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The Oulipo and Modern Thought$
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Dennis Duncan

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198831631

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198831631.001.0001

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Perec and Mathews

Perec and Mathews

Translation and Analytic Philosophy in the South Seas

(p.122) 5 Perec and Mathews
The Oulipo and Modern Thought

Dennis Duncan

Oxford University Press

This chapter looks at a pair of related short stories, one by Perec, one by Mathews. Both concern South Seas ethnographers who stumble upon languages with highly limited vocabularies. These stories draw on the analytic philosopher W. V. O. Quine’s example of the gavagai language, by which he illustrates the indeterminacy of translation, and Perec and Mathews use their stories to similar ends. Perec’s story, from his novel Life A User’s Manual, encodes allusions to Wittgenstein’s ‘slab’ language from Philosophical Investigations, as well as to Borges’s famous Chinese encyclopaedia, in order to reflect on how the categories by which we understand the world, and which are so important to translation, are culturally specific. Mathews’s story meanwhile ends with a riposte to Quine: pure translation may not be possible, but we do as well as we can do.

Keywords:   Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, W. V. O. Quine, Ludwig Wittgenstein, analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, radical translation

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