10 November 2017

Michael Loriaux on interpretation and translation in international relations


On 7 November Michael Loriaux, Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University in Chicago, delivered a lecture, “Pericles: Strategic Genius or Performance Artist?”, as part of the Institute’s International Relations and Political Science Colloquium Series. The seminar was about Prof. Loriaux’s latest book, “Europe Anti-Power: Ressentiment and Exceptionalism in EU Debate”, in which he pursues the following research question: What kinds of power does the European Union entail?

Prof. Loriaux touched upon the importance and challenges of interpretation and translation of canonical terms in international relations/political science research. He began his talk by saying that “words do not line up from language to language”. For instance, the word État in French connotes differently in francophone milieux compared to the connotation of the word state in American society. While in the eyes of French citizens État is loaded with “nationhood”, “revolution”, “republic” and so on, Americans are not likely to imbue state with such an emotional attachment. Therefore, there are contextual differences.

Drawing on a hermeneutic approach to social science, he further argued that “translation and interpretation are mutually supported” – that is, if we have a decent translation of a term or text, then we create a decent interpretation as well. What is more, he put forth that we have no genuine metrics for translation as we cannot be sure which translation is better than the others. Relatedly, according to a 19th-century protestant scholar, interpretation is all about guessing. Herein lies the importance of congeniality, which stipulates the reading of minds, said Prof. Loriaux. Put it differently, in order to understand what the author means in his work, we have to understand the minds of the people who lived where and when the work was produced.

By the same token, he contended that “there is no foundation for translation but sociological ground”. Using the leadership of Pericles in the war between Athens and Sparta, he gave an example from his reading of Thucydides, who said that Athens was a democracy governed by the first citizen (that is, Pericles). There, Prof. Loriaux finds a similarity with the commonsense of the US foreign policy of containment towards the Soviet Union in the Cold War era, which could be called useful, effective and conservative leadership. Furthermore, how Pericles handled the issue of power lay underneath his ability “to exercise an independent control over the multitude”, to quote Thucydides – in other words, he was successful at controlling the crowd. However, this majority was composed of people who aspired to benefit from material gains emanated from the expansion of Athens. If they were not satisfied, they would easily return to rebellion against the leadership. At this point, it is not wrong to say that Athenian democracy was structurally imperialist, even though Pericles never had that vision.

Prof. Loriaux made a three-pronged conclusion. First, what he is trying to do is to present alternative translations of the passages on Pericles and he wants other translators of Thucydides to take his translations seriously; as he said, “I defend translations in the court of translators.” Second, he does not only use translation to raise questions about our commonsense, but also to theorise about international relations for the sake of relativising certain modernist accounts on power. Lastly, he uses Thucydides to think about power and, more importantly, unsettle what power means in relation to EU’s debate on power.

As is the standard practice of the Department of International Relations and Political Science, the lecture was followed by a discussion led by Prof. David Sylvan. He made three points in reaction to Prof. Loriaux’s talk. First, Thucydides was in exile and Pericles had lost several cities to Spartans. This also created resentment in Thucydides. Besides, Prof. Sylvan certainly accepts that it is a realist reading of Thucydides. Next, when we look at the mid-19th-century standard English reception of Thucydides, we see a “radical democratic writing which we have to be suspicious about”. In this regard, it is possible that the translation made at that time also resonates with the political atmosphere of the Victorian period in England. Prof. Sylvan also brought the audience’s attention to new approaches to translation as “networks of semantic self-referentiality”. More precisely, he argued that Thucydides may have used words like tyranny and slavery in order to make reference to Athens as an empire. In a similar vein, Thucydides was attempting to make sense of what Athenian rulers were doing. Prof. Sylvan’s last point was about the “instability and undecidability of the text”. As Thucydides picked his words up from a relatively small set of vocabulary, he might have used the same words in a different way. That would create a kind of ambiguity in the use of some terms for the readers aspiring to understand Thucydides, as in the case of tyranny and slavery.

  • Michael Loriaux’ latest book, Europe Anti-Power: Ressentiment and Exceptionalism in EU Debate, is published by Routledge.

By Bu─čra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science