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January 11, 2013


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While I also feel that most of the ambiguity I encounter in Japanese translation can probably be chalked up to my own ability to understand than something inherent in the text, there's also not question that some texts really are ambiguous—in any language. In fact, being a translator has made me more acutely aware of ambiguity in my own writing, and in the back of my mind, I am writing as if to avoid the appearance of ambiguity for the nonexistent translator who will be stuck dealing with my own words. Which, as far as most native-English readers are concerned, probably makes my writing needlessly plodding.

There are also inevitable structural ambiguities in Japanese—plural vs singular, definite vs indefinite, etc, that the translator needs to resolve, but these are relatively trivial.

Hi Adam, it's great to see you here!! And, I am so glad that you're experience is similar to my own. (I also now notice my own ambiguity in english and try to be as plodding as I possibly can!)

Apart from this particular type of ambiguity (as inexactitude) , there is Heidegger's "ambiguous ambiguity" and I guess I somehow feel that there is a certain qualitative difference in feeling that is evoked in me when I hear each of the following two sentences

I am lonely

The latter one, for whatever reason, invokes more of a mood. What about you? Robert Harrison (link in part 1 post) in his radio program had a example from a german poem (I will track it down later) which had a similar indirect expression and Harrison said, it's like saying "it rained;" when there is no stated subject we somehow feel the meaning is "given" or "received"...In this way perhaps it draws us into it more?? hmmm...

Anyway, thanks for your comment and for reading too. See you on facebook :)

I did not notice until just a few minutes ago that that my friend Monsieur Rodriguez over at the Ruricolist wrote this gorgeous essay on translation. It is highly recommended reading.

Here are the last few paragraphs:

In studying classical philosophy, for example, the hardest step is to get rid of English definitions. Stoics were not stoic; Epicureans were not epicurean; apatheia is not apathy, a daimon is not a demon, kosmos is not cosmos, demokrateia is not democracy, &c.

The diction of poetry is remote and patient enough, enough removed from the necessity of application, that it can take the time to compass an idea. Still, it is not a perfect transfer: the idea retains an often inappropriate exoticism. A Greek might agree that beauty is truth; but he would not have learned the lesson from his kitchenware.

Language's limits are unresisting but real. No language is without limits; yet the limits of my language are the limits of my world, not as a wall limits my movement, but as the horizon limits my vision: I cannot see past it, yet I can never run into it.

Interesting topic, peony, and I largely agree with you. I feel that the quality of ambiguity or vagueness or whatever is not so much an attribute of language itself as it is an attribute of individual comprehension. Something that I find inscrutable could be perfectly clear to someone more familiar with the subject matter, and by the same logic, things that I find exquisitely poetic could be the worst cliches to someone else.

As a translator, I guess my role is to make sure that I have left no tern unstoned in ascertaining all possible meanings before making a judgment about which is most appropriate to the context.

Artful ambiguity is carefully cultivated in some Japanese circles. I once read a book, which was lost when I moved, about 曖昧, in which the argument was made (in Japanese) that the skillful creation of ambiguity in a Japanese sentence is a way of engaging and creating a conversation with the reader in a non-confrontational manner, which is more difficult to do in western languages.
The argument concludes that the skilled use of ambiguity helps maintain a harmonious society without suppressing discussion and debate. But definitely not the kind of debate and discussion that English speakers are used to.

It never struck me that statements like 寂しい or 懐かしい were either ambiguous or creating a mood—they just struck me as the idiomatic way of saying "I feel lonely/nostalgic/whatever." For that matter, since you can ask the question "寂しい?", that would seem to argue against the "mood" explanation. I suppose you could be asking "do you perceive a mood of loneliness to be pervading here?" but that seems like a stretch—when I've heard people ask questions in that form, they're asking "do you feel XYZ?".

So, then Adam, in your case the two sentences

I am lonely

cause the same impression to you, then? They don't for me. But like Steve said, that could all come down to personal predeliction.


I write that a lot.

Basically, though, with regard to mood I was just referring to Heidegger's concept of collective mood in terms of poetic language--this idea that in addition to a tool people use to communicate information and make their inner world knowable to the outer world, that language can also be something that creates worlds (Heidegger/Whorf etc.) and the model for this is poetic speech. And, then, taking up my man Mahbub Ali's idea that the so-called 曖昧な日本語 could be relevant, I wanted to think about what exactly is "aimai."

You both might recall a query of mine on Honyaku last year from a paper on aesthetics I was working on. The sentence in question was like 5 words long. And to get that super-abbreviated Japanese to make sense in English I had to add three times that many words. The author had a FIT. But, one honyakker said, that without all those supplemnatry words that even in his wildest imagination he wouldn't have understood what the author was trying to say in English.... But it was never that the original Japanese was inexact or vague. Rather, it was highly abbreviated. But th meaning was crystal clear by context.

And, I did go back to look for the reference in the Entitled Opinions radio program and it wasn't about the Trakl poem but rather Harrison was explaining the way Heidegger conceived of poetic speech (as a model for thinking) as something received via mood ("as given, like in the sentence it rained, there is no explicitely stated subject").

Heidegger was fascinated with Japan, and interestingly the professor that I studied Heidegger with (Hubert Dreyfus) planted many seeds in my heart about Japan as he also was drawn to Japan. I remember he told this one story about arriving in Japan with his "hippy girlfriend" back in the 60s and settling into their room, she stretcted her arms out and ripped a huge hole in the shoji of their ryokan! He said, "I was so embarrassed." He was really a wonderful teacher. And thanks to ipod, I am relistening to all of his lectures all over again :)

Thanks Namit for this article.

When one tries not to symbolize eternity,
eternity will be symbolized for the first time.
The young man's face I see
past the man with a Panama hat talking there
conjures up eternity.
The less one pursues eternity,
the closer eternity approaches.

Nishiwaki Junzaburo
(tr. Hosea Hirata)

Yes--not unlike what Heidegger was trying to say either! Penun, your photos are incredible. In particular Bliss Composed as Defeat is really beautiful. Have you ever seen Hasegawa Tohaku's famous Pine Trees?

Thanks so much for reading!!

I have a complicated relationship with Heidegger, having taken philosophy from one of Emmanuel Levinas' students (himself one of Heidegger's students). On one hand, after reading (and re-reading) The Question Concerning Technology, I had a kind of Eureka moment where it all clicked, and I understood the continuity of Heidegger's "the way is a way of seeing" (emphasis mine. Also as an aside, I'm re-reading Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi and *that* has a lot to say about The Way!) with St. Aquinas & the Scholastics' "an object is known according to the mode of the knower" and the proposition's essential common-sense underpinning. But on the other, I have to find myself agreeing (at least in part) with Bertrand Russell: "Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic."

I do believe rigor and strong logical underpinnings are good for philosophy, and by extension our way of being in the world, but not to the point that it drowns everything else out. We always have to balance what we can pin down with an understanding that just because we can't see something doesn't mean it isn't there (which is what The Question Concerning Technology is concerned with). As an author I enjoy writes, and I paraphrase here: if all you have is a metal detector, that doesn't mean wood doesn't exist.

I guess I have a complicated relationship with Heidegger too. I studied with Hubert Dreyfus, who I think is one of the world’s greatest Heidegger scholars. But people always called his work “Dreydegger” since it was hard to say how much was Heidegger and how much was Dreyfus!!

I moved away from philosophy for a very long time after that since I felt unhappy that “for all that, what sense can we make of his life? What use is his philosophy if he was in so many ways a failed human being?” And so I turned toward Confucian philosophy and of course Existentialist Christian thought—both which remain foundational in the way I look at the world.

Here is another one if you have time on Heidegger.

In terms of your specific comment, what I would say is that Heidegger is not doing analytic philosophy. He is doing continental philosophy. It is not analysis but a more personal illuminatory style. Russell was always in the anglo tradition. This is a crucial point; and with that in mind I would only question the part that says “made to pass for logic.” I wonder if in fact Heidegger was aiming for anything as such?

The Question Concerning Technology was one of the most important and world-changing essays I have ever read. If you ever listen to Entitled Opinions with Robert Harrison, he had a fabulous show on Heidegger in which he began the show with the claim that Heidegger was the most important philosopher of modern times. He and his guest then discussed whetehr Russell might be co-greatest and they left it open but despite my own complicated feelings about Herr Heidegger, I can say his philosophy cannot be ignored. At least for me, it utterly changed the way I look at the world and the way I live my life.

Speaking of technology, I see you are not on Facebook. And, I had trouble leaving a comment to your blog (tumblr) I am going to try again but just in case let me say here, thank you so much for your kind words about my blog! You made my whole evening!!! I love Huizong’s painting and even more I love the way you paired it with Jesus’ prayer in Mathew:

“Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?” (Mt 6:26)

And Saint Francis of Assisi... more soon

Oh, I would never call Heidegger irrelevant. His thought *has* to be dealt with, even if it's a fairly wholesale refutation (which is what Levinas did, beginning his phenomenology with the interaction with the Other (so much more expansive an idea in Levinas than used today! The Other is the voice of the Lord, shaking the foundations of how we approach the world!) rather than with ontology). But if the purpose of philosophy is to make men virtuous, by leading us to right thought and action (which I do think it is meant for - Hagia Sophia leads us to God) then we need to be very mindful of how we approach Heidegger's thought, and the philosopher himself - for if he thought Nazism was a solution to the metaphysical problems of the Modern West, then there may be traps in his thinking that we need to be careful not to fall to. But that still doesn't mean we can ignore him. Like you, I think TQCT is an immensely important work.

Ah, Facebook. I am on it, but under my actual name (it's funny, or maybe sad, but many of my acquaintances have changed their names on Facebook to help hide themselves from searches and I'm beginning to forget what their actual names are!). I started Poor Jeremiah with an eye to keeping it a little compartmentalized from the rest of my online interactions, but I'm still thinking about how I want that to go. I'm glad you liked what you saw, and I'll make sure to double-check the comment code on the site - I've used Disqus to leave comments on Siris(http://branemrys.blogspot.com/), so it may just be me screwing up a line or two.

If you haven't read G.K. Chesterton's biographies of Sts. Francis and Thomas Aquinas, I highly recommend them. His prose style is incredible, but even more, his love for the men shines through the text.

Well, I suppose you hit the nail on the head since frankly I do not believe the modern philosophers did, in fact, believe that philosophy was to lead man to virtue or right action. I doubt that was even on the agenda... sad to say. They had a different project, I imagine. It's funny you put it that way as I remain very dedicated to Confucian philosophy for its commitment to action, deportment and virtue. Thank you so very much for the book recommendations. I will check them out soon! Did you ever read Fr Robert Barron's book on the Eucharist? I just loved it and your blog post on sustenance even for the birds reminded me of a few things in that book... it was short but sweet. Good night.
PS On Monday, I am going to post something at 3Quarks daily and I lead in with that old Heidegger quote (which I think ? was not published till after he was dead--at his insistence) that "all that can save us now is a god."

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