Hosting the Stranger

Volume 4 ~ 2011

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Translating Hospitality: Paul Ricoeur’s Ethics of Translation

James Taylor

From his early work on a phenomenology of the will, to his reflections on metaphor and narrative, to his “little ethics” in Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur was concerned with understanding the relation between self and other.1 More specifically, Ricoeur was occupied by the question of how it is possible for two distinct selves, separated by time and space, perhaps even by language and culture, to understand and relate to one another with generosity and hospitality. It is not surprising then that late in his career Ricoeur turned to the activity of translation as a uniquely telling paradigm for explaining the possibility of interpersonal hospitality.2 Ricoeur finds in the translator’s activity of transferring meaning from one language into another an example of how it is possible for one distinct self to relate to another without reducing the other to the self’s own pre-determined horizons of meaning.

Ricoeur calls the translator’s process of mediating between languages “linguistic hospitality,”3 by which he means the practice of bringing two languages into communication with one-another without violating the integrity of either one. Toward the end of an essay titled “The Paradigm of Translation,”4 Ricoeur suggests that linguistic hospitality should serve as a paradigm for other forms of hospitality: religious, political, and most importantly for our purposes, interpersonal.5 This paper will investigate Ricoeur’s account of linguistic hospitality both in order to understand the translator’s task and practice and in order to understand why Ricoeur advocates this particular form of hospitality as a model for the ethical relation between self and other.

I. The Problem of Translation

As Ricoeur sees it, translation performs the unlikely feat of bringing radically different worlds into contact with one-another. The question then is, how does translation work? How is it possible to mediate between two separate languages with very different ways of carving up the world, with each employing a different range of semantic resonances, incompatible syntactical structures and divergent lexical systems? Aren’t these differences so pronounced as to make the prospect of translation from one language to the other untenable? And yet translation happens constantly, and, as Ricoeur reminds us, has happened since the beginning of time. But then how do we get from one particular linguistic nexus to another? How is the transfer of meaning between peculiar, natural languages possible?

One possibility, reflected in modern theories of language and contemporary theories of translation, is that there is a pre-existing realm of universal meaning that is responsible for each of the particular languages, and is thus capable of facilitating translation between them. This attempt to explain the existence of natural languages by virtue of a prior “pure language” is motivated by the paradox mentioned above. On the one hand, there exist thousands of utterly different, apparently incommensurable languages. On the other, translation between these incommensurable languages happens. Confronted with these two apparently contradictory facts, these theorists suppose a third language capable of explaining the otherwise impossible transfer of meaning from one natural language to another. Ricoeur calls this explanation, represented by linguists like Noam Chomsky, the “universal language theory.”6 Universal language theorists attempt to excavate or burrow beneath the everyday use of language to discover a prior source or “common fund”7 of meaning. By discerning fundamental linguistic structures and “generative grammars,”8 they hope to explain the complex workings of natural languages, and thereby hope to explain the possibility of translation from one natural idiom into another.

But although this particular universal language theory is a recent invention, the general subordination of the particular to the universal has a long and distinguished pedigree in enlightenment thought about language. Ricoeur cites Bacon’s famous attempt to “eliminate the imperfections of natural languages”9 as well as Leibniz’s goal of “drawing up a universal lexicon of simple ideas,” which would be “complimented by a compilation of all the rules of composition among these veritable atoms of thought.”10 Contemporary theories of language and translation, like Chomsky’s, are often motivated by the same mistrust of the particular languages as something unruly and imprecise as are the more classical philosophical accounts mentioned above. In both its classical and contemporary guises linguistic theory prioritizes the universal over the particular because the former is exact and precise and allows for greater control over its components than does the latter, which is unpredictable and terminally ambiguous. Hence, a universal language approximates the standards of the natural and exact sciences and is thus more amenable to being incorporated into a “science of language” or “linguistics” than is a natural language, which often seems to grow or expand like a wild bush, spreading out in surprising and, for a theory of language, frustrating directions.

Ricoeur insists that in spite of its obvious advantages for a science of language, the universal language theory fails to explain the complexities of translation. And he offers two primary reasons for this failure: first, its proponents cannot seem to agree on what this universal a priori code is, and second, they cannot explain how the many natural languages that populate the world are derived from it. Ricoeur remarks, not only is there “no consensus on what would characterize a perfect language at the level of the lexicon of original ideas,” but, more importantly, “no one can say how the natural languages, with all of [their peculiarities]…could be derived from the supposed perfect language.”11 There is no way to explain, in other words, how natural languages, which are infinitely complex in their functioning, can be derived from the finite structures and symbols of the universal language:

As regards the perfect language…, besides the fact that no one has written it down, the difference between the supposed artificial language and the natural languages with their idiosyncrasy, their peculiarities, proves to be insurmountable, as there is no fulfillment of the preliminary condition of an exhaustive enumeration of simple ideas and of a unique universal procedure of derivation.12

Ricoeur mentions Plato’s famous third man argument in this connection, insisting that the same problem of connecting a universal form to its particular instantiations is found here as well: any attempt to link the pure, perfect language to the messy, unpredictable natural languages will inevitably be caught in an infinite regress. Hence, “The gap between the universal and empirical languages, between what is a priori and what is historical, certainly appears insurmountable.”13

Ricoeur suggests that this unbridgeable gap between the universal and empirical is a product of our attempt to avoid the confusing, often messy reality of human life. He speculates that the “arbitrariness of the original language, which ultimately seems nowhere to be found,” is perhaps “even a pure fantasy: the fantasy of the origin rendered historical, the desperate refusal of the real human condition, which is that of multiplicity at all levels of existence, multiplicity, whose most disquieting expression is the diversity of languages…”14 Rather than accepting the difficult fact that languages are ineluctably diverse and house multiple levels of meaning, these universal language theorists invent a surrogate or artificial connection between the two, some way of assuring themselves that the differences that make up those languages are inconsequential, and that certain a priori univocal structures and symbols already link the wide diversity of the world’s natural languages together under a pre-existing banner of universality. According to Ricoeur, this “utopian idea”15 accounts neither for the unique, irreducible characters of the world’s diverse cultures nor for the actual process of translation, which, we will see, works not by resorting to a pre-existent code or algorithm, but by searching for resources within the natural languages themselves.16

Whatever the motivations for the universal explanation may be, Ricoeur warns that as long as we remain at the theoretical level we will be unable to find a satisfactory explanation for translation.17 From the theoretical perspective, natural languages will inevitably appear to be self-enclosed systems, incapable of communicating with one-another. As long as we view natural languages as totally incommensurate fields, we will be forced to postulate, as the universal language theorists do, a third language, somehow capable of bringing them together. Or we will insist that translation is impossible. That is to say, as long as we continue to look at natural languages from the outside, speculating and forming hypotheses about them through the lens of theory, we will remain stuck between two extremes: either a prior, perfect language facilitates the transfer of meaning between natural languages, or translation is impossible; either perfect translation or no translation.

II. The Work of Linguistic Hospitality

Ricoeur insists that in order to understand the possibility of translation we have to move from the theoretical perspective to the practical perspective. More specifically, we need to move beyond the alternatives of “translatability / untranslatability” that characterize the theoretical perspective and into the domain of the translator’s practical dilemma, “faithfulness / betrayal.”

I suggest we need to get beyond these theoretical alternatives, translatable versus untranslatable, and to replace them with practical alternatives, stemming from the very exercise of translation, the faithfulness versus betrayal alternatives, even if it means admitting that the practice of translation remains a risky operation which is always in search of its theory.18

The translator’s task is not to produce a perfect or complete translation, but to remain faithful and hospitable both to the reader she is translating for and the author she is translating from. She hopes not to betray either of them by failing to capture the original meaning in an adequate translation. This task is not achieved by virtue of an anterior semantic logic or guided by a theory of translation, but by the hard work of translating the foreign text, with all of its ambiguities and semantic resonances, as best she can, into the idiom of her native tongue. Without recourse to a third, artificial language, the translator must work, patiently and carefully, from within the resources offered by her own language in her attempt to accommodate the foreign language. Thus, the translator’s own work rather than an a priori code, must serve as the bridge linking one language to another. This means that the success or failure of the translation is not guaranteed in advance and will depend largely on the translator’s willingness to engage in what will turn out to be an arduous, often frustrating task. This is practical, not theoretical work, and it is a struggle won or lost in the process of translation itself.

Ricoeur prescribes two forms of work that must be undertaken, or as we will see, undergone by the translator if the translation is to be successful: a “work of remembering” and a “work of mourning.”19 In the work of remembering the translator will be forced to search within the forgotten recesses of her own language to find the appropriate words or phrases for translating the foreign text. In the work of mourning, the translator must come to terms with the fact that her translation, no matter how good it may be, will never be a perfect reduplication of the original, will never completely capture the nuance and ambiguity of the foreign text. According to Ricoeur, these two elements of the translator’s task, the work of memory and the work of mourning, are the twin poles of “linguistic hospitality.” Thus, whether the translation is successful, whether it will be hospitable to the foreign text, will depend on the translator’s work of remembering and work of mourning.

First the “work of remembering.” As she begins translating, the translator will find herself brought up short and frustrated by the lack of resources within her native language for accommodating the foreign text. Ricoeur describes this abrupt recognition of the heterogeneity of the foreign text as a first resistance to translation, a resistance he says manifests itself on the side of the native language which initially refuses to provide space within itself for the foreign language.20 Here the translator recoils because of the apparent impossibility of capturing the meaning of the foreign words and phrases within her own entirely different idiom. At this stage, the translator will be tempted either to give up the translation project entirely or to force the foreign language too hastily into the confines of the target language, either of which will subvert the task of remaining faithful to author and reader and will result in inhospitality.21 But if the translator can endure this first ordeal, if she can work through this initial resistance to her efforts and overcome both the initial impulse to quit translating altogether and the subsequent urge to subsume or intern the foreign language within her own, she can begin the translation process in earnest.

The next stage in the translator’s work of remembering will involve a second form of resistance, this time manifest on the side of the foreign language.22 After the work of translation has begun and the translator has experienced some success in bringing the languages together, she will inevitably be confronted by whole sections of the foreign text that remain stubbornly recalcitrant to her translation efforts. Ricoeur describes these difficulties as follows:

Not only are the semantic fields not superimposed on one another, but the syntaxes are not equivalent, the turns of phrase do not serve as a vehicle for the same cultural legacies; and what is to be said about the half-silent connotations, which alter the best defined denotations of the original vocabulary, and which drift, as it were, between the signs, the sentences, the sequences whether short or long? It is to this heterogeneity that the foreign text owes its resistance to translation and, in this sense, its intermittent untranslatability.23

Gradually, however, as the translator begins to succeed in reinscribing some of these initially “lifeless blocks”24 of text, this “intermittent untranslatability” is overcome. She begins to find a way through the many linguistic puzzles and difficulties and finds appropriate words and phrases for translation of even the most difficult passages.

At this point, the translator’s patient and careful work of remembering will need to be supplemented by a work of mourning.25 Encouraged by her partial success, the translator will be tempted to entertain the possibility of a “perfect” or “absolute translation”26 : she will be tempted to think that she can capture the sense of the original, completely and perfectly, within her native language, leaving nothing out, leaving no ambiguity unaccounted for. This temptation to absolute translation is the opposite of the previous temptation to refuse translation altogether. Now the translator is in danger, not of refusing to translate, or even of forcing the foreign language into her own, but of refusing to settle for a sufficient translation, a translation that is adequate to the original even if not a perfect duplication. In the grip of this desire for perfect translation, the translator does not want to lose any meaning whatsoever; she wants to find a perfect meeting of the minds through which absolute communication or understanding can occur.27 But as she is continually faced with a plurality of possible and legitimate translation options, and as she becomes aware of new and important nuances within the original text, she will find that a perfect translation is impossible, that the ideal of a perfect duplication is an illusion.28 If the translator is to continue her work and eventually succeed in translating the foreign text, this illusion and the desire for perfection that animates it must be surrendered and mourned.

That is to say, if the translator hopes to develop, within her own language, a hospitable site for the foreign text to dwell, she must mourn the desire for the perfect translation, she must come to terms with the fact that her native language, despite her strenuous efforts, is incapable of capturing the foreign text completely and without remainder. She must recognize that the various pockets of semantic and syntactic resistance can never be finally overcome, that each language will continue to resist the translation, refusing to allow itself to be entirely cashed out into the other. Through this process of mourning, the translator will gradually learn to settle for a translation that is sufficient, that conveys the meaning of the original in an appropriate way, but remains imperfect and incomplete. In Ricoeur’s own words, “the dream of the perfect translation amounts to the wish that translation would gain, gain without losing. It is this very same gain without loss that we must mourn until we reach an acceptance of the impassable difference of the peculiar and the foreign.”29 The desire for perfection is surrendered, one step at a time, as the translator comes to terms with the inevitability of loss.

Ricoeur insists, however, that this mourning process is not without its rewards, that the loss that the translator experiences is coupled with a gain, and even a certain “happiness”30 that comes from having developed a new relationship to each language. Precisely because the foreign language would not surrender itself to the translator’s efforts, because it would not hand itself over in complete transparency, the translator now recognizes that language as unique or “irreducible”31 to her own. Said otherwise, although the translator loses an ideal, she gains a real partner, a language that will always remain other than her native language, that refuses to be fused with or subsumed into her own language. Further, the irreducibility of the foreign language has also given the translator a new sense of her own language as itself singular and irreplaceable. But this new acceptance of the distinctness of each of the languages is made possible, paradoxically, only through the translation process itself, through the process of bringing the languages into communication with one another. More specifically, only through the work of mourning the ideal of perfect translation and embracing the reality of sufficient translation, does the translator fully recognize the difference between the two languages. The happiness that accrues to the translator is a product of this double movement whereby each language escapes the other even as they are brought into greater contact with one-another. Ricoeur articulates this dynamic in the following passage:

[It] is this mourning for the [perfect] translation that produces the happiness associated with translating. The happiness associated with translating is a gain when, tied to the loss of the linguistic absolute, it acknowledges the difference between adequacy and equivalence, equivalence without adequacy. There is its happiness. When the translator acknowledges and assumes the irreducibility of the pair, the peculiar and the foreign, he finds his reward in the recognition of the impassible status of the dialogicality of the act of translating as the reasonable horizon of the desire to translate. In spite of the agonistics that make a drama of the translator’s task, he can find his happiness in what I would like to call linguistic hospitality.32

III. Linguistic Hospitality as an Ethical Paradigm

Before examining the way in which linguistic hospitality can serve as a general ethical paradigm, perhaps we should briefly summarize the translator’s task. Through the work of remembering and mourning the translator loses two illusions: 1) that the foreign language is utterly heterogeneous and incapable of being translated and 2) that her own language is self-sufficient and capable of accommodating any and all meanings that could be found in another language. The loss of these opposing illusions results in a new and healthy sense of both the singularity and translatability of each language. The languages present themselves as singular insofar as the they can never be cashed out into a perfect translation without semantic remainder, and translatable insofar as these two irreducible languages can communicate to and understand each-other nevertheless. Here, through the patient, hospitable work of the translator, the two previously heterogeneous languages are brought into a dialogue with one-another and allowed to learn from the rich cultural and semantic resources unique to each. In other words, the “desire for a perfect translation” has been reworked into the more appropriate “desire to translate” or understand, a desire won through the long practice of “linguistic hospitality” as an attempt to engage with and understand the other without assimilating her into a pre-determined universality.

With this account of linguistic hospitality established, let us take a look at the specific passage in which Ricoeur advocates it as a model for other forms of hospitality:

Bringing the reader to the author, bringing the author to the reader, at the risk of serving and of betraying two masters: this is to practice what I like to call linguistic hospitality. It is this which serves as a model for other forms of hospitality that I think resemble it: confessions, religions, are they not like languages that are foreign to one another, with their lexicon, their grammar, their rhetoric, their stylistics which we must learn in order to make our way into them? And is eucharistic hospitality not to be taken up with the same risks of translation-betrayal, but also with the same renunciation of the perfect translation?33

It is significant that Ricoeur points to linguistic hospitality as a clue to other forms of relating to the other because, as noted in the introduction, Ricoeur’s whole career can be seen as a long meditation on the self-other relation. Ricoeur finds otherness everywhere, from obvious cases of peoples foreign to one another to less obvious instances of inter-linguistic, inter-personal and even intra-personal relations. In his philosophical anthropology Oneself as Another, Ricoeur goes so far as to suggest that the otherness that characterizes other people is also found within oneself, that a self, in fact, is woven through with and constituted by its others.34 Whether that otherness refers to one’s history, one’s body, one’s ancestors or one’s conscience, there is no pure identity even with oneself, only the interpretation and appropriation of alterity, otherness at all levels. So whether the other is living and breathing or mediated by history and culture, the act of transferring meaning from one context into another, is involved from the outset. How to transfer or translate that meaning hospitably then, is central to the problem of self-other relations.

As with the process of translating one language into another, two selves, whether they speak the same language or not, can only relate to each other hospitably by surrendering the dream of “perfect translation” or communication. I must realize that I do not have perfect access to the other, that I cannot capture the inner-workings of the other’s mind within my own. This utopian dream must be relinquished, and the hard, patient work of translation and hospitality begun. Along the way in my dealings with others, I will be faced with dilemmas and temptations, as whole constellations of meaning will appear opaque and incontrovertible, will “stand up as lifeless blocks of resistance”35 to understanding. And many of these inscrutable elements will remain as such, forever incapable of being translated and appropriated. And yet, through the struggle to remember my own dormant, forgotten resources for communication, and through the process of mourning my desire to understand the other perfectly or completely, I can come to a new understanding of both my other and myself as “irreducible,” partially untranslatable, and yet as capable of being communicated with and understood. This personal hospitality will result, as did linguistic hospitality, in my learning to be a generous and capable host to my other, whether foreign or familiar, and it will manifest itself in the happiness that attends relating to another person who is utterly unique, irreducible to my own projects and horizons of meaning.

Thus, we can see that Ricoeur advocates linguistic hospitality as a paradigm because it brings selves together, allowing them to interact with and understand one-another, without violating their integrity. That is, insofar as linguistic hospitality forgoes any attempt to bring self and other together via a prior universality or system, it remains respectful of the singularity and irreducibility of persons. But insofar as it patiently and carefully works toward a common ground, forging a meaningful site for interaction that didn’t previously exist, linguistic hospitality does not rest content with utterly separate, sequestered selves. It insists, even through great difficulty, that understanding of and hospitality toward the other is possible and desirable.


  1. See Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, Translated by Erazim V. Kohak (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007), Time and Narrative, Vols 1-3, Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), and Oneself as Another, Translated by Kathleen Blamey, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  2. See Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, Translated by Eileen Brennan (New York: Routledge, 2006)
  3. Ibid, 10
  4. Ibid, 11
  5. Ibid, 23
  6. Ibid, 13
  7. Ibid, 13
  8. Noam Chomsky, Language and Thought. (Moyer Bell, 1995). On p. 17 of On Translation, Ricoeur notes that There are, of course, partial successes as regards Chomskyan generational grammars, but there is complete failure on the lexical and phonological side. Further, there is no consensus on what would characterize a perfect language at the level of the lexicon of original ideas entering into composition. Finally, no one can say how the natural languages, with all the peculiarities which we will talk about later, could be derived from the supposed perfect language.
  9. On Translation, 16
  10. Ibid, 16-17
  11. Ibid, 17
  12. Ibid, 33
  13. Ibid, 17
  14. Ibid, 33
  15. Ibid, 33
  16. Ibid, 9
  17. Ibid, 14
  18. Ibid, 14
  19. Ibid, 4
  20. Ibid, 5
  21. Ibid, 4-5
  22. Ibid, 5
  23. Ibid, 6
  24. Ibid, 5
  25. Ibid, 8
  26. Ibid, 10
  27. Ibid, 9
  28. Ibid, 17
  29. Ibid, 9
  30. Ibid, 10
  31. Ibid, 10
  32. Ibid, 10
  33. Ibid, 24
  34. See Oneself as Another, "Introduction" and "Tenth Study."
  35. On Translation, 5.