Sunday, June 21, 2009

Should English Be The Language of The World?

In "Translate" his latest essay, Belgian philosopher and jurist
François Ost, sings the praises of multilingualism, the one
alternative to the hegemony of global English.

Misunderstanding – let’s see now: Most of the time, we consider it a
blight, an insidious worm that spoils the fruit of communication. On
closer scrutiny, however, it turns out to be an opportunity, just as a
mistake is an opportunity for learning in that it makes us
cross-examine ourselves, correct ourselves and progress. If everything
we said were instantaneously grasped, if we got one another’s message
“loud and clear” every time, we would only need to talk once, and
there would be no need to have a(nother) word with one another.

The same goes for languages. There are roughly 6,000 of them around.
Some are neighbours, sisters, cousins, others complete strangers,
light-years away. So we are inclined to think that if there were only
one single clear-cut, perfect language in which things were reflected
exactly as in a verbal mirror, everyone could understand everyone else
effortlessly, and we would elude the catastrophe of Babel: atomisation
and the inconsolable misfortune of being condemned to the treachery of
translation. Well, no. This lone language, this scrap of the dream of
the Ursprache or “original language” – “the very one in which God and
Adam conversed in Paradise” – would be a deadly bore. It would nip
every conversation in the bud and put quite a damper on the
“potentialities of meaning”.

So long live Babel! Long live the sin of presumption that tempted men
into building a tower as high as the sky, in punishment for which God
“scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth” and “confounded
the language of all the earth” – that very curse is a blessing in


This is the thesis of Traduire by François Ost (Fayard), a
philosopher/jurist, college professor in Geneva and vice-president of
the Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis in Brussels. This imposing
book – whose subtitle clearly reflects its object: to present a
“Defence and Illustration of Multilingualism” – is not missing a
single reference, footnote, or argument (the only thing missing is an
index of names). And although highly rigorous, convoking the likes of
Merleau-Ponty, Quine and Wittgenstein, Eco, Benveniste and Antoine
Berman, it is far from exclusively addressing specialists in the
philosophy of language, semiotics or lexicology. In the final
analysis, its subject is political: Europe thinks in several
languages, its language is translation, and it would be political and
cultural self-mutilation to submit to the hegemony of global English,
or Globish.

François Ost begins by analysing the founding myth of the tower of
Babel: 20-odd lines from Genesis (XI. 1–9), nine verses that are as
“rigorous as a short story by Kafka, enigmatic as the poetry of
Borges”, and which have given rise to endless literature. To begin
with, he focuses on the telling of the tale, which adheres to the
general stylistic economy of the Genesis narrative. He points up the
complex interweaving of its constituent themes, distinguishes the
various historical strata of its writing, then proceeds to a close
reading of the text, a virtually word-by-word commentary,
simultaneously comparing selected French translations and the leading
exegeses. Ultimately, in lieu of the “Babelian paradigm”, which has
provided endless food for thought in so many cultures, he glimpses an
“emerging paradigm of translation for a world that thinks of itself in
terms of a network and in terms of communication”.


Traduire is essentially devoted to exploring this new model, which
obliges us to “think of language and translation together” (in such
diverse domains as interdisciplinary science and scholarship, dialogue
between religions and between philosophies, between international law
and national laws, civil society and its political representatives
etc.). Ost examines its “imaginary foundations, historical detours,
conceptual frontiers, linguistic presuppositions, ethical implications
and the political preconditions for its implementation”. The upshot is
a veritable hymn to multilingualism and to the “linguistic
hospitality” that is translation: a “wholly separate” and inventive
form of writing, which operates first within each language before
striking out to toil at its frontiers, and which makes the
“untranslatable” – an a priori obstacle – its “organ” and its
conditio sine qua non.

To translate is to betray, needless to say, but it is this betrayal
which, like misunderstanding, provides the best guarantee for the
ongoing pursuit of translation, discussion, exchange and “dialogical
thought”. “If translation were to succeed completely, the spectre of
the lone language would re-emerge, and the towers would begin wobbling
again.” In Babel and everywhere else.

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