Whorf or Chomsky? This question dominates the “aspects of language”, part of Steiner's book without being answered. “No one knows” is a typical interjection after pages of questions. Perhaps the theory of language is like Peter Pan or Tintin and cannot grow up. Or perhaps that fault is in the writer who refuses to choose between being a narrator and an authority. Steiner's marshaling of facts is staggering but so is the waste footage. Gifts of memory and mimicry, and pseudopods of learning, extend what is only an essay into a thick “Anatomy” of cosmic—and unintentionally comic—speculation. Yet the resulting narrative, if somewhat unreliable, is not unattractive. The learning has a glow on it, as if Steiner had just discovered the universe. We are made to look through the crowded magnifying glass of his style and to see tongues flickering with Pentecostal fire.
Does “After Babel” add up? Everything, except the importance of language, remains moot. The author, by inspired bricolage, builds another Tower of Babel out of failed or dubious theories. Imposing all that erudition on us, yet denying the possibility of a solution to the communication chaos, he makes us feel more corrupt than ever. There seems to be no comfort except the splendor of language as a mystery.
Most books of this scope, of course, contain more puzzles than epiphanies. Yet Steiner fails to determine whether these puzzles are indeed puzzles, capable of solution through progressive knowledge, or whether they point to a mystery not to be resolved by intellectual means. We solve a puzzle and are done with it: science relies on this clearing of the account. There may be errors or premature answers, but faith in puzzle‐solving is basic. If the “revolution” in language theory has failed, this could mean that language is a mystery rather than a puzzle. Perhaps a “modest mystery,” as Borges says of literature. And if that is the case, all we can hope is that language will continue to provoke speech rather than silence—that the innumerable poems, fictions and pseudostatements being produced in a plurality of tongues will not give us nausea, or a new, science‐inspired dose of mutism.
The real choice, then, is not “Whorf or Chomsky” but “Babel or Silence.” Steiner at one point tells his own version of the myth: “The bewildering prodi gality of tongues had long existed, and had materially complicated the enterprise of men. In trying to build the tower, the nations stumbled on the great secret: that true understanding is possible only when there is silence. They built silently, and there lay the danger to God.” This temptation to silence is the great yet obvious secret that has informed Steiner's work since “The Death of Tragedy” (1961). He has named one book “Language and Silence” (1967), and the controversial “In Bluebeard's Castle” (1971) is a more direct attempt to say something about a different tower—that of the corpses at Belsen. “What is there to say about Belsen,” he asks again in the present book. But he also recalls that “Jeremiah has to say what God does.” Caught in that contradiction, “After Babel” is a deeply ambivalent hymn to language.
It would be easy to accuse Steiner of paradox if silence were his ideal rather than a danger. He too eloquently transmits all those complaints about worn‐out words or lying words or impotent words. What a litany! It is Steiner's way of demystifying, not idealizing, silence. Loss of faith in language is a loud commonplace: to each his own wordlessness. There is something facile, however, in the way he merges types of the ineffable: what is difficult to translate, what is difficult to say or mean, and what is unspeakable. Especially when we think of Ludwig Wittgenstein's scrupulous reflections on the subject.
Steiner's intellectual method leads him to write in a large, associative and showy manner, which appropriates whole fields of inquiry. Not less than everything is his turf. As a result he weakens rather than props up his authority: not because of mistakes but because sensitive remarks and interpretations alternate with dubious clichés and sentimentalities. “There can hardly be an awakened human being who has not, at some moment, been exasperated by the ‘publicity’ of language. . . . It is almost intolerable that needs, affections, hatreds, introspections which we feel to be so overwhelmingly our own, which shape our awareness of identity and the world, should have to be voiced—even and most absurdly when we speak to ourselves—in the vulgate. Intimate, unprecedented as is our thirst, the cup has long been on other lips. One can only conjecture as to the blow which this discovery must be to the child's psyche.” Here, not uncharacteristically, the drive toward large, public statement — the very thing questioned by this passage—overwhelms a reflective and private experience.
There is, however, one important contribution made by this book. It is Steiner's treatment of the second aspect mentioned in the title—translation. “I wold to god,” Erasmus writes in Tyndale's pithy English, the gospels “were translated in to the tongues of all men. . . . I wold to god the plowman wold singe a text of the scripture at his plowberne, and that the wever at his lowme with this wold drive away the tediousness of tyme.” Transformational grammar is not for singing. The passage moves us because translation Is associated by Erasmus with a social and evangelical idea. Steiner expands and secularizes this idea, arguing—still somewhat wishfully — that translation is our only way to universality. We are all translators: interlingual (between languages) translation is but a special, if important, form of a more general “hermeneutic motion” which includes intralingual (within a language) exegesis. “After Babel” begins with an intralingual “translating forward” of a rich and complex monologue in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline.” And beyond intralingual reading lies another realm, less clearly defined because it shades into mysticism and pathos about “private language.” At this point, however, scholarship becomes autobiography, and all the dangers of popularization emerge—to which Steiner is somehow more exposed than other wandering scholars.
Steiner's best writing is on the inner drama of translation. The heart of his book is surely the chapter called “The Hermeneutic Motion,” which describes the translator's task as a sequence of four movements: trust that there is something to be transferred; then aggression, or an appropriative act similar to breaking a code and even to sexual possession; embodiment, or finding a place for the translated text in a crowded field that will always try to expel the newcomer; and fidelity or restitution which completes the cycle by compensating one's native language for the disturbance. “Fidelity is ethical, but also, in the full sense, economic. By virtue of tact, and tact intensified is moral vision, the translator‐interpreter creates a condition of significant exchange. The arrows of meaning, of cultural, psychological benefaction, move both ways. There is, ideally, exchange without loss.”
The dramatization of ideas in this chapter, which denies that translators are traitors. is brilliant; the fourfold movement is illustrated by an array of texts which only a faithful reader and true comparatist could muster. The author for once proves his point: translation can be the most generous and productive form of cultural understanding. ■
Aspects of Language and Translation. By George Steiner. 507 pp. New York: Oxford University Press. $17.50.Continue reading the main story
George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967).
Robert S. Leventhal
The Cambridge University Literary Critic George Steiner published Language and Silence in 1967, a book that in a sense develops an entire poetics around what he refers to as the demolition or destruction of language in light of the historical atrocities of the 20th century, most notably the Nazi Genocide of the Jews. In his essay on Kafka entitled "K" in Language and Silence,, Steiner stated: "The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth. Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life." (123) According to Steiner, Auschwitz and the atrocities of the Third Reich are literally unspeakable, they cannot be adequately expressed or communicated in language for two reasons. First, because of the misuse of language in the Nazi regime, language, and particularly the German language, has suffered a destruction so total that it cannot resume its previous function as the vessel of humane rationality and truth. Secondly, the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were of such a nature that they transcend any words we could use to characterize them. Their barbarity goes beyond the referential and representational capacity of language. In an essay contained in the same volume, "The Retreat from the Word," Steiner urges us to follow oriental metaphysics and Wittgenstein and consider silence as a response to the ineffable. And in "Silence and the Poet," Steiner considers poetic modernity as an attempt to enact or "show" the limits of the expressable, the threshold of meaning, by allowing the silence of language, where language can only express its inadequacy, to emerge as such. In "The Hollow Miracle," Steiner stated: "Everything forgets. But not language. When it has been injected with falsehood, only the most drastic truth can cleanse it. Instead, the post-war history of the German language has been one of dissimulation and deliberate forgetting." (109) Or, in one of the most powerful and disturbing statements of the book, Steiner stated: "Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy and cheapness [...] But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. [...] Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace." (101)
Steiner has been taken to task by a number of different historians and critics on a number of different issues. First, perhaps most notably, Saul Friedländer has claimed that Steiner's remarks are imprecise, that one must distinguish between, say, the demolition of the German language and the demolition of language in general. Furthermore, Friedländer has insisted that to reduce Auschwitz to silence is to participate in another dissimulation and erasure of history. Against "silence," Friedländer has consistently argued for a self-reflective discourse and psycho-analysis of the very ways in which denial, displacement, and disavowal occur in our various "discourses." On this, see Friedländer's Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death.
Another extremely important criticism is directed against the "rhetoric of silence" itself. To assert that "Auschwitz lies outside of speech as it lies outside of reason" is, for many, to simply relegate the Holocaust to oblivion, to rob it of any articulation and thereby to continue, by other means, what the Nazis sought to do in the first place: to erase, wipe out, obliterate the Jewish idiom. Thus, Sander Gilman has argued in his book Jewish Self-Hatred that the task of Holocaust literature is to register, and then to overcome silence, as is accomplished in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird or, more recently, in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. For more on this reading of the "return of the voice" and the interruption of silence as a possible counter against Steiner, see Shoshana Felman and Dorie Laub's reading of Lanzmann's Shoah in Testimony: Psychoanalysis, Literature, History.
Steiner's discourse can be characterized as a discourse of mourning, in which the critic mourns the death of language. The language in question, however, is principally German, and it can be questioned whether this is the proper focus of mourning, i.e. whether, in light of the destruction of the language of those who suffered, this task of mourning should not be directed at the loss of the languages of the European Jews themselves and not the perpetrators.