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A visual analogue may help here. Recall the “stone which Euripides calls a magnet” (ὥσπερ ἐν τῇ λίθῳ ἣν Εὐριπίδης μὲν Μαγνῆτιν ὠνόμασεν), used by Socrates in Plato’s Ion to describe the inspiring power of the Muse.4 The magnet “not only attracts iron rings but also puts power in the rings so that they also have power to do the same thing the stone does and attract other rings. Sometimes quite a long chain of iron rings hangs suspended from one another; but they’re all suspended by the power derived from that stone” (πᾶσι δὲ τούτοις ἐξ ἐκείνης τῆς λίθου ἡ δύναμις ἀνήρτηται).5 But the “real” things designated in the “possible worlds” scenario, or in the global “possible-markets” scenario, need not be real in the sense of “really existing in the world right now or at one time.” We do not mean that what “widget” designates is real in the way that the magnet that imparts the charge to the chain’s rings must be real, or must, to impart the charge, have been materially real—the charge imagined now as the subsisting trace of that initial touch.6

We do not mean that this or that thing must have a value in a market before it can acquire a different one in another market: we mean only that it might have a value because the concept of valuation or the mechanism of valuing pertain in this or that thing’s home ecology, even if that thing itself isn’t immediately understood in that ecology as being the sort of thing that has value. And we mean this because the stipulative phrase “this or that thing” (or something like this phrase), however different the “thing” it designates may be in one or another world, works to designate in all possible worlds. (Designation conventions are, if not identical across all possible worlds, at least sufficiently analogous to be translatable across all possible worlds; this is a fact of all possible worlds, even if the conventions of each world differ. Modal semantics stand upon the stipulation that “possible world” designates a possible world in all possible worlds, that is, that the convention of designation is itself rigid.)

We say that “the king of France” designates something that is real but does not necessarily exist, or that a “widget” designates something that could have a value. Now we mean by “real” a complex of things—we mean that it is not analytically impossible that there be such a thing as a “king of France” (a “king of France” is not a round square); we mean that there have been kings in France historically; we mean that we can imagine a world in which there is a king in France, even though there is none in this world, the one we share; we mean that we rely, in making an argument concerning the special reality of widgets, upon a mediating allusion to Russell’s arguments regarding denoting, which I use here to baptize or magnetize my widgets with a further, philosophically regal surplus value.7 We also mean that a “widget” is something that could have a value, whether of this sort or of that, in this market or another. When it comes to widgets themselves, there is even some lexical support for this seeming casuistry.

Generally, when we use the word “widget” and if we are speaking before 2002 or so, the date when electronic machine-programs called “widgets” entered the lexicon, then we are referring to what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the “indefinite name for a gadget or mechanical contrivance, especially a small manufactured item.”8 Before 2002, a “widget” was a real, but indefinite, place-holding term for any manufactured gadget, but not a “really existing” gadget that I could hold in my hand or pass to my Nicaraguan translator. Absent a “real” thing (though not necessarily a really subsisting thing or a material thing) designated by the English, the Spanish, and the Mandarin, it would be meaningless to speak of translating the term “widget” into Spanish or Mandarin, or indeed to speak of translatability in general. Absent this reality principle, this principle of “identity across possible worlds,” or more properly this principle of the sufficient analogy of “identity” and the sufficient analogy of “designation” across all possible worlds, we would be unable to compare the worth of this or that commodity across frontiers—including the second-order commodity-practice of “translation.”

I have been speaking so far about directly instrumental translation practices—of technical documents, business contracts, restaurant menus, travel schedules, etc.s—the transference or transport of this bit of information (for instance the information that “Jacques wants to produce widgets,” which is accidentally expressed in one or another natural language, English in this case) into a different natural language. Now let us consider those practices—of literary translation principally—in which the supposed worth of the aesthetic dimension of the original language and of the translation is part of the value accruing to each. Here the relation between the bit of information and the “natural language” in which it is expressed or into which it is cast is not imagined to be accidental, though it may not rise to the Aristotelian level of an “essential” or undisseverable relation, in which case translation would simply not be possible. Very little else about my widget scenario changes, however. A communicability agreement seems to be stipulated strictly.

4. Plato, Ion, 533d. in The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. 3, trans. Reginald E. Allen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 13.

5. Plato, Ion, 533d. The Greek is from the online edition provided by Project Perseus, at, accessed March 2012. See Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 85-89 who reads Socrates’s story as an allegory of the loss of particular voice from logos.

6. The values of the term “real” in this sort of claim, as in Lewis’s early arguments for “modal realism,” are rather hard to parse. Securing the ontological priority of objects is not the same, exactly, as granting them the quality of “reality.” Here—though not at all elsewhere—I am in agreement with the work of Graham Harman, for instance his Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing, 2002).

7. I am drawing my example of the “present king of France” from Russell’s “On Denoting,” where it is used to show that phrases denote formally rather than according to the existence or non-existence of what it is they are supposed to denote. Bertrand Russell, “On Denoting,” Mind, New Series, 14:56 (1905), 479-493.

8. Oxford English Dictionary, “Widget, n.” Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011; accessed 13 March 2012. First published in “A Supplement to the OED IV, 1986.” The updated (post-2003) entry adds: “(a) A visual component of a graphical user interface (and the code associated with it), which allows a user to perform a particular function (e.g. a scroll bar, dialogue box, menu, etc.). (b) A small software application.”

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