Translation and Philosophy: An Interview with Philip Wilson

Philip Wilson is Tutor in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, where he teaches literature and philosophy. He very kindly found some time in his diary to talk to us about his new book – The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy – co-edited with Piers Rawling, Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University. The book has just been published by Routledge.

Q Philip Wilson, many thanks for finding the time to speak to us this afternoon, and many congratulations indeed on the publication of your new book! I wonder if you could begin by saying a little bit about why you decided to publish this book, and why you decided to publish this book now.

Handbooks both survey and change fields. What was particularly interesting about this project, which was suggested by Routledge, was that it would be interdisciplinary, addressing both translation studies and philosophy. Piers and I commissioned 27 chapters from translation theorists, practising translators and philosophers, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and the authors were chosen for their ability to put the two fields into dialogue. We each contributed a chapter and wrote an introduction. I have worked in translation studies, particularly on translation after Wittgenstein, while Piers is a philosopher who has worked on rationality and the philosophy of language (although he is currently working mainly on ethics and practical reason), so our own backgrounds also complemented each other.

The Handbook was needed because, quite simply, no such overview existed. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy now presents the first comprehensive, state-of-the-art overview of the complex relationships between these two important fields, one that has been only formalised recently and one dating back to Ancient Greece.

Q Is it possible to summarise – for non-experts – the relationship between translation and philosophy?

There are three points of intersection, as Anthony Pym has said. First, philosophers have used translation as a case study or metaphor for more general issues. Second, translators and translation theorists have used philosophy for support. Third, commentaries have been written on how philosophy has been translated. Philosophers of language have themselves expounded views on translation — about such matters as the degree to which it can succeed, and what makes it possible.

Q That’s very interesting indeed, thank you! The focus of your book on translation and philosophy seems enormously exciting, and – frankly – enormous! How did you decide which philosophers and themes to include?

This is the first survey of its kind, as I mentioned above, so Piers and I felt the need to edit a book that both addresses what has happened and yet which will also point to new developments. So, you will find canonical philosophers in Part I, from Schleiermacher to Derrida, plus a chapter on contemporary approaches. In Part II we look at themes that have dominated the discourse between the two fields, such as equivalence or ethics. Part III investigates the translation of philosophy, including case studies, and there is a final section which looks at emerging trends.

Q Were there thinkers or themes you weren’t able to include this time, but might like to include in a future edition of this book?

We are conscious that the book is oriented towards Western philosophy and toward male thinkers (a point made very forcefully in a chapter on translating feminist philosophy by Carolyn Shread). We thus see the volume as a call for action in these areas, and any future edition would definitely move in this direction.

Q How do you see scholarship on translation and philosophy evolving in the years ahead? What are the burning issues to which researchers should be applying themselves?

Our final section on emerging trends has five entries: cognitive approaches to translation; machine translation; literary translation; mysticism, esotericism and translation; towards a philosophy of translation. What is so exciting is that dialogue between translation theorists and philosophers is only just beginning, so that other directions are not only possible but inevitable.

Q That’s very interesting – thank you! Sticking with the future, what is the next project on your own research agenda? Will you be building on this work?

I am very interested in building my chapter on mysticism, esotericism and translation into a book.

Q One final question, if we might? Now that The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy has been published, what are your hopes for the book? What would you like readers to take away from it, and what impact would you like it to have on the world?

We hope of course that the book finds readers among students and researchers. Laurence Venuti has called translation philosophy’s ‘dark secret’ and we hope that we can change this situation. The philosophical investigation of translation has never been more necessary. We also hope that translation theorists and practising translators will find much to stimulate thought here. As Martin Heidegger said: ‘Tell me what you think of translation, and I will tell you who you are.’ The stakes cannot get any higher.

Philip Wilson, thank you very much indeed for your time.

The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy is published by Routledge and will be formally launched by Piers and Philip at UEA on March 20th, 2019, in the Council Chamber, 16.00-19.00. All are welcome.

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