:

“The world’s languages resemble infinitely complicated grids, and the basic patterns of these grids scarcely ever coincide. [Except] on some rare occasions translation does succeed – beyond all possibility.” [1]

And:

“Whenever we translate exactly and accurately it is a coincidence–in the sense of the purest accident. And the task of the translator is to move sure-footedly among these accidents, he cannot do it by logic.”[2]

If Robert Payne is right, this would mean that the structure of a language defines the structure of thought. In his study of the differences between Hopi and English, Edward Sapir was ostensibly the first to propose this idea.  His associate, Benjamin Lee Whorf picked up the idea and developed it into his system of “linguistic determinism,” where a language determines what we think, which implies that differences in language reflect differences in world view. In such a “linguistic relativity” view, human beings are like Orwellian zombies (Orwell’s “1984”) who are conditioned to think only what the language of  “Newspeak” dictates.

There is much research to show that traduttore, traditore “to translate is to betray” is not as radical as the above writers claim. I think there is a bigger problem than the translation between languages; the main problem lies with translation within languages. What I mean is the miscommunications and misunderstandings (often wilful) between people speaking the same language. Betrayal, therefore, does not only occur between languages, but also within languages, which often means between personalities.

As I said earlier, the usual meaning of the term “translation” is decoding the ideas of one language and encoding them into another. But there is another meaning of “translation” that only involves one language.  “Translation” has the literal meaning of  trans “across” and latus “carry”. “I can’t get across (transfer my thoughts) to you”,  is a familiar complaint.Here is an example from the university of Fort Hare where I taught English language and Applied Linguistics:

I now want to consider cultural differences (i.e. differences in the way one symbolises and constructs one’s world) in the educational domain. I present one example of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The example is of lecturers’ judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

When I asked some of my Practical English students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…” etc. Now, norms and values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.

Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my more imaginative Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home” in the student’s text:

“In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescent as a dream.”

I asked (separately) two Practical English lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements. I quote:

First Practical English lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”
Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery.
Second Practical English lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

One other lecturer’s comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that from these lecturers’ comments above that there are two broad ways of looking at text (and life): celebral or cerebral.

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosophy lecturer together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First Practical English lecturer (addressing the philosopher and me): Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is in the legal field. It is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosophy lecturer: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

(See more in my Culture, Conceptual Frameworks and Academic Ability: A Biocultural Perspective).

So, betrayal (traditore) does not only occur in translation (traduttore) between languages, but also within languages. We saw that “translation” has the literal meaning of  trans “across” and latus “carry”. Plato’s dialogues illustrate this miscommunication problem. One Greek (Socrates, for example) tries to get another Greek (Gorgias, for example) to see his (Socrates) point of view, all the time convincing Gorgias that his (Socrates’ point of view) was Gorgias’s real thoughts screaming to get out. Finally, they do see I to I – but not without some clever engineering  on the part of the master of dialectic, himself, Socrates. What  happens, though, when Gorgias hasards to direct the dialogue? It goes to potty; Gorgias transflates into Gorgas: Trans-latus ends up as trans-flatus.

Earlier, I mentioned the “linguistic relativism” of Whorf and Sapir (the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or “Warp and the Woof” hypothesis), which, by definition, is “cognitive relativism,” where speakers of different languages think different thoughts. “Postmodernism” goes beyond – goes below the belt of linguistic/cognitive relativism.  If you think “inarticulate, meaningless, fragmentation, incoherence, let’s have fun with nonsense”, you’ll get an articulate, meaningful, unified, coherent, sensible picture of postmodernism. Here is one of Cornelius van Til’s favourite illustrations of modern philosophy (from 17th century onwards): Imagine an infinite number of beads with no holes in them, and an infinite length of string.[3] Now, let me take Van Til’s necklace and try and make a postmodern necklace for your Mother – and then translate her tongue into French.


[1] 3. Payne, Robert. “On the Impossibility of Translation”, The World of Translation. New York: PEN, 1971, pp 361-4.

[2] Ibid, p.363.

[3] This is one of Cornelius van Til’s favourite illustrations of modern philosophy (from 17th century onwards). Van Til is a Christian philosopher and theologian in the Reformed tradition. His critique of Karl Barth’s idea of history is incomparable.

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