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Prophecies of LanguageThe Confusion of Tongues in German Romanticism$
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Kristina Mendicino

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780823274017

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823274017.001.0001

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Language at an Impasse, in Passing: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Agamemnon Translation

Language at an Impasse, in Passing: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Agamemnon Translation

(p.62) Language at an Impasse, in Passing: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Agamemnon Translation
Prophecies of Language

Kristina Mendicino

Fordham University Press

This chapter argues that Wilhelm von Humboldt’s most original insights into the emergence of the word are presented in the preface he appends to his translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. There, translation and language are considered immediately according to their temporality, and the labor of translation becomes recast in dynamic terms that anticipate his famous definition of language as energeia in his magisterial treatise, On the Diversity of Human Language Structure. When does translation and, by analogy, language itself, emerge—and by what force? Only in addressing this question is it possible to delineate the way in which translations might work upon language at any “given point in time,” along the lines of an incommensurable foreign text, where, as Humboldt puts it, one “can always only set against each utterly proper term a different one” (8: 130). And only through such collisions—which, for Humboldt, make up the structure of the symbol—might a given language be renewed through translation, and give rise to language as it had never hitherto been spoken or written. This is what every translation, according to Humboldt, should promise—which turns out to be not the promise of linguistics, but of Aeschylus’ prophetess, Cassandra.

Keywords:   Aeschylus, energeia, Wilhelm von Humboldt, symbol, translation

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