Adventures in Translating: Deciding between Equally Valid Translations

First, I want to say thank you to everyone who made suggestions in the last post. It was all very helpful and interesting. Secondly, a general thank you to the great response these posts have received. I wasn’t planning on making this a regular feature, but because it has been helpful to me and interesting to readers it has turned into, at least, an occasional feature.

Since gnosis and Gnostic systems are a dominant material suspended from their own self-sufficiency, or in more familiar language, since Laruelle makes use of gnosis and Gnostic systems I have been reading up a little bit on them. Mainly reading through a few of their scriptures, inspired by the having to track down the epigraph, and by reading Hans Jonas’ synthetic introduction The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. I have been familiar with the popular understanding of Gnosticism, mainly as a dualistic religion that Christianity rightly put down, and have some schooling in the Church Fathers’ writings against various gnostics and Gnosticisms, and some regrettable interactions, from my first years as an undergraduate, with contemporary attacks on gnostic trends in contemporary thought from the likes of neo- or paleo-conservative thinkers like Eric Voegelin and David Bentley Hart. Reading Jonas has proved a very interesting, if only because, next to Laruelle’s exciting but very abstract writing, his writing is incredibly clear and lucid and because it shows a very different, that is more sympathetic, reading of Gnosticism than what I’ve encountered before.

This research has also been helpful generally with regard to the translation, allowing me to get a sense of how some words are already used in literature on gnosticism (already having that background in Christian and Jewish thought). It can’t be emphasized enough how important this kind of knowledge is when translating. In many ways I already know this translation will suffer from my relatively non-idiomatic knowledge of French (one cannot get that fluency from reading only philosophy and theology in French; one can only get that kind of fluency from reading French novels and from speaking it more regularly than is possible for me living in the East Midlands of England). Yet, having knowledge of how certain words are already used in English-language scholarship will go some way towards ameliorating that weakness.

The best example of this so far has been the question of how to translate the term étranger, specifically in relation to Laruelle’s technical “first/primary name” for the subject (a first/primary name is defined by Laruelle as, those “fundamental terms that symbolize the Real and its modes according to its radical immanence or its identity. They are deprived of their philosophical sense and become, via axiomatized abstraction, the terms – axioms and theorems – of non-philosophy.”). The first name (which is Ray Brassier’s translation of nom primere, whereas I was leaning towards “primary name”, but currently think “first name” sounds better in English) for the non-philosophical subject is le sujet-Étranger. One can either translate this as Alien-subject or Stranger-subject. Both, to my mind, are equally valid and express generally the same idea.

There is a complication arising from the scholarship that does exist in English on Laruelle. In Brassier’s doctoral thesis (available here) he differentiates between Laruelle’s Stranger-subject and his own Alien-subject. On page 144 he explains this writing:

Although ‘the Stranger’ (l’Etranger) is Laruelle’s preferred term for designating the universal subject of non-philosophical theory, we shall mark its occasional specificity here by referring to the radically immanent subject of non-materialist thinking as ‘the Alien’. The name is intended to invoke neither an empirically determinable quality of foreignness, nor visions of some phantasmatic speculative hybrid, but rather a radically transcendental and therefore rigorously unenvisageable exteriority; an exteriority which is identical with the non-materialist’s force-(of)-thought.

Brassier’s translations of a few of Laruelle’s essays as well as his own numerous publications on Laruelle and non-philosophy, which range from the introductory to the critical, are the major sources available to me to compare my own translations against (though I can check with John Mullarkey’s chapter on Laruelle in his Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline and with Taylor Adkins and Rocco Gangle who are also engaged in translations of Laruelle right now). I could follow his translation here, as I’ve said I think it is valid, but it covers over the already existing use of the word “alien” alongside of “stranger” in English-language literature on Gnosticism. At this point I simply have to make a decision to either break with Brassier’s interpretation of l’Étranger in favor of emphasizing the Gnostic influence on Laruelle or to follow Brassier, thereby keeping continuity of terms between already existing translations and this one but obscuring the connection with literature on Gnosticism. Both seem to me valid ways to go and currently, likely because I’m reading Jonas, I’m leaning towards “Alien-subject”. Also leading me in this direction is that Brasier’s description of “alien” is incredibly similar to what the Gnostics meant by alien and so I see his Alien-subject as very much in line with Laruelle’s sujet-Étranger. In fact, it seems safe to assume that Jonas’ own use of alien and stranger come from a single German word (fremd/fremde) that must be present in the original German version of The Gnostic Religion and upon which the English-language version is based. I think perhaps Brassier overstates the difference between stranger and alien, which is great for me, as I do really like and prefer the fluidity of the French (and German) here which allows for us both to think of something like Gnosticism’s “alien God” and something like those stories of a stranger arriving in town, like in Kazantzakis’ Zobra the Greek, and disrupting the system there.

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