There are words that are almost completely untranslatable from one language to another.
To give an idea of their meaning, they may require the mediation of several metaphors, and an accumulation of approximations. These words cannot travel easily.
Is it then wiser to let them marinate in their own juice?
Take as an example the Sanskrit word tajjalān in this text of Chāndogya-upaniṣad:
« In reality Brahman is all this. Whoever is appeased must worship it as tajjalān. »i
Sanskrit scholars suggest that the word tajjalān can be broken down into four syllables: tad + ja + la + an ii.
Each syllable embodies a symbolic meaning, related to a Brahman attribute.
Thus the world is tajja: « That – begotten ». Tajja is formed by the assimilation of tad « that » and ja which is related to the root JAN « to be born, to produce ».
But the world is also talla: « That – attached and dissolved » [tad + la = talla], where the root of la is LĪ, as used in words like liyate, « attach » and layate, « dissolve ».
Talla and tajja are then two opposing processes, of « birth » and « dissolution ».
Finally the world is tadana: « That which breathes and lives in it »[tad + an + a], where an has as its root AN « to breathe, to live ».
The word tajjalān thus describes in a dense, concentrated way, the world as having three states (engendering, dissolution, life/breathing), identified with the essence of Brahman.
Through the ambivalence of the root LĪ, the word also evokes the world’s attachment to Brahman, excluding any idea of separation.
One word, four ideas.
If we tried to give a kind of equivalent of tajjalān in English, we could perhaps propose a concatenated series of words like « That-born-dissolved-linked-alive »…
If certain essential words of a particular civilization have no plausible equivalents in another culture, one could conclude that the world of ideas, religions and cultures is fundamentally fragmented, divided into more or less autistic provinces, keeping before them their idiosyncrasies, secret gardens, intimate grammars, gods and codes.
And this would be an argument to highlight the difficulty of a unified conception of humanity.
However, the hypothesis of the looming Balkanization of ideas and cultures does not necessarily exclude other possibilities, such as the idea that man can be defined by a unique ‘essence’.
For example, the Aristotelian idea that « man is a rational animal » could be entirely compatible with the reality of a Balkanized world.
Idea and reality would only be juxtaposed, circulating in two orbits of meaning not intended to meet, and able to ignore each other royally, for a long time to come.
Nor does the idea of an « essence » of man mean that humanity does not conceal, in its thicknesses, in its depths, in its past or in its future, immense and impenetrable areas of darkness, which no « essence » can define.
It is quite possible that Plato’s Ideas, or Aristotle’s reason, may coexist with a world deprived of meaning and internal cohesion, even if in theory this seems to be incompatible, or contradictory.
It is possible that, if translated otherwise, into a language that perhaps does not yet exist, or will never exist, these ideas would then no longer be contradictory, but would appear obviously compatible, and even necessary.
At this stage, it can already be argued that the hypothesis of a humanity less one than divided, less transparent than obscure, less communicative than hostile is completely compatible with the exactly opposite hypothesis, because it is obvious that so much everything is already mobile, diverse, evolving in a world that is both one and multiple.
Anthropology lets us know of the existence of tribal or religious groups, which are defined by exclusion. These tribes or groups decree the principle of their metaphysical separation from the rest of humanity.
They may draw a feeling of absolute singularity from a « principle », revealed only to them, in their own language, or following a « decision », communicated only to them, from a « God » who would only be « their » God.
However, the very idea of religious or ideological exclusion of entire segments of humanity is neither new nor reserved for specific cultures. Paradoxically, it is in fact quite commonplace.
The ideas of exclusion, separation, ostracism, seem as constitutive of the human essence as the opposite ideas, that of union, unity, community, society.
There are « first » tribes that only call themselves « men » in their language, implying that all those who are not of their tribe, all the rest of men, are not really human.
What the genius of these languages of exclusion has been able to do, symbolically, genetic engineering to modify the human genome can do, really, and on a large scale.
The dream of a « trans-humanity », capable of genetically and neurologically modifying itself, and thus gaining access to a completely unthinkable mutation of the human race, is no longer a distant utopia.
This tangible dream is there to remind us of the burning relevance of a project of an « exodus » reserved for a privileged subset of humanity outside human contingencies.
For the time being, this « exodus » seems to be only of an economic, fiscal or political nature, but it could soon become genetic, neural, anatomical and one day perhaps biological.
The Hollywood myth of a planetary « exodus », of a flight of a few mutants from a polluted Earth, irradiated and deeply scarred by a world civil war, is in everyone’s mind.
The general Balkanization and the bantustans imposed by all kinds of apartheids will be the first step.
In such a case, scholarly debates on words « almost untranslatable » would then be very derisory, very useless.
Those who then correctly pronounce the shibboleth of the day will be able to board the interstellar shuttle or take part in the meta-genetic adventure of trans-humanity.
All the others will be condemned to remain in the earthly hell.
While waiting for this perspective, closer than we may want to believe, we must affirm that words count, that they are semaphores.
It is really worth studying the « untranslatable » words, because they are like symptoms, verbal clues to the global separation, the progressive cultural and religious dislocation, in the making.
And it is worth trying to translate these « untranslatable » words, if we do not want a global civil war to happen some day.
i CU 3.14.1
iiCf. Les Upaniṣad.Trad. A. Degrâces. 2014, p.128