Form and Content
After Babel is a long meditation on language, translation, communication, and cultural artifacts; each chapter presents an argument based on a particular combination of these subjects. Surprisingly, the book opens not with a critique of literary translation but with close readings of four passages from English literature. In William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Noel Coward, George Steiner has chosen four authors whose idioms (in the root meaning of that word) seem as far apart from one another as possible, both historically and temperamentally. Yet Steiner manages to show that Coward’s trivially colloquial English is ultimately as irrecoverable, as untranslatable into any other idiom, as Shakespeare’s poetic Elizabethan. Thus, Steiner has let fly his first arrow for what he will later call the “monadist” view of language. The opposition between this view and the “universalist” position is really the structure supporting the 507 pages of After Babel. Indeed, it is a somewhat monadist statement which summarizes this first chapter: “Inside or between languages, human communication equals translation.” This will be the first of a number of challenges to more conventional theories of translation.
Chapter 2, “Language and Gnosis,” is essentially a discussion of opposing linguistic theories. The word “gnosis” refers to a revelation of divine mysteries reserved for an elite. Steiner’s question in the chapter is “why should human beings speak thousands of different, mutually incomprehensible tongues?” It is here that Steiner outlines his two poles: the universalist position, which holds that there are abstractable universals common to all languages and thus by implication that communication is similar in different cultures, making translation between cultures possible; and the monadist position, which emphasizes the tremendous differences between languages and holds that thought patterns within those languages must be different and thus that real translation is impossible. While Steiner...
(The entire section is 846 words.)