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“Translation: the philosopher’s task”, interview with Gabriel Catren

Interview by Jeremy Lecomte, translated into English by Sara Heft


Philosopher and physician, Gabriel Catren has long been interested in the links between philosophy and sciences. Doctor of both theoretical physics and philosophy, Catren is Program Director at the Collège International de Philosophie and directs the ERC (European Research Council) research project “Philosophy of Canonical Quantum Gravity” at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). A forthcoming text of his entitled “La tâche du philosophe” ventriloquizes Walter Benjamin’s famous text “The Translator’s Task” in order to more specifically develop a conception of philosophy as a process of “translation”. We seized this occasion to interview him on the project.


Your work focuses on the links imaginable between the sciences and philosophy. In “La tâche du philosophe”, you seek out the resources set out by Walter Benjamin allowing you to consider philosophy as a “translation” machine. Could you explain what drew you to Benjamin’s text?


Given my double passion for science and philosophy, the problem of clarifying the links between philosophy and what I refer to as local or abstract modes of thought (such as the sciences, the arts and politics) has always been of utmost importance to me. To treat this problem, I wished to challenge both the solutions that subject these different modes to philosophical authority (be it ontological, transcendental, epistemological, encyclopedic or other), and the solutions which – inversely – subject philosophy to the model furnished by one of these modes, to the detriment of the others (as, for example, Husserl’s conception of philosophy as archi-science, Heidegger’s conception of philosophy as archi-poetry, or Levinas’s conception of philosophy as archi-ethics). In Benjamin’s theory of translation, I found a solution capable of satisfying two presumably irreconcilable constraints: 1) that of not yielding on the delocalized or transversal nature of philosophical work compared to different local modes of thought – and thus avoiding any potential identification with one of these modes; and 2) that of refusing any dominant position of philosophy toward said modes of thought. In short, Benjamin’s text allowed me to construe the connections between local modes of thought and philosophy by following the model offered by the connection between national languages and the regulatory idea of a delocalized and voluntarily impure language produced by the work of transposition and transfer undertaken by “translation”. To translate, it’s not enough to flit through the space of languages: you must master each of the languages involved by giving yourself over to their irreducible sovereignty. The conception of philosophy that results is that of an organon of composition between the different local modes of thought – an organon which, rather than speaking about these modes, must make possible free circulation between them. In this way, the philosopher’s task is to compose the “untranslatables” within a vaster linguistic space in which each language finds its place and time. The philosopher is the stalker of this space. In Lacanian terms, we might say that philosophical love alone is able to supplement the non-relationship between the different modes of thought – that is, to potentiate their connectedness while affirming their irreducible “untranslatability”. Philosophy alone is able to construct mediators – herein lies its truly angelic dimension – capable of probing the interzones that separate and connect the various modes of thought, in order to incessantly build what I refer to as a musaic language, following on from Benjamin.


Your version of Benjamin’s text isn’t a translation, strictly speaking. It is presented more like the result of a series of variations, diversions, substitutions, deformations or prolongations. In “ventriloquizing” Benjamin’s text in this way, you develop your conception of philosophy and apply it at the same time. Could you say more about the form of doubling that this project entails?


Yes. In order to deflect Benjamin’s text in that direction, and to be consistent, I wanted to avoid any position of flitting. Instead of talking about it, I wanted to let myself go within the text to be able to act on it in its own terms, from its very depths. It was an effort to act even within its own texture, flattening my work on the material that it was able to immerse itself in. In doing so, I tried to reactivate a selection of its underlying or dormant virtualities, to reappropriate its at my convenience, to force its points of resistance, to use it against itself, to commit violence against it where I deemed necessary (as, for example, in the “perversion” of its religious dimension into speculative theses). Finally, more than merely an attempt to ventriloquize as you so accurately describe, it was also an effort to polyglottize the text – that is, to graft other texts onto it which were also copied, reappropriated in less-than-respectful fashion, from Berman, Blanchot, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Gentile, Hegel, Heidegger, and even Lacan and Benjamin himself. I would subsequently like to subject the “palimpsest” that ensues from this work of rewriting and assembling to the same sort of ordeal, which the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani will oversee in “translating” my version of Benjamin’s text into English, in the same spirit. Ultimately, in a sort of narcissistic reappropriation aiming to dialectically sublate such “trials of the foreign”, I am planning on creating a Spanish version (my mother tongue) from the English version. All of these texts (Benjamin’s essay alongside the French, English and Spanish “translations”) will be released by the publishers Urbanomic and Sequence Press.


As with each one of these texts then, when you explain that philosophy alone is able to construct mediators, you state not only that these mediators move between domains or modes that remain fundamentally irreducible and boundless, but also that they are related. Is it this “kinship” which you refer to as absolute, and which never ceases to make possible and ever greater the ability of philosophy to create these untranslatables?


In my opinion, the proposed conception of philosophy represents the equivalent of a purely speculative conception of what thought – in all of these modalities – is charged with: the impersonal field of experience or manifestation. Experience as such – in its very concreteness and impurity, always simultaneously entails dimensions that span the perceptive, conceptual, emotional, practical, linguistic, social, economic, political and more. What I call absolute is the concrete and necessarily impure phenomenological field, of which each one of these dimensions comprises but an abstract section pertaining to a specific filter. In this way, it can be maintained that – despite their mutual irreducibility – the modes of thought are related in that they act on various abstract sections of a single concrete phenomenological field. The philosopher’s task can thus be characterized as an attempt to raise this sort of spectral decomposition of experience by means of a composition of abstract modes of thought. We might say that the path of philosophical thought goes from the very abstraction of different modes of thought “toward the concrete” of the absolute as such – that is to say, of experience taken prior to its prismatic refraction.


Going further: an excerpt of the original text and its "translation"

“Une traduction est-elle faite pour les lecteurs qui ne comprennent pas l’original ? Cela suffit, semble-t-il, pour expliquer la différence de niveau artistique entre une traduction et l’original. C’est en outre, semble-t-il, la seule raison qu’on puisse avoir de redire “la même chose”. Mais que “dit” une oeuvre littéraire ? Que communique-t-elle ? Très peu à qui la comprend. Ce qu’elle a d’essentiel n’est pas communication, n’est pas message. Une traduction cependant, qui cherche à transmettrene pourrait transmettre que la communication, et donc quelque chose d’inessentiel. C’est là, d’ailleurs, l’un des signes auxquels se reconnaît la mauvaise traduction. Mais ce que contient une oeuvre littéraire en dehors de la communication – et même le mauvais traducteur conviendra que c’est l’essentiel – n’est-il pas généralement tenu pour l’insaisissable, le mystérieux, le “poétique” ? Pour ce que le traducteur ne peut rendre qu’en faisant lui-même oeuvre de poète ?”

Walter Benjamin. “La tâche du traducteur” (1923), trad. Fr. de Maurice de Gandillac, in Walter Benjamin. Oeuvres I, Paris : Gallimard, 2000 : 244-245.


« Une traduction philosophique entre différents modes de pensée vaut-elle (gilt) pour les sujets qui ne sont pas capables de se placer dans l’immanence pratique et discursive de chacun de ces modes ? Si le but du travail philosophique était de combler un tel manque, c’est-à-dire de pallier tant bien que mal le caractère nécessairement limité du plurilinguisme spirituel de tout sujet fini, alors cela suffirait, semble-t-il, pour expliquer l’existence d’une dégradation supposée entre une oeuvre produite à l’intérieur d’un mode de pensée donné et sa traduction (Übersetzung) philosophique, dégradation qui ne serait qu’un effet concomitant du transport (Übertragung) entre les modes comme mal nécessaire. C’est en outre, semble-t-il, la seule raison qu’on puisse avoir d’essayer de connecter des modes de pensée essentiellement hétérogènes. La traduction philosophique des oeuvres viendrait ainsi suppléer l’incapacité subjective de circuler librement parmi les différents modes de pensée, voire de comprendre et d’articuler leurs différents langages dans la littéralité formelle qui est à chaque fois la leur. Mais que « dit » une oeuvre scientifique, politique ou artistique ? Que communique-t-elle ? Très peu à qui la comprend. Ce qu’elle a d’essentiel, loin d’être communication ou message, gît dans son pouvoir de vectoriser une médiation desindoxicante de l’horizon phénoménologique au sein duquel elle apparaît. En inscrivant un site (Ort) singulier au sein de l’Umwelt qui l’entoure et en scandant une temporalité propre délestée de l’historicité ambiante, une oeuvre est toujours en avance sur l’espace-temps qui définit sa localisation première. Une connexion philosophique cependant, qui prétend communiquer des contenus entre des modes de pensée irréductiblement hétérogènes ne pourrait transmettre que ce qui est déjà commun aux modes de pensée en question, et donc quelque chose d’inessentiel. La tentative de retrouver dans les différents modes de pensée autant des confirmations régionales d’une même thèse ontologique ou transcendantale est d’ailleurs l’un des signes auxquels se reconnaît la mauvaise philosophie. Mais ce que contiennent les oeuvres scientifiques, politiques ou artistiques en dehors de ce qui leur est toujours déjà commun – et même le mauvais philosophe conviendra que c’est l’essentiel – n’est-il pas généralement tenu pour l’incommensurable, l’intraduisible, ce qui ne peut nullement être transmis dans un autre mode de pensée ? Pour ce que le philosophe rigoureux – celui dont on peut déjà dire que la tâche est de composer l’intraduisible – ne peut inclure dans ses compositions systématiques qu’en se plaçant lui-même et à chaque fois dans l’immanence expressive et perceptive de chacun des modes de pensée concernés ? »

Gabriel Catren. « La tâche du philosophe », variation à partir de Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers de Walter Benjamin, à paraître chez Urbanomic et Sequence Press.