Ost in translation

In "Translate" his latest essay, Belgian philosopher and jurist François Ost, sings the praises of multilingualism, the one alternative to the hegemony of global English.

Published on 5 June 2009 at 12:56

Misunderstanding – let’s see now: Most of the time, we consider it a blight, an insidious worm that spoils the fruit of communication. On closer scrutiny, however, it turns out to be an opportunity, just as a mistake is an opportunity for learning in that it makes us cross-examine ourselves, correct ourselves and progress. If everything we said were instantaneously grasped, if we got one another’s message “loud and clear” every time, we would only need to talk once, and there would be no need to have a(nother) word with one another.

The same goes for languages. There are roughly 6,000 of them around. Some are neighbours, sisters, cousins, others complete strangers, light-years away. So we are inclined to think that if there were only one single clear-cut, perfect language in which things were reflected exactly as in a verbal mirror, everyone could understand everyone else effortlessly, and we would elude the catastrophe of Babel: atomisation and the inconsolable misfortune of being condemned to the treachery of translation. Well, no. This lone language, this scrap of the dream of the Ursprache or “original language” – “the very one in which God and Adam conversed in Paradise” – would be a deadly bore. It would nip every conversation in the bud and put quite a damper on the “potentialities of meaning”.

So long live Babel! Long live the sin of presumption that tempted men into building a tower as high as the sky, in punishment for which God “scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth” and “confounded the language of all the earth” – that very curse is a blessing in disguise.


This is the thesis of Traduire by François Ost (Fayard), a philosopher/jurist, college professor in Geneva and vice-president of the Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis in Brussels. This imposing book – whose subtitle clearly reflects its object: to present a “Defence and Illustration of Multilingualism” – is not missing a single reference, footnote, or argument (the only thing missing is an index of names). And although highly rigorous, convoking the likes of Merleau-Ponty, Quine and Wittgenstein, Eco, Benveniste and Antoine Berman, it is far from exclusively addressing specialists in the philosophy of language, semiotics or lexicology. In the final analysis, its subject is political: Europe thinks in several languages, its language is translation, and it would be political and cultural self-mutilation to submit to the hegemony of global English, or Globish.

François Ost begins by analysing the founding myth of the tower of Babel: 20-odd lines from Genesis (XI. 1–9), nine verses that are as “rigorous as a short story by Kafka, enigmatic as the poetry of Borges”, and which have given rise to endless literature. To begin with, he focuses on the telling of the tale, which adheres to the general stylistic economy of the Genesis narrative. He points up the complex interweaving of its constituent themes, distinguishes the various historical strata of its writing, then proceeds to a close reading of the text, a virtually word-by-word commentary, simultaneously comparing selected French translations and the leading exegeses. Ultimately, in lieu of the “Babelian paradigm”, which has provided endless food for thought in so many cultures, he glimpses an “emerging paradigm of translation for a world that thinks of itself in terms of a network and in terms of communication”.


Traduire is essentially devoted to exploring this new model, which obliges us to “think of language and translation together” (in such diverse domains as interdisciplinary science and scholarship, dialogue between religions and between philosophies, between international law and national laws, civil society and its political representatives etc.). Ost examines its “imaginary foundations, historical detours, conceptual frontiers, linguistic presuppositions, ethical implications and the political preconditions for its implementation”. The upshot is a veritable hymn to multilingualism and to the “linguistic hospitality” that is translation: a “wholly separate” and inventive form of writing, which operates first within each language before striking out to toil at its frontiers, and which makes the “untranslatable” – an a priori obstacle – its “organ” and its conditio sine qua non.

To translate is to betray, needless to say, but it is this betrayal which, like misunderstanding, provides the best guarantee for the ongoing pursuit of translation, discussion, exchange and “dialogical thought”. “If translation were to succeed completely, the spectre of the lone language would re-emerge, and the towers would begin wobbling again.” In Babel and everywhere else.


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