“But isn’t the same at least the same?”:
Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and Jacques Roubaud
This piece is 8,000 words or about twenty printed pages long
The only way to do philosophy is to do everything twice.
We usually think of the ‘poetic’ as that which cannot fully translate, that which is uniquely embedded in its particular language. The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is a case in point. The opening line of the Duino Elegies —
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen? —
has been translated into English literally dozens of times, but, as William Gass points out in his recent Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, none of the translations seem satisfactory. Here are a few examples:
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the
A. J. Poulin (1977) —
And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders?
Stephen Cohn (1989) —
Who, if I cried out, would hear me — among the ranked Angels?
Gass is very critical of these, but his own is, to my ear, no better:
Who if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels? [ 2 ]
The difficulty, as I have suggested elsewhere, [ 3 ], is that English syntax does not allow for the dramatic suspension of Wer, wenn ich schriee ...and that the noun phrase Engel Ordnungen, which in German puts the stress, both phonically and semantically, on the angels themselves rather than their orders or hierarchies or dominions, defies effective translation. Moreover, Rilke’s line contains the crucial and heavily stressed word denn (literally ‘then’), which here has the force of ‘Well, then’ or, in contemporary idiom, ‘So,’ as in ‘So, who would hear me if I cried out. . .?’ But the translators cited above seem not to know what to do with denn and hence lose the immediacy of the question. Then, too, denn rhymes with wenn as well as the first two syllables of den Engel, creating a dense sonic network inevitably lost in translation.
the back wings
Here is the translation by the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger:
Again, what is lost is a particular syntactic suspension: the reader of Williams’s lyric doesn’t know until the final monosyllabic line that what ‘shines’ within the ‘cinders’ are not only ‘broken / pieces’ of something — something ‘green’ — but, specifically, ‘pieces of a green / bottle.’ No green grass here (‘where / nothing / will grow’) and no ‘growth.’ Only discarded objects that ‘lie’ ‘Between Walls.’ The German translation gives the game away, by leading up, not to the unknown source of the ‘broken / pieces’ ( Scherben ) or to the identity of the something ‘green’, but to the shine ( glitzern ), itself. If the word order here seems dubious, it’s because Williams is careful to specify that we see something shining in the rubble before we know what it is.
I am speaking, of course, of Wittgenstein, whose writings on how words mean are not only judged to be perfectly translatable but were originally known — indeed. largely continue to be known — not in the author’s own German, but in the English of his Cambridge translators — G. H. Von Wright, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alice Ambrose, Rush Rhees — years before his native Austria took him quite seriously. Do the ‘limits of language,’ as Wittgenstein construed them, have nothing to do with the actual language being used?
Photo, above: Wittgenstein on holiday in France
The answer is perhaps so obvious that we don’t usually take it into account. In formulating his aphoristic propositions, Wittgenstein is not interested in connotation, nuance, or in word choice based on considerations of rhythm and sound, but in the uses of the denotative properties of words, phrases, and particular syntactic constructions. Hence, although, as in the case of any philosophical discourse, there are more and less adequate translations — translations that render as fully as possible the author’s intended meaning — Wittgenstein’s propositions are by no means untranslatable in the sense that the Duino Elegies or ‘Between Walls’ are untranslatable.
Der Hund glaubt sein Herr sei an der Tür. Aber kann er auch glauben sein Herr werde übermorgen kommen?
Warum kann meine rechte Hand nicht meiner linken Geld schenken? — Meine rechte Hand kann es in meine linke geben. Meine rechte Hand kann eine Schenkungsurkunde schreiben und meine linke eine Quittung. — Aber die weitern praktischen Folgen wären nicht die einer Schenkung. (PI §268)
And, for good measure, here it is in French, as translated by Jacques Bouveresse:
Pourquoi ma main droite ne peut-elle pas faire don d’une somme d’argent à ma main gauche? — Ma main droite peut rédiger un acte de donation et ma main gauche un reçu. — Mais les conséquences partiques ultérieures ne seraient pas celles d’une donation. [ 5 ]
In such cases, the issue is neither the connotative power of synonymous words (the difference between ‘orders of angels,’ ‘hierarchies of angels’ or ‘angel dominions’), nor syntactic suspension, as in Rilke’s opening construction Wer, wenn ich schriehe ...,’ nor in such subtleties of lineation as Williams’s ‘will grow lie.’ Rather, Wittgenstein is testing the actual meanings of such ordinary words as believe, hope, or give .
Ich glaube meine Stellung zur Philosophie dadurch zusammengefaßt zu haben, indem ich sagte: Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Daraus mußs sich, scheint mir, ergeben, wie weit mein Denken der Gegenwart, Zukunft, oder der Vergangenheit angehört. Denn ich habe mich damit auch als einen bekannt, der nicht ganz kann, was er zu können wünscht.
What does this enigmatic statement mean? If we note that the word Dichten also refers to fictionality, as in Goethe’s title Dichtung und Wahrheit, where Dichtung (‘Fiction’) is opposed to ‘Truth,’ why should philosophy, traditionally the search for truth, be presented as poetic fiction? Given Wittgenstein’s concern for ‘meaningful’ statement, aren’t the two discourses antithetical? And why should as rigorous a thinker as Wittgenstein declare that he himself is not quite up to the task of formulating this new role for philosophy?
Wittgenstein in Swansea, UK
Wittgenstein’s overt commentary on poetry sheds little light on this question. His impatience with aesthetic theory is legendary: in the Lectures on Aesthetics, for example, he declares ‘One might think Aesthetics is a science that tells us what’s beautiful — it’s almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose this science would also be able to tell us what sort of coffee tastes good’ (LCA §160). And the notebook entries collected in Culture and Value are given to statements like the following:
If I say A has beautiful eyes someone may ask me: what do you find beautiful about his eyes, and perhaps I shall reply: the almond shape, long eye-lashes, delicate lids. What do these eyes have in common with a Gothic church that I find beautiful too? Should I say they make a similar impression on me?’ (CV 24)
‘The concept of ‘the beautiful’,’ says Wittgenstein, ‘has caused a lot of mischief’ (CV 55). And again, ‘Am I to make the inane statement, ‘It [the musical theme] just sounds more beautiful when it is repeated’? (There you can see by the way what a silly role the word ‘beautiful’ plays in aesthetics.)And yet there is just no paradigm other than the theme itself’ (CV 52).
I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another.... the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.
Such commentary cleared the way for the publication for the many fragments found after Wittgenstein’s death, some in notebooks, some on separate scraps of paper or Zettel, as a further assortment of Wittgenstein’s remarks, this one left in a single box-file, is called. As G. H. von Wright, the editor of the Vermischte Bemerkungen (‘Assorted Remarks,’ which came to be translated under the misleading title Culture and Value ) explains:
In the manuscript material left by Wittgenstein there are numerous notes which do not belong directly with his philosophical works although they are scattered amongst the philosophical texts. Some of these notes are autobiographical, some are about the nature of philosophical activity, and some concern subjects of a general sort, such as questions about art or about religion. It is not always possible to separate them sharply from the philosophical text ....
Here Von Wright seems to be following Wittgenstein’s own lead that ‘philosophy’ shades into ‘poetry’ and vice-versa. But how and why? Some early entries in Culture and Value (see pp. 2-7) may be apropos:
Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.
The thread that runs through these aphorisms and propositions is on the need for what Gertrude Stein had already called, in her ‘Composition as Explanation’ (1926), beginning again and again . Truth is not something that can be uncovered; it can only be re-discovered , day after day. The value of breaking through the dead rubble each morning and in viewing each object from as many angles as possible is that one keeps one’s mind open, that conclusions are always tentative, and that the process of discovery is always more important than any particular end result.
If I am thinking just for myself, not with a view to writing a book, I jump all around the subject; this is the only natural way of thinking for me. With my thoughts forced into line, to think further is torture to me. Should I even try it? (CV 28)
This is, on the face of it, a very odd statement, for why should it be ‘torture’ ( eine Qual ) simply to organize one’s thoughts, to produce a coherent linear discourse? Isn’t this precisely what we expect an ‘investigation,’ especially a philosophical investigation to do?
Das Sprechen der Musik. Vergiß nicht, daß ein Gedicht, wenn auch in der Sprache der Mitteilung abgefaßt, nicht im Sprachspiel der Mitteilung verwendet wird. (Z §160)
But, although this proposition allies poetry to philosophy in that neither is characterized by the information-giving function of the sciences or social sciences, our initial question remains: how can Wittgenstein’s ‘philosophical remarks’ be taken as poetic when they are so markedly stripped of the usual ‘poetic’ trappings? And further: given that Wittgenstein’s propositions seem to have the same force whether we read them in the original German, or in English, French, or Japanese, what is the relation of ‘poetic’ to ‘philosophical’ meaning?
People sometimes say they cannot make any judgement about this or that because they have not studied philosophy. This is irritating nonsense, because the assumption is that philosophy is some sort of science. And it is talked about almost as if it were the study of medicine. — But what one can say is that people who have never undertaken an investigation of a philosophical kind, as have, for example, most mathematicians, are not equipped with the right visual organs for this type of investigation or scrutiny (CV 29).
Indeed, there is a ‘strange resemblance between a philosophical investigation (especially in mathematics) and an aesthetic one’ (CV 25). And in 1946, when the first part of the Philosophical Investigations had been completed, Wittgenstein noted in his journal, ‘My ‘achievement’ is very much like that of a mathematician who invents a calculus’ (CV 50).
People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ [sein ] that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ [essen ] and ‘to drink [trinken ], as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’ [identisch ] ‘true’ [wah r], ‘false’ [falsch ] ‘possible’ [möglich ], as long as we continue to talk of a river of time [einem Fluß der Zeit ], of an expanse of space [einer Ausdehnung des Raumes ], etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. (CV 15)
I have put in some of the German terms here so as to show that indeed language, at the level Wittgenstein studies it, has ‘remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions.’ The poetic, as I remarked earlier, is not, for Wittgenstein, a question of heightening, of removing language from its everyday use by means of appropriate troping or rhetorical device. Rather, what makes philosophy poetic is its potential for invention, its status as what we now call conceptual art — the art that, in Sol Lewitt’s words, ‘is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye’ — or, more broadly speaking, his senses — the art, as it were, that tracks the process of thinking itself. [ 11 ]
Philosophers who say: ‘after death a timeless state will begin’, or ‘at death a timeless state begins,’ and do not notice that they have used the words ‘after’ and ‘at’ and ‘begins’ in a temporal sense, and that temporality is embedded in their grammar. (CV 22)
In its scrutiny of something as seemingly minor as a tense shift, this little fragment — not even a complete sentence — embodies Wittgenstein’s repeated insistence that ‘Language is not contiguous to anything else’ (LEC 1 112). For it is only inside language that the basic paradox in question reveals itself — the paradox that the so-called ‘timeless state’ after death can be talked about only within the language of temporality which is ours, which is all that we have.
If we look at a river in which numbered logs are floating, we can describe events on land with reference to these, e.g., ‘When the 105th log passed, I ate dinner.’ Suppose the log makes a bang on passing me. We can say these bangs are separated by equal, or unequal, intervals. We could also say one set of bangs was twice as fast as another set. But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different from that measured by a clock. The phrase ‘length of interval’ has its sense in virtue of the way we determine it, and differs according to the method of measurement. (LEC 2 13)
Here, Wittgenstein’s investigation examines the curious shift the meaning of a single word — interval — depending on the context in which it occurs. The ‘interval’ measurable by the passage downstream of logs does not have the same status as the ‘interval’ measured by a clock. But the mystery of the word has nothing to do with the specific language in question: in French, for example, we read, ‘Aussi les critères qui détermines l’égalité des intervalles séparant le passage des rondins sont-ils différents de ceux qui déterminent l’égalité des intervalles mesurés par une horloge.’ [ 12 ]
Paul Matisse’s posthumous bilingual edition of Duchamp’s later Notes contains a section reproducing forty-six scraps of paper, under the title Inframince / Infrathin . [ 13 ] Most of these were written in the later thirties when Duchamp was beginning work on the Boîtes en valise and restoring the Large Glass after its having been shattered. Suitcases were, in any case, on Duchamp’s mind, since he playfully related infrathin to what he called physique de baggage, the science of ‘determining the difference between volumes of air displaced by a clean shirt (ironed and folded) and the same shirt when dirty’ (#231).
All these are playful variants on Wittgenstein’s ‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’ A cryptic note found in the White Box (Duchamp 1975: 78) dated 1914 on the back, reads, ‘A kind of pictorial Nominalism (Check).’ Thierry de Duve, who takes this term as the title of his important study Pictorial Nominalism, notes that this is the only mention of the term nominalism in the writings published during Duchamp’s lifetime, but that there is another one, also dated 1914, in the Notes:
Nominalism [literal] = No more generic, specific numeric distinction between words (tables is not the plural of table, ate has nothing in common with eat). No more physical adaptation of concrete words; no more conceptual value of abstract words.... (185–86; see Duve, 126)
‘This nominalism,’ says de Duve, ‘is literal: it turns back on metaphor and takes things literally. Duchamp ‘intends to specify those conditions that in his eyes allow the word to remain in is zero degree, force it into the realm of nonlanguage’ (Duve 126-127).
Marcel Duchamp, with rotoreliefs, a still from Hans Richter's film Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1947. Photo Arnold Eagle.
Duchamp understood, of course, that such ‘zero degree’ literalism cannot exist, that an infrathin relationship between a discrete a and b always occurs, whether merely grammatical (‘ate’/ ‘eat’) or temporal (as in the relation of the noise from the detonation of the bullet and the appearance of the bullet hole), or tactile, like the warm seat just sat on. In de Duve’s words, ‘The infra-thin separation is working at its maximum when it distinguishes the same from the same’ (Duve 160).
With time Duchamp came to the conclusion that the only way to avoid doing the same thing over and over again would be to confine himself to the repertoire of images that he had already made. In other words, just as Parisians still maintain that the only way to avoid a view of the Eiffel Tower is by climbing to its summit, Duchamp determined that the only way to completely avoid repetition in his work was to literally replicate it. (FNA 17).
It is important to understand how different replication is from repetition. The ‘repetitive’ artist or poet announces the completion of a ‘new’ work, but inspection soon reveals that it is recycling themes, tropes, and forms all too familiar. Criticism generally responds by focusing on the earlier work but being polite to the new addition. Replication, on the other hand, can be understood as a form of delay . If the artist takes his or her earlier work seriously enough to re-present it, inevitably in revised form since revision is inherent in the mere act of replication, the reader/ viewer is challenged to reconsider it.
I had all these thoughts [notes] lithographed and with the same ink as the originals. To find paper of absolutely identical quality, I had to scour the most improbable corners of Paris. Then three hundred copies of each litho had to be cut out, using zinc templates which I had trimmed against the periphery of the original papers. It was a tremendous work and I had to hire my concierge.... (FNA 212)
To reproduce the paintings and drawings was even harder: photographs of the originals had to be acquired from their owners and in some cases — for example, the 9 Malic Molds — Duchamp prepared a stencil and colorized the print by hand. As for the Large Glass itself, Duchamp worked long hours with Man Ray in New York to diffuse the intensity of the glass surface so that it would be transparent enough to see the paintings placed behind it.
One ought really to do philosophy only as a form of poetry . We are now in a better position to understand Wittgenstein’s aesthetic. Just as Duchamp’s readymades and boxes are designed, not for sight or even touch but for the exercise of the mind, so Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations can be regarded as themselves poetic investigations in their rigorous scrutiny of language in what John Cage called its manner of operation.
avant que la terre
Waldrop’s translation can convey with enormous precision both Roubaud’s numerology and his spatial layout as well as his insistent literalism. But the Wittgenstein connection goes further. Here is the fourth poem in the first section:
Roubaud’s ‘investigation’ begins by probing le précipité des ressemblances, since any word or image, Wittgenstein taught us, is part of a language game made up of family resemblances. If the body in question could only be like something familiar, something alive, it would not seem dead. But by the third sentence, the poet has recognized that Ensuite que toi et ta mort n’avaient aucun air de famille . There are no family resemblances between a person and a state — in this case, death.
My Angels, Their Pink Wings
Who, if I pitched a hissy fit, would even
You can read two poems by Rachel Loden —
And here — an even more fanciful version — is John Tranter’s:
I hate this place. If I were to throw a fit, who
But by this time, the language game being played is obviously a different one.
[ 1 ] The following Wittgenstein texts are used in this essay.
B & B The Blue and Brown Books. Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ . 2d. ed. New York: Harper, 1960.
[ 2 ] William H. Gass, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation . (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 57-58.
[ 3 ] See Marjorie Perloff, ‘Reading Gass Reading Rilke ,’ Parnassus : 25, no. 1&2 (2001): 486-508, pp. 491-93.
[ 4 ] For the original and Enzensberger’s facing translation, see Eva Hesse and Heinz Ickstadt (eds.), Amerikanische Dichtung: Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart (München: C. H. Beck, 2000), pp. 228-31.
[ 5 ] See Jacques Bouveresse, Le Mythe de l’Intériorité (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1987), p. 464. Philosophical Investigations is not yet available in a full French edition.
[ 6 ] CV 24. Peter Winch’s translation is often inaccurate, and so I retranslate these entries where necessary. Here, for example, his translation ‘Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition’ rationalizes the German excessively. I follow the same practice in the case of Lectures on Aesthetics and Zettel, but not the Philosophical Investigations, which Wittgenstein himself oversaw.
[ 7 ] See Ludwig Wittgenstein , Briefwechsel mit B. Russell, G. E. Moore, J. M. Keynes, F. P. Ramsay, et. al., ed. B. F. McGuiness and G. H. Von Wright (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980), pp. 47, 22, 47, 78.
[ 8 ] See Briefwechsel, 78; CV 67, 41.
[ 9 ] See Franz Parak, ‘Wittgenstein in Monte Cassino,’ in Wittgenstein, Geheime Tagebücher 1914-1016, ed. Wilhelm Baum (Wien: Turi und Kant, 1991),pp. 146,152. The secret notebooks are subsequently cited as GH.
[ 10 ] See my Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 42-43.
[ 11 ] Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,’ Artforum, 5, 10 (Summer 1967): 79-83, p. 80. There are, of course, other important aspects of Conceptualism: see the excellent entries on ‘Conceptual Art’ in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , ed. Michael Kelly (New York: Oxford, 1998), pp. 414-427. ‘The grand strategy,’ writes Yair Guttmann, ‘was to resist the attempts to sever the art object from its context’ (422). The relation of Joseph Kosuth to Wittgenstein is discussed on pp. 426-27.
[ 12 ] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Les Cours de Cambridge 1932-1935, ed. Alice Ambrose. Traduits de l’angalis par Elisabeth Rigal (Mauvezin: Trans-Europ-Repress, 1992) p. 26.
[ 13 ] Marcel Duchamp, Notes, presentation and translation by Paul Matisse (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980); rpt. Boston: G. K. Hall. 1983. The notes are reproduced as facsimile scraps, with the French and English print versions at the bottom of the page. Slash marks indicate the end of the line in the handwritten version. The book is unpaginated but the notes are numbered.
[ 14 ] See Thierry de Duve , Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan with the author (1984; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 160. Subsequently cited in the text as Duve.
[ 15 ] Francis M. Naumann,. Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1999), p. 15.
[ 16 ] Ecke Bonk, ‘Delay Included,’ in Paul Paul and Anne d’Harnoncourt (eds.). Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp ...in resonance Catalogue of the Exhibition. (Houston: Menil Foundation. 1998), pp. 95–112; see p. 102.
[ 17 ] Jacques Roubaud, Quelque chose noir (Paris: Gallimard, 1986); Rosmarie Waldrop, some thing black (Normal, Il.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990).
[ 18 ] Rachel Loden, Jacket 16 (March 2002). Online.
[ 19 ] John Tranter, personal correspondence with the author.
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This material is copyright © Marjorie Perloff