Representation as translation

Words know more about themselves than we generally do, and one should always take the time to explore their etymology. Take representation, a word which is a bone of contention as soon as linguists, semioticians, ontologists, librarians and Web geeks happen to meet, and look back for a minute at its latin origin. Repraesentatio is built on praesens, which has kept in both french présent and english present its double meaning of "being here and now" and "being given". Re-presenting is therefore giving or making present again, and repetition of the praesens is important to notice. Whatever the representation stands for, signifies, means, points at, suggests ... in one word, gives or simply puts us in presence of, here and now, the praesens has been (re)present(ed) already before, somewhere else.
And since the story of representations is so old, and the beginning of the story so misty, let's assume that in the long chain of representations, each new one is leveraging previous ones, and it's turtles all the way down. So, instead of wondering about the untractable issue of the first presentation, why not focus on the process through which one representation is emerging from previous ones. This process has a name : translation.
In "Traduire - Défense et illustration du multilinguisme" (published may 2009, only available in French so far), François Ost presents the multiplicity of languages as a benediction for the life of thought, and calls for translation as our needed common language and new paradigm. This rich and thoughful book is a must read is your French is fluent enough. I cannot in one post pretend to cover all it brings about, but just re-present here a few main points, enough to show the convergence between Ost's thesis and the line of thought we've been defending here for years.
Primo, as indicated in introduction, every text or production of language is the result of a process of translation, and this process is not only happening at the borders of languages, but inside the language itself, and not only between dialects and individual expressions, but inside the mind of the locutor herself. The dialectics of the "what do you mean?" - "in other words" is not a bug of the conversation, it's definitely a constitutive and essential feature of efficient language.
Secundo, translation, at least when it's a good one, is not necessarily an entropic process through which the original meaning is degradated and betrayed. The meaning, or whatever you want to call the praesens in the original (and I will indeed call it praesens hereafter), is not necessarily lost in translation. If the translation is good, it's also present in the re-presentation. More, this new presentation is likely to enrich the original one, and maybe help to understand it better.
Tertio, to keep the praesens alive, we need to re-present it over and over again. Translation is a never-ending story. And the apparent paradox is that we need to do that the more for things considered to be untranslatable. Ost quotes there Barbara Cassin : L'intraduisible, c'est ce qu'on n'arrêtera pas de (ne pas) traduire. Saying the praesens is untranslatable means simply that no presentation is exhausting its praesens, and new re-presentations are needed to get new viewpoints enlightening the previous ones. Pretending to achieve the final representation which rules them all is falling back again into the arrogance and stupidity of Babel's Tower builders, who had lost the meaning by forgetting the diversity of languages. God's action was then not a punition, but a liberation from this deadly road of the unique thought, as Ost shows in the first chapter of the book, a brilliant hermeneutic analysis of Babel's various translations.

Porting the translation paradigm in our local metaphore is quite easy. The wheel is the never-ending story of living knowledge and languages. So many spokes, so many directions to look from, converging in the untranslatable hub which is beyond, but praesens in all re-presentations. But the translation paradigm is what was lacking to get the wheel rolling. As Umberto Eco put it about Europe : Translation is our common language. Indeed, and to put this paradigm into action, each one of us engaged in the process has to learn several languages, in order to be able to look at one language with the eyes of another. Because no one undertands her own language from inside it, and there is no meta-language to rule them all.

Last but not least, the ethical aspect of the translation paradigm : any other language is the language of one other, including mine. In translation, I learn not only to look at the other as myself, as an alter ego, which is still looking from my own viewpoint and measuring with my own metrics, but to look at myself as another, ego alter. Discovering the other-ness, the alterity inside myself, my own language, my own view of the world, is indeed a paradigm change that we all need.