Dictionary of Untranslatables, edited by Barbara Cassin (Princeton University Press, 2015)
Seneca: A Life, by Emily Wilson (Allen Lane, 2015)
I’m learning French at the moment – or I’m trying to, at least. I’d be doing a hell of a lot better if it weren’t for all these huckster faux amis (which is French, by the way, for faux amis). The biggest blow so far has been “chicorée.” Colour me devastated. You’d have thought it meant “chicory,” but that’s “endives.” I know, right? Chicorée’s a gnarled and hoary root, unnamed in the English language, used to make wincingly bitter tea – a sample of which I recently drank, and which caused incredible, and prolonged stomach bread (by which I mean pain).
If only Barbara Cassin had seen fit to include “chicory” in her recent Dictionary of Untranslatables, which is currently doing the reviewing rounds. I’ll have to have words (“words” being a breadful play on words). The aim of the Dictionary is to collect together significant terms in European philosophy, whose translation has proved problematic. The English word “feeling,” for example, “has posed such serious challenges that [French translators] sometimes … leave [it] in parenthesis.” Another is the Greek “arete,” which can be “virtue” or “excellence” or – according to Michael Kinnucan, writing on the Asymptote – “that quality which makes a person ‘baller’.” It turns out translation is a tricky business – and the hilarious irony (so the reviewers keep telling us) is that the book itself is a translation.
What else are they saying? Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, has called it “the weirdest book the twenty-first century has so far produced.” Hyperbolic much? Admittedly, other reviewers also think it’s a bit of a doozy. It’s “haunted by a joke at its own expense,” says Kinnucan.” It’s a “paradox” – says Tim Crane, writing in the TLS – and doubly so in translation. He admires, without quite welcoming, the editors’ chutzpah (Yiddish for chutzpah), at how, “rather than despair at the self-undermining self-referentiality of the whole idea, [they] rejoice in it.” Still, he doesn’t seem particularly enamoured with the project. It is, perhaps, a little bit too French for his tastes: “a loving celebration of philosophy as conceived by French philosophers,” in which English-language philosophy is “conspicuously absent.” This is an oversight, he feels, given that: “Anglo-analytic” philosophy dominates university departments in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australasia and many parts of Continental Europe; and like it or not, the French approach embodied in Cassin’s book is on the decline worldwide ….” Of course, others might say that the reason for the respective dominance and decline might be the result of “the homogenisation and the hegemony” of a single language – (cough cough English cough) – which is Kinnucan’s view, and Tom Bunstead’s (in The Independent). But, you know, c’est la vie. This or that is the life.
From false friends, to real frenemies – and another book published this quarter, Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life. Warmly received, Wilson’s biography describes the relationship between the Greek rhetorician and philosopher and his histrionically horrible patron, Emperor Nero (creator of the infamous coffee chain). Seneca is the skilful apologist for his monstrous benefactor. “[P]retty much every one of Seneca’s works can be read as an explanation or an excuse for whatever he or Nero had been up to in the weeks preceding its composition.” So writes Christopher Bray in The Guardian. It sounds like pranks, but Nero’s misdemeanours include matricide, fratricide … and Seneca’s own eventual “suicide.” The last is the focus of a number of the reviewers’ remarks. Tim Whitmarsh, in The Literary Review, writes:
“If Socrates died well … playing the role of philosophical hero to perfection, Seneca bungled his lines. [W]hen Nero’s henchmen came to order his death … he first slashed his wrists, but his blood flow was too weak and the wounds congealed. He then took a dose of Socratic hemlock that he had laid in store for a moment such as this, but that did not work either. At the third attempt he managed to suffocate himself, rather less impressively, in a hot steam bath.”
I’m not sure whether it’s a reflection of Wilson’s texts but there seems to be some confusion about Seneca’s final moments. According to Bray it was Nero’s guards who “dumped him in [the] hot bath.” Whether or not Seneca finally decided to take the plunge, it was, as Bray puts it, hardly “noble self-slaughter” – he had his erstwhile student and benefactor at his shoulder. And this brings to mind another oddity of anglo-franco translation; in English we talk of “committing suicide”; in French, the verb “se suicider” is reflexive – so one may “suicide” somebody else. So while we can surely describe Seneca’s demise in English, there’s a certain dry humour in the French ils l’ont suicidé. Nero’s guards suicided Seneca. LOL … or MDR (mort de rire), as the French have it.