Document Type

Working Paper


Beginning with a consideration of the logical and illogical notions of impossibility, the paper examines two kinds of contradiction: the categorical and the dialectic, especially as it relates to the Chinese word maodun. Theoretical absolutes are pitted against realistic relativities; abstract strictures are examined in conjunction with concrete improbabilities. A brief survey of the phenomena of "impossible" translations follows - translations which are theoretically precluded but realizable in reality. The phenomena of translations of James Joyce's Ulysses – surely one of the texts that would be considered "impossible" to translate - belies the theoretical assumption that precludes its rendering into other languages. This yields a dictum which constitutes a maodun, not a contradiction, on translation: the more impossible the text the more it demands translation, the more imperative that it be translated. Sometimes the translation of a text is the only surviving version of a text - its only nachleben, in Walter Benjamin's formulation. For example, the Septuagint conveyed the text of the Bible for nearly two millennia before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. Other, more recent examples are cited (and solicited).


David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies

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