‘The General Discouragement of the Generation’: Orwell and the Politics of Language

As is well known, decisive among the weapons deployed in the panoptical dystopia portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the conscious engineering of language itself, such that ‘modes of thought’ contrary to those willed by the regime would be, because of being linguistically inexpressible, literally unthinkable. The idea is a suggestive one, so much so that some of its related vocabulary – ‘doublethink’, ‘thought crime’, ‘unperson’, ‘memory hole’ – have passed into everyday, ‘normal’ English. The phenomenon of ‘Newspeak’ of course comes to us as rather more than a mere narrative caprice: not only does Orwell’s projection continue to fascinate and horrify, its theoretical premise, that language and its limits, once set, condition and delimit thought, is one that has enjoyed a significant pedigree. The question that I address here is as to how seriously Orwell himself took the proposition. Was Orwell the writer really a partisan of this form of linguistic determinism; and, if he was, to what degree did this belief inform his practice as a writer?

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Twenty-Nine Theses on Language

The property that marks human beings as unique in nature is their capacity to regulate their own relationship with the material world. Constitutive to this capacity is their capacity to think. The sense-impression that is their immediate contact with the material world is not only processed in the form of instinctual perception but is also manipulated so as to be able to form an abstract and theoretical representation of material reality in thought.

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Marxism and Translation

One of the aspects of this book which doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves relates to the general question of translation. If we are to talk about the ‘classics’ of Marxism it appears to be that we often forget that, for a reader of English, practically in their entirety we are not reading what the original author wrote, but what the translator(s) of that author wrote, i.e. what the translator thought the author wrote and how that could be best expressed in English (or any other target language). One of the reasons Lih’s book is as long as it is is because of the fact that he (apparently) goes into in some depth the question of how What Is To Be Done? has been translated, discusses Lenin’s original Russian terminology and includes is own retranslation of Lenin. Not having read Lih’s book (and given its ridiculous price I doubt I ever will be able to either) I am unable to judge his arguments, but the central point remains that, when we discuss, say, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? in English, we are not discussing Lenin’s text but someone (who?) else’s translation of that text, and that translation is never going to be semantically or formally identical to, and even may be semantically and formally quite different from, the original. For the more exegetical among us, who are over fond of quoting the ‘classics’ and splitting terminological hairs in them, this is something worth bearing in mind.

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