Adventures in Translating: Asking for Help

Can anyone who knows the literature on Levinas well tell me if they are translating altérité as “alterity” or “otherness”? What does everyone prefer anyway? I’ve been leaving it as alterity, but think otherness might be more readable.

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6 Responses to “Adventures in Translating: Asking for Help”

  1. Carson Webb Says:

    In the translations of Levinas published by Duquesne University Press (which are certainly the most commonly used ones, at least in the United States), “alterity” seems to be the most commonly used translation. To my recollection, “alterity” also seems to be used more often than “otherness” in the secondary literature (though the latter is by no means uncommon). I think either one is perfectly readable, but I like “alterity” better myself; it seems less cumbersome somehow, particularly in phrases like “the alterity of the other,” but of course this is just a preference.

  2. Dave Mesing Says:

    I don’t know much about the primary text translations, but “alterity” stands out to me from the perusal of any secondary literature that I’ve done. I like alterity best, and it also might be worth noting that alterity seems to be a “buzz word,” whatever the merit of such catch-all words. In other words, I could see alterity being used as a word to stand in for organizing Levinas’ thought, whereas “otherness” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  3. Kampen Says:

    I prefer “alterity.” Most Levinas translations that I’ve read have used “alterity.” Similarly with Derrida on Levinas.

  4. Michael Says:

    I’ve always seen “alterity” in reference to Levinas. I’d stick with that.

  5. Amod Lele Says:

    Let me throw in a vote for “otherness,” since nobody else yet seems to go that way. I make no claims to expertise in Lévinas, having read just a couple of his articles. Rather, based on what people say above, it doesn’t sound like anybody’s claiming any actual difference in meaning between “alterity” and “otherness.” If that’s the case – if “otherness” doesn’t distort the meaning at all – then I would certainly go with “otherness,” for the simple reason that it’s much more transparent. A native English-speaker with no background in philosophy (or Latin) can immediately understand what “otherness” is supposed to mean; while the word itself will be unfamiliar, it comes from an entirely everyday English word with an entirely everyday suffix added to it. “Alterity” is not this. If anything, to an untutored eye it would look more like “the state of being altered.” Therefore it seems to me that “alterity” is a way of making one’s prose unnecessarily difficult, unnecessarily inaccessible. In my view, such unnecessary difficulties are always to be avoided.


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