It's been five years now since I first wrote here about translation and untranslatables. This paradigm has been on my mind ever since. Thanks to Santa Claus, the Dictionary of Untranslatables - English edition ten years after the original publication in French - has found its way to my bookshelves. This is a huge reference collaborative work which I could not recommend enough to lovers of languages and philosophy. That includes hopefully about anyone reading those lines.
By design, this work is a never-ending story, the untranslatable being, as Barbara Cassin keeps reminding us, what needs to be translated again and again, and we'll never be done with it. That's why adaptation of the Dictionary in more languages is planned or in the making.
It's interesting to explore the Dictionary to see if and how it helps us to understand the terms of our philosophical engineering realm, as Alexandre Monnin and Harry Halpin among others now like to call it. Those folks have already done a great job trying to shed a bit of philosophical light over our passionate permathreads about identity, reference, resource, document, work, concept and more of the same. If we are never done with those, it's not necessarily because philosophical engineers are either lousy philosophers or crappy engineers, or even both. Granted, all sorts of people have been involved in such debates, often with great innocence and not enough either philosophical or technical background to tackle such difficult issues. But many more are very good philosophers or smart engineers indeed, and a good bunch of them can proudly claim to be both. If those smart brains can't come after years of debate with definitive and clear agreements about such concepts, and how they should be translated in the Web languages and implemented in its very architecture, it's certainly because they are akin to the hard core of untranslatables that philosophers and linguists have kept trying to translate for ages. And with no surprise, some of them are already important entries in the said Dictionary, because they have a long history in pre-Web philosophy, like identity, reference, thing, work, representation, or word. Some more have minor or side entries, like topic or description, and some are absent because their conceptual difficulty has emerged as a pure product of the Web, like resource, content, or data.
Translation issues for such hard-core concepts do not only happen when translating them into other natural languages than their original one, most of the time some dialect of Globish. They also happen any time one wants to cross-link or make interoperable different business, technical or domain dialects, even using the same (apparently) natural language. Classes of librarians, knowledge engineers bred in Description Logics and object-oriented developers are different animals, their actual operational semantics are radically different, but close enough to bring about potential confusion when those people try to sit and build something together, an event likely to happen in the context of the Web. The local usages all appear as avatars of some (the same, or not) fuzzy underlying untranslatable, having to do with hierarchy and inheritance, rooted in the pervasive genus-species paradigm, and bearing the same name here and there by chance and necessity of linguistic evolution, involving various contingent reasons such as finitude of lexicons, laziness or reluctance to coin new and specific terms, jokes and puns, lousy semantic extensions etc.
If the Web is here to stay as a major production of human knowledge, and considered as such by philosophers, a future revision or extension of the Dictionary will (should) include those untranslatables of philosophical engineering. For the greatest benefit of both philosophers and engineers, and the delight of all those pretending to be both.