The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Anything can be translated. How can languages differ in what they can express, in what kinds of thoughts they encourage or permit, if thoughts born and raised in one can live as well is another? But if translation is always possible it may still be hard. For simple phrases addressing familiar, everyday things, there may be only one correct translation. But as the subject moves to remoter things, things less common, translation becomes art and language becomes medium.

This is not news. Anyone can feel how difficult it is to recreate the dictionary denotations, let alone the literary connotations, of one language in another. But this is only the beginning of the art of translation, its scales and studies. The real art is not in deciding how to repeat, but how to fill in.

Abstraction is constructive omission; an abstract word is both a something that is named and the index of a number of somethings, themselves omitted, that together instantiate or imply it. Every language omits differently; and it is by this difference, I think, that language influences thought: the discrepancies of their abstractions mean that certain thoughts are harder to think in some languages than others, because in one they can be alluded to, and in another they must be constructed on the spot. The thoughts may be the same yet the attitude of the thinker towards them may be different. Compare computer languages: it is of little difference to the compiler whether a function is called by name, or defined on the spot anonymously, but it makes a difference to the programmer.

Written languages have two genealogies: linguistic and literary. The linguist who pops up to declare that language has no effect on thought is right in respect of linguistic traits. I do not see that it makes any difference to thought whether the language is gendered or genderless, analytic or agglutinative, nominative-accusative or ergative-absolutive. Thinking is so hard in itself that the general difficulty eclipses the particular difficulties or conveniences of certain languages.

But languages also have literary genealogies, and these do shape thought. It matters that English apprenticed to Latin and Greek, not Sanskrit or Chinese. Few languages have civilized – have literized – themselves. The Old World has Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian. (The New World has Nahuatl and Quechua, but alas, they have no disciples.) All other languages had to serve an apprenticeship. Afterwards some, like the Romance languages, inherit the family business; some, like English or Japanese, buy out the stock; some, like German or Arabic, steal the plans and build their own versions.

To analyze this phenomenon as a form of domination, a side effect of economic and political power, is not wrong – witness Norman French and English, or Arabic and Persian – but it misses the point. The conquered reshape their languages by translation from their conquerors; but conquerors also reshape their languages by translation from the conquered. Greek came to Rome in the mouths of slaves. One generation of Mongols heard Arabic and Chinese only in cries for mercy; the next whispered them in their bedrooms and gardens. Translation is certainly a convenience, is certainly a political act, but it also a transmission, an inheritance, a maturation. The old language passes on to the young language something that it must work to contain – simply put, power: power to know, power to understand, power to think.

Literary descent has two vectors: borrowing and poetry. Borrowing is the easier, the most common, and usually the first method. Poetry is the harder but better method, because borrowing always leaves something behind.

When languages are young, fast, and hungry, they take words and ideas as they need them, in whichever sense comes easiest; often the wrong one. In studying classical philosophy, for example, the hardest step is to get rid of English definitions. Stoics were not stoic; Epicureans were not epicurean; apatheia isn’t apathy, a daimon isn’t a demon, kosmos isn’t the cosmos, and demokrateia isn’t democracy.

The diction of poetry is remote and patient enough, far enough from application, that it can take the time to compass an idea. Still, the transfer is not always perfect; sometimes the idea retains an inappropriate exoticism. An Athenian might agree that beauty is truth, but he would not have learned the lesson from his kitchenware.

Language’s limits are unresisting but real. No language is without limits, but the limits of my language are the limits of my world, not as a wall limits my movement, but as the horizon limits my vision: I cannot see past it, yet I can never run into it.