Page 6, 23rd December 1937

23rd December 1937
Page 6
Page 6, 23rd December 1937 — TRANSLATING MARITAIN

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Inherent Difficulties of Thomism in the Vernacular

Si R,—As I am interested in the project of translating several of M. Jacques Maritain's works into English, I was struck by some remarks about The Degrees of Knowledge which appeared in your last issue. The criticism turned especially on the English rendering of ens rationis as " rational being" by my collaborator Miss Margot Adamson. I think the translator was fully aware of the difficulty which the phrase involved -as it offers the alternative of Scylla and Charybdis.

According to traditional definition (Summa Theologica, Bar-le-Due ed. 1867, vol. viii, p. 450.) "Ens rationis pure objectivum est chimaera, sive res impossibilis, quatenus aliquo modo est objeclum cognitionis humanae, tut circulus triangularis—Ens rationis logicum est quod fingitur ab intellectu propter aliquod fundamentum in re, ut natura humane concepta per modum unius propter similitudinem naturarum singular

i urn."

This latter concept. which in the broadest sense Maritain is primarily concerned with, has not in fact an adequate translation in either French or English. Maritain (unless 1 am wrong), usually gives a verbal translation of ens rationis into French as " litre de raison," not without violating the spirit of French. This may seem a Thomist difficulty. Neither the English reason nor the French raison translates more than one aspect of the Latin ratio. And so the writer is forced either to use ens rationis as a term in any modern language—or else coin (half arbitrarily) a term which by common consent represents the concept signified by the Latin from which it is translated.

Somebody has suggested that the position of the French or English Thomist with regard to language is not entirely without parallel to Dante's position vis-a-vis the Italian language in the thirteenth ceentury: at least I venture to suggest this parallel as applied in each case to the relationship between words with established meanings and words to which meaning has with some arbitrariness to be attached. "Being of reason," " rational being " and " etre de raison " all only have meaning insofar as they are recognised translations of the peculiar sense of ens rationis. The argument for the translation of Maritain's "etre de raison" back into its original "ens rationis" seems strong insofar as no reader can grasp the significance of any English translation of ens rationis unless he knows that the phrase in question signifies in English what is signified in Latin by ens rationis. This however might provide an argument for those who maintain that Thomism is only capable of finally adequate discussion at present on certain questions when reference is uninterruptedly implied by writer and reader to its original mothertongue.

A similar difficulty occurs in M. Maritain's Science et Sagesse where the unFrench phrases "la foi surelhe le philosophe." or "une foil la philosophie subalternee a la theologie" or "la philosophie morale adequaternent prise "—can be translated by the unsEnglish phrases " faith superelevates the philosopher," or " once philosophy is .s.ubalternated to theology " or " moral philosophy adequately taken "--the difficulty remaining that no modern language has as yet adequately naturalised the vocabulary of Thomism. This anyway is a humble and minor aspect of many serious issues which involve the whole history of modern philosophy and especially of the English since Locke.


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