After Babel Critical Context - Essay

George Steiner

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 a work of literary criticism, as a theory of cultural transmission, the book can provoke reactions and reformulations. As a work of translation theory, it cannot provoke new or different translations. (This abyss can be traced in the fact that actual translations do not form a significant part of Steiner’s curriculum vitae.) Indeed, even within the realm of translation theory itself, later works such as Difference in Translation (1985) or The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation (1985) cannot be seen as responses to Steiner; indeed, they see no need to invoke him. Thus paradoxically, the various theories of translation, one of the basic aspects of human communication, refuse to communicate with one another; rather, they talk past one another. After Babel remains an enormous and much-admired monument which has provoked no imitators or disciples, thus in a way itself exemplifying its author’s preoccupation with the difficulties of communication, with the profound relationship between language and silence.