04/17/2014 09:39 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

What 'Justice' Means Around The World

The words and phrases that resist translation are often the difficult ones, visibly sedimented with history and shifting meanings. But one of the many pleasures of working on this book was thinking about the strange international life of apparently simple words. A word like justice, for example, which has or ought to have its counterpart in almost any language we can imagine, and which might seem to translate easily. A basic assumption could be that putting justice into practice is about as difficult as anything can be, but there will be a reasonable range of agreement about the theory. This assumption is not false, but it is incomplete, and we can learn from what it misses.

Here are three literary examples: a translation using the English word justice for a corresponding (or not) Russian word; the possibly different meanings of the French and English words justice, spelt exactly the same; and the question of translating an English word into English. I want to recall here, because it is so useful, Barbara Cassin's brilliant definition of the untranslatable: not what we can't translate or don't translate but what we can't stop translating and retranslating.

What does Ivan Karamazov mean when he speaks, at least in Constance Garnett's translation, of justice? He has evoked a horrific set of narratives about cruelty to children and is about to tell his tale of the Grand Inquisitor. Ivan insists that he wants justice--the word is vozmezdie, which means all kinds of things, as words do: requital, retaliation, payment, recompense, even nemesis. Pevear and Volokhonsky decide on retribution. In context it suggests something like closure, or satisfaction (in the sense of a man demanding satisfaction in a duel, for example). Ivan goes on to talk of harmony, which is clearly a related idea, but he doesn't want it if the tortured children have to pay for it:

I need justice/retribution/satisfaction... and justice/retribution/satisfaction not somewhere and sometime in infinity, but here and now, on earth... I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion, and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for.

The universe will cry out, Ivan says, in his personal version of Psalm 119, "Just art thou, O Lord, for thy ways are revealed." The question is not whether we can broadly understand or roughly translate this argument but whether we can get our heads around the range of ideas in play. That act of comprehension, according to its range or tilt, is going to alter the argument itself.

My second example involves asking whether the French word justice means the same thing as the English word justice. For Marcel Proust the chief meaning of justice is vengeance or punishment, and he doesn't like it. We may ask how a man can be against injustice, as Proust undoubtedly was and against justice as well. His novel is one sort of reply.

Almost buried in one of the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time is a sentence that won't leave your mind once you've paused over it. It ends in this way, evoking that relation which almost always exists in human punishments. and which means that there is almost never either a just verdict or a judicial error but a sort of harmony between the mistaken idea the judge has of an innocent act and the guilty facts of which he is unaware.

Scepticism about justice was a reasonable stance in the time of Dreyfus and has been a reasonable stance in countries and times much closer to us--as Louis Begley's recent book about Dreyfus suggests. And a fantasy of displaced but unerring justice ("there is almost never a judicial error") may represent not the sinister view that evil is everywhere but the charmed, haunted view that a non-existent God knows all my secrets. Is this a little paranoid? Yes. But we might like to recall Adorno's version of the truism that even paranoids have enemies. What he says is that even reality traffics in the suggestions of paranoia:

Psychology knows that he who imagines disasters in some way desires them. But why do they come so eagerly to meet him?

I don't know how close the English word justice can get us to any of this.

My last example involves the ways in which we may take a single word in one language to mean quite different things. Here's a famous use of the word justice in English which moves us powerfully by its directness and simplicity--and leaves us wondering where we have been moved to. In his introduction to A Vision (1928), his extraordinary account of what the spirits taught him about cycles of history and sidereal time, Yeats reports that he has often been asked whether he believes in the "actual existence of (his) circuits of sun and moon." His answer is rather complicated, but ends plainly. They have, he says, "helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice."

I've returned to this phrase a lot over the forty years or so since I first read it, and I've always thought I knew what it meant. I still think I know what it means, but I'm now shocked that I haven't been more shocked at the meaning. Yeats is saying, isn't he, that reality and justice are ordinarily so far apart that only a vast otherworldly metaphysical system will allow him to think of them together. Outside of such a dispensation, reality is not just, and justice is not a reality. Is this what we think, is this something we can almost casually accept?

The concept of the untranslatable does not mark the failure of translation but the place where it begins.

Michael Wood is the co-editor of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon [Princeton University Press, $65.00].