Life interprets itself

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On Translation", by Paul Ricoeur:

How does new meaning come to be? How do we reconfigure the meanings of the past? These basic hermeneutic questions were guided by the thesis that existence is itself a mode of interpretation (Hermeneia). Or, as the hermeneutic maxim went: Life interprets itself. Ricoeur thus challenged Heidegger's view that Being is accessible through the 'short route' of human existence (Daisein) which understandes itself through its own possibilities. He argued instead that meaning of Being is always mediated through an endless process of interpretations - cultural, religious, political, historical, and scientific. Hence Ricoeur's basic definition of hermeneutics as the 'art of deciphering indirect meaning'. Philosophy, for Ricoeur, was hermeneutical to the extent that it read hidden meanings in apparent meanings. And the task of hermeneutics was to show how existence arrives at expression, and later again at reflection, through the perpetual exploration of the significations that emerge in the symbolic works of culture. More particulartly, human existence only becomes a self by retrieving meanings which first reside 'outside' of itself in the social institutions and cultural monuments in which the life of the spirit is inscribed.

The interpration of indirect or tacit meaning invites us to think more, not to abandon speculative thought altogether. By symbols, Ricoeur understood all expressions of double meaning wherein a primary meaning referred beyond itself to a second meaning which is never given immediately. This 'surplus meaning' provokes interpretation: The symbol gives rise to thought.

As soon as there is language there is interpretation, that is translation. In principio fuit interpres. Words exist in time and space, and thus have a history of meanings which alter and evolve. All translation involves some aspect of dialogue between self and stranger. Dialogue means just that, dia-legein, welcoming the difference: The paradigm of translation as a model of hermeneutics. The moi gives way to the soi, or more precisely to soi-même comme un autre. The arc of translation epitomizes this journey from self through the other, reminding us of the irreducible finitude and contigency of all language.

Hence the paradox, before the dilemma: a good translation can aim only at a supposed equivalence that is not founded on a demonstrable identity of meaning. An equivalence without identity. And it is this mourning for the absolute translation that produces the happiness associated with translating. The happiness associated with translating is a gain when, tied to the loss of the linguistic absolute, it acknowledges the difference between adequacy and equivalence, equivalence without adequacy: Translation as challenge and source of happiness.

For Ricoeur, the task of outer translation finds echoes in the work of inner translation. Indeed the very problem of human identity involves a discovery of an other within the very depths of the self. This other within is itself plural, signifying by turns the unconscious, the body, the call of conscience, the traces of our relations with other human beings, or the sign of trascendence inscribed in the deepest interiority of the human heart. This means that the question of human identity, or more exactly the answer to the question 'who are you', always entails a translation between the self and others both within the self and outside the self. Every subject is a tapestry of stories heard and told. This makes of each one of us a narrative identity, operating as both authors and readers of our own lives. Which is another way of saying, translator of our own lives. Life stories and life histories are always parts of larger stories and histories in which we find ourselves interwoven or entwined (empêtré).

To think, to speak is always translate, even when one speaks to oneself, when one discovers the traces (and one cannot subsist without them) of the other in oneself.

After all, language, understood as peculiarly human attribute, is always coupled to a specific and particular language and to the variety and plurality of languages. Indeed, Ricoeur goes so far as to suggest that the future ethos of European politics, and eventually of world politics, should be one based upon an exchange of memories and narratives between different nations, for it is only when we translate our own wounds into the language of strangers and retranslate the wounds of strangers into our own language that healing and reconciliation can take place.

The world is made up of a plurality of human beings, cultures, tongues. Humanity exists in the plural mode. Which means that any legitimate form of universality must always - if the hermeneutic model of translation is observed - find is equivalent plurality. The creative tension between the universal and the plural ensures that the task of translation is an endless one, a work of tireless memory and mourning, of appropiation and disappropriation, of taking up and letting go, of expression oneself and welcoming others. "Memory, History and Forgetting: Incompletion (inachèvement)" is the acknowledge that translation, understood as an endlessly unfinished business, is a signal not of failure but of hope.