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Aspects of Language and Translation

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation 
by George Steiner

Publisher: Oxford University Press (July, 1983) 
Language: English 
ISBN: 0195020480 
Product Dimensions: 8.0 x 5.4 x 1.2 inches

About the Book

When it first appeared in 1975, After Babel created a sensation, quickly establishing itself as both a controversial and seminal study of literary theory. In the original edition, Steiner provided readers with the first systematic investigation since the eighteenth century of the phenomenology and processes of translation both inside and between languages. Taking issue with the principal emphasis of modern linguistics, he finds the root of the "Babel problem" in our deep instinct for privacy and territory, noting that every people has in its language a unique body of shared secrecy. With this provocative thesis he analyzes every aspect of translation from fundamental conditions of interpretation to the most intricate of linguistic constructions.

For the long-awaited second edition, Steiner entirely revised the text, added new and expanded notes, and wrote a new preface setting the work in the present context of hermeneutics, poetics, and translation studies. This new edition brings the bibliography up to the present with substantially updated references, including much Russian and Eastern European material.

Amazon Reviews

Reviewer: Jodi Bowen (State College, PA United States)

George Steiner's After Babel is a must-read for anyone interested in language and translation. Yes, the book is rather long; however, the information found there can be applied to many fields of study: language, literature, linguistics, and even sociology and anthropology. 
The first edition of the book was published in 1975, and two subsequent editions have hit the press since then: the second edition in 1992, and the third in 1998. According to Steiner, the first edition has some "inexactitudes of phrasing, particularly in reference to what were then called transformational generative grammars," and it "lacked clarity in regard to the vital topic of temporality in Semitic and Indo-European syntax." Taking this into account, I would recommend that you read the second or the third edition of the book. The second edition does not seem to stray much from the third; however there are some significant changes in the last chapter of the book.

The objective of After Babel is clearly delineated in the preface/prefaces, and the six chapters that comprise it are well organized. Throughout the book, George Steiner tries to reconcile the supposed chaos stemming from the Biblical fall of Babel Tower and the Darwinian benefit of having so many languages in the world. The first three chapters basically deal with issues of language. They are sprinkled with some interesting tidbits from Steiner's experiences as, what he claims to be, a native speaker of English, French, and German. The fourth chapter gives the reader a nice history of translation in about sixty pages; however, the fifth chapter, "The Hermeneutic Motion," seems to be Steiner's shining glory because it explains his own ideas about translation which includes a very interesting bit about the translation of time.

Steiner's basic premise is that translation is a part of everyday communication: "To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate." Steiner sees a translation as an artistic act, and perhaps, this is the reason he cannot give actual "tools" for creating a translation. What he does do is explain the act of translation and the process that a translator goes through as he transfers a text from one languages into another.

Although the text does contain many examples to support Steiner's translation analyses and a section containing top picks of successful translations that meet the goals of his hermeneutic theory, the reader who cannot read French and German will find them a bit difficult to take-in. Still, the book is overall enjoyable and insightful.

Reviewer: Elena Chavez (Scottsdale, AZ USA) 

For those who expect to find a list of practical instructions on translation methods or a review on the history of translation, the book "After Babel" by Professor George Steiner will be a bit of a surprise. Because you won't find anything of the kind. On the contrary, it deals with the more general linguistic and philosophic notions - such as meaning, context, historic relativity, cultural aspects of the language and literature - to bring up the nature of the art of translation and language. The author treats translation not as an aquired skill only, but rather as a natural ability of a human being to perceive and interpret one's native language as well as a foreign tongue. 
Professor Steiner employs numerous examples of works of literature and translation that appeared in the 18th century and still are major guidelines for both scholars and readers. Throughout the book we come across multiple references to the works of ancient Greek scholars who defined the linguistic areas of interest for the generations of scholars to come.

This work - even though it does not provide us with "how-tos" - is of major importance to the linguistic community and expecially to translators, since it opens up the physical curtain of the language and brings us behind the words and structure.

Reviewer: Julius Guzy (Northern Ireland)

Steiner examines questions of how we understand and use language by focussing upon the difficulties of translation. Many readers brought up on a coding theory view of language may find the book's thesis difficult to understand and thereby experience the problem at first hand. Steiner takes a view of language antithetic to the rule governed coding system espoused by Chomsky. He does not suggest a mechanism for language understanding. Instead he provides a myriad examples of cases which the coding theory approach could never hope to account for. In order to understand you have to try and work out what the other is saying. Language facilitates but is not the prerequisite of communication. An absolute tour de force of a book.

Reviewer: A reader

George Steiner takes the reader through the history, theory and justification of translation in this challenging book.
His book is divided into six sections. In Understanding as Translation, he explains that since language is used to imperfectly express thoughts and ideas, all speech is translation. Language and Gnosis addresses the reasons behind the surprising and seemingly counterintuitive diversity of languages. Word and Object covers a variety of subjects, including the sounds native to a language and the purpose (if any) of falsity in expression.

The Claims of Theory traces the history of translation theory, with some very helpful comments on Chomskyan linguistics. The Hermeneutic Motion gives examples and detailed analysis of various triumphs and failures of translation. Topologies of Culture closes with a look at all imitative art as translation and a conjecture about the future need for translation in light of English as a world language.

Although this book is written in English, the author cites text in French and German extensively, and a reader unfamiliar with these languages will miss out on some passages.

Professor Steiner's selected bibliography and extensive footnotes offer a decade's worth of further reading for those who are interested in following up on some of the ideas.

I hightly recommend this incredible book!