Humor and Translation


By Mark Herman

Depending on the viewpoint, everything is translatable, or, conversely, everything is untranslatable.

Consider the Spanish words sol and luna. Do they really translate into “sun” and “moon”? To a large extent, yes. But sol is a masculine noun and luna is a feminine noun This is a distinction totally lost to English speakers that always affects, even if only subconsciously, the way the ideas of “sun” and “moon” are perceived by Spanish speakers.1

Such distinctions are explored in a recent book with the oxymoronic title Dictionary of Untranslatables (Princeton University Press, 2014). The oxymoronic character of the title is underscored by the fact that most of the book is itself a translation from the French Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Barbara Cassin, editor, Éditions de Seuil / Dictionnaires Le Robert, 2004). The English version, produced by many translators and contributors, includes additions to expand its scope beyond Europe. It is subtitled A Philosophical Lexicon, and, like the French original, is concerned mainly with philosophical terms.

This is a big book: 1,297 + xxxv big pages with small type. Its aim is to explore the many related words for each philosophical concept in several languages, and even within a single language, and to see where they overlap or do not overlap in their ranges of meaning, denotations and connotations, and ambiguities.

The entry on “To Translate” is some 16 pages long (1139–55). It begins by giving one French translation (traduire), four German translations (dolmetschen, übersetzen, übertragen, überliefern), five Greek translations, and eight Latin translations for the word itself. Subsections include “Greek Monolinguism: Hellenism or Barbarism,” “Greece in Rome: Translating/Adapting,” “Translations of the Bible,” “Medieval Translation,” and “The German Tradition of Translation.” What does not seem to have changed over the years and across continents is the chauvinism of speakers with respect to their own language:

hellênizein … (after the adjective hellên …, “Greek”) fixes under the same term the meanings of “speaking Greek” and “speaking correctly,” or even … to “behave as a free, civilized, and cultivated individual” — in short, as a person. (1139)

The entry for “Time/Tense” is particularly interesting: the meaning spread of words in Romance languages is much greater than those of words in Germanic languages. For example, the single French word temps can refer to weather (cf. English “tempest”), time, or grammatical tense.

The etymology of the various words for “God” are also interesting. The entry points out that there is no etymological relationship between “God” and “good” (403). Perhaps more surprisingly, there is no etymological relationship between Latin deus and Greek theos (403). And, perhaps not surprisingly, at least one statement in the “God” entry is debatable. (What else is new?):

“Theocracy,” most often understood today in the sense of a “clerical regime,” did not originally refer to the power of the human administrators of the sacred but rather the opposite. Flavius Josephus coined theokratia … in a defense of Judaism. He indicates by it the fact that the divine Law is what has power in Judaism, rather than any particular person. (Rémi Brague, 404)

And so theokratia can mean that no one is above the Law and therefore there should be no dictatorial power, or it can mean that, since only “human administrators of the sacred” can interpret the Law and say what it actually means, theokratia is indeed “theocracy” in the modern sense. This sense is reinforced by the later statement in the book under the heading “Torah”: “Obedience to the [Jewish] priests is required” (1156).

Subheadings under “Sex” (969–74) include “The Invention of the Concept of ‘Gender’” [biological sex versus social gender], “‘Gender,’ Genre Humain, and Grammatical Gender” [see “sun” and “moon” above], “The Uses of Gender,” and “Epistemology and Historicity.” There are two separate inserted sections on “Masculine, feminine, neuter” (970) and “‘Sex’ and ‘sexual difference’” (972). True to the book’s philosophical bias, there are no apparent references to the physical act of copulation except perhaps the single statement: “The English language denotes above all the biological and the physical with the word ‘sex’” (969).

Despite its large size, the book appears to avoid any reference to “humor,” or even the obviously philosophical concept of “fun.” The discussions of “joy,” “enjoyment,” and “delight” in the entry on “Pleasure” (788-99) do not seem to me to fully cover the meaning spread of “fun,” an English concept I have often been told is extremely difficult to translate into other languages.


1 It is true that English speakers sometimes regard the sun, actively emitting light, as stereotypically masculine and the moon, passively receiving light, as stereotypically feminine. For example, in Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885), Yum-yum sings “His majesty,” referring to the sun, and “That placid dame,” referring to the moon.

Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.edu. Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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