March 9, 2010

thoughts in translation

I recently picked up a copy of Joe Sachs's translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics, because I was interested in the claims of his translation to render Aristotelean Greek in something approaching "plain English" (claims of Heidegger's influence also piqued my curiosity, but in a more mixed manner).

One doesn't have to go far in English-speaking Orthodoxy to encounter claims of proper vs improper translation from the Greek. Even persons unfamiliar with either language can be found ready to offer forth opinion on the dreadful influence of improper Latinate grammar on the teachings of the New Testament and Greek Fathers. Whatever the real and continued debates on this phenomenon are, it is clear that they are sometimes real issues, and so perhaps Orthodoxy has left me a little more inclined to appreciate a project like Sachs's over and against my general mistrust of new translations*.

I have not read much of Sachs's translation yet, but I want to get some thoughts down about the project as such as he puts it in his introduction and as hinted at by his Greek-English dictionary that prefaces the text (a convention I fully endorse, by the way).

Sachs's unitary reading of the Metaphysics seems to largely follow that of Reale, even though Reale only gets one brief mention in a footnote to his introduction. This isn't to underestimate any difference between their readings (for example, Sachs seems to be even stronger on reading the whole of the Metaphysics as a work of First Philosophy than Reale), but I am coming to think that any reader of Reale's The Concept of First Philosophy and the Unity of the Metaphysics of Aristotle would probably be aided in understanding by taking in a translation that explicitly endorses a unitary reading.

Sachs's unitary reading, however, focuses on a symphonic character to the Aristotelean corpus, one that would seem very familiar to anyone who has spent much time with Biblical hermeneutics; in fact, Sachs makes explicit this analogy to Scripture: "As with the Hebrew Bible, the various parts of the Metaphysics abound in repetitions, overlapping treatments of related topics, gaps between successive passages and plainly contradictory statements. But while the books of the Bible have been carved up, disassembled, and assigned various sources, the Metaphysics has never been accused of multiple authorship by anyone whose arguments were widely credited."

A conflation of contradiction as part of a rhetorical strategy designed to reach different audiences (or even the same audience at different points) and the logical contradiction of positivism (which is something close to a default position in our world) is a common technique for critical destruction of a text or authorship. It is used by many on the Bible. Another clear example, I think, is the use of Kierkegaard's love of paradox to read his authorship has containing contradictory statements from which the inner school must be derived–usually as some form of Anabaptist Radicalism–against clear statements against such a conception in his own voice. While such a reading of the Metaphysics is becoming increasingly passé (as German-style historical criticism is in theological faculties, though to a lesser degree), it is still good to have a translator who voices against it and for the essential integrity of the work, and embraces that view in translation.

He places this symphonic (my word, not his, I should note) reading in context through an interpretation of dialectic that would not have to be novel if scholarship wasn't so dense. He takes Plato's observations in Meno seriously, and proposes that dialectic is merely the way of communicating about truths that is conducive to friendly conversation. Because of this, we must start with where people are. (This technique only has limited utility in late modernity, where too many persons are apt to deny they are anywhere, or at least anywhere where anyone could possibly communicate intelligibly with them. You go your way and I'll go mine, ok?)

Probably the most controversial of Aristotle's formulations in the Metaphysics has been "being as being". Sachs's reading is dependent on Book Γ, and he renders it in full as "being as being is being as it is in its own right"; this means that everything we can think has existence in some fashion. I also recall Andrew Louth in the introduction to The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition:

"Here we come to a particular point which we shall meet in the ensuing pages, the Greek word nous and its derivatives. Nous is usually translated as 'mind' or 'intellect'. […] The words 'mind' and 'intellect and their derivatives (intellection, intellectual, etc.) have quite different overtones from the Greek nous. The most fundamental reason for this is a cultural one: the Greeks were pre-Cartesian; we are all post-Cartesian. We say, 'I think, therefore I am'. that is, thinking is an activity I engage in and there must therefore be an 'I' to engage in it; the Greeks would say, 'I think, therefore there is that which I think –– to noeta."

This concern with Greek thought as Greek thought and not with interpretive layers is key. It has been noted that it is hard to approach St. Augustine without some residue of the interpretive lens of Thomas Aquinas, and if that is so it goes doubly for Aristotle, and triply for the Metaphysics in particular, where Thomas's commentary is probably the great volume to rebel against or act in favor of. In particular, the traditional terminology of the Metaphysics in English is "Latinate" and derived from the Latin translations of the Middle Ages and of its commentaries. Fresh translations (or fresh borrowings direct from the Greek) have improved our understanding of Patristic literature, and Sachs's project shows some hope, here.

Beyond following Reale in his rejection of the theses of Jaeger**, et al regarding the incoherence of the work, the primary influence on Sachs seems to be Heidegger. Getting a reasonable grasp on Heidegger (largely to try and interpret the fascination he holds for so many "theologians" inside and outside the Church) is something of an ongoing project here, so any intelligent grasp of how Heidegger truly informs Sachs's translation will have to come from another person or my self some time in the dim future.

However, the Heideggerian influence is definitely notable in Sachs's use of long, compound constructions. Orthodox readers will likely be familiar with controversies such as the translation of ουσια as "substance" or even ενεργεια as "activity". In the former case, Sachs opts for a simple, explainable alternative: "thinghood". But with ενεργεια, we get a complicated alternative: "being-at-work". Despite Sachs's claims, I am not entirely sure if such constructions are more readily grasped than Latin, and tend to encourage my favored solution of simply borrowing words (as a good speaker of English should, I'll add). The difficulty of ενεργεια is in its range of mundane and philosophical finery; I think that David Bradshaw's choice to simply render it as energeia, prefacing his work with a chapter covering Aristotle's use, is the best choice for any in depth English approach to the concept. Whether or not it works in a text which is supposed to introduce students to the Metaphysics, I am less sure.

While I would say that solutions such as translating ενεργεια by its cognate, "energy", have led to their own problems (for example, I think that for most English speakers, talk of "the Divine energies" is more likely to be misleading than "the Divine activities", because "energy" is inevitably bound up in conceptions of physical force, electricity or the various energies of our imaginations: phasers, psionics and psychic). To complicate it further, Sachs's translation in no way works for every way in which Aristotle employs the word, perhaps even within the Metaphysics itself (more certainty there after reading his translation), but certainly outside of it. If one needs a plain English rendering, it may be better to split up the "richness" of the Greek, but include some explanatory apparatus, as Fr. Louth does with νους above.

Other constructions have similar issues: Sachs renders τι ην ειναι as "what is for something to be", rather than essence. This has the quality of capturing something more like the thrust of the Greek, but I can't help but think that most native English speakers (myself included) will simply fold this as another possible rendering of "essence" into their heads and simply push forward.

Some of the changes are sensible, and have plenty of scholarly apparatus outside of Sachs and even Aristotelean studies to justify them. His rendering of δυναμις is "potency" rather than "potentiality", but this is actually a fairly common shift in modern scholarship by my very anecdotal impressions. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, the best new translation of Aristotle would likely largely embrace new scholarship's conclusions while being overall conservative about the traditions of translating Aristotle.

Some few other changes are cosmetic, but these could possibly have value: e.g. his translation for απορια is "impasse" rather than "difficulty". Overall, I cannot much evaluate either his case against another revisionist translation of Aristotle–that of Ross–because my only familiarity with his text comes from the frequent reliance upon it in John R. Catan's translations of Reale.

The problem of translating Aristotle fascinates me because it can bring up a lot of the problems of translation in general. As Christians, we are not entitled to believe that truth can only be expressed in one tongue, or that our Liturgies or Scripture are somehow invalid when sung in a new tongue. However, when approaching the texts as intellects, we recognize a certain primacy of the "original", and seek to impregnate the new language with the sense of that text. This is why anti-Western writers are not deranged for lamenting the use of Latin terminology in Orthodox theology, for example, because the terminology has been loaded with other meanings, and we want to impregnate the language used in English to express Orthodox theology with the meanings of words as they are to the Fathers, monastics and teachers.

Translation is not only an art or a science, but also best understood as being a position of guardianship of truth not unlike that of the real calling of the philosopher in some ways. Where the philosopher defends truth through reason, the translator should properly defend reason through a love of the truth. You uphold the essential rationality of the Fathers by translating them properly, and to do less would be a failure not just of scholarship, but of the care of souls, to a sense. (If you find this extreme, think of how minds can be warped by mistranslations or poorly-interpreted renderings of Scripture!)

Obviously, with Aristotle, who is not a Father nor Scripture (though the role of his thought in preparing the intellectual ground for the rational exploration of human encounter with the Triune God through the Incarnation and the Church cannot be dismissed as delusional), the stakes seem far less high, and we are able to think a bit clearer about the meanings of good translation, rather than get absorbed in the political stances which characterize most positions on the use of translations for the Church. Even efforts so obviously flawed as the "Septuagint" of the OSB are defended from positions of high passion, rather than following the God who says, "Let us reason together." Because of this, I'm fascinated by the opportunity analyzing an effort like Sachs's–however flawed or successful–gives me to look into my own mind before I continue any act of translation of my own.

*A distrust that doesn't stem from any particular intellectual justification other than my hatred of most new Biblical translations.

**He does throw a good barb at Michelet's Hegelian-inspired interpretation of the Metaphysics as a purposed synthesis: "The doctrines of Hegel are not universally accepted, and ought not to be projected onto an author who had no acquaintance with them." For someone who began his blog with an attack on Alasdair MacIntyre's synthetic reading of Thomas, you can understand the warm thoughts.

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