Untranslatable Words and Incommensurable Worlds: Word Circulation in Shifting Language Ideologies

In this paper, “Untranslatable Words and Incommensurable Worlds: Word Circulation in Shifting Language Ideologies,” I follow the trajectory of two Russian words over several cases of use: byt and poshlost. While poshlost is well recognized in the English language, byt remains a mystery.

“In this paper I am looking at two “untranslatable” Russian words that may or may not have made their way into English. I discuss language ideologies emerging in connection with the “domestication” of a new word. How do words make their way into language? What regimes of circulation, acceptance, and discard make them used or rejected by the speakers of the recipient language? What politics of translation surround these transitions? Drawing from theorization of language ideologies by Kroskrity and Silverstein, and theorization of untranslatability by Jacobson, Benjamin, and Povinelli, I am trying to trace two “untranslatable” words in their new contexts – “poshlost” and “byt” – and reconstruct what does the “untranslatability” do to the actual practices of translation and dissemination of notions and discourses in sociopolitical context.”

This is a fascinating kind of work, and I am happy to have been privileged to spend some time on tracing these words and layering out my ideas in connection to them. This is a class paper written back in the day that will likely exist as such and won’t have any continuation in my own work. I have so many writing projects, I have to abandon a lot of them at a certain stage and moment; it is a pity, but there is only a relatively narrow spectrum of my work that I can devote my attention to.
I attempted about incorporating its part on “byt” in my dissertation (as a more pertinent part), but what it boiled down to is that I think I have a footnote somewhere around my writings that I continue working on, mentioning Svetlana Boym and Jacobson who considered the word “byt” untranslatable.
I think we should not marry to the idea that untranslatable words are a thing, in a sense that every word is untranslatable from the language of one individual into the language of another individual, but that does not preclude us from understanding each other in a sufficient measure.
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Invention of the World

It might be not particularly important that there was a “day” assigned to opening of the world wide web, the 23rd of August, today. But what I suppose is interesting, is that WWW turns 25 (even if formally, it is worthy of being noticed).

Which makes it older than my students or my skillful conversationists on tumblr.

They do not remember, nor did they witness, the world without world network, of which we are magnificent spiders.

Governments, terroristic groups, artists, television, libraries — everything was to use the WWW.

25 is a young age even by humans’ measuring of time. We know little about how it affects us exactly but we know it does, and in a profound way.

We don’t know repercussions, we don’t know the future. But we can guess and we can dream.

It is exciting to see the WWW developing throughout the years. The invention of the WWW is but comparable with the world-wide implementation of book printing. The next such transformative invention is probably teleportation.

Sometimes we forget about the newness of this era. But then it reminds us.

Notes to the Theory of Translation

Les belles infidèles — if they are beautiful, they are unfaithful.

Different worlds, between which you are doing translation, do not match up, they are incommensurable worlds.

That’s why the “skyscrapers of commentary” (Nabokov) are needed in order to make the translation accurate: if not precise, then at least approximating the meaning. Meaning ultimately can be translated, but the sheer joy of text is quite another matter. What kind of joy, beyond purely scholar enjoyment, is possible from reading the text that, as you know, is not going to be comprehensible unless you read “skyscrapers of commentaries”? Who is going to read commentaries and why?

Translation might be possible, or it might be impossible, but here is the situation when it has to be made, and the most amazing part is it is happening.

The point of the translation is that it is a repetition. The translated text should be seen as “the same thing,” or it’s not a translation. The idea of translation disturbs the idea of singularity of the text itself, because it says: The text can be repeated.

Cultures are “repeatable,” in a grand cultural trope of their difference. Cultures are different, but in a similar way: everyone has different food ways, and ways of organizing sleep. Radical forms of difference are universal: they are organized along the same scales — social life, political life, economic interactions, rituals, routines; these are totalizing entities. The translation of the text is happening between the two cultural universes.