Translation and language of philosophy

„Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence” by Emmanuel Levinas



The present article highlights some of the problems that occurred in my translating of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s work Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence („Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence”) from French into Estonian.  There is no doubt that every philosophical system has its roots in its author’s native language, and this fact is especially explicit in the works of contemporary French philosophers. Levinas as a major thinker about ethics and one of the initi- ators of the so-called ethical turn in the humanities in the second half of the 20th century, separates ethics from ontology, defining ethical language as preontological or metaontological and locating the ethical Other beyond the phenomenological field. The real subjectivity for Levinas is not the ego asserting his power, but a selfhood on the other side of ontological identity, irreplaceable and unique in his responsibility to the other. In defining of such subjectivity, Levinas bases himself strongly on the French language, its linguistic structures and its etymology. In fact his conception of the ethical „I” cannot be understood without a certain knowledge of the history of the French language and the development of its declension system that can still be met in French pronouns. That is why translating Levinas’s work is not an easy matter because the Estonian language offers nothing to parallel some structures that are of utmost importance for Levinas’s philosophy.


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