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European Vocabulary of Philosophy (“Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : dictionnaire des intraduisibles”), coordinated by Barbara Cassin
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European Vocabulary of Philosophy (“Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : dictionnaire des intraduisibles”), coordinated by Barbara Cassin

A veritable philosophical Tower of Babel, this dictionary maps out the difficulties of translating the different European languages, creating a bridge between the universality of concepts and their linguistic uniqueness.

© Seuil – Le Robert
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From philosophy to philology

Since her first year of preparatory studies at the Pasteur High School in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Barbara Cassin has been immersed in a buzzing intellectual world which would determine the course of her life: in 1969, at the age of 22, she attended the Thor seminar organised by René Char, in the presence of Heidegger. She then continued her academic career in philosophy and specialised in Ancient Greece, publishing a dissertation in 1974 on the treatis Melissus, Xenophane and Gorgias, attributed to Aristotle.

 

Also a Hellenic and Germanist philologist, Barbara Cassin published The Sophist Effect (“L'Effet sophistique”) in 1995 and explored the possibilities of language in works such as Elegy for Translation. Complicating the Universal (“Éloge de la traduction. Compliquer l'universel”) (2016). She is now an Emeritus Research Director at CNRS and was elected to the Académie Française in 2018.

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A Philosophical Babel

As Gilles Deleuze defined it, philosophy largely consists of creating concepts. But how can these concepts be translated into a different language?

 

Some advocate the use of a dominant language, such as Heidegger, who regarded only Greek and German as philosophical languages. Others see the tendency towards the hegemony of English. Rejecting this situation, Barbara Cassin reaffirms the plurality of languages in a collective work, bringing together specialists in Latin, Slavonic, Germanic and Scandinavian languages.

 

With the European Vocabulary of Philosophies (2004), the philosopher and philologist emphasises both the “untranslatable” nature of the concepts and the linguistic and philosophical wealth that results from their translation.

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The perils of translation

The definition of terms is essential for philosophy. So how can we ensure that a translation includes all the nuances of a thought? How, for example, can one translate the Russian word pravda, which can mean both “justice” and “truth”?

 

In an attempt to answer this question, Barbara Cassin brought together 150 collaborators working in more than 15 languages (Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Latin, German, English, Basque, Spanish, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish and Ukrainian).

 

The task extremely complex and it was necessary to devise a system of semantic entries at several levels. The dictionary can be searched by general field, by semantic field, or from an original term in French.

 

The European vocabulary of Philosophies thus includes 400 entries.

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A European collaboration

To give an in-depth treatment to the many languages mentioned in the book, Barbara Cassin surrounded herself with researchers from all walks of life, most of them polyglots. Among the many contributors is the Spaniard Mercedes Allendesalazar, who studied in France, the Ukrainian Tatyana Golitchenko, assistant professor specialised in political research at the Kiev-Mohyla University, and the Italian Giacinta Spinosa, professor of modern philosophy history at the Università di Cassino.

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The Institut français and the project

The European Vocabulary of Philosophies: Dictionary of the Untranslatables (“Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : dictionnaire des intraduisibles”) has been translated into Arabic and Ukrainian with the support of the Institut français.

 

Through its translation support programmes, the Institut français participates in the dissemination of French language humanities worldwide.

 

Learn more about the publication assistance programmes

 

Recently elected to the French Academy and a recipient of the CNRS gold medal, Barbara Cassin took part in the 2019 Night of Ideas in Argentina.