Clifford Geertz is only one of Steiner’s readers to have wondered, “What is . . . After Babel?—linguistics, criticism, culture history?” Raymond Oliver has answered this question by calling Steiner “the ultimate philologist.” Philology is perhaps the best term for unifying the various purposes of After Babel; it literally means “love of words,” and in this sense Steiner’s work is above all a philological exercise. Indeed, it is the overriding love of or fascination with words and language which unites linguistics, literary criticism, and translation studies and which allows Steiner to bring them into such breathtaking conjunction. Steiner’s criticism is, then, conservative in the most basic (and best) meaning of that word. His discussions focus again and again on poetry, which he sees, almost as Stephane Mallarme did, as a kind of preservation and purification of language itself. His readings of poems in two or three languages, carried out under the pretext of a study of translation, is really the fulfillment of a critic’s fantasy; it is the equivalent to being able to watch a film in three dimensions, for in the discussion of its translations, poetry raises itself to the second power, discloses the many vectors of its ambiguity.
Steiner’s remarks on the abyss between translation theory and translation practice foretell in a way the curious fate of After Babel. As a response to Chomsky’s linguistics, as...
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