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 Ã la maniÃ¨re 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.