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Friday, May 11, 2012

Flowers Bloom (7d)—Emile Blooms

[a] JJR RF
I am supposed to give a series of lectures this week on Allan Bloom, the obscure University of Chicago professor who wrote a blockbuster bestseller on education precisely twenty-five years ago. At this time in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was climbing the New York Times bestseller list. I am going to try a new approach. Instead of posting what I have written (I do a lot of that here on Round and Square already), I am going to post some of what I have been reading in preparation for the lectures. Consider this week's posts—which will appear under various topics on Round and Square, ranging from "Beginnings" and "Flowers Bloom" to "Displays of Authenticity" and "Endings"—as lecture preparation. 

And, just for the record, regular readers probably already know that I will post the actual lectures not long after they have been given. This week's posts focus on the preparation process, and tackling Allan Bloom's arguments should get your blood pumping. Today's text comes from the foreword to his 1978 translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. Rousseau considered his treatise to be a definitive and authentic argument for crafting "natural man" who can negotiate the ferocious pitfalls of civil society.
 ***  ***
We finished yesterday's post with a remarkable paragraph that bears repeating. You see, even if, in the end, I disagreed with many of the arguments Allan Bloom made about political philosophy, the Western canon, and the dangers of multiculturalism...even if I had rejected everything...I would still hold him up as one of the most significant figures in mid-twentieth century intellectual life.

[b] Remarkable RF
Bloom's translation of Plato's Republic is excellent, and—as we saw the other day—his philosophy of translation has had a profound influence on me. It is not that I am particularly comfortable with his idea of "literal translation," but the pedagogical force behind it is something that is worthy of deep consideration. That is one of the reasons why I am focusing on Bloom and his teaching these days. It is worth noting, as well, that there is another dimension to his translation of the Republic. His "Interpretive Essay" is one of the more thoughtful reflections on Plato's work ever written. We'll address more of that in the course of the next month or so.

There is something bigger, though. "Anybody" (meaning any deeply-learned person with a powerful grasp of Greek, English and political theory, as well as the dedication to spend the better part of a decade wrestling with the text)...anybody could have done another Republic translation. Rousseau's Emile is different. Unlike the same author's Confessions and the Social Contract, very few American readers were familiar with one of the greatest works ever written—a "story" of raising a child (little Emile) from birth until marriage. Allan Bloom shows his genius for understanding the most formative texts of Western civilization by placing these two works side-by-side. "Anybody" (see above) could translate the Republic. Only a Francophilic genius could pick the Emile out of obscurity and raise it to the level it deserves among American readers. Let's look again at yesterday's paragraph before moving on to the foreword to the English translation of the Emile.

          Finally, in terms of my own experience of these last twenty-five years,
          after the Republic I translated Rousseau's Emile, the greatest modern
          book on education. Rousseau was one of the great readers of Plato, and
          from my time on that work I gained an even greater respect for the Republic.  
          Emile is its natural companion, and Rousseau proved his greatness by
          entering the lists in worthy combat with it. He shows that Plato articulated
          first and best all the problems, and he himself differs only with respect
          to some of the solutions. If one takes the two books together, one has the
          basic training necessary for the educational wars. And wars they are, now
          that doctrine tells us that these two books are cornerstones of an outlived
          canon. So, I conclude, the Republic is always useful to students who read it,
          but now more than ever.

[c] Henri...nature RF
Something is going on here, and it is profound. These two books need to be read together, and they matter. A lot. Take a look at the foreword to Allan Bloom's translation of Rousseau's Emile. The sentence deserves underlining. It says a great deal about Bloom, as does the final paragraph (read it all of the way down the page). Then read the whole book. Then learn French. That's what Bloom says.

     This translation is meant
     to give the reader a
     certain confidence that
     he is thinking about
     Rousseau and not about
     me, as well as to inspire
     in him a disconcerting
     awareness that, to be
     sure, he must learn French....

Foreword to Rousseau's Emile
Allan Bloom (1978)
[d] Captain Nimes-o RF
When I wrote the preface to my translation of the Republic, I did not have to argue the importance of the book; I had to justify only the need for a new translation when there were so many famous existing versions. With Emile the situation is the reverse: there is general agreement that the only available translation is inadequate in all important respects, while the book itself is not held to be of great significance and has little appeal to contemporary taste. However, this is not the place to make a case for Emile. I can only hope that this translation will contribute to a reconsideration of this most fundamental and necessary book.

The translation aims above all, at accuracy. Of course, no intelligible translation could be strictly literal and simply bad English would misrepresent Rousseau's very good French. Style cannot be separated from substance. But unless the translator himself were a genius of Rousseau's magnitude, the attempt to imitate the felicity of his language would fail and would distort and narrow his meaning. One would have to look at what one can say well in English rather than at Rousseau's thought. He is a precise and careful writer. He speaks of a real world of which we all have experience, no matter what our language. He, above all writers, thought he spoke to all men. The translator must concentrate on making his English point to the same things Rousseau's French points to. And this is best done by finding the closest equivalents to his words and sticking to them, even when that causes inconvenience.

[e] Eglise translation RF
Every translation is, of course, in some sense an interpretation; and thus there can be no mechanical rules for translation. The question, then, is what disposition guides the translator: whether the impossibility of simple literalness is a fact against which he struggles and a source of dissatisfaction with himself, or whether he uses it as an excuse to display his virtuosity. As with most choices, the right one is least likely to afford opportunities for flattering one's vanity. The translator of a great work should revere his text and recognize that there is much in it he cannot understand. His translation should try to make others able to understand what he cannot understand, which means he often must prefer a dull ambiguity to a brilliant resolution. He is a messenger, not a plenipotentiary, and proves his fidelity to his great masters by reproducing what seems in them to the contemporary eye wrong, outrageous, or incomprehensible, for therein may lie what is most important for us. He resists the temptation to make the book attractive or relevant, for its relevance may lie in its appearing irrelevant to current thought. If books are to be liberating, they must seem implausible in the half-light of our plausibilities which we no longer know how to question. An old book must appear to be old-fashioned, and a translator cannot lessen the effort required of the reader, he can only make it possible for the reader to make that effort.

[f] 1759 RF
Therefore the translator will try to imitate the text, insofar as possible following sentence structure; he will never vary terms Rousseau does not vary, but where Rousseau repeats a particular French word, the translator will repeat its English equivalent; he will never choose English words whose origins are in later thought, even though Rousseau may have been the inspiration of that thought. This is what I have tried to do, but I have often failed. A verb of capital significance like sentir and its various derivatives—such as sentiment, sensible, sensibilité—simply defied reduction to Rousseau's unity of usage. Sometimes I have had to use "feel" and its derivatives and sometimes "sense" and its derivatives; and a very few times I have had to use an English word with an entirely different root (always trying to link it with "sense" or "feel"). On the other hand, I have been fortunate with other important words like nature and its derivatives; and the reader can be sure that if they occur in the translation, they are in the original French and vice versa. This translation is meant to give the reader a certain confidence that he is thinking about Rousseau and not about me, as well as to inspire in him a disconcerting awareness that, to be sure, he must learn French....

I undertook this translation with a selfish motive; I thought it the best way to familiarize myself with a book which was very alien to me but which seemed to contain hidden treasures. One of the results of this project has been a new sense of what it means to be a teacher and of the peculiar beauty of the relationship between teacher and student. Only Socrates rivals Rousseau in the depth and detail of understanding of that most generous of associations. And learning from Rousseau has given me the occasion to learn from my students while teaching them. Over the past eight years I have given several classes on Emile, and the interest it provoked gave evidence of its usefulness. By students' questions and suggestions I have been led toward the heart of the text. It provided a ground for community among us in the quest for understanding ourselves. As this translation progressed, I have used it in my classes and my first thanks go to all those students who read and corrected it, testing it in the situation for which it was intended....
[g] Grande RF
[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile [Translated with an introduction by Allan Bloom] (New York: Basic Books, 1979),vii-ix.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile [Translated with an introduction by Allan Bloom]. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

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