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Book Report Sen Henry LI 803, Dr. Wyatt 12-11-01 Steiner, G. (1998).

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. (3rd ed.). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. In After Babel, George Steiner, Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford, presents an erudite, academic investigation of the linguistic processes of translation both inside and between languages and philosophical aspects involved. His main thesis is that we all speak our own private languages, or idiolects, and that every act of communication between humans involves translation. He returns to this idea repeatedly through the text. At the heart of the book is the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel and the resulting prodigality of individual human languages. After Babel is also enriched with metaphors of Jewish Cabalistic mysticism, which holds the belief that a day of redemption will come when we all regain understanding of the lost language of Adam, and translation will be unnecessary. In Understanding as Translation, the first of six chapters in After Babel, Steiner asserts that language is in perpetual change. Every language-act has a temporal shelflife: No semantic form is timeless (24). How many of us still fully understand the idioms of Shakespeare or Dickens? It is interpretation, also called diachronic (historical) translation, which gives language life beyond the moment of utterance. Steiner prefers bertragen (carry over), one of three German words meaning to translate, as the best word to describe all the nuances of transmitting meaning across time (32). Time is not the only internal boundary of understanding within a language. There are also synchronic (contemporary) linguistic issues: Children have their own semantic approach

2 to language which is difficult for adults to understand. In turn, gender and sexuality evokes a need for translation: men and women use language differently. Steiner concludes the chapter by declaring that a human performs an act of translation whenever he or she receives speech-acts from any other human being. Knowledge of a foreign language is not required! The second chapter Language and Gnosis delves into the spiritual mysticism of language and translation. Here, Steiner cites the German mystic Angelus Silesius who declared that God has only evoked one single word since the beginning of time, in which the entirety of reality is contained, but undecipherable after Babel (65). Translation from language A into language B seems to imply that some mysterious, intangible third language system exists that intermediates and is common to languages A and B. Is this the pre-Babel, lost language of Adam? After a lengthy, but relevant discussion of the polyglot Kafka and his interpretation of the Tower of Babel, Steiner introduces this question as the point of origin for the modern field of linguistics, beginning with the Germans Leibnitz, Hamann, and Humboldt during the 18th and 19th centuries. He differentiates between two schools of linguistic thought: the universalists who believe all languages have a commonality, and the relativists, who hold that languages are too fragmented, and that if any universal force governing all languages exists, it is too abstract or deep for the human mind to comprehend. At this point, Steiner takes a clear stance with the relativists and expresses opposition to the positivistic universalists, particularly formal linguists who applies mathematical formulas to their theories, like Noam Chomsky.

3 Word against Object is a particularly interesting chapter, because Steiner discusses his personal interest in translation as a polyglot who has internalized English, German, and French as part of himself, and in hindsight remembers only the meaning of conversations, forgetting which language was used as vessel of communication. That struck a personal chord in me as somebody fluent in the very same languages who has also experienced the same situations. The polyglot mind undercuts divisions between languages by reaching inward to the symbiotic core (125). But in which language is one most oneself? Steiner offers no easy answers. This chapter goes farther to probe how differently languages perceive time. Does the past exist outside of grammar? Does raw data from the past have any intrinsic value without the past tense of language to shape it in our memories? Steiner insists that memory is articulated as the past tense of a verb (138). Moreover, could we conceive of the near or distant future without the paradigm of language? Steiner compares future tenses in French and English at this point, but provides no solution to the question. Additionally he considers the validity of human communications. How valid is the written word? Is it the truth just because it has been recorded? He recommends that we critically ponder the message of Nietzsche: the lie and not the truth is divine! (232). Steiner concludes the chapter by stressing how important a hermetic, private language expressing relative, individual truths, has evolved as a conscious rebellion against socializing language norms since the late 19th-century. He cites the French poets Jean Arthur Rimbaud and Stphane Mallarm, as well as Germans Stefan George (Mallarms pupil), Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Celan as examples.

4 The central chapters, Claims of Theory and The Hermeneutic Motion constitute Steiners defense of a hermeneutic model to define translation. Simply put, hermeneutics is the particularly German science of interpreting and translating texts while keeping in mind that time, cultural distance, and subjective idiosyncrasies are factors to overcome. Steiner calls it the act of elicitation and appropriative transfer of meaning (312). Accordingly, he describes the hermeneutic cycle of translation as consisting of three stages: trust, aggression, and incorporative assimilation. The translator begins with a text from the standpoint of trusting the content to be relevant. He or she then aggressively translates -- an invasive action of extracting and bringing home the meaning of the text into the target language. The assimilation stage is the most difficult. The translator attempts to make the rendered text pertinent and meaningful for an audience that may be far removed culturally or temporally from the texts immediacy. Steiner admits that this hermeneutic motion is imperfect, chiefly because translators naively commence by placing intrinsic trust in the text as worthy of translation. The last chapter Topologies of Culture initially looks at how verbal signs in one language can be successfully interpreted into the verbal signs of another. Steiner transcends this to consider the translation of verbal signs into musical notes as another dimension of translation. He cautiously praises the operatic version of Goethes Faust by Berlioz, but sharply criticizes what he deems Schuberts misunderstanding of the poet Heinrich Heines mordant irony in various Lieder. In the final pages, Steiner considers how the traditions of Western thought bias our reception of translations from

5 exotic sources. He also finds fault with English, the new world-language. He rightly describes how the global diffusion of this language in all its derivations, along with its cultural baggage and pre-packaged semantic field (494), threatens to erode the native-cultural autonomy of nations where it is imposed. English might be the current lingua franca, but hardly the satisfactory substitute for the lost language of Adam. Steiner muses: It would be ironic if the answer to Babel were pidgin and not Pentecost (495). After Babel was a joy for me to read as one whose previous MA and PhD studies dealt with a lot of the topics and personages discussed (particularly Heine, Stefan George and Kafka). However, this book is not for everybody. The writi ng style is pedantic and difficult to digest. Every page drips with esoteric philosophy and linguistic terminology. I often reached for an encyclopedia, dictionary, or an old textbook in order to fully understand the discussion. The appropriate audience for this book would be graduate students and professors of comparative literature or comparative/contrastive linguistics, particularly with a Eurocentric focus. Many linguists probably take offense at this controversial book because it belittles the stud y of modern, formal linguistics as a pseudo-science, particularly when it comes to the writings of their influential guru Noam Chomsky. On the other hand, modern literarians may smirk at Steiners precious, grandfatherly approach (largely unchanged since the first edition of After Babel in 1975), but nevertheless admire After Babel because it upholds the mystical qualities of the written/spoken word. His cynical, relativist ideas, even if stated in a very old -fashioned way, are largely in sync with cool post-modernist theoreticians like Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault.

6 What I think is most relevant in After Babel for SLIM LI803 students to remember is that all information transfer essentially begins as translation between individuals. Human beings may share the same common language, but never the same idiolect. Steiner reminds us that our perception of truth and reality is common only to ourselves and that any information transference is colored by our own subjective perceptions.