Descartes never said, “I think, therefore I am”

He said something in French and then in Latin which someone translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.”

I am enjoying Douglas Hofstadter’s extended essay Translator, Trader, which is published together with his translation of the French novel That Mad Ache, by Françoise Sagan.

I sent out a challenge to many friends and colleagues to translate a charming and intricate miniature poem by the sixteenth-century French poet Clément Marot.  I received many responses, and they ranged incredibly in quality, with perfectly bilingual people often stumbling terribly and coming out with what struck me as atrocious products, and conversely, non-fluent speakers of either the source or target language coming up on occasion with truly brilliant solutions.  As I came to see how few people, whether bilingual or not, could carry out such tasks at all well, my respect for translators of literary works in which form and content are intricately fused shot up enormously. …

At some point in my life, analogous scales fell from my eyes and I came to realize how deeply artistic, even creative, is the act of translating “ordinary” works of literature – “mere” novels, so to speak.

And then, the first of his four paradoxes of translation:

How can Dante Alighieri have written a book in English, a language that didn’t even exist when he was alive…?  Or take these “quotes” by three illustrious names from antiquity:

Euripides: “Onwetendheid van tegenslagen is een duidelijk winstpunt.”

Plutarch: “Wind je over de feiten niet op, ze hebben schijt aan de kwaaie kop.”

Confucius: “Laat de zon geen tranent drogen die je kunt wegvegen uit heg oot van degene die lijdt.”

Here are three famous gents of yore, all speaking impeccable modern Dutch (and Plutarch, that sly old imp, is even rhyming!).  I found these “quotes” all on a Web site, quote marks and all.  Is this not crazy?  Well, maybe or maybe not, but quite obviously the claim of authorship is profoundly muddied up by the act of changing from one language to another.

Followed by

  • the Wrong-Style Paradox: “Since writing styles are every bit as different as are faces or fingerprints, how can Person B rewrite Author A’s book from top to toe and then not cringe in claiming that the resulting sequence of words is still “by Author A”,
  • the Wrong-Place Paradox: “When idioms of culture B are placed in the mouths of individuals from culture A, the result is incoherent”,
  • and more

2 thoughts on “Descartes never said, “I think, therefore I am””

  1. Did you ever read Hofstadter’s book, Le Ton Beau de Marot? It’s on this same topic and one of my favorite books ever.

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