After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation

by George Steiner

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George Steiner’s essential tome on linguistics, hailed by the New York Times as a “dazzling inquiry into the possibility of translation”

In his classic work, literary critic and scholar George Steiner tackles what he considers the Babel “problem”: Why, over the course of history, have humans developed thousands of


George Steiner’s essential tome on linguistics, hailed by the New York Times as a “dazzling inquiry into the possibility of translation”

In his classic work, literary critic and scholar George Steiner tackles what he considers the Babel “problem”: Why, over the course of history, have humans developed thousands of different languages when the social, material, and economic advantages of a single tongue are obvious? Steiner argues that different cultures’ desires for privacy and exclusivity led to each developing its own language. Translation, he believes, is at the very heart of human communication, and thus at the heart of human nature. From our everyday perception of the world around us, to creativity and the uninhibited imagination, to the often inexplicable poignancy of poetry, we are constantly translating—even from our native language.

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After Babel

Aspects of Language and Translation

By George Steiner


Copyright © 1998 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1185-2




Act II of Cymbeline closes with a monologue by Posthumus. Convinced that Iachimo has indeed possessed Imogen, Posthumus rails bitterly at woman:

Is there no way for man to be, but women
Must be half-workers? We are all bastards,
And that most venerable man, which I
Did call my father, was I know not where
When I was stamp'd. Some coiner with his tools
Made me a counterfeit: yet my mother seem'd
The Dian of that time: so doth my wife
The nonpareil of this. O vengeance, vengeance!
Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain'd,
And pray'd me oft forbearance: did it with
A pudency so rosy, the sweet view on't
Might well have warm'd old Saturn; that I thought her
As chaste as unsunn'd snow. O, all the devils!
This yellow Iachimo, in an hour, was't not?
Or less; at first? Perchance he spoke not, but
Like a full-acorn'd boar, a German one,
Cried 'O!' and mounted; found no opposition
But what he look'd for should oppose and she
Should from encounter guard. Could I find out
That woman's part in me—for there's no motion
That tends to vice in man, but I affirm
It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it,
The woman's: flattering, hers; deceiving, hers:
Lust, and rank thoughts, hers, hers: revenges, hers:
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability;
All faults that name, nay, that hell knows, why, hers
In part, or all: but rather all. For even to vice
They are not constant, but are changing still;
One vice, but of a minute old, for one
Not half so old as that. I'll write against them,
Detest them, curse them: yet 'tis greater skill
In a true hate, to pray they have their will:
The very devils cannot plague them better.

This, of course, is only in part a realization of what Shakespeare wrote. Cymbeline was first printed in the Folio of 1623 and the distance between Shakespeare's 'manuscript' and the earliest printed texts continues to exercise scholars. But I am not, in fact, transcribing the Folio text. I am quoting from the Arden edition of the play by J. M. Nosworthy. His version of Posthumus's speech embodies a sum of personal judgement, textual probability, and scholarly and editorial precedent. It is a recension which seeks to gauge the needs and resources of the educated general reader of the mid-twentieth century. It differs from the Folio in punctuation, line-divisions, spelling, and capitalization. The visual effect is markedly different from that achieved in 1623. At one point, the editor substitutes for what he takes to be a corrupt reading what he, and previous scholars, assume to be the most likely emendation. The editor's task here is, in the full sense, interpretative and creative.

The direction of spirit and main rhetorical gestures of Posthumus's outburst are unmistakable. But only close reading will exhibit the details and manifold energies at work. A first step would deal with the meaning of salient words—with what that meaning may have been in 1611, the probable date of the play. Already this is a difficult step, because current meaning may not have been, or have been only in part, Shakespeare's. In short how many of Shakespeare's contemporaries fully understood his text? An individual and a historical context are both germane.

One might begin with the expressive grouping of stamp'd, coiner, tools, and counterfeit. Several currents of meaning and implication are interwoven. They invoke the sexual and the monetary and the strong, often subterranean links between these two areas of human will. The counterfeit coiner stamps false coin. One of the meanings of counterfeit is 'to pretend to be another' which is apposite to Iachimo. The O.E.D. cites a usage in 1577 in which counterfeit signifies 'to adulterate.' The meshing of adulteration with adultery would be characteristic of Shakespeare's total responsiveness to the field of relevant force and intimation in which words conduct their complex lives. Tools has a gross sexual resonance; is there, conceivably, an undertone of a sense of the verb stamp, admittedly rare, for which the O.E.D. finds an example in 1598: 'a blow with the pestle in pounding'? Certainly pertinent are such senses of the word as 'to imprint paper' (Italian: stampare), missives true and false playing so important a role in Cymbeline, and the meaning 'to stigmatize.' The latter is of especial interest: the O.E.D. and Shakespeare glossaries here direct us to Much Ado About Nothing. It soon becomes evident that Claudio's damnation of women in Act IV, Scene i foreshadows the rage of Posthumus.

Pudency is so unusual a word that the O.E.D. gives Cymbeline as authority for its undoubted general meaning: 'susceptibility to shame.' A 'rosy pudency' is one that blushes; but the erotic associations are insistent and part of a certain strain of febrile bawdy in this play. Pudenda, recorded as early as 1398, but not in common usage until the 1630s, cannot be ruled out. Both 'shame' and the 'sexual occasion of shame' are operative in pudic, which Caxton takes over from the French in 1490 as meaning 'chaste.' Shakespeare uses chaste three lines later with the striking image of unsunn'd snow. This touch of unrelenting cold may have been poised in his mind once reference was made to old Saturn, god of sterile winter. Yellow Iachimo is arresting. The aura of nastiness is distinct. But what is being inferred? Though 'green' is the more usual appurtenance of jealousy, Middleton in 1602 uses yellow to mean 'affected with jealousy.' Shakespeare does likewise in The Winter's Tale, a play contemporary with Cymbeline, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1. iii) 'yellowness' stands for 'jealousy' (could there be a false etymology somewhere in the background, associating the two words?). Iachimo is jealous, of Posthumus's nobility, of Posthumus's good fortune in enjoying the love and fidelity of Imogen. But does Posthumus know this, or does the dramatic strength of the epithet lie precisely in the fact that it exceeds Posthumus's conscious insight? Much later, and with American overtones, yellow will come to express both cowardice and mendacity—the 'yellow press.' Though these two nuances are beautifully apposite to Iachimo, neither was, so far as we can tell, available to Shakespeare. What latent undertones in the word and colour give rise to subsequent, negative usage? Shakespeare at times seems to 'hear' inside a word or phrase the history of its future echoes.

Encounter as 'erotic accosting' (cf. Two Gentlemen of Verona, II. vii) is easier to place; in the present context, the use of the term in Much Ado About Nothing (III. iii) is particularly relevant. Elizabethan bawdy suggests the proximity of a bitter pun. Motion, on the other hand, would require extensive treatment. Here it plainly signifies 'impulse.' But the development of the word, as it grows towards modern 'emotion,' is a history of successive models of consciousness and volition. Change of prides has busied editors. The surface meaning is vivid and compact. Ought we to derive its suggestive force from an association of prides with 'ornate attire'? In Doctor Faustus that association is made explicit. Capitalized as they are in the Folio, Prides, Disdaine, Slanders, Mutability, and Vice direct us back to the personified, emblematic idiom of Tudor morality plays and allegoric pageants in which Marlowe and Shakespeare were at home and many of whose conventions recur, though in an intellectualized, reflective form, in Shakespeare's late tragi-comedies. By setting these nouns in lower-case, a modern text sacrifices a specific pictorial-sensory effect. The Folio prints Nice-longing. This may either be Shakespearean coinage or a printer's reading. In Posthumus's use of nice, Shakespeare exploits a certain instability in the word, a duplicity of ambience. The term can move either way, towards notions of delicacy, of educated finesse, or towards a faintly corrupt, hedonistic indulgence. Here, perhaps through a finely judged placing of vowel sounds, nice has a distinct unpleasantness. 'Wanton' and 'lascivious' are close at hand. Like 'motion,' mutability would require extensive treatment. From Chaucer's Troilus to the unfinished seventh book of the Faerie Queene, the concept has a fascinating history. It embodies philosophic, perhaps astrologically-tinged notions of universal inconstancy, of an anarchic variable in the sum of human fortunes. But as early as Chaucer, and in Lydgate's Troy Book (1412–20), the word is strongly linked with the alleged infidelity of woman: 'They say that chaunge and mutabylyte / Apropred ben to femynyte.' Mutability climaxes and conjoins Posthumus's catalogue of reproach. If Imogen has yielded to Iachimo, all trust has ebbed from life and Hell is near.

Such a glossary, even if its lexical, historical elements aimed to be exhaustive, is only a preliminary move. A comprehensive reading would turn next to syntactic aspects of the passage. The study of Shakespeare's grammar is itself a wide field. In the late plays, he seems to develop a syntactic shorthand; the normal sentence structure is under intense dramatic stress. Often argument and feeling crowd ahead of ordinary grammatical connections or subordinations. The effects—Coriolanus is especially rich in examples—are theatrical in the valid sense. We hear discourse in a condition of heightened action. The words 'ache at us' with an immediacy, with an internalized coherence which come before the attenuated, often wasteful conventions of 'proper' public speech. But that coherence is not the same as that of common grammar. At two points in Posthumus's diatribe (lines 19 and 28) ordinary sequences and relations seem to break down. Thus some editors would read 'All faults that may be named, that hell knows.' Others prefer to keep the Folio text, judging Posthumus's lapses into incoherence to be a deliberate dramatic means. So nauseating is the image of Iachimo's easy sexual triumph, that Posthumus loses the thread of his discourse; in his enraged mind as in his syntax, Iachimo and Imogen are momentarily entangled.

Sustained grammatical analysis is necessary and cuts deep. But glossary and syntax are only instruments. The main task for the 'complete reader' is to establish, so far as he is able, the full intentional quality of Posthumus's monologue, first within the play, secondly in what is known of Shakespearean and Elizabethan dramatic conventions, and, most difficult of all, within the large context of early seventeenth-century speech-habits. What is involved here is the heart of the interpretative process. In seeking to apprehend Posthumus's meaning, and his own relations to such meaning, we attempt to determine the relevant 'tone-values' or 'valuations.' I use these terms for lack of a more rigorous designation of total operative context. I hope their definition will emerge in the course of this book.

Does Posthumus 'mean it' (itself a colloquialism charged with linguistic and psychological suppositions)? Does he believe what he is saying, or only in some measure? At what level of credence are we to respond? In part, the answers lie in our 'reading' of Posthumus's character. But that character is a semantic construct, an aggregate of verbal and gestural indicators. He is quick to anger and to despair. Perhaps we are to detect in his rhetoric a bent towards excess, towards articulation beyond the facts. What weight has this tirade in the immediate stage-setting? Granville-Barker supposed that it is delivered from the inner stage, after which Posthumus again comes forward. Iachimo and Philario would remain within earshot. In that case, we are dealing with a partial soliloquy only, with a statement at least some of which is intended as communication outward, here to Iachimo. Would this account for the grammatical compression, for the apparent ambiguity of focus at mid-point in the monologue? Or is Posthumus in fact alone and using the convention of the address to oneself which is intended to be 'overheard' by the entire audience?

Looking at the speech we are, I think, struck by certain elements of style and cadence subversive of any final gravity. The note of comic fury expressive of Claudio's myopia in Much Ado is not altogether absent from Cymbeline. The bulk of Posthumus's indictment has an undeniable seriousness and disgust; but the repeated 'hers,' the naïve cumulation of vehemence produce a delicate counter-movement. 'I'll write against them' is near-comedy. Indeed, such is the effect of levity and doggerel at the close of the passage, that various editors regard the last line as a spurious addendum. Might it be that at some level immediately below articulate intent, Posthumus does not, cannot wholly believe Iachimo's lies? If he did believe them without any reservation of consciousness, would he deserve reunion with Imogen (it is of the essence of tragi-comedy that self-destructive blindness be, wherever possible, qualified)? Moreover, as scholars point out, Posthumus's philippic is, at almost every stage, conventional; his vision of corrupt woman is a locus communis. Close parallels to it may be found in Harrington's translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (XXVII), in Book X of Paradise Lost, in Marston's Fawn, and in numerous Jacobean satirists and moralists. This stylized fabric again alerts us to a certain distance between Posthumus's true self and the fury of his statement. The nausea of Othello, moving from sexual shock to a vision of universal chaos, and the infirm hysteria of Leontes in The Winter's Tale have a very different pitch.

The determination of tone-values, of the complete semantic event brought about by Posthumus's words, the attempt to grasp the full reach of those words both inward and in respect of other personages and the audience, moves in concentric and ever-widening circles. From Posthumus Leonatus at the close of Act II, we proceed to Cymbeline as a whole, then to the body of Shakespearean drama and to the context of cultural reference and literature on which it draws. But beyond these, large and complex as they are, lies the informing sphere of sensibility. This is, in certain respects, the most vital and the least explored. We know little of internal history, of the changing proceedings of consciousness in a civilization. How do different cultures and historical epochs use language, how do they conventionalize or enact the manifold possible relations between word and object, between stated meaning and literal performance? What were the semantics of an Elizabethan discourse, and what evidence could we cite towards an answer? The distance between 'speech signals' and reality in, say, Biblical Hebrew or Japanese court poetry is not the same as in Jacobean English. But can we, with any confidence, chart these vital differences, or are our readings of Posthumus's invective, however scrupulous our lexical studies and editorial discriminations, bound to remain creative conjecture?

And where are the confines of relevance? No text earlier than or contemporaneous with Shakespeare can, a priori, be ruled out as having no conceivable bearing. No aspect of Elizabethan and European culture is formally irrelevant to the complete context of a Shakespearean passage. Explorations of semantic structure very soon raise the problem of infinite series. Wittgenstein asked where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop. An exercise in 'total reading' is also potentially unending. We will want to come back to this odd truism. It touches on the nature of language itself, on the absence of any satisfactory or generally accredited answer to the question 'what is language?'

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1813, two centuries after Cymbeline. Consider Elinor Dashwood's reflections when hearing news of Edward Ferrars's engagement, in Chapter I of volume II:

The youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him to everything but her beauty and good nature; but the four succeeding years—years, which if rationally spent, give such improvement to the understanding, must have opened his eyes to her defects of education, while the same period of time, spent on her side in inferior society and more frivolous pursuits, had perhaps robbed her of that simplicity, which might once have given an interesting character to her beauty.

If in the supposition of his seeking to marry herself, his difficulties from his mother had seemed great, how much greater were they now likely to be, when the object of his engagement was undoubtedly inferior in connections, and probably inferior in fortune to herself. These difficulties, indeed, with an heart so alienated from Lucy, might not press very hard upon his patience; but melancholy was the state of the person, by whom the expectation of family opposition and unkindness, could be felt as relief!


Excerpted from After Babel by George Steiner. Copyright © 1998 George Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

George Steiner, author of dozens of books (including The Death of Tragedy, After Babel, Martin Heidegger, In Bluebeard’s Castle, My Unwritten Books, George Steiner at the New Yorker, and The Poetry of Thought), is one of the world’s foremost intellectuals. He has been professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, professor of comparative literature and fellow at the University of Oxford, and professor of poetry at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he has been an Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge since 1969. 

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