Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales

Sektion I: Sprachen, Wissenschaftsterminologien, Kulturwissenschaften

Section I:
Languages, Systematic Terminologies, Cultural Studies

Section I:
Langues, terminologies scientifiques, études culturelles

Herbert Eisele (Paris) [BIO]


How to mediate between aliens


1. Introduction

In this epoch of frenetic individualism, the neighbour is bound to be an alien, although trying to understand him may be worth an effort(1), in the interest of one's own peace. However, such an effort may entail the risk of self-alienation to the point that one ends up by finding oneself a stranger to oneself(2). Trying to understand seems wiser than to withstand, because it is more likely to dispel the fear of the other, who has always been perceived most ambiguously, as is witnessed by the latin word hostes leading to host, hostel, and hospitality, but also to hostile and its menacing package of meaning. Now an alien is no friend but at best a nuisance. If you creep out of your nest you cannot help learning how to best cope with nuisance all along your way. You may then discover that nuisance is a necessary evil to stir you up from your innate inertia and that you fundamentally share this predicament with your neighbour, who, by the way, appears to get along quite well with his handicap. So why not try and see if he is not willing to give you some clues. This is the first step to a preliminary contact that could result in a sympathetic sharing of knowledge. Here the language comes in, for knowledge is concept relations translated into speech So understanding one's neighbour, an alien, is foremost getting at the meaning of what he says(3). What if his language is not yours? In fact, it never is but on occasions; so you will have to make an effort and make him feel at ease by presenting your good will and feelings. This can be done but in your own language which he may guess to coincide partly with his own by the token of similar signs referring to similar things. This is how a common verbal exchange basis is evolved. A dialogue will ensue whereby inner reservations subside, common grounds are discovered with relief, and the reciprocal alienage overcome. What has thus occurred between two aliens is a simile for what occurs between two or more cultures, when dialogue could be leading to a polylogue. This paves the way for bringing aliens together, dispelling reciprocal fears, and grounding common concepts(4). It is always an eye-opener when you discover that, as the saying goes, over there they also cook with water. What is cooked and how becomes then an intricate exercise of exploration from which one comes home with a rich harvest on the water buffalo's back.

1.1 Translation

To resolve the dilemma of sordid isolation one must talk. Small talk has a soothing effect, but is of little interest to knowledge sharing, because there is no knowledge behind. Talking implies translation: that of putting ideas into words. Ideas are not for sharing, you share words, because words are the signal embodiments of ideas. You actually do not share them, you deal them out in the hope that your listener, the alien, is willing to take them up, by translating them as well as he can and putting them into his awareness, i.e. mental storage for further potential use. Knowledge is always instrumental to potential use, i.e. know-how.

Not speaking the same language is a societal phenomenon. It will even occur within the same family. In fact, each generation develops its own language so that the father will not understand his son, not to speak of the daughter, and vice versa. This has been aggravated by the opinion-leading vogue of individualism mentioned in the beginning, leading to a general alienation worldwide, subsumed under the word globalisation, an off-shoot of liberalism and mass production, and globalisation itself calling for localisation. The general needs the special to survive.

Localisation is the result of the insight by which an agreement is reached to differ and to account for the difference, by adapting the global module to the local environment. In fact, such an approach is highly sensitive to alienage, the idea behind being that you have to find out about the idiosyncratic way of feeling, thinking, and speaking of the alien tribe to export to and to use his language to be able to talk to (not with) him purposefully, leading to acceptance of what is offered. Translation here is good business practice, rendering goods palatable to fancied requirements.

In this instance the care goes for the appropriateness of product documentation to local market conditions. It may seem unusual to quote it here. However, a message is a mental product to be conveyed and has the same requirements for acceptance.

1.2 The translator

A translator operating between two different native speakers unable to cope with the other's speech has the same objective, viz. get accepted what is said. The aim is very simple, but the prerequisites to achieve it are not.

The translator has to have an insight knowledge of both cultures in addition to understanding and speaking both languages. He will have to alienate himself in the exercise of apprehending the expectations of both his customers(5) and bring them home for making both ends meet. His understanding is not that of either, at least in the beginning. The discrepancy will only slowly dawn upon him when he sets out to interpret. What is it that he is meant to interpret? Words, concepts or meanings?(6) Indeed the whole lot! Language is only part of the deal; an important one, but still partial. Meaning has so many subtle ways of expression: gestures, a smile, silence, and in addition language. Demain dès l'aube, à l'heure où blanchit la campagne, this verse by Victor Hugo translates a skein of feelings, and disentangles the dawning whiteness in the pleonastic use of aube (albus) qui blanchit. Poetry complicates the message to be conveyed and the acceptance of it to be sought. What is essential to him, the translator (for he is the first concerned with what he has to carry over), to the sender, to the addressee in his cultural circle with its étiquette or narrow expectations? Translating means making a choice between what can be expressed in language and what is to be left unsaid(7), sometimes implied, sometimes sacrificed. Sacrifice is often felt as treason, but is a love's-labours(8)-lost-compromise not always better than a dead end?

Is he prepared for such a highly responsible task? We could stop here, for he is not. Indeed he sticks his neck out each time he endeavours to make both ends meet and more often than not he would merit to have his head cut off, as the queen was wont to say. Fortunately, this unfortunate habit is no longer prevalent in these lands. Otherwise the profession would have disappeared since long for lack of volunteers.

1.3 Message minting

Translating is text production from text. The exercise had appeared so straightforward to many an expeditious mind that mechanical operation was envisaged and even put into practice. Machine-translation has shown what text can be made to say, but it has especially shown the limits of linguistics, semantics and all the attendants to the monster in the conveyance of meaning. You get what you see, even though the machine is blind and does not care what you want to see. However what you actually see is much less exciting than the result of consulting a sibyl, if not as enigmatic at times.

What can you expect after all from a word processor in terms of persuasion. So the mountain will walk over to the poet to abuse of his patience and goodwill:

The mountain is resplendent in the evening light
A flight of birds returns thereto
There is a deep significance in all of that
No words can express this.

And the machine even less so. It is not meant to, since it is concerned with more serious things, like text production in a productive way. So let it be and hope for the best. Machines had already produced the Deluge, which preceded the Tower of Babel, leading to dispersion and confusion. Arnold Toynbee saw history move in circles. Time will tell.


2. Proprietary snares

Culture lives by inherited values and common beliefs, some of which are shared with other cultures and others are not. Those concepts common to many if not all are universals,(10) which have kept whole schools of philosophy busy for centuries(11) ever since before Plato via the Scholastics down to our days. Universal passe-partout-words pose no major problem in translation, if they are not used as slogans or as part of philosophical debate. Things become more intricate whenever a culture cultivates its own styles and creates proper customs, concepts and pertaining words. This is what could be called proprietary concepts.

Such concepts are difficult to handle in translation, because of their particular flavour and local colour. Take the five O'clock tea and contrast it with Garcia Lorca's a las cinco de la tarde in his coplas for a dead torero. Or the British understatement to the extent of having a faith that would move molehills(12) as opposed to the Marseillean hyperbole, having obstrue their harbour by a sardine. Folklore bears out strains of temperament of people as a community feature, but often communities are marked by individual personalities whose originality and strong character(13) has left a lasting imprint on the group's behaviour and ways of life as it transpires from proverbs, figurative speech, and idioms, particularly refractory to language mediation.

2.1 Off-limits

The translator steers a precipitous course between meaning and understanding, knowing and telling. As pointed out already, the outcome is not a hit-or-miss-paradigm but a language involvement. Linguists, although naturally attracted by the challenge of translation, labour under the fallacy by which the secret of translating is uncovered as they penetrate into the arcane of language; they are mostly unaware of their handicap, which resembles in a way the trap of the source language for the inexperienced translator. They get entangled in their certitudes. Translation is above all an exercise of humility. Certitude is what science craves for and translation is an art, not a science, even though traductology may claim reasons for existence. Translation, after all, deals with meaning as an end and language is but a signal vehicle to confer meaning. If it fails, translation, it does not make sense, and the two aliens may start a war.

2.2 The double headed snake

Housman comparing progress to a double-headed snake ("until it starts, you never know, in which direction it will go"(14)) anticipated the failure of a myth. The age-old activity of translation is not vexed by progress but is lured by the weird double-headed dragon of feasibility and treason. That translation is possible is attested by its existence malgré tout. That it is freight with false hopes and liable to be belaboured by bashful lovers(15) or overbearing half-scholars is no proof of its impossibility. It is as always a question of proportion and of view-point, whether the bottle is seen half-full or half-empty.



To mediate between aliens calls for best references and good humour. There is little place for utopia. What counts in the end is that both are happy with the mediator. This makes him happy too.



1 Be it only to enlarge one's horizon for the sake of Bildung to retrieve universals and origins.
2 Like Hölderlin, who while claiming "das Eigene soll genauso gelernt werden wie das Fremde", lost his way and mind in the effort, too strenuous for his fragile constitution.
3 "To understand is to translate", George Steiner, Après Babel, Albin Michel, Paris, 1998. The paramount question is, of course, to make sure that what is said is what is meant, disclaiming thereby Alice's logic, who replied to the March Hare's objection "then you should say what you mean",by insisting "at least - at least I mean what I say -that's the same thing, you know" (L.Carroll, The Annotated Alice, ed. M.Gardner, Penguin,178,p.95)
4 Raymund Wilhelm, Der Schrecken des Einzeltums und die Entstehung der Allgemeinbegriffe, in Texte und Kontexte in Sprachen und Kulturen, Festschrift für Jörn Albrecht, WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Trier 1999
5 To translate is to serve two masters: the alien in his strangeness and his reader in his desire of appropriation; or as Schleiermacher put it: bring the reader to the author and bring the author to the reader, quoted by Paul Ricœur in Le paradigme de la traduction,in Esprit June l999, p.15.
6 Speech operates in another trinary hierarchy: words, phrases, and texts, each of which soliciting the translator's care to find out about their cultural roots, extirpate them from the alien ground, and replant them in the garden of which he was appointed the provisional warden. Cf. loc.cit.p.17.
7 Left or right hand side; good or bad omissions are for the knowledgeable to decide. Michael Schreiber, Von der 'rechten und 'linken' Grenze der Übersetzung, in Festschrift für Jörn Albrecht op.cit.
8 Translators will labour under the urge not only of time but more fundamentally of the desire to translate Cf.A.Berman, l'Epreuve de l'étranger, Paris Gallimard, 1995
9 Tao Yuanming quoted by Gil Delannoi in his essay Traduire la pensée chinoise in Esprit, June 1999, p.61.
10 Are part of the shared beliefs those in hospitality, honour, peace, friendship, good faith (rather on the imperilled values list) and even concepts like liberty, equality, fraternity. Those were shipped from France to the world at large and have created havoc wherever they are imported, and this for the simple reason that they are empty concepts liable to accept any filling thought fit for deluding people.
11 Leibniz had tried hard with his Universaleigenschaften to elaborate a universal lexicon of simple ideas in addition to a collection of all rules of composition for these actual thought-atoms; but he was an inveterate optimist, as denounced by Voltaire in his Candide.
12 A miniloquence which cultivates on the same field a tongue-in-the-cheek humour of self-derision e.g. the Englishman is a self-made man who adores his maker.
13 Not necessarily literary peoples, although in the past great authors wielded by frequency of quotation a powerful influence, which nowadays is exerted by mass media.
14 From A Shropshire Lad,(1896). A.E. Housman (1859-1936)was an English poet and classical scholar.
15 Here we have a good example of "regrets" i.e. regretful sacrifice: un amoureux transi is only partly conveyed by "a bashful lover, the shyness of bashful ignores the "frozen to the marrow" aspect of a Don Juan left-in-the-cold darkness below the balcony to cool his ardour.

Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales

Sektion I: Sprachen, Wissenschaftsterminologien, Kulturwissenschaften

Section I:
Languages, Systematic Terminologies, Cultural Studies

Section I:
Langues, terminologies scientifiques, études culturelles

© INST 1999

Institut zur Erforschung und Förderung österreichischer und internationaler Literaturprozesse

 Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies

 Institut de recherche de littérature et civilisation autrichiennes et internationales