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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.

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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 emphasizes that it is rare to find either position in its extreme form, and while he wishes more to tease out the dialectic between the two positions than to come out clearly for either side, it nevertheless becomes obvious that he himself is more a monadist than a universalist. The linguistic theories of Benjamin Whorf and Noam Chomsky are discussed at length as representative of these two opposing views.

Steiner’s third chapter, “Word Against Object,” is the longest of the book and the least central to the problem of translation. Indeed, Steiner’s attempt to link the thesis of the chapter with the problems of translation is logically rather weak, though intriguing:The translator “re-experiences” the evolution of language itself, the ambivalence of the relations between language and world, between “languages” and “worlds.” In every translation the creative, possibly fictive nature of these relations is tested. Thus translation is no specialized, secondary activity at the “interface” between languages. It is the constant, necessary exemplification of the dialectical, at once welding and divisive nature of speech.

The last line gives a summary of Steiner’s argument in this chapter, which speculates on whether language was invented in order to communicate reality or to “say the thing which is not,” be that unreality a lie, a use of the future tense, or the whole genre of literature.

Having outlined the basic issues in language theory, Steiner is now able to turn to translation proper. Chapter 4, “The Claims of Theory,” examines translation theory and discovers two interesting things: First, the number of ideas about translation is relatively small, the number of great thinkers in the area not surpassing ten or fifteen; second, and even more disturbing, theory does not really help the translator to get on with his or her work. The reason, Steiner surmises, is that translation is a hermeneutical task, “not a science, but an exact art.” Thus, the theory Steiner will produce in the next chapter can hardly be read as a methodology. It attempts to be at once a chronological summary of the stages of translation and a view of the ideal balance that every good translation must achieve.

Steiner divides translation into four separate “motions”: initiative trust, aggression, incorporation, and retribution. The first and last motions pay respect to the source text or its author’s intentions, while aggression and incorporation benefit the translator himself and, presumably, his audience. Ideally, translation must balance these four motions to achieve a kind of stasis. Steiner demonstrates perfection in two translations—after rejecting a host of famous competitors. G. K. Chesterton’s translation of Joachim du Bellay’s “Heureux qui, comme Ulysse” and Pierre Leyris’ renderings of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ works into French are the prizewinners.

The final chapter, “Topologies of Culture,” attempts to collapse the distinctions usually drawn among translation, parody, adaptation, and allusion. All are topological transformations of some earlier text. Thus, Steiner returns to the method of the first chapter by attempting to widen still further the concept of what translation is. He also argues implicitly for a view of Western culture as a continuity, as a continuity of translations—that is, as a dialectical relationship between preservation and transformation. Like the poem itself, culture can be preserved only be making it new.


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Boyers, Robert. “Language Theory and the Promise of Translation,” in The American Poetry Review. V (November/December, 1976), pp. 30-33.

Burke, Kenneth. “Above the Over-Towering Babble,” in Michigan Quarterly Review. XV (1976), pp. 88-102.

Kahn, Sholom J. “On George Steiner and Translating Racine,” in West Coast Review. XII, no. 1 (1977), pp. 33-42.

Miner, Earl. “On the Desirability of Publishing Translations,” in Scholarly Publishing. XI, no. 4 (1980), pp. 291-299.

Oliver, Raymond. “After Babel: George Steiner’s House of Words,” in The Southern Review. XIV (January, 1978), pp. 16-29.

Peden, Margaret Sayers. “The Arduous Journey,” in The Teller and the Tale: Aspects of the Short Story, 1982. Edited by Wendell M. Aycock.

Steiner, George. Introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation, 1966.

. “On an Exact Art (Again),” in The Kenyon Review. IV (Spring, 1982), pp. 8-22.

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