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Is Linguistic Justice Translatable? On the Significance of Translation for Universal History

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

The aim of this short paper is to offer a critical response to Philippe Van Parijs concerning his notion of linguistic justice as worked out most extensively in his book Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (2011). I thus begin by elucidating his conception of linguistic justice by presenting two basic theses on which it rests: first, he attempts to demonstrate the need for a lingua franca in the “globalized” (or rather “globalizing”) world today (i.e., advocating a common language for the entire world); and second, he seeks to justify the exceptional and unprecedented position the English language is now in to serve as the de facto lingua franca for this globalizing world. Given the general theme of history for this conference, I shall present Van Parijs’ thoughts with a particular focus on its historical aspects and implications. Accordingly, the first part of my discussion will center on the idea of lingua franca in relation to history. As a critical response to Van Parijs’ view, I subsequently take up the question of translation and discuss in the second part the significant role translation can and must play in our contemporary, multilingual world. Such an analysis will be carried out by examining some of the important contributions made in the hermeneutic tradition on the question of translation. In particular, the works of George Steiner, John Sallis, and Paul Ricoeur will be considered. By doing so, I wish to demonstrate in this paper that it is not English as the lingua franca that serves linguistic justice, but rather our openness to translation that must be seen as a fundamental principle of linguistic justice.

Van Parijs’ arguments in his book Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World are chiefly based on the assumption that English is fast becoming a de facto lingua franca not only in Europe but across the entire world, and it will continue to expand its reach as the world gets ever more integrated. In his view, there has never been a language of such a scale in human history, and it is simply unthinkable that there will ever be a language that will match its scale and permeation. As he writes:

Indeed, one can safely conjecture that no other language, in the whole history of mankind, has ever had as many non-native speakers competent in it [as English does today]. Most revealing perhaps: using a not too demanding criterion of competence, it can today be said that, for the first time in history, a language has more people competent in it beyond the borders within which it enjoys official status than it has native speakers. As we saw above, no other language, whether at European level or worldwide, gives any sign of rivalling English as a universal lingua franca, and the snowball effect currently unfolding is such that one can safely predict that no language will ever do.[1]

Given such a situation, Van Parijs insists that this emergence of English as a universal lingua franca is to be affirmed and embraced rather than repudiated or prevented. Yet, as he makes clear, even if it is true that English finds itself in a unique position at present, it is just as undeniable that there are still a huge proportion of people around the world who do not speak any English. It is precisely with respect to this problem that Van Parijs develops his conception of linguistic justice. That is to say, he conceives the notion of linguistic justice as a way of coping with the emergence of a de facto lingua franca called English, insofar as there is and will continue to be an uneven distribution of burden and opportunity in such a world. Given that English is and will continue to be a de facto lingua franca, Van Parijs wishes to pose the question of how the burden can and should be distributed in the fairest manner. To this end, he identifies three dimensions (a three-step solution) to linguistic justice: fair cooperation (learning of the lingua franca), equal opportunity (participation), and parity of esteem (territoriality, locality).

While his conception of linguistic justice claims to be an economic and pragmatic solution at the institutional level (addressing the human/economic cost for translation at the European Union, the United Nations, and so on), a grave problem arises when Van Parijs ascribes a term such as “justice” to his proposed solution and presupposes that such a monolithic and chauvinistic path is the direction toward which our civilization should and must unfold. He thus precludes from the outset that the future course of history can be otherwise than the way he envisions it, namely, to endorse English as the universal lingua franca. However, it is worth asking ourselves how English came to assume this privileged position in the first place. Van Parijs himself offers an answer to this question:

So, why was English picked, among the many thousands of languages that are and have been spoken by human beings, to play this unique historical role? . . . Basically because of a haphazard sequence of events that could easily have led elsewhere.[2]

Hence, Van Parijs is committed to the view that the exceptional role the English language has come to play today, on the one hand, came about as a result of a “haphazard sequence of events” of the past, but, on the other hand, this exceptional role of English has meanwhile turned into our destiny and can no longer be undone. Indeed, he is extremely adamant in the book to reject any possibility of another natural language or, for that matter, even something other than a single natural language assuming such a role in the future (e.g., regional disparity, Esperanto).[3] This is understandable, for even granting the sheer possibility that, say, Chinese could one day takeover English and become a new lingua franca would collapse his entire project of erecting a new tower of Babel under the name of English.[4] In this sense, beneath Van Parijs’ conception of linguistic justice lies an affirmation of the hegemony of the English language and the logic of “linguistic imperialism,”[5] insofar as he attempts to infer historical determinism out of historical contingency. Such a form of political chauvinism culminates in the last chapter of his book titled “Linguistic Diversity,” where he characterizes the diversity of languages as a major hindrance not only to human communication but also to human understanding:

Linguistic diversity, after all, is conceptually tied to mutual unintelligibility, and what is so great about not being able to understand each other? The more languages there are, the more evenly spread theses languages, the more distance there is between them, the less overlap between multilingual repertoires, the more difficult, indeed often impossible it will be for people to communicate directly with one another. If a powerful language were to drive all others into gradual extinction, not only would we all enjoy the convenience of being able to use our mother tongue in all the conference rooms and hotel lobbies of the world, but incomparably more would become possible: even in the most remote bazaars, farmyards, and playgrounds, we would be able to understand directly what the locals are telling each other. Once this universal mother tongue is in place, the global reach of diverse yet worldwide media and the massively enhanced trans-national mobility could be relied on to prevent the stable development of mutually unintelligible dialects.[6]

Since linguistic differences only prevent us from understanding each other, so the argument goes, it would be not only desirable but even just to aim at a lingua franca and endeavor to maintain it at all costs should it come about. Such a point of view contrasts significantly from the views on language in the hermeneutic tradition, to which we shall now turn.

In light of the theme under discussion here, namely, linguistic justice understood as English as the universal lingua franca, one finds two valuable insights in George Steiner’s major work After Babel (1975). While the first insight is in no way exclusive to his view alone, Steiner suggests that translation is at work not only between languages but in every act of communication. As he stresses throughout the book, “inside or between languages, human communication equals translation.“[7] Even if we all spoke the same language and this language did turn out to be English, it does not alter the fact that we are still constantly translating, though such a translation may be taking a more implicit form. There is thus a misconstrued assumption that, as long as we speak a same language, the sources of misunderstanding will be eliminated to a large extent and we will be able to understand each other flawlessly. This, however, cannot be further from the truth. The point is not to “reduce the Other to the Same,” to borrow Levinas’ expression, but above all to let ourselves be addressed by the Other, to open ourselves to the words of foreign tongues in this case. The idea that the Other should and must speak my own language has no ethical justification. This point brings us directly to the second insight, which is related to Steiner’s view of linguistic diversity. He contends that the variability of languages is not a barricade against mutual understanding, as Van Parijs seems to believe, although it certainly makes the act of understanding more burdensome. On the contrary, linguistic diversity exhibits precisely our exposure to other human beings, regardless of the language they speak. Steiner thus makes a following remark in this regard: “the Babel myth is once again a case of symbolic inversion: mankind was not destroyed but on the contrary kept vital and creative by being scattered among tongues.”[8]

Let us now turn to John Sallis, whose work On Translation (2002) provides us with an insight into the nature of language and the role translation plays within it. In making reference to Walter Benjamin, Sallis suggests that the transformation of a language is inevitable no matter the circumstances. As he puts it, translation is operative in every living language as an “uncontrollable change”[9] that a living language constantly undergoes. Furthermore, the very question of translation is being raised today not because the linguistic borders are “effacing” in the face of globalization, but precisely as we step over into other territories (trans-latio, über-setzen). Had such an encounter with other linguistic communities not taken place, the question of translation and, along with it, the question of linguistic justice, would not have arisen, at least not at the interlinguistic dimension as we conventionally mean by the term. Hence, the linguistic borders are not vanishing, but, as Sallis likes to put it, they are rather becoming “permeable.” Sallis thus calls the hope for a world where everyone spoke the same lingua franca and translation is no longer needed a “dream of nontranslation”—a dream that always remains a dream but never ceases to go away. (In this sense, Van Parijs keeps on dreaming.)

Speaking of borders with respect to language finally brings us to the principle of linguistic hospitality as worked out by Paul Ricoeur. In his late work on translation, also titled On Translation in English (Sur la traduction, 2004), Ricoeur expounds the practice of translation in terms of the wager between the original text and the foreign text, the source language and the target language, the author and the reader. In the act of translation, a translator is held in suspense between faithfulness and betrayal, drawn into a task that cannot be accomplished without taking on an ethical commitment. In this sense, to translate demands above all the awareness that the translator is in no way in a position to master and control the two languages in question. On the contrary, the translator must be at the service of a pair of languages to which she or he is to dedicate a means of crossing over. To quote Ricoeur:

And who knows whether it is not the ideal of the perfect translation which definitively maintains the nostalgia for the original language or the will for control over language by means of the universal language? Giving up the dream of the perfect translation is still the acknowledgement of the impassable difference between the peculiar and the foreign. It is still the test of the foreign.[10]

I shall end this presentation by briefly summarizing the issue at hand in the following manner: translation would no longer be needed and can be put out of play only when our thoughts have been fully expressed in language. That is to say, if the words we use were self-determining and self-referential. But in that case, we would no longer be speaking, for our words have already said everything there is to be said. As such, to define linguistic justice in terms of the dissemination of the most widely used language of the day called English utterly fails to account for the nature of language and the sense of justice that is associated with it. Linguistic justice demands above all that we each recognize our need to speak, our need to bring our thoughts to speech.


1. Philippe Van Parijs, Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 22.

2. Ibid.

3. Van Parijs does concede that territorial disparities in languages spoken are unavoidable in the short or medium term, but he continues to proclaim that such a tendency is merely temporary and that English is destined to become the universal lingua franca in the long term.

4. Here it is worth referring to a remark Ricoeur makes in his book On Translation: “The pretensions to self-sufficiency, the refusal to allow the foreign mediate, have secretly nourished numerous linguistic ethnocentrisms, and more seriously, numerous pretensions to the same cultural hegemony that we have been able to observe in relation to Latin, from late antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages and even beyond the Renaissance, in relation to French in the classical era, and in relation to English today” (Paul Ricoeur, “Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness,” in On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan [London: Routledge, 2006], 4–5).

5. Robert Philipson is known for this notion. Tim Crane has recently used this expression in his article “The Philosophy of Translation,” Times Literary Supplement, January 28, 2015.

6. Van Parijs, Linguistic Justice,188–89.

7. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 49.

8. Ibid., 244.

9. John Sallis, On Translation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002), 15.

10. Ricoeur, “The Paradigm of Translation,” in On Translation, 23.

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