The Ship of Theseus

I am now reading Maria Tymoczko’s Translation in a Postcolonial Context. I wish I’d read it sooner, but I find the title misleading; it’s not doing justice to the wealth of insights it contains. So I wouldn’t pick it up thinking I’m not doing research on translation in postcolonial contexts (oh, and the cover, it’s just off-putting.)

In the final chapter, Tymoczko offers a philosophical perspective on translation as substitution, and I found the example intriguing:

“Translation as substitution is epitomized in the figure of the ship of Theseus, an ancient philosophical puzzle applied to translation by Eugene Eoyang (1993:ch.7), following the work of philosopher Robert Nozick. In this puzzle, it is said that the planks of the ship of Theseus are removed one by one as they become worn and replaced by new planks; gradually all the planks are removed, but the ship continues to be considered ‘the same ship’ although all its parts have been replaced. The puzzle deepens when it is found that the original planks happen to have been stored rather than destroyed; the worn planks are reassembled into a ship which is set afloat next to the first ship. Which, philosophers ask, is the ship of Theseus? What is the relationship of the two ships? The paradox that Nocizk and Eoyang discuss is not simply one of translation, of course: it is the mystery of change and stability involved in the substitutions of life itself, the gradual replacement of the cells that make up all living bodies” (279-280).

This is a really clever way of thinking about translation (alas, Tymoczko doesn’t think it’s a useful one).

Apparently, this paradox has been discussed by several philosophers through the centuries, here is the Wikipedia page. And here is a video explaining five possible solutions, each with their relative disadvantages:

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