His philosophy and its translation

Authored by: Bettina Bergo

The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138933552
eBook ISBN: 9781315678481
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter discusses two evident translator’s values: faithfulness to the letter of the text and to the reproduction of styles and tone in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s later performance of the ‘ethical’ suffering at the root of communication, responsibility, even self-sacrifice [la substitution]. Beyond the difficulties of translating culturally hybrid texts (Levinas’s vast multilingualism), I am concerned to show the ways in which these two values can enter into tension with each other and what this implies for the translator. I use Derrida’s discussion of language as ‘idiom’ (he urges, ‘I never speak but one language’ and ‘it is not my own’) to examine Levinas’s work, which dismantles, at the level of basic grammar, ontological predication, replacing the copula (‘to be’) and forging a rhetoric of parataxes and ellipses. In this way, the later work performs, through rhythm, our affective investiture by the other person. Now, if what we call ‘being’ concerns the integrality of what-is, then Levinas’s struggle with fundamental ontology requires that the human face first – and later on, traces of emotional memory – inflect existence in a proto-ethical way that runs alongside the basic violence and predation of existence. This sets Levinas’s later work between poetry, philosophy, and what he called ‘spirituality’. Above all, it poses the problem of how best to translate rhythms, affects, and ultimately the silences that punctuate philosophical witnessing.

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