Review: Paul Ricoeur, On translation

Reviewed by Siall Waterbright

When a phrase is incompletely or incorrectly heard in the game of Chinese Whispers—or Telephone, as it is also known—the hearer does not construe it as something close to the original except in one or two letters or phonemes; the hearer translates the message into the closest array of sounds that makes sense as a sentence. I am more likely to understand “the dog wagged its tail” as “the dotted rag will tear” than “the dock wake ditched ale”, in spite of the fact that the second set of sounds is closer to the original than the first. This habit, of measuring what is perceived against the familiar, expected, or acceptable, renders the difference between what is said and what is heard greater than it would otherwise be.

But this convention is necessary in order for meaning to exist, and communication to occur. Meaning is at once within the hearer and within the language and the society of its speakers; meaning exists in the individual only as it has been received. To understand, according to George Steiner, is to translate. The hermeneutic operation of translation, between languages and between speakers, self and other, is the subject of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophical enquiries into translation, and is used to chart his progress from the definition of translation as the approximation of an ideal language, through a conflict between faithfulness and betrayal, to translation as hospitality, based on the Freudian notions of the work of remembering and the work of mourning.