Sharing the World

August 7, 2008

Reading a really bad translation is a kind of guessing game. At every problematic word or phrase, the reader is obliged to make an intelligent guess at what this might have been in the language of the original. Assuming - it goes without saying - that the reader is familiar with the foreign language in which the source text was written.

Sharing the World is Luce Irigaray's own amateurish English translation of her original French text. The latter is currently unavailable as far as I know. So the reader is obliged to play this intriguing but - in the end - exceedingly tedious guessing game. It would not be so bad if it were merely a matter of guessing that, for instance, when Irigaray writes "singularity" what she really means is singularite; or when she writes "self-affection" what she really means is amour-propre; or that when she writes "word" this sometimes translates as mot, but at other times as parole. The trouble comes when the hypothesised original wording does not even make much sense in French.

Now in her late seventies, Irigaray, one-time darling of the Parisian Lacanians, is director of research in philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. In France, philosophy used to be written in comprehensible French. There was a time when ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas francais was a maxim that served philosophers of the stature of Descartes. But those days are long since gone. The rot set in with the sycophantic 20th-century apeing of German stylistic mannerisms, which are about as well suited to academic French as elephants to ice-skating.

According to the publisher's blurb, Sharing the World is about "the question of our relation to otherness". If you already find this description pretentiously off-putting, be warned: the going does not get any better. What the book is about, as far as I can tell, is the author's own pathological anxieties about establishing "authentic" relationships with other people. Her attempts to make these incurable worries sound philosophically weighty proceed by means of wholesale overgeneralisation.

By the end of the introduction ("The transcendence of the other"), you already begin to get an inkling of what Irigaray's story will be. The trouble, it seems, starts in the womb. Men are congenitally (sensu proprio) handicapped in understanding it. Of course, they would be, wouldn't they? Men are in denial about their indebtedness to their mothers. As a result, they get all the wide range of other-relationships wrong from then on. There is nothing much they can do about this, because it is physiologically determined. Masculine behaviour is explained by the fact "that the male sex is in some way outside of his body and internal self-affection thus cannot exist for the masculine subject, as is possible for a woman thanks to the self-touching of her lips".

Establishing relations with "the other" involves language as well as touch, and Irigaray is supposedly an authority on language and communication. According to her publisher, she has even published books on linguistics. But the linguistic ideas in this book date mostly from the early 1960s, when the author was studying for a degree at the Sorbonne. She gets herself into terrible translational tangles with the English pronoun system. And no less of a tangle with the "middle passive voice", which she seems to think is grammatically essential in order to be able verbally "to enter into relation with the other as other".

Benjamin Lee Whorf, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Sharing the world is not to be confused with sharing the word.

Sharing the World

By Luce Irigaray. Continuum. 160pp, £18.99. ISBN 9781847060341. Published 9 May 2008

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