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Par example: word order again

Here’s an example in which the issue of word order (previously discussed here) seems to arise pretty starkly. On p. vii of the Preface MP writes, “je peux bien distinguer de moi le monde et les choses, puisque assurément je n’existe pas à la manière des choses.” Literally this reads, “I can easily distinguish from myself the world and things, since surely I do not exist in the manner of things.” This sounds a bit awkward in English. But is there really any way to render it less awkwardly without changing the sense of the of the sentence? I think maybe not…

Let’s focus just on the first clause. One thing that makes it sound awkward in English is the word order: “I can easily distinguish from myself the world and things.” The “from” seems to be in the wrong place. It would be more natural to say in English, “I can easily distinguish myself from the world and things.” But wait. Does this have the same connotation? In the original the act I am capable of distinguishes from myself the world and things. In the new translation, however, the act distinguishes myself from the world and things. Surely there is a difference between these. Surely there is a difference, in other words, between distinguishing “from A’s B’s” and distinguishing “A’s from B’s.” Indeed, it seems to me that I might very well be able to do the one but not the other.

For example, suppose I can distinguish “from lima beans kidney beans.” I suppose I might be able to do this under the following circumstances: I can recognize lima beans whenever I see them, and although I can’t recognize kidney beans on their own I nevertheless know that they are not lima beans. When confronted with a mixed pile of beans and the desire to distinguish “from the limas the kidneys,” what do I do? Well, under the circumstances I suppose I will pull out all the ones I recognize to be lima beans, and leave all the rest. Even if the pile contains other beans too - pinto beans, for example - it seems to me right to say that using this method I will have distinguished from the lima beans the kidney beans. But can I use this strategy to distinguish “the lima beans from the kidney beans?” It doesn’t seem so. Distinguishing “from A’s B’s” seems to require that I can identify or recognize A’s. Distinguishing “A’s from B’s,” by contrast, seems to require that I can identify or recognize B’s. The ‘from’ seems to have a directional connotation, in other words; it’s not a purely symmetric relation. And this directional connotation might very well be important to MP’s point. For I might very well, according to MP, be capable of recognizing my body in a more basic sense than I am capable of recognizing the world and things that I encounter through it. (Complicated issue: holisms and such.) So it seems I cannot get away with translating the clause less awkwardly as “I can easily distinguish my body from the world and things…”

There is another option for making the translation less awkward, but I think it may fail as well. Instead of moving the preposition, I might move the phrases themselves. So instead of the literal “I can easily distinguish from my body the world and things,” I could try, “I can easily distinguish the world and things from my body.” Now I have changed it from an act in which I am capable of distinguishing “from A’s, B’s,” to an act in which I am capable of distinguishing “B’s from A’s.” I suppose the logical structure of these two acts is the same. But isn’t the connotation - maybe what Frege called the “coloring” of the sentence - a bit different? By putting “from my body” at the head of the relation it seems to give it more prominence. It seems to indicate that the contrast class for the claim is the class in which I am distinguishing from things other than my body the world and things. If I talk about distinguishing “from A’s B’s,” in other words, it seems to highlight the idea that it is from A’s - rather than from something else - that I can distinguish B’s. By contrast, if we change the word order it seems to highlight the opposite. When I say I can distinguish “the world and things from my body” then I’ve said I can distinguish “B’s from A’s.” But doesn’t this highlight the idea that it is B’s, rather than something else, that I can distinguish from A’s?

I’m not completely confident about either of these analyses, but I think there may be something there. If there is, then it seems clear that changing the word order in either way to make it read less awkwardly in the English will run the risk of changing the sense of the original French.



I like the awkward English version, ie, “I can easily distinguish from myself the world and things, since surely I do not exist in the manner of things.” The parallelism of “things” at the end of each clause works well. The meaning in English is what he seems to be meaning in the French. And the formality and awkwardness may be right. I’m even re-thinking the earlier example, in which you found the “Does one want to…” too formal, so you went down the path of “Ought one to…” (also formal) or “Should one…” (less formal), but both missing the sense of wanting rather than ought or should. Maybe MP was formal enough in his French that the English version should feel free to be formal, and at times awkward, as well - especially if that accurately captures both the meaning and the tone. As long as it has a certain charm, too.

By the way, do you have the HarperCollins Roberts French Dictionary (7th edition, 2005)(not the college edition)? I saw it in a book store recently, and it seems to be good.

Yes, it’s my sense that there’s something a bit formal and awkward about his style. I have the sense he was that way as a person, too. Evidently in person his formality and distance gave him an imposing air, but the awkwardness that you can sense in the writing style does make it more charming. I certainly wouldn’t take it as a goal to give the translation a similarly formal and awkward feel, but it may come for free if you just try to get the meanings right.

As to my dictionary, I’m using the Oxford Hatchette French Dictionary (3rd edition, 2004). I was choosing between that and the HarperCollins Roberts, and in the end decided that I trust the English more than the Americans when it comes to translation issues. Did I make a mistake?

I don’t know about the English version of the French dictionary. But you might want to buy the American one too, and that way you’ll have two angles on the French. I know that when I was fiddling with Dante, I went to a few Italian dictionaries, especially when I ran into problems, and often found solutions in one dictionary that had not been apparent in the others.

On the awkwardness and formality: Some of my favorite translations are the ones that are not just idiomatic current American-English. But they convey the strangeness of the real person who was struggling through an ambitious task, and maybe was a bit weird and obsessed. And I think that kind of tone has a strength to it.

I tend to think Tom is right, since in French too, the order of the words in the sentence is non-standard, it would be used in order to highlight “surely”, which can be rendered in the awkward english translation.

Besides, considering MP’s exceptional mastery of French, I am pretty sure that the effect is 1° deliberate and 2° can be produced in english as well by choosing the awkward version.

Also, I think it is worth noticing that here, what “surely” refers to, and recalls, is the certainty of my experience of myself as existing in a specific way, different from things around me (just the way Descartes, MP’s all-time interlocutor, as he himself acknowledges, put it in the 2nd Meditation).

This prepares the reader for Mp’s introduction of the (phenomenal) body as what remains when I have acquired the certainty of my existence as something which is not a thing, i.e. after I have performed the reduction, which develops Descartes’ gesture and helps discovering the specific mode of being of the consciousness (cf Husserl’s explicitly cartesian presentation of the reduction as the suspension of the existence of the world of things).

Because then, since the lesson of reduction is that a complete reduction, ie leaving out the body, is impossible (Preface), the phenomenal body can be conceived of as the origin of our relationship to the world, and the things in it : this requires the first step of the cartesian certainty of our existence as in a way radically different from things - a step beyond which we then can and must go, in virtue of the relationship between body and consciousness in perception that the phenomenal body makes possible, which Descartes did not see because of his substantialist conception of the mind, that implied a substantial distinction between mind and the mechanical, atomistic body.

I think that since the Preface is what carefully introduces the reader these ideas, the very choice of the order of words in the sentences should be given the care the awkward proposal proposes to.

A dissenting vote. I think “distinguish from myself the world and things” is very awkward and unnecessarily confusing.

You might be right that it’s important that MP is saying that I can distinguish the world and things (from myself), as opposed to distinguishing MYSELF (from them). The two are subtly different, since they suggest two different direct objects of the verb. I think the best way to capture this, though, would be to translate the sentence, “I can perfectly well distinguish the world and things from myself, since surely I do not exist in the way things do.”

That is, I don’t see any point at all in preservering the parallel construction, with “things” (choses) coming at the end of each clause.

Taylor: I’m not convinced that the awkwardness of the English construction is itself a strong reason to keep it. I do believe that if it preserves an awkwardness in the French, which it seems to, then that is something in its favor, albeit something that could be over-ridden by other considerations. But more importantly, I believe that the less awkward renderings, including the one you propose, may be innacurate. I tried to make the argument with respect to your proposed rendering towards the end of the main post here. Do you find that argument unconvincing?

I see your point, but I guess I think this is just a bit too subtle. I applaud your carefulness, but it’s possible to be paralyzed trying to preserve every conceivable nuance suggested by the original wording. When I go back to this passage, even the awkward version doesn’t seem to me dreadfully awkward. On the other hand, I can’t convince myself that MP was worrying about these subtleties at the fine grain at which we’re discussing them here. But I could be wrong.

Too clever by half, eh? Well, that’s certainly a possibility. In the end I think I’ll probably keep the awkward translation, if only so that it will encourage readers of the English to go back and look at the French. Perhaps that’s the best one can do…

i don’t understand to the word order please summit example to word order

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