Review: Dictionary of Untranslatables: a Philosophical Lexicon

Ruth Hayes, ISG National Committee / Refer Editorial Team

 As I looked through the list of items nominated for the ISG Reference Awards, this title caught my eye, and I hoped that it might fill a gap in our reference collections. What I found was a weighty tome (more than 2.5kg) of encyclopaedic proportions, which aims to explain philosophical, political or literary terms and concepts in a number of languages that are difficult to translate from one language to another.

The Dictionary was originally published by Edition de Seuil/ Dictionnaires Le Robert in 2004 as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: dictionnaire des intraduisibles, so on the face of it, is of impeccable pedigree. It is now being translated into the other languages covered, such as English in this version, and supplemented by more entries, in this instance contributed by American and some British academics. Translation has been into American English.

The 1-page “How to use this work” indicates and explains the three types of entries that are offered: “word-based”, focusing on a particular word as the starting point; thematic; and directional, to entries for words in other languages. This is followed by lists of the principal collaborators, contributors and translators (and the items to which they contributed). The best part of 1300 pages is devoted to the entries alphabetically arranged, mostly two columns to a page, but where other information is presented in “boxes”, this goes to three columns and on a grey background and in smaller print. In the main, this title is to be found in the libraries of universities and specialist organisations, worldwide: WorldCat lists 310 such locations for the French version, and 876 for variants of this American English edition (including as an e-book).

This last-mentioned factor may account for deficiencies in the indexing, which on first inspection looked quite reasonable. There are entries aplenty for the “big names” such a Hegel, Plato and Descartes, also for the likes of Bertrand Russell and Jeremy Bentham. However, missing from the index are Charles Baudelaire (who appears in articles such as on FANCY/IMAGINATION), Pavel Florensky (in the entry on TRUTH), and Robin Collingwood (in the entry for ART).

In general, entries are of gargantuan, indigestible proportions. Most of the main languages covered have their own entries; those that don’t are in the entry on EUROPE (this one a bit more digestible). The article on WORD ORDER confines itself to using examples in French, English and Latin – but not German, other than this comment in passing: “Thus German differs from French in its vocabulary (its words) and in the word order in utterances”. I was hoping that the entry for ERZÄHLEN / BESCHREIBEN – which gives only the French equivalents raconter and décrire – does not explain at all clearly that it relates to stories, though later on the concept of the narrative of an event is discussed at length.

More digestible are the shorter entries for words/concepts such as WISDOM and CIVILIZATION, with references to other entries.

Overall, this work seems to assume that the user already has a high level of knowledge of the language of philosophy. It may have received rave reviews (in the TLS and THES, for example), but the lack of clarity of explanation and expression is akin to the lingering fog experienced in many areas of England today, 1st November 2015.

Dictionary of untranslatables: a philosophical lexicon;

Edited by Barbara Cassin; translated by Steven Rendall, Christian Hubert, Jeffrey Mehlman, Nathaniel Stein and Michael Syrotinski; translation edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

ISBN 9780691138701

Refer 31 (3) Autumn 2015

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